Post Thesis Insanity: In Defense of Thesis

Defending a thesis is a lot like trying out for your high school’s  
theater company’s production of Rent. You spend a lot of time  
worrying and practicing beforehand, but in the end, you realize your  
uncredited role as the second waitress at the Cat Scratch Club mostly  
involves just being there.

My thesis defense played out like so: I met with my advisor and  
reader in my advisor’s office. They sat across from me with my thesis  
stacked up in front of them. They made eye contact several times, got  
water, grabbed pens they forgot to bring in, went back out to look  
for the reader’s copy of my manuscript, realized she’d forgotten it  
at home, came back in, shifted in their seats and began talking.

My reader–who I didn’t know before and has the reputation of being  
very blunt–offered me congratulations for finishing my novel. This,  
she said, was a big deal as many students turn in manuscripts that  
aren’t complete. Thus ending the compliments portion of her show. She  
then told me that now it was time to re-write. And re-write again.  
And again. Saul Bellow, she pointed out, revised Herzog twenty times.
“Wow,” I said, trying to break the tension I felt pouring over me. “I  
draw the line at thirteen.” (deciding at the last minute to omit adding, “Zing!!!”)

She paused for a second as if weighing the pro’s and con’s of  
eliciting a fake laugh, decided against it and then proceeded to  
skewer my novel for the next forty five minutes. My narrator–she  
points out– isn’t engaged, doesn’t enter into conflict, seems  
unconcerned about whatever is going on around him, never actively  
does anything, merely observes, forgets to recycle, doesn’t get up  
for older folk on the subway, eats food with the bad kind of  
cholesterol, kicks (small) dogs, doesn’t know how to whistle and–
given the choice to vote or die–probably wouldn’t vote.

When she finished talking, you could feel the air of enthusiasm slide  
out of me. All I could think about was the amount of work that I’d  
put into the book, and then I thought about having to do that twenty  
more times, and then I thought about applying for a job at Espresso  
Royale, and then I thought about actively working with the hippies  
and always smelling like patchouli and exotic blends of coffee, and  
then I thought about whether or not they would care if I curled up  
into a ball and assumed the fetal position for the rest of the  
defense. I was giving up. They’d sunk my (Electronic) Battleship.

But then my advisor saved the day.

Given, she did offer critiques and say that i needed to work more on  
the book, but she also gently put me back into the right state,  
unpacking the harsh mental baggage that my reader made me carry and  
putting it away in the proper drawers.

She found a character she loved, asked that the story focus more on  
the narrator’s relationship with her, and figured out real ways to  
improve my book without making me think that someone should bury my  
novel in a time capsule. I was so relieved by my advisor’s words that  
I almost jumped across the desk and hugged her when it was all  
finished, something her aversion to physical contact would not have  
been cool with.

So, friends, this leaves me with about a months worth of hard work  
before I do the show and tell agent style, but at the very least,  I  
am done. I survived my defense.  No more MFA. After five years of  
post grad education, two masters degrees of debatable merit, and  
several changes in my wardrobe, I can safely say I don’t want to  
think about a syllabus again for at least 3-5 years.

Then I’ll probably get my PhD (JK, dad!).

And now that I have fully recovered, expect mo’ blogs and mo’ money
interaction via the Commenting portion of the show. You complete me.

Need You,


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22 thoughts on “Post Thesis Insanity: In Defense of Thesis

  1. Tom

    Leopard print lip gloss? Impressive. If they actually made that, I think I might wear it on stage.

    There is a blues band that wrote a song called "Tight Pants" with the lyrics, "I could read the dates on all the change in her pockets."

    And what is this disco thing? Is this some new kind of dance craze with these young people?

    "Manwiches" – excellent. An 18-year-old hit on you? Those young guys, they don’t even know to look for the ring first. Amateurs!

  2. Genevieve

    Oh, I was prepared that night. To look the part of you single, twenty-something people I dressed casual, yet alluring. I wore fur-lined flip flops and leopard print lip gloss. My jeans were so tight that you could read the washing instructions on the tag that suggestively said, "wash warm/lavese caliente." I used hip terms like "ipod," "disco," and "motel." Once, out of habit, I blurted out, "Don’t walk through there, I just mopped!" but played it off as a cough. I was irresistable to premo teenage manwiches.

  3. Kevin Alexander

    Tom is alive! That is a plus and not just for the comment section of this blog.

    Genevieve– 18 yr old dudes hitting on you!? What’s better than that? I mean, probably a lot of things, but it’s definitely a compliment. Were you wearing Apple Bottom Jeans and the Boots with the Fur?

    C Lynn– Thank you so much, you’re a great writer and I don’t just mean that because you were talking about me, although it obviously helps. Honestly though, very interesting stuff. I’m flattered to be included.

    Ok. Time to burn some cals by wailing on my pecs.

  4. C Lynn

    Hey Kevin, I searched for an appropriate post on which to place this, but I’m not all that… energetic or industrious. Or smrat.

    Anyway, always a fan of your column, I wanted to share with you a post I wrote concerning your column this month. It’s at and I hope you enjoy it.

    Thanks for the great column and blog and keep it up! Just FYI, "MFA" is an acronym for something *completely* different to those of us what didn’t go to collige.

  5. Tom

    It is not "tortured," not anymore. It shall forever be revised as "torchered." I think I’m going to add that to the mural that my van is becoming. And Kev, I *wish* it was a Scooby Doo van! I saw one of those once in California. I think, if I built one, it would be about a ’68 or ’69 A-100 model, and it’d have a Hemi in it if I could get one, a 440 if I had to settle for a regular wedge motor. I’d –

    Oh, wait. Never mind. That could go on for pages, and no one wants that. Anyway, if it works in your head for me to be driving a psychedelic Dodge van, you go with that. However, in real life I’m more likely to be seen in a ’67 Chevelle.

    Oh, and Stacey rules for starting a novel at age fourteen.

  6. Genevieve

    Oooooh, it’s "tortured." I, um, I knew that. I was just trying to create flaming imagery. With fire and stuff. My mispellings are all very poetic.

    Kevin, that article was REALLY good. It’s the first non-humor article of yours that I’ve read. And you said all your creativity was spent on the book! I had no idea there was an entire subculture of such women and their men. I can kind of understand why they like the attention though. A couple months ago me and some other early 30’s mommies went to hear Papa Grows Funk at a bar and I got hit on by an 18 year old guy! My husband (a sweet, younger-score!- nerd, which I’m convinced is the only way to go) was so proud.

  7. Danielle

    CONGRADULATIONS KEVIN! Guess that means you will have to find something else to write about in your column(ish) for Writer’s Digest huh. Still though congrads. Finishing the first bookis always hard, but that just means you will have an easier time with your second one.

  8. Shannon Harp

    I can certainly relate to the idea of never having a syllabus in my life ever again! I am thrilled for you, as not even most syllabus’ are the least bit complete or organized! I am far from finding this type of inner syllabus peace, I’m only a 3rd year psych student and have a couple more to go. So make me proud and write that 13th version with a whistle and a resueable cup.

  9. Tom


    Many, many thanks for blogging about the whole Defense of Thesis process. I really was curious about the whole thing. Now I know, and now I know I don’t want to go through it. I congratulate you hugely! (This does mean you’re all totally graduated, right?) (Did you call your dad and tell him he can finally exhale?) I’m sure I can speak for all of us – and by "all" I mean at least me – when I say we’re extremely proud of you for seeing this thing through.

    I did not get voted off the island, in answer to your question. I was carving an idol. Actually, I was going to a wedding, disassembling an engine, and practicing guitar. I probably should have watched The Wire!!! Dangit! I forgot all about that!

    I LOVED the cougar article! I just became familiar with the term only a few short weeks ago when a friend suggested I cultivate just such a relationship as a manner of financing my writing life rather than working 40 hours a week. I was quick to point out that: no. Just no. I immediately sent her the link to your article. Much hilarity resulted. There you go, you’re touching people all over the globe – at least two of them at my last count.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go form an alliance with another team member so I don’t get voted off in this next round…

    Oh, and Genevieve gets bonus points for a most excellent respelling of "tortured." I like that "torch" is in it. Flames. Helps with the visual.

  10. Angie

    I’m reminded of my final meeting with my thesis advisor. She said, "It has potential." That was, uh… humbling. So clearly you’ve finished better than I did. And I’m sure that later you’ll be able to make good use of the feedback you received. Congratulations on completing your master’s.

  11. Shelly

    Congrats on defending your novel, which seems a little similiar to Defedning Your Life with Albert Brooks. Maybe your reader watched that movie and picked up few tactics from Albert’s prosecutor.

    Anyway, way to go! Congrats on graduating (yet again) and realizing that you are ready to move out of the school yard and play with the big kids.

    I would have loved to seen your report on the cougar hunters. I bet that would have been a hoot. Kevin Alexander, investigative reports – is this going to be a new series? 🙂

  12. Kevin Alexander

    Can you believe I’m participating in the comments? Holy Crap, I feel kind of nervous, like when you try and get back into yoga after having not gone for six months and you can no longer do that pose where you try and look like a snake.

    Anyway, as usual, you guys are great. Your motivation and kind words were/are a big part of how I finished (not to mention, you know, graduating).

    Stacey– thank you for jumping on and your compliments. I am impressed/jealous that you already are working on a novel and you are 14. When I was 14, I had no idea how people made books. I think I assumed the stork came and laid them on your pillow while you slept. Anyway, keep writing.

    Two things:
    1. "The Sweatpants Situation." I see this took a life of its own. I didn’t mean to say "ran through" in the sense of "messed," more like ran through in the sense of…hmmmm…. well, I don’t really know what i was going for there. Ew.

    2. Tom. Where is he? Has he burned out of his tireless contributions to the comments portion of the show? Genevieve, did you vote him off the island in a power grab for comment hegemony? Was he kidnapped by the hippies and forced to sell them his Scooby Doo van? Does someone’s mom need to call his mom? So may questions Tom…

    So yeah. I’m back. And I’m doing radio interviews today for the new article I wrote for Boston Magazine in which I follow around "cougar hunters," which are dudes who try and pick up much older women. I’ll be on WBCN today at 4:15 if anyone lives in the Boston area and wants to hear my uber masculine voice. And no, I did NOT participate in the research.

    Comment out.

  13. Sheri

    >>"My narrator–she points out– isn’t engaged, doesn’t enter into conflict, seems unconcerned about whatever is going on around him, never actively does anything, merely observes…"<<<

    Isn’t that the feedback offered by Barbara Streisand’s character to Robert Redford’s character after she reads his novel in ‘The Way We Were’?

    Your reader was right, of course. ANY work—a novel, a piece of poetry, or an article on the wonders of recycling–can always benefit from a rewrite. (It must be nice to sit across from an author and state the obvious, though.) What’s that chesnut everyone tosses around? Oh, yes: "Writing is Rewriting."

    Great artists come back to their work many years later and notice what could have been improved upon. A dab of yellow here, a different word there. It’s never really finished because life is organic and we ourselves are always changing. So just do what you can do and then let it go. (I’m preaching to myself there.)

    Kevin, you are a joy and an inspiration. You have a gift of engaging your readers, so I have no doubt that you’ll succeed.

    PS We don’t know just how awful Bellow’s first version actually was. Coulda been complete dog scumber. Your work is probably light years ahead of his already. Just had to add that.

  14. Genevieve

    Kristan – better yet, we could do editor-sitting. While they nap we can brainwash them to think that our first drafts are genius.

    Stacey – you’re 14? Very impressive. May you experience the magnificence of finishing a book many times.

  15. Kristan C.

    Congratulations, Kevin. Hard to believe it’s all over, but guess what? It’s all over. Well–the MFA part. Not the rewriting part. But rewriting is fun! … right? I mean, the words are already there, out of your head, it’s just a matter of finding a better place to put them. (Or the question might be, do you agree with your reader in the first place?)

    I think you oughta P’shop your photo accessory from a flowerpot to a pint of Guinness.

    Genevieve, when you’re ready to start that dog sitting business, I’ll be right there with you. Dogs are better than people and CERTAINLY better than editors.

  16. Genevieve

    Yay! You’re finished! And, dude, it IS extremely significant that you finished the book. It proves that you can, you know, finish a book! Now you and I are in the same boat! The rewriting boat! (ignore the screams of torchered agony and cries of "abandon ship") I would give you all sorts of boasts about your book but since I haven’t read it yet I can’t comment on it. But judging from your other writings you’re more than capable of polishing the manuscript.

    What frustrates me is that the work doesn’t have a definitive end. It’s not like finishing a puzzle, or a model plane or a video game. No one can walk into your room, look at the completed puzzle and say, "You call that done? That’s not done. I can’t even tell what anything is! Take that giraffe in the left hand corner and move it next to the lasagna." A book is rewritten and rewritten and rewritten until it goes to print. Sometimes I feel like giving up creative writing and going for something more simple that I can do easily, make more money at and take pride in. Like dog sitting.

    But enough of this talk! You’re done! Hooray! And now you can join in the commentary with the rest of us. We’ve been having the most delightful discussions lately about writing, the purpose of art, sweatpants, and the like. Pull up a chair.

  17. Stacey

    KEVIN YOU ARE HILARIOUS!!! Your blog is awesome and made me smile. I absolutely love your voice and humor. I’m a 14 year old aspiring author and I found your blog through Writer’s Digest. Congrats with your thesis. I’m working on writing a novel now and I know just how frustrating it can be at times. It must feel magnificent to be finished. Good luck on all there is to come! 🙂

  18. Jessica

    Congratulations on your MASSIVE achievement! I’m incredibly envious that you’re finished! I, on the other hand, have two weeks of insanity left. Two weeks of trying to compose my statement on poetics, two weeks to figure out if I’ll be able to "teach the reader how to read my text," when I’m not exactly sure I know how to read it myself. Oh, the humanity! (Some sort of anti-zing should go here. Wa-wa-wa, perhaps?)