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The Moth Collector

Adviser: Edmund V. White

Anna C. Sheaffer

Comparative Literature

“Just write something.”

sheaffer-anna-catherine

The most difficult part of writing a creative thesis is starting. You will make a lot of false starts. You will write many chapters that need to be thrown away. You should get over this now.

My own process of starting a creative thesis lasted from the June preceding my senior year well through October. During these months, I spent a lot of time in my thinking place (the shower) where I would ignore knocks on the door and try to envision the flawless structural whole that my finished thesis would form. Before I wrote a word, I wanted a plan, a map, a color-by-number diagram so that not one ounce of my effort would be wasted; every sentence would have a precise and clear relationship to the overall effect. I turned to other writers in search of an ordering principle for my work. I went to Georges Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi, and thought, “Yes, a knight’s tour through an apartment building!” I turned to Robert Olen Butler’s Severance and thought, “Yes, a series of severed heads using their last reserves of oxygen to make a final statement!” I turned to Inger Christensen and thought, “Yes, I’ll let the Fibonacci numbers govern the length of each section!”

This was a terrible way to start. It was a waste of both time and water. Allowing other writers to influence my writing was beneficial and unavoidable, but trying to plan the entire thesis before a word of it was written was a futile effort. Thinking about the thesis as a whole had a crippling effect. Postshower, I would sit at my computer to write and the magnitude of the task would alarm me. I would begin to type, and the discrepancy between the measly words on the page and the version of my thesis that I thought existed in Plato’s realm of forms would be so great that I would cease writing for the day.

Things did not start moving until I abandoned my vision of the perfect finished product and settled for mediocrity. This may sound counterintuitive, but settling for mediocrity has improved my writing dramatically. Just write something. Take a character who has been pestering you, and pin him to the page. Write a little every day about the mundane things he does and the people he interacts with, and eventually things will start to happen. Tensions and conflicts will arise, and you will make these situations even more tangled and thorny before you smooth them out again. Later, when you have some distance, you will come back to these pages with fresh eyes and weed out the passages that were just you getting to know the character. What will be left are the compelling bits, the details that make your character human and make his desires sympathetic. 

Though learning to settle for mediocre first drafts and worry about perfection later during the editing process was my most valuable realization, I did accumulate some other wisdom:

  • Don’t think that you can’t. If the creative writing program accepted your application to write a creative thesis, it means an accomplished writer thinks you are capable. This is an encouraging sign.
  • If you get an adviser from your home department, choose one who is responsive to your concerns and who gives great pep talks before you choose one who is superfamous and superbusy. Thesis writing is a mind game; you will need those pep talks.
  • Don’t rely only on your advisers. Find someone else writing a creative thesis whose opinions you respect, and trade drafts with that person. He or she will most likely be able to give you more line-by-line feedback than your adviser. Find a graduate student writing about topics similar to your own; he or she will probably be delighted to share a bibliography with you.
  • Don’t make your thesis your life. Take up a physical activity, such as squash. No matter your thesis troubles, you will feel much better after you and a friend spend an hour smacking a rubber ball around.

I ended up writing a collection of short stories set in disintegrating rural Pennsylvania communities. It’s certainly not what I set out to write. Rather, with the help of my advisers, I came to see that my writing naturally organized itself around themes of place-based identity. Even though my writing did not take the orderly and linear path I had originally intended it to take, I am pleased with the results. I can now say that I have written a book and am confident that the next one I write will benefit from this first experience.

The Moth Collector

Anna C. Sheaffer

Edmund V. White

Professor of Creative Writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts

“I felt that I did very little to help her page by page, though occasionally I would tell her to drop an entire story and stick with the ones that truly worked.”

I’ve had some thesis students who came in to talk to me only twice during the school year and yet who turned in perfectly polished theses. Others liked to get together every week and used me as an artistic counselor and as a copy editor. That’s part of what is enjoyable about advising theses—the surprises, for each thesis is as unique as the individual. And what is unique is the process as well as the result.

The most disappointing theses I’ve directed have been those by students who thought they could get the whole book together at the last moment. There are exceptions to every rule but, in general, writing fiction is a slow, cumulative process. If a student has a streak of brilliance, he or she might be able to write some highly charged, lyrical outburst in a week or two, but it is unlikely he or she will learn how to build characters, create significant action, or polish a pleasing style in such a short time.

Anna Sheaffer is a very assured, graceful writer who has a strong sense of place (western Pennsylvania) and a wry, complex feeling for character, including men and women much older than she is. I felt that I did very little to help her page by page, though occasionally I would tell her to drop an entire story and stick with the ones that truly worked. I kept encouraging her and I’ve tried to interest New York editors in her work. I’m delighted that she is going on to do graduate work at the University of Michigan.

With Jeff Kirchick, I did a lot of line editing of his stories. He has a big heart and turns out long stories about major emotional crises, though he also is capable of zeroing in on elegant moral quandaries. Several of his stories are burned into my memory, so vivid and passionate are they. Jeff likes to “work with a wet brush,” that is, turn out a rough first draft and then retouch it through several revisions. I was sometimes alarmed because he delayed the rewrites until the last month because he was so eager to write more and more stories. I didn’t want to discourage this inventiveness but at the same time I was worried that he wasn’t giving himself enough time to polish. Finally I said, Basta! And, in the last few weeks before the submission date, he did rewrite and polish all of his work to a high sheen. I was proud to show one of his longest stories to John Irving, also a wrestling aficionado—and John had a very warm and admiring response to the story.

Working with two such different writers, one a perfectionist in total control of her material, the other a Romantic writer dependent on inspiration, required different approaches on my part. I didn’t want to impose my own taste and idiosyncrasies on Anna, who obviously has an efficient inner artistic gyroscope. Nor did I want to inhibit Jeff’s exuberant, sometimes-hit-or-miss composition of first drafts. 

I feel confident that both of my thesis students worked at their own pace, and neither of them tried to conform to my artistic expectations or practices.