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The final chapter of the quest for the Master’s Degree

I was already late for my thesis defense when I got to the building, out of breath from the run across campus from the overfull parking garage. I caught the elevator but it went down to the basement and then, after I said “You’ve got to be fucking KIDDING ME!” under my breath but totally out loud, it stopped to pick up more people on the ground floor, at which point I was ready to punch someone if they hit floors 2 or 3, but luckily, everyone was going to Floor 5 or higher. I walked out of the elevator at about 10:36, which was, considering all things, not unforgivably late.

My three committee members were already there: Dr. George Makana Clark, Dr. Gwynne Kennedy and Prof. Liam Callanan, shuffling through my manuscripts. I apologized for being late and explained the parking situation but they quickly assured me that they had only been in the room for maybe three minutes. I went to sit down and then realized I was still wearing my ridiculous sage green Privo flats (that matched NOTHING) I’d thrown on for running and my witchy heels were still in my bag. I had nervous sweat dripping off of my forehead, but luckily, it was very cool inside the room, and, after all, these were my three favorite professors of all time. Thankfully, George, as the chair of the committee, suggested that they start by talking about the manuscript. I gulped, because while I felt comfortable talking about the stories (after all, I practically had all 70+ pages memorized, so it’s not like I didn’t know what was there) but I get extremely nervous when dealing with my writing in general, hence the autonomic fight or flight response before I workshop or read in front of crowds. Luckily, I had broken into my pre-airplane prescription of Xanax before I left the house, so the cold hands and nervous stomach was minimal.

What follows is a lot of boring stuff about my fiction manuscript.

Dr. Clark talked about the body of work as a whole, and then kind of ranked the stories, picking out the three he felt were the strongest (The baby story, “Passeridae” and the body image story, which breaks my heart as I love “Intersomnolence” so very much). Liam Callanan and Dr. Kennedy piped up several times, either asking me questions about what I meant by a certain line (one of which I’ve decided I hated and have since changed) or talking about specific lines that they enjoyed.

Professor Callanan said that now that he’s read more of my stuff, he has a hard time knowing where to place the stories or genre. He hesitated to use the term “magical realism” as it seems to be overused in grad programs these days (agreed) but said that while the stories can be read on a purely relationship level, there’s often a dark undercurrent or force at work in all of the stories, which I found interesting, because while I hint at something supernatural in three of the six stories, the others are very normal people in what might be considered realistic situations.

Dr. Kennedy picked up on the fact that every one of my narrators or protagonists are observers rather than actors in their plots, which is a pretty good analysis of the stories I’ve written that weren’t in the project too. Liam talked a little about what he considers the “Wendy Wimmer slant”, which means that the story he thinks he’s going to read when he gets to the bottom of the first page is not at all the story he’s read when he finishes the last page. He also said that he gets the impression that I’m kind of winking at the reader a lot of times, but not in an annoying way (he name checked Chuck Pahliniuk here, who was an author on my reading list). Dr. Clark suggested that part of my remarkable talent (his word choice) was in balancing a sense of playfulness with word choice and then, without the reader realizing it, there’s a very real play in human emotion by the end of each story, that you get to the final page and you want it to keep going, which was just kind of amazing to hear. I’m actually having a really hard time writing this all down, because it was all SO flattering and wonderful that every time someone said something, you could almost hear my ego start to purr.

The exam then kind of turned into a really super-charged workshop, with the three smartest people on the planet telling me how they would pinch a story here or change around the beginning there. At one point, Liam Callanan started a suggestion with the preface “I know that your biographer is going to absolutely crucify me for suggesting this, but I’d cut this paragraph completely.” Excuse me, but I think I’d slit my own wrist if you put the suggestion in such flattering terms.

They also loved three of the titles and didn’t so much like the other three, with Dr. Clark stating that if he saw the three lesser titles, he wouldn’t have thought anything of them, but since he knew that I could pull such perfect titles out of my head, he now wants all of them to be so perfectly chosen. And then he said that really, they were just being picky because the stories were all so strong that they were better than a lot of the dissertation stuff they saw coming through from graduating PhD candidates but they had to say something, so they were going for little details like titles and paragraph order.

We also talked about where I have been submitting my work and Liam chastised me for aiming too low. He recommended that I go big and aim high, and made a few suggestions, and then also recommended that I try to network and make contacts at a big fancy writer’s conference like Breadloaf, adding “You certainly don’t have to worry about running with the big kids, because baby, you definitely have game.”

As for the oral exam, I guess that was the reading list questions. Dr. Clark asked why I had included mostly authors who are “living and breathing and writing today” and not many masters. I responded that I could have easily provided a list dominated by books plucked off of Random House’s 100 Modern Classics, and felt comfortable speaking to them (ever since I wrote this, I’ve been making my way through the list… and hating about half of them), but since the very nature of the Creative Writing program was to support the manuscript, I selected authors and works that I felt really inspired elements of my manuscript. For instance, I am blown away by Nabokov’s use of language in Lolita and I took the courage to play with sounds and twist words from that. The Great Gatsby taught me a lot about voice and point of view: Nick Carraway is a fascinating example of observer turned active participant who thinks he’s only still an outsider. Also, Fitzgerald’s final paragraphs of the novel never cease to blow me away and I mentioned that I would recite the ending right there from memory, but it would be showing off.

However, as the committee mentioned during their critiques, my story endings are as ninja, tying everything up in a very tight package and you don’t even realize that it’s done until you’ve run out of words. Fitzgerald’s novel, obviously, is very linear, following a typical plot progression, but the ending… whoa. As for the rest, I tried to achieve a decent balance between what Liam called Eggers-esque writers (Ann Cummins, Amanda Davis, Eggers, Dan Chaon, Judy Budnitz, Jeffrey Eugenides, Audrey Niffenegger, Jincy Willett, etc) and the established, highly respected literary masters (Margaret Atwood, Amy Hempel, T.C. Boyle, Kazuo Ishiguro, Lorrie Moore, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Robert Olen Butler, John Irving, Louise Erdrich, etc) and tossing lightly with a few quirky pop culty choices (J.K. Rowling, Chuck Palahniuk, Douglas Coupland).

I defended my choices of the Eggers by stating that if I was an up and coming writer, it was more important for me to understand what a Dan Chaon is doing to get published than to spend a lot of time studying a giant like John Irving, who could probably publish his grocery list and pull a spot on the Amazon’s Top 100.

Professor Callanan asked me to explain the apparent fascination that graduate students seem to have with Pahliniuk, and I offered that he demanded a lot from the reader, kind of verbally assualted them, and the style is something we haven’t seen in a really approachable way. While his writing is, I have to say, not incredible, I had included Survivor because I was fascinated by the list making and occupational details, and was thinking of that when I wrote “Intersomnolence”. If I had known that it was a grad student cliche’, you’d better believe I’d kick Mr. Pahliniuk to the curb without even thinking twice.

I felt like we had just really gotten going when Dr. Clark asked me to leave so that they could do their deliberating. Eeeek! Although really, I was feeling pretty good about things, because they were loving on the stories so much. I started to gather up my stuff, but he said that I could leave it all there, as they would be calling me back in. Ok! I’m sorry! I didn’t know! I’ve never done this before!

I grabbed my phone, intending to send something to Twitter about awaiting the court marshall, but before I could even open the browser, Dr. Clark was calling me back in. I walked into my room, where the three of them were already standing, and he extended his hand to shake mine. I knew I had succeeded at that point, but I never expected what came out of his mouth next.

“Congratulations! I know that you didn’t ask for more than the Master’s degree, but we’ve unanimously decided to also accept you into the Doctoral program.”

I think I looked like someone had just dropped an ice cube down my back, because Professor Callanan interjected “You don’t have to decide right away. You can defer enrollment for up to a year if you want!”

I don’t know what I said at that point. I think it was something like “Wow, I didn’t even know you could DO that!” but apparently they are the committee and they can do anything they want. I thanked them all, told them that I was honored, and then gathered up my stuff with a semi-dazed expression. Dr. Clark went to file the paperwork with the English department office and Dr. Kennedy walked out with me. She actually thanked me for asking her to be on my committee and then said “Wow, you’re going to be famous and I’m going to get to say that I had Wendy Wimmer in my class.” She encouraged me to go out and celebrate, perhaps go out for a drink somewhere, which was, you know, just silly, because it was about 11:30 am in the morning.

Besides, who needed alcohol when you just had the biggest ego boost in the world?

The rest of the day was pretty much just gravy. I couldn’t believe the weight that had been lifted off my psyche with the verdict. I wasn’t even upset about the fact that I had forgotten the power cord to my laptop and was essentially toting around a very useless technological boulder, and as thus, couldn’t post the stuff for Elastic Waist that day. Luckily, the editors are a forgiving lot.

Then, as though the week couldn’t get any better, on Friday, Professor Callanan e-mailed me to tell me that I, along Christy Clancy, had been chosen as the program’s entries for the Best New American Voices anthology, with Dr. Clark adding that he felt like the program had a good chance this year.

And then, when I was leaving work that afternoon, my cell phone rang and it was my classmate Molly Maegestro, who had just left the English Department awards ceremony. She started with “I know if it were me, I’d want to hear this right away…” and I assumed that it was the Best New American Voices thing. Except she finished with “…guess who won the Faculty Fiction Award? YOU!”

I was kind of stunned because I hadn’t entered a Faculty Fiction contest, but apparently like the Best New American Voices thing, you don’t enter it, it’s just something that a bunch of faculty get together and decide. Molly won a different award, so she explained that in her case, she gets a certificate and a “teeny tiny check” but she and I have no idea what is involved with the Faculty Fiction award. And a week later, I still don’t know, because no one has told me anything and there’s frighteningly little discussion of it on UWM’s website. Ah well.

What really struck me was something that Dr. Clark said, right after he told me that they were accepting me to the PhD program despite the fact that I hadn’t requested it nor had I provided the extra pre-work. I thought about the struggles I had just getting accepted into any writing program at all and also, how UWM had rejected my application several times. I thought back several years, to what the Chair of the UW-Milwaukee Creative Writing department at the time wrote to me after I had questioned what I was doing wrong.

“There was a strong sense that your creative work was not a good match at all with our program. I’m sorry I don’t have the resources to give detailed feedback on particular mss. Since you have failed to convince current fiction faculty here for two years in a row, my recommendation is that you seriously consider applying and studying elsewhere. Of course, we are sorry to disappoint you, but I think it’s important that I be frank.”

That guy is no longer an administrator, and of course, my acceptance into the program was all thanks to Dr. Clark making things happen. He refuses to take credit for it, and is still amazed that I had a problem getting in.

When we were getting ready to leave the committee room, he exclaimed, “Just think, they didn’t even WANT you in the program initially!” he said, and Dr. Kennedy and Professor Callanan both shook their heads. “You sure showed them!”

And I nodded and I had a brief fantasy about finding Dr. Frank and shouting “IN YOUR FACE, BEEYATCH!” but yeah, I guess I showed them. I showed them a dozen times over. And it feels pretty damn good.