Spinning on a Breaking Pinnacle and Other Ways of Looking at Stress

My graduate creative writing thesis nearly broke me apart. And why shouldn’t it have? Completing the thesis was the hardest thing I have ever undertaken. It was the culmination of twenty years of school: a wide base of knowledge coming to the sharpest point and on that point I balanced. Thesis was a vortex, and I was in the center.

Regardless of all the metaphors I could try to force into this post, the reality is what is most important. Because people handle stress in different ways, I asked a handful of recent Rosemont College grads to share their experiences with stress. I thought the best responses would be healthy ones. I realized that to ask for only healthy solutions would be inauthentic and untrue. Each person came up with a response I couldn’t have anticipated, and I am grateful for their help and feedback. Here are the thoughts and wisdom of some of my friends who have been through it and managed to make it to the other side.

“When I’m stressed out, I tend to make a lot of lists. It helps me feel better, even if I don’t necessarily cross out a lot of the things on my list. I made sure I didn’t skip yoga. In fact, Focus Fitness (in Bryn Mawr) offered a great Monday night slow Yin yoga class that helped me de-stress and get my mind off the chaos. This next one may be a form of procrastination rather than a helpful tip, but I can’t sit down to work until I’ve cleaned my apartment and don’t have clutter to focus on. I also think about my due date—and not in an “impending doom” way. I remind myself that all the stress and madness will be over once that date hits, no matter what.” -Emily Gavigan, MA in Publishing

“Since I have the tendency to take on everything that comes in front of me, the biggest stressor for me during grad school was balance and scheduling—between attending classes, multiple part-time jobs, running a website, and writing for different publications—it was difficult to find time and peace for anything at all. One thing that I found incredibly helpful was finding the right environment for working. While I love my desk at home, sometimes having all of my posters and books and other stuff (like the refrigerator) in easy reach is really distracting. I found it helpful to change my location: taking my laptop to the library or to a coffee shop. The fresh environment was so good for my creativity, and I’ve always found that I can write better and more when I’m traveling or in a place that’s different from my usual spot.” -Feliza Casano, MA in Publishing

“I have found that my stress manifests itself in poor habits. Before my thesis I didn’t drink coffee, I had quit smoking for a year and a half, and my fingernails weren’t bitten to the nub. But while I fell back into my old habits, the ways in which I combated them were, I’m happy to say, far healthier. I began training with free weights and rolled out my yoga mat to shakily do poses or even sit and stretch and breathe. I went home a lot, I sang in my car, kept writing, dictating my ramblings to Siri as I drove up the Northeast Extension—any sort of release like driving or singing helps a lot.

What stressed me out also kept me going, so it left me with this strange balance of anxiousness and satisfaction.” -J. Cioc, MFA in Creative Writing

“Well, mine weren’t so much healthy. Definitely over ate, definitely drank too much. I know you’re looking for more PG type answers, but I don’t think I have them for you. If you want my honest answer, I’ll say I gained 25 pounds during the course of the program because I definitely turned to food and did not go to the gym. Going to class twice a week and working a full-time job and trying to maintain my home and my marriage definitely put a toll on me. I used my normal gym and hang out time for homework and writing. By the end of the program, I was starting to take my life back because I was only doing thesis for my final semester. I started using my extra time to go back to the gym and track my calories again. I also started reaching out to my friends, especially those I felt I had neglected when I was in school. I know that’s not exactly what you’re looking for an answer, but it’s my reality.” -Abigail Lalonde, MFA in Creative Writing

“First, thesis stress is inevitable. Diving headfirst into a lengthy creative project is never convenient. It’s particularly inconvenient when you have a family or you’re taking classes or volunteering or preparing to graduate or trying to figure out which career path to pursue. Here are my tips:

1) Rely on your peers-reach out and ask for help when you feel like you’re drowning.

2) If you’re feeling creatively blocked while writing, read your favorite writers or your friends’ work to inspire you.

3) Draw inspiration from the things that distract you (if you’re hooked on a particular Facebook debate, write a political poem. If you’re into a TV show, write a story inspired by a character from that show!)

4) Remember to take a break. Go for a walk in the woods or a drive at night. Listen to music. Get space from everything every now and then so your mind has room to think.

5) “Don’t go anywhere without something to write on (I use my notes app in my phone), and write down any ideas, phrases or images that stick with you—you never know what might be useful.” -Kara Cochran, MFA in Creative Writing

Thesis writing will never be the same for two people. What works for one, won’t necessarily work for all. It may be beneficial to reach out to writers in your cohort or even students who have been through what you’re going through.

I found that working in groups or arranging coffee dates can sometimes be enough to make progress, while also avoiding isolation. If nothing else, the above suggestions may provide some guidance. I hope that they also remind students that they are not alone in their pursuits, that they are taking on this challenge for a reason, and that by finding their own methods, they can show us what that reason is. If anyone wants to share their experiences with stress and how they dealt with it, please let me know in the comments. I hope this post will open up a dialogue, so that thesis doesn’t rip us in half.

Alan Beyersdorf holds an MFA in creative writing from Rosemont College. He typeset and bound his chapbook of poetry, Degrees of Distance, in 2012, and is working to have his thesis manuscript accepted for publication. He currently lives in Philadelphia and his remaining houseplants are thriving.
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