All Creative Writing and Literature majors in the University’s Residential College have 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 eleven students take on the challenge, and The Michigan Daily interviewed them about their work. First up: the five novelists.
Marlon Rajan, “Black Bird”
Marlon Rajan’s thesis, titled “Black Bird,” is a 55-page novella. They were originally planning on doing a collection of short stories but said in an interview with The Daily that they realized, “My pieces all had a few through lines that I could use to combine them and streamline my process. Throughout my four years, I exclusively did short stories in fiction, so it seemed like a more long-form piece would suit my style nicely, as well as give myself a challenge.”
They described their writing as “personal” and hoped that people who read their work “feel that it moved them or helped them understand aspects of their own lives.” While this is a common goal for writers of all sorts, Rajan’s style of storytelling is unique in that it “doesn’t have a clear trajectory, so it’s more about the process of reading it than the end result.” They focus in on the “small, mundane actions of everyday life,” rather than conforming to the emphasis placed on “having a beginning, middle and end that wrap up nicely and fit together into our idea of a typical story.” Rajan said that they “often got the feedback that my stories aren’t ‘about anything,’” but they like it that way.
Rajan also said they don’t feel compelled to share their writing like some writers do. Instead, they said, “I have a vision of the world that (I would) like others to interact with … I want others to see the world through my eyes and get to thinking.”
When asked about the future of their writing, Rajan broached the idea of putting writing on the back burner to focus on “the other ways I’ve learned to tell stories through sculpture, graphic design, fashion, etc” instead. Writing, they said, “served as a platter for me to stack my other skills on top of and is the basis for my other ideas that follow it.”
However, they do acknowledge that writing is “a huge way to interface with our society and world at large,” and that literature can be a formative force in people’s lives. “We’re all a little bit like sponges that soak up the energy and knowledge of those around us,” they said. “What you read has a huge influence on how our personalities develop.”
Even though the going was not always steady, Rajan is glad they took on the challenge of a thesis. “I struggle with endings and wrapping things up, so it feels good to have this story done. It’s a testament to all the time and energy I put into my degree.”
As for advice to fellow students, Rajan said they’d recommend a thesis, “but be prepared to put in the work.”
You can read their full thesis here.
Vivian Chiao, “Goodbye Town”
Vivian Chiao’s novella, “Goodbye Town,” centers around a couple of teenagers who are trying — with varying levels of success — to grow up in a world they don’t always feel they fit into and surrounded by people they can’t quite figure out.
When writing Young Adult (YA) fiction, Chiao relies on her past teenage self to guide her work. She asks herself, “What would a young version of me have appreciated at that age?” But she also takes inspiration from outside sources. While hashing out the idea for her novella, there was one book she kept coming back to: “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. This coming-of-age story deals with “a lot of themes of race and immigration and queerness and masculinity,” and Chiao wanted to “do a take on that that was more towards my experience growing up.” Although her finished product was “a bit darker” then she anticipated, she hopes it manages to connect with a YA audience. “Maybe other people can’t relate to the exact, very specific experience I’m writing about, but they can relate to some piece of it,” Chiao said. “And it will be compelling and important to them to see some small piece of their own life that’s resonating in my work.”
“Goodbye Town” also dips its toes into magical realism, which was not always the plan. “(Those) elements came in because I just fully can’t help myself,” Chiao said. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll write this totally realistic fiction, no fantasy involved,’ and then I was halfway through it, and I was like, ‘What if these metaphors weren’t metaphors? What if they were real and she talks to plants?’”
The end result is both comfortingly familiar and pleasantly surprising. Chiao says it’s “super rewarding in the sense that you’ve done all this labor, and now here’s a coherent thing at the end that you’ve achieved.” On the other hand, though, “The middle of it is a slog,” she said. “When you’re only half certain of what you’re doing, and you can’t really see the end goal, but you’re in the thick of it, still doing work for it every week — that was a lot. That was very intense and frustrating at times.” But, she says, you need to stick it out.
One strategy she found helpful was to set a goal of just 200 words per day. “It’s tiny — 200 words is not a lot — but it’s really helpful to get in the habit of continuing to work on the project even if it seems like you’re at a dead end, and just accomplishing something every day,” Chiao said.
This slow-but-steady mentality is especially important considering the emotional labor involved in writing. “Writing is, at a very basic level, an act of empathy,” Chiao said. “There’s something to be said about creating characters from pieces of yourself, but even if you’re sectioning yourself off into pieces and putting them into a story, you still have to flesh out those pieces into people that aren’t you. So I think I write mostly because I have a deep-seated compulsion to write — it’s always been the way that I vent and express myself — but writing as a whole, I think, is really about empathy. It’s about learning new things.” And there’s an intellectual component as well, with Chiao contemplating, “What could we be, what could the world be and what could that look like?”
Although nothing could ever truly answer those questions, “Goodbye Town” gets at the heart of the big things we find ourselves beginning to wonder about as teenagers. You can read a short excerpt here — and look forward to it hopefully being on shelves some day soon.
Elizabeth Schriner, “Jeepneys and Journeys”
When Schriner informed people that she was writing two theses, one for each of her majors, they told her she was “crazy.” But doing both “seemed like the natural culmination of my studies and time at U-M … (allowing me to) challenge myself while narrowing in specific subjects of interest.”
In her creative writing thesis, “Jeepneys and Journeys,” Schriner hones in on questions of identity, family and belonging with which she is intimately familiar. “The main character, Christi, is a mixed Chinese-Filipino American whose father is white and whose mother is an immigrant from the Philippines, which resembles my situation,” she said. “There are many layers to being a mixed Asian American, and when Christi visits her mother’s homeland, she is challenged with all sorts of inner turmoil surrounding identity and culture that accompany the central storyline.”
Schriner was deliberate in her choice of target audience. “Growing up, I loved the young adult genre, but I didn’t find many stories that included the main character with an identity like mine,” she said. However, she “didn’t want to write a story simply for representation.” Instead, she hoped that “setting the story in the Philippines, yet from the point of view of an American, can engage readers with a different place or culture in a way that’s accessible and relatable.”
The main character’s age also allowed her to explore different dynamics of cultural meshing and friction. “Christi’s perspective when she visits the Philippines is often ignorant, yet candid,” Schriner said. “The teenage viewpoint offers an interesting means to express culture shock and family conflict.”
But that’s not to say that weaving together these complex plot lines, variable emotions and authentic portrayals was easy. Schriner admits that “there was a lot of crappy writing, and a lot of it ended up being cut,” and that she’s often “stretched out across different academic disciplines” and unable to “practice writing nearly as much as I should.” However, she also acknowledges that “simply getting content on the page was the first step toward getting a whole draft together,” and that sometimes, you need to put perfectionism aside in order to make progress. “In the past, I would always get bogged down with edits, whereas with my thesis, I didn’t really have that option if I wanted to finish it in time,” she said. “That would be my advice to others wanting to write a novella or novel — write. You can get trapped by constantly editing, revising, but you can always do that after you have more content to work on.”
One last piece of advice? “Stop comparing yourself to others,” Schriner said. “I constantly feel inadequate as a writer, but sulking won’t help me get better at writing. To improve your writing, you need to practice, so get to it.”
Schriner is planning to revise and expand her thesis with the goal of publishing it. You can read an excerpt here.
Maya Simonte, “Straighteners”
Maya Simonte’s novella “Straighteners” is heavily influenced by one particular song: “Radio Friendly Pop Song” by Matt Fishel, an openly gay British pop singer. “The whole point of (the song) is him talking about his experiences trying to be a singer and being gay and being shut down by people in the industry,” Simonte said. “Like, ‘Hey, we think you’re great, we want to sell you, but you can’t be you, you have to keep that on the down-low. People aren’t going to want to listen to your music if they know that you’re gay.’” The song ends, as Simonte puts it, with a “big, huge burst of a ‘Screw you, I’m going to be myself’ kind of declaration” — something she wanted to channel in her work.
Simonte’s goal “has always been to write the kind of queer love stories, especially sapphic love stories, I wish that I could’ve read as a teen and connected to.” She acknowledges, quite happily, the progress the YA genre has made in recent years in terms of representation and “personal, own-voice stories,” noting that, “at this point, I’m kind of just adding to the pile.” Still, she says a shortage persists in sapphic romance, which can be “a huge means of starting to understand yourself and understand other people’s experiences.” This belief comes from personal experience. “I didn’t get a lot of that growing up,” she said. “I think that’s part of why it took me so long to sort of come into myself there.” Now, she hopes that her stories can “reach any queer teen and hit them in the heart.”
These goals of genuine author-to-reader connection and representation are evident in the authors she points to as inspiration. When asked, Simonte is quick to name Wendy Mass, a popular middle-grade author whose writing is “just so intentional and so focused on showing readers towards a kinder world.” She also cites “Last Night at the Telegraph Club” by Malinda Lo. “Talk about comprehensive,” she said. “It covers so many perspectives, all the messy factors that go into what it was like living as a lesbian in Chinatown in the fifties.”
When it comes to her own story (or, as she calls it, her “baby”), Simonte swears her characters are “telling me things about them” — even though she knows “that’s so cheesy” — and that they’ve helped her build the story “from the ground up.” She also credits her advisor, Laura Thomas, for the way her thesis has developed. “I think that at its core, the heart of the story has more or less remained the same, but I definitely think that the technical aspects of it have become a lot more well-rounded,” Simonte said. “Having that outside impact is helping me make it a bit more comprehensive. It’s so easy to be so within the head and the goal of your own protagonist, but (when Laura and I) talk about the side characters and everything, I feel like I’m able to bring it out of that one singular perspective and broaden the scope of the things the story’s talking about.”
The craft of storytelling is something she is excited to keep working on. “I can’t imagine myself living and not making stuff,” she said. “And especially not telling stories, because I love the act of writing. Just the act of thinking of stories and thinking of characters, and then the way that they intertwine, and the scenes that their lives take and everything, it’s just huge to me. That sort of daydreaming-ness of it.” She says she feels “very lucky to have spent my four years here” getting to do just that.
You can read an excerpt of Simonte’s thesis here.
Theo Poling, “Mischosen”
Theo Poling has been writing for as long as they can remember. “I wrote my first short story before even being in school at all,” Poling said. “And I just literally never stopped.” But it wasn’t until the beginning of this year that they understood what they’d really been writing about all along: the inaneness of labels. As they tell it, the “super fast spiel” on their thesis is this: “A trans girl thinks she’s the chosen one, but it turns out she’s not — but that doesn’t even matter,” Poling said. “It’s the work she did that mattered, not a label, you know? And so while she’s going on this quest, and she’s part of the prophecy, she’s also just becoming more at home in her identity and confident in herself.”
If this sounds like it’s drawing heavily from existing works of fantasy, it’s supposed to. Poling cites J.K. Rowling as a major influence for their thesis — though not in a good way. “J.K. Rowling recently has been known for saying some frankly Donald Trump-level insane things about the transgender community and being very vitriolic,” they said. However, this transphobia, and the conversations it prompted, lent itself to a revelation about the interaction between gender and fantasy, a genre Poling already felt at home in. “It made me realize that, in general, the magical realism fantasy genre is a really powerful tool if you’re talking about gender and queerness,” they said. “What is more queer than having to hide a magical and powerful part of yourself from a limited society that can’t understand? That’s a really empowering twist on a narrative that would help a lot of young queer readers. I really tried to play around with all of those fantasy allegories and tropes that I’d read in ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Princess Bride’ to show that they can really do a lot of work for gender specifically.”
But gaining this insight and incorporating it into a pre-existing piece of writing was a long process — something that Poling has tried to embrace. “I definitely used to be the kind of person where I was like, ‘I’m going to outline it, and my outline is going to be perfect. And then I’m going to write it, and it’s going to be exactly like my outline. So it’s going to be perfect, and you don’t have to do anything else,’” they said. “But as many good writers will tell you, writing is rewriting, unfortunately — actually, fortunately — and you should be comfortable spending the majority of your time playing around with what you got, deleting things, rewriting, replanting the outline and just developing the way that you’re able to look at your own work in a new light and make it better. Because that’s the strength of a true writer: taking what you have already and being able to edit yourself and elevate yourself.”
Poling does not take this work lightly. Not only is literature a “deeply personal and intimate thing” that allows you to “connect with long-dead people just by cracking open a book,” but it also is a “vital historical document” that shapes humanity’s understanding of its past. “Textbooks or lecturers or historians will have a specific perspective or specific emphasis on some part of history,” they said. “Oftentimes, that’s on a political leader or on a war, but the art of the people can tell you so much and offer a new perspective, even contradict or fight propaganda or censorship. And so it’s really important to hear the voices of artists and writers and normal people from the time. We wouldn’t be around as we are right now as people if we didn’t have literature. So I think there’s no way to undersell how important literature is to every part of being a living creature on this earth.”
Poling is well on their way to joining that long tradition of literature, having already begun the process of looking for a literary agent. You can read part of their thesis on their Arts, Ink page.
Daily Arts Writer Brenna Goss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.