A graduate in cap and gown holds a sign saying Class of 2022: Essays and Short Stories against a blue background.
Design by Jennie Vang.

Every Creative Writing and Literature major in U-M’s Residential College has the option to write a thesis over the course of their senior year, working with a faculty advisor to produce a polished body of work. These theses can take the form of novels, novellas, collections of poetry, short stories or essays. The 2021–2022 school year saw 11 students take on the challenge. We’ve heard from the novelists and poets; last up, the short story and essay writers.

Grace Andreasen, “Endangered Species”

Grace Andreasen always knew what her short story collection was going to be about. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, she said, “I always knew the title of it. That was one of the first things I came up with. I applied for the honors thesis, and then I got the email a few weeks later saying I’d been accepted, and the first thing I had in my mind was the title of it.” That title, “Endangered Species,” is a reference to her subject matter: “young women and women navigating the world.”

Her interest in portraying these “difficult women … who aren’t doing so well in life, maybe, and have a lot of different sides of them and deal with the stickier situations in life” was sparked by a gift she received when she graduated high school: a collection of short stories called “Difficult Women” by Roxanne Gay. She wanted to similarly create a collection by women, about women and for women — something that portrays women’s full humanity and doesn’t shy away from all the good, bad and messy in-betweens that accompany life. But she also thinks that “anyone can read it and get something out of it,” which is the “beauty of fiction: anyone can find something.”

In pursuing this ambition, Andreasen also pointed to her “ultimate inspiration,” Toni Morrison, who is her “favorite author of all time.” Reading Toni Morrison’s “Sula” in high school was the first time she read something and thought, “‘Oh my god, this is so amazing that a human being can write like this and can make these beautiful sentences and weave this story.’” She has since read many of Morrison’s other books and gushed that “every sentence is just the best sentence you’ve ever read, and it’s just so well done.” She came out of all this reading thinking, “‘I’m going to do that.’”

But her interest in storytelling didn’t start in high school; it started as a little kid. “Growing up, my favorite thing was when my mom would read to my sister and I every night. And my whole family, my aunts and uncles and grandparents, are amazing storytellers,” she said. “So being little and sitting with them in the summer around the campfire and hearing them tell stories has always been the highlight of my life — those storytelling experiences.” As a result, she said it’s “something (she’s) just always wanted to be really good at” and something that has become “part of (her) identity.” “It just brings me a lot of joy to write, to make up a story and then put it on a page, to say that this is mine, and I made this,” Andreasen said. “It’s a very powerful thing. And it just makes me feel very like myself, and it kind of assures me that this is who I am: I create things.” With this self-assuredness comes confidence, which she thinks more people should pursue and embrace: “I’m good at this — (it) is really an important thing for people to have something they’re good at and to be okay with saying that they are good at it.” Writing a thesis in particular fueled this confidence in her writing and her decision to pursue a creative writing degree, which society often looks skeptically upon, proclaiming (in Andreasen’s words), “‘Oh, you’ll never get a job.’”

And although Andreason said she felt “very burnt out” by writing at the moment — having worked on her thesis tirelessly for two semesters — her love of writing and compulsion to create doesn’t fade easily: “Whenever I write a lot, and I feel the need to take a break, it always happens that after a few days or weeks or whatever the urge always comes back and kicks in, and I have a new idea for something, and I have to work on it.” She said that while she’s taking a respite at the moment, she’s “very excited to get that feeling again, just that need to write and create something.”

This is especially exciting as Andreasen graduates and enters post-college life, where writing projects can be much more long-term and goal-oriented — something her thesis gave her a taste of. She said, “A lot of writing in school, in undergrad … you feel like you don’t really have a place where it’s going. It’s like you wrote this story, and you kind of finished it (even though nothing’s ever really finished), and then it’s like, ‘Ok, now what?’ You’re just on to the next one … you get the grade, and then the class is over.” Her thesis broke her out of this mold: “Having this thesis that I’ve worked on this entire year … has felt like the grounding cornerstone of my senior year and of my whole college experience. Working towards a tangible thing, having a tangible thesis in the end, was very rewarding.” She hopes to come back to the project with renewed energy and fresh eyes and work on getting it published.

You can read an excerpt of “Endangered Species” here.

Cielle Waters-Umfleet, “Battles We Can Only See the Wreckage Of”

Cielle Waters-Umfleet was the only creative writing major to produce a nonfiction thesis. “Fiction — when you get it right — is really awesome,” she said in an interview with The Daily. “But I like nonfiction because it’s something true and easy to connect to.” Waters-Umfleet recognizes this is counter to what many people think of when they hear the term “nonfiction”: “They think it’s just textbooks and super in-depth reading, but that’s not always the case.” As the Editor-in-Chief of What the F, a magazine on campus that publishes personal essays, she has seen the enormous potential of nonfiction. She finds herself inspired to craft her own narratives and delve into the sort of gritty, intimate topics her magazine publishes.

In coming up with ideas for specific essays, she said she asked herself, “What is it that I care about? What is it that I have experienced that I would like to reach a broader audience with?” There’s a balance to be struck there between the self and the audience: “One time I read a quote that was, ‘Your writing is a love letter to yourself.’ And what that means is that it’s your art, it’s your product and it doesn’t have to make sense to anybody else.” At the same time, however, she hopes that her essays are able to reach others the way that the essays she’s read have reached her.

But a collection of personal essays wasn’t always what she thought this thesis was going to be. “When I applied to do this, I pitched an idea for a play that was actually inspired by an ancestress of mine that I discovered who’s only known as ‘Dorothea Unknown’ because her maiden name has been lost. And I was just thinking about how many women in history have lost parts of their identity to time just because they got married.” But she quickly decided that this wasn’t the right moment for that project. This shift from playwright to essayist reaffirmed a lesson that is often learned the hard way in creative fields: “You change, your experiences change, your circumstances are different. Don’t be afraid if your first idea is not your best idea — because it’s not going to be.”

This is both especially important and especially difficult advice to act upon in the fast-paced, deadline-driven environment of academic writing, where writers frequently aren’t “able to necessarily take the time to draft and develop the pieces as much as (they) would’ve liked before having them critiqued.” “Part of that kind of made me hesitant to do my work,” Waters-Umfleet admitted. “I mean, obviously the first draft isn’t perfect, there’s no perfect writing, but when you take a half-finished piece and get criticized on it, it doesn’t make you super excited to finish it.” As a result, she is “definitely looking forward to being able to write of my own accord … I think it’ll be good for me to reconnect to writing on my own terms.”

Unfortunately, leaving the world of academia also means leaving some of her main inspiration behind: “Just being with other writers in the RC, and especially being the editor of a magazine … we have so much talent on this campus. I think just being in this environment was my inspiration.” Her other inspiration, though, will remain with her wherever she goes. When asked who inspires her, Waters-Umfleet immediately turned to her mother. “She’s not famous at all,” she laughed, “But she does write a blog, and I think we both have kind of the same understated style. Like, what we’re saying is not what we’re really saying, and it relies on the reader to draw some inferences.”

Looking forward, Waters-Umfleet said she hopes to get some of her work published — though how much is still up in the air. “Some of the essays are quite personal, like one of them was about my struggles with depression … and while I was ready to put it in my thesis, I don’t know if I’m really ready to submit that one to a broader audience.” Still, she said, she has a lot she wants to say, and people’s reactions to the work she has already shared have been the most rewarding part of this whole process: “It’s just good to know that these things that I’ve kept to myself for a while are ready to be seen and heard by other people.”

You can read an excerpt of Waters-Umfleet’s thesis here.

Daily Arts Writer Brenna Goss can be reached at bregoss@umich.edu