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The Masters in New Arts Journalism Thesis: Trials, Joys, and Exalted Discoveries

As autumn begins to sigh in Chicago, my second and final year as a Masters candidate in New Arts Journalism (NAJ) at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) begins with the reality of pondering my thesis.

For the NAJ program at SAIC, a thesis may be one of two avenues: a more academic thesis that uses journalistic practices such as research and interviewing to name only two, or it may be a creative project that is accompanied by a paper that outlines the journalistic techniques used to bring the thesis to its fruition.

As a creative artist at heart and in soul, the latter appeals to me. I desire my thesis to be a hands-on foray into a world of documentary journalism, a kind of case study of my chosen subject. This is broad, yes, but I believe theses should, in their infancy, be broad, or as I said to colleagues tonight over some Chicago thin crust, it should begin “loosey-goosey.” It should be a malleable entity that is searching for itself.

This is about where the ecstasy meets with the agony. Who should my subject be? Am I willing to travel with very little income as a graduate student? And when I do figure out, say, about five possible subjects, what is the next step? This is about the moment my mind begins to turn into that widening gyre the poet, W.B. Yeats so gorgeously referred to in the poem, “The Second Coming.”

photo by Carrie McGath

My first Masters was an Master of Fine Arts in poetry, so my “thesis” was a project, in essence what became my first collection of poems, Small Murders. So this process feels very different. Unlike my MFA, where I worked for three years on completing a book-length poetry collection, as a Masters candidate at SAIC for two years, I am working on an array of things: art history, journalism, and theory, while working on my own creative endeavors. It is, by its very nature, a different beast.

Now, too, instead of casual meetings (often over beer and bar food) with my poetry professors discussing my poetry, I am required to take a thesis class at SAIC. I think this is fitting for a Masters candidate and am actually relieved by this requirement, but it is different than the almost beatnik-like phenomenon of my MFA days.

So, now, to focus both my intellectual and academic faculties along with my creative drive. In this, I desire my subject to be an intriguing visual or literary artist with a personality and story to match. In other words, it will be essential that my subject is also a story.

photo by Carrie McGath

As of now, my “dream list” of subjects are: photographer Joel-Peter Witkin; poet Frederick Seidel; poet Mary Ruefle; painter Gregory Jacobsen; taxidermy artist Polly Morgan. Out of these subjects, I know only one personally. I have studied at two universities with Mary Ruefle, in addition to knowing her socially when we found ourselves in the same town. But now, I would have to find her in her New England somewhere … the others, I would have to approach and propose my project.

So for now, I will continue to study my subjects, something I can do without any definites just yet. I will continue to pour over their work, read their interviews, and whatever else I may stumble upon. The next step is to locate them, then send them my humble query to live among them for a couple of days to a week so that I may record them, muse about them, and make them into a thesis that would hopefully make us both proud — subject and journalist alike. Here’s hoping.