The day I was told I would not be allowed to complete my undergraduate honors thesis, I most remember feeling my throat clenching and my advisor (then PLNU professor), Dr. Mike Clark, walking into the room shaking his head. It wasn’t far enough along. He vouched for me, but the rest of my committee didn’t believe I could manage the rest of the work in the limited time frame left. And so I would not be finishing my paper. I would not be published. I would not be graduating with honors. Senior year had been rough for me with tumultuous relationships, bouts of illness, and undiagnosed anxiety. It was this anxiety that had paralyzed my writing process the most, and, after failing something so important, it made recognizing my strengths difficult. While my failure made me fear that I was not prepared for life after academia, it is also what pushed me to learn what I needed to do to succeed in the future.
Before that failure, I hadn’t realized how bad of a student I was. Now don’t get me wrong, I have always been great at school, getting good grades and ranking high in my class, but I was a terrible student nonetheless. I relied on my latent abilities instead of honing my talents. I took literature classes but didn’t read all of the texts. I saved studying until the night before an exam and memorized the facts without understanding them. I wrote assignments that required three drafts and just made the first draft worse––twice––to look like I revised it. That process got me As and the occasional B, so I didn’t see the need to question my learning style. Why question talent? Why question learning by osmosis? If I could produce an entire fiction portfolio in a single night and get an A, what could possibly stop me?
But then, as life is wont to do, it gave me the answers to those questions like a push down the stairs. Talent doesn’t help you when you are staring at a blank screen or deleting pages of text that you no longer feel “flow.” You can’t gain perspective through osmosis. And you certainly cannot change directions of your year-long project in January and hope to be ready to edit and proofread by March. Realizing so late in my education that I hadn’t learned to be a better student scared me, but knowing that I was attending grad school in the fall made me determined to do better, if only to prove my worth. This meant I needed to change.
Step 1: setting an end goal
The first step I took was setting my end goal. The MFA thesis requirement was a minimum of 150 pages of either a completed short story collection or an in-progress novel. We had until the end of our first year to write our thesis proposal and select a thesis director, then a semester to reach our directors’ personal requirements before beginning our mentorship. To be honest, I wrote out the timeline, the course requirements, how I could achieve my goals, and how to plan for the next semesters, but my anxiety gave me writer’s block whenever I tried to do something concrete, holding me back from completing those realistic goals. By the end of that first year, I worked too long on perfecting my proposal, and then my preferred director’s load was full. I wanted change, but the goal wasn't enough. I had to move beyond the planning to action.
Step 2: taking care of yourself
That summer, I then began the next step--taking care of myself physically and mentally. I realized that it didn’t matter what boundaries and schedules I set up for myself as long as I was still fighting panic attacks and the physical illness that they caused. The summer after I submitted my proposal, I went to a therapist and learned coping mechanisms. While this helped me, everyone’s self-care will take a different form, whether it is reducing stress, saying no to taking on new responsibilities, or going on a doctor-prescribed medication. Once I was given the tools to deal with my anxiety, I was finally able to work toward my goal and learn how to balance procrastination with work.
Step 3: active learning tools
That third step, balancing procrastination by using active learning tools, was all about retraining myself to do what my professors had lectured about in undergrad. I read novels to better understand how others who came before me created worlds. I created notecards of details and pieces of evidence so that I could plan the plot. I set a weekly page range to reach, a date by which I wanted the work completed, and a schedule in which to write. I was even able to choose my fiction workshops’ due dates around when I thought I would have sections completed. I was no longer writing for a looming deadline but instead for specific gains and in reasonable bursts of time. I was finally making progress.
Step 4: forgiveness
The fourth step then came at the beginning of my final semester—I needed to forgive myself when I did not always meet my new expectations. I know now that I should not have been surprised when I did not make the goal of 150 quality pages in five months; I had created a plan like someone picking up a gym membership on Saturday and expecting to run a marathon Sunday. At first as I saw the potential of not reaching the mark, I beat myself up over it—--Another week and all I did was revise? Two months left and I’m going backward in page count?—--but then I started to recognize the work I was actually doing. I remembered how much my first chapters had changed and that the character development within had been important enough to spend that time on it. I wasn’t wasting away time anymore, I was creating a better foundation.
Step 5: accountability
Once I met with my advisor for the first time, the final step, creating accountability, was easy to implement. I knew that I needed someone pushing me to produce and revise moving forward because I did not yet have that internal discipline. We created a plan: every two weeks, we would meet to discuss the comments on what I had turned in the meeting before, then I would give him a new chapter as well as the revision based on the previous round of notes. The timing kept me on track and the personal relationship kept me both engaged and positive about what I was producing. I found out later that other students were working primarily on their own. They did not all struggle as I would have, but they still had to look elsewhere for their accountability, either from their own internal drive, other professors, or friends who served as sounding boards and readers.
As my academic career came to a close that semester, I could see how differently my grad school and undergrad experiences ended. Failing my undergraduate honors thesis was not just poignant because I had never failed so completely before; I was a Writing major with the dream of writing novels––if I could not complete a 20-30 page thesis, how could I expect to be able to complete anything larger? By setting goals, taking care of my body and mind, using active learning tools, forgiving myself, and creating accountability, I was not only able to reach the 150 page minimum for my Master’s thesis, but my finished novel was an additional 50 pages over that goal. I learned that I could not continue relying on perceived inherent talent, but instead had to learn which tools would best help me and support my learning style. Even now after finishing school, I am still on this journey of becoming a better student and I hope to continue making my mentors and myself proud.
Allie Frazier, MFA
Allie earned her BA in Writing from Point Loma Nazarene University and her MFA in Creative Writing Fiction from Chapman University. Now she uses her past experiences of being a paper editor, writing consultant, and grammar TA to guide APU students through the writing process and develop their writers' voices.