The Foreword to My Thesis

posted in: Day In The Life, School | 74
Fons, with quilt! Photo: Leah Nash for Quiltfolk, but I made it black n’ white. (Do I need to say that??)

 

Hi!

It feels like I need to say “Hi!” again after being away. You look so good to me!! Hi!

First off, I want to say that I see the comments about the font needing to be a bigger and a darker, and I shall make it so. With the server migration, things got a little funky and I agree there are tweaks needed. Julie and I will work on it, I promise. Until then, you can always go up to “View” and click “Zoom” and you can make your screen bigger. Thank you for your patience.

As promised yesterday, I’m going to paste in the painstakingly crafted foreword to the thesis I worked on for so long. Before you read it, you should know what I’m foreword-ing, no?

My 1,512-page thesis was a compendium. It was everything I have published or otherwise officially submitted in two years of in graduate school.

I included all my essays, F Newsmagazine articles, Quiltfolk articles, Quilt Scout columns, other freelance writing, research projects, three lectures, one poem, the materials for the exhibit at the Chicago Design Museum next year, and … every blog post. That’s right: The past two years of PaperGirl is in my thesis. The whole way, May. And what’s really cool is that if you get a master’s at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, your thesis is bound and kept in the library of the Art Institute. We’re in there, guys. You and me. We’re in one of the best museums in the entire world.

It literally took three 18-hour days to make the two copies of my thesis, partly because each section had its own introduction and title page and also because I hand-stamped every page (of both copies) with a page number using one of those cool auto-advance number-stamper things I think they use in law offices? It was fun, but I still have a bruise on my hand. (Seriously.)

If you’re new to the blog, I promise, promise, promise: Entires are never this long. But most days I’m not writing to you in the week I finish my master’s degree. And to make sure you know I care about the eyes of my readers, I’m going to boldface the whole thing.

Thank You,
Mary

F O R E W O R D

 

Christmas Day, Chicago, 2015. Half-past two in the afternoon.

I was standing at the kitchen counter at my sister’s house, wearing a sweater, jeans, and busted-up fuzzy slippers. Like everyone else in the room, I was drinking prosecco. My younger sister and her husband were both absorbed in something online.  My mom and stepdad were playing Scrabble at the big table, picking at pie. Hannah, my older sister, was scrolling through Instagram on her phone.

“So I have news,” I announced to the room, then paused for effect. “I have applied to graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.”

My sister Rebecca looked up at me. “Why?”

Hannah stayed glued to her phone but shifted in her seat and from where I stood I could see the rise of one penciled-in eyebrow. Mark tapped out the score on the calculator he and Mom keep in the Travel Scrabble box. Jack bumped the power cord on his laptop then clicked it back into place.

“I want to study writing,” I said.

It was as if I had announced I was going to the store for a gallon of milk. Except there was hostility in the air, too, like I had announced I was going to the store for a gallon of milk and I had a history of stealing groceries. There goes Mary with her same old dairy-aisle kleptomaniac crap — and on Christmas!

“Well, I think it’s fantastic,” my mom said, and took a sip from her champagne flute. “You’ll be so happy you did it, honey.” My stepfather raised his glass but didn’t actually cheers anything.

“Thank you, Mother,” I said. Then, curtly, to the room: “Am I missing something? Is there something wrong with me pursuing a master’s degree in writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago?”

I was the only one in my family without a postgraduate education, so the bad vibes were not based in any anti-school sentiment. Something else was going on that made me sad and I felt the ruthless sensation of being alone among my own people. 

My throat closed up, but I pressed the issue: Why was me going to grad school not a happy occasion?

It came out that no one had faith in an MFA program for writers. They were a waste of time, Hannah said, and besides, I had been making a good deal of my living as a freelancer for some time. My blog had thousands of subscribers. Why spend all that time and money for a piece of paper?

Rebecca agreed. She pointed out that SAIC is one of the most expensive schools in the country and when she worked in the Loop, she’d have to dodge throngs of SAIC kids every day at lunch. “It’s obviously a good school, but there are a lot of stocking hats and sad paintings over there,” she said. “I don’t think you’d like it.”

For the few brief minutes we discussed it, it was clear that no one was impressed with my announcement because they weren’t impressed with the plan and also because my family was used to this particular family member (me) making splashy life changes every few years. My decision to go to grad school wasn’t earth-shattering; it was simply the latest solution to the problem of Mary getting bored. The tears that stung my eyes were the result of knowing they were half-right, but there was anger, too: The half they were wrong about they were really wrong about. To study writing for real was something I had wanted pretty much my whole life.

Christmas Day three years ago was the first time I would have to defend why I wanted a master’s degree; why I wanted to get that degree in writing; why I wanted to go to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; and why I wanted to do all of this now.

Katherine Hepburn said, “Never complain, never explain,” but Katherine Hepburn never went to grad school. Explaining the reasons why I chose all this was something I would have a good deal of practice with over the next two years.

You could say I’m explaining right now.

* * *

I went to high school in the mid-90s in a small Midwestern town. College prep courses may have been a thing on the East Coast by then, but in Winterset, Iowa, “advanced placement” classes were a novelty. The first one they ever offered, AP English, was offered my senior year. For the first time in high school, I was not dogged by my homework but exhilarated by it.

The teacher taught from one book: the fifth edition of a college-level composition textbook called The Bedford Reader. I loved its tissue-thin pages, how they felt like pages of a Bible or the Shakespeare anthology Mom had on the bookshelf at home. I devoured the readings Mrs. Chase assigned and as I did, I put myself in a kind of conversation with the book, scribbling notes in the margins, drawing goofy doodles and inside jokes for my friends on the front and back covers.

After 20 years of moves, boyfriends, a marriage and divorce, and countless cleaning purges that dispensed with plenty of other books, I’ve still got that Bedford Reader. Flipping through its pages now, seeing all those proclamations and exclamations, is an exercise in facial expressions: I see myself and my brow furrows; my eyes get wide; I wince. The sheer spunkiness of me at sixteen is excruciating. “I love Matthew McConaughey!!!” I write, and when I like something, I draw a happy face saying “YES!!!” When I don’t, there in green ink is, “What does the author MEAN??? Don’t KNOW don’t CARE!!!”

Two years ago, just before grad school began, I purchased a thick, black Leuchtturm notebook. A German-designed notebook of consequence, it was big enough to last through two years of note-taking in writing department classes, workshops, seminars, and advising sessions. I thumbed through it the other day, not long after I had pulled out my Bedford Reader, to reference the bibliography.

Then came the shock: The content of my notes and doodles in my grad school notebook are virtually the same today as they were 20 years ago. It was all right there. The exclamations and proclamations with the same liberal use of exclamation points, the same rhetorical questions to myself, the same conversations with an audience of one … The only difference, really, is a subtle weariness creeping in; as a 38-year-old, I write, now in black ink: “What does the author mean? Don’t know. Don’t care.”

Shocking as it was to see myself so plainly after all this time, there exists a sense of satisfaction in the continuity from one book to the other. I might be an enthusiastic idiot, but I’ve always had a strong sense of self.

But the apparently indelible blueprint brings with it a terrible weight, too. Can a person change? Can she learn? Can she become a better writer or is it predetermined how good she’ll get? We know that women are born with a set number of eggs; is a woman’s portion of writing ability also set at birth? Does studying it allow only for cosmetic changes and nothing deeper? Why, indeed, sisters, did I pursue a master’s degree in writing if, from notebook to notebook, year to year, I’m still holding my pen the same way?

* * *

Oh, please. Two years in a MFAW program has made me way better at writing.

You can’t really chart it. You can’t quantify it. You, the reader, or I may or may not be able to read from one end of this manuscript to the other and see that from August 2016 to May 2018 my sentences get tighter, my references more nuanced, my verbs more precise. You may or may not perceive how I got better at editing my own writing and the writing of others. You’ll see a lot of published work that didn’t exist before, but there’s no way to show beyond a shadow of a doubt that in grad school, the Mary Fons motherboard was rewired and has become vastly more complex (and definitely more expensive.)

Then again, I’m also two years older. That counts for something. This 1,500-page thesis may not be a lot of things, but it’s undeniable proof a girl’s been practicing.

Most of my cohort came seeking an MFAW because they want to teach. Many hoped to assemble an agent-ready manuscript. Some succeeded, and those novels and poetry collections will serve as their thesis, pages polished to gleaming (or gleaming enough) in advising meeting after advising meeting, over two years of workshops and critiques. I, too, took work through that laundering process. When I arrived, I thought that writing and polishing the essays included here was the point of all this. My colleague’s goals were the same as mine.

But as I rode my bike up the street to MacClean in the heat of September; as icy water mixed with street salt seeped through my shoes through two long winters, what I was getting from graduate school and what I’d been seeking changed. I started out making a quilt with someone else’s fabric, you could say, and then I remembered I had this huge basket of my own gorgeous scraps.

More than mastering a single essay — or a dozen of them — I discovered that my task was to understand the kind of writer I am, not the kind of writer I wish I was. My sisters were correct: Grad school can’t teach you how to write. But I learned that grad school can offer the chance to discover how you write. And if you care enough, work ceaselessly, and accept the way you hold your pen, then you can improve. Maybe you can improve a lot. That’s the real — and somewhat hidden — lesson. It was certainly the knowledge I came for, and after I learned it, it was the reason I stayed.

* * *

My family has heartily congratulated me on my accomplishment. Getting a master’s degree — even in writing — is way harder than stealing a gallon of milk. They’re proud of me.

My thesis doesn’t just double as a doorstop: It’s proof of concept. I am this person. I am this writer. If you’re interested in getting to know her, I suggest you get comfortable. You’re gonna be here awhile.

 

Mary Fons
May 7, 2018, Chicago