“Don’t make assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions…. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama.” (Don Miguel Ruiz)
Writing a dissertation is a long, difficult, demoralizing slog. You are basically writing a book no one cares about and no one will read. And when you hand a chapter in to your “editor” (advisor), he will forget you did so, need to be reminded, and send it back with soul-destroying criticism such as “it doesn’t fit into your larger project and it’s sloppy.”
This happened to me a couple weeks ago. And my brain broke. Writing that chapter took all that I had. I was proud of it and excited I’d finally produced something. I’d warned my advisor that it was a very rough draft.
I felt that he was telling me I was wasting his time and he no longer cared about the project. I wanted to quit right then and there. In fact, in that moment I thought I had no choice – I assumed that was the underlying message in his email. I have often felt like I should quit, but this was the first time I felt my advisor was not behind me anymore.
I tend to worry a lot about what other people think about me – even though I pretend I don’t. But knowing I had my advisor’s support was an important mental construct for me in this process of doing the diss. Even if no one else cared, at least he did.
As I said, my brain broke. I felt it break. There was a shudder, and then everything stopped moving and fell into a jumbled heap somewhere down past the cerebellum, where the brain stem attaches to the spinal cord. It got really quiet inside my head. There was simply nothing in there anymore, except the one thought that this was it, I couldn’t bear any more.
And for a few days, I couldn’t. But slowly the pieces of my mind reassembled, because the human body and spirit are resilient. I reread my advisor’s email. I wrote him an email apologizing for sending him a “sloppy” chapter and explained that for me it was an important step forward just to get something down on paper. I asked him to clarify what he meant by his other comments.
Over the course of the next week we sent a few emails back and forth while I tried to understand his criticisms. And today, finally, I got it. And I see that it was not my ideas he was criticizing, it was their presentation. I can fix the problem.
I see now that the assumptions I made – that he no longer cared and that my project was a failure – were completely false. He patiently answered all my questions until his thoughts were clarified for me. And the only way my diss will be a failure is if I quit.
The experience made me realize how many assumptions I make in my daily life based on incomplete evidence and my own mixed-up perspective of the world. It’s like that picture above. The bird isn’t sad, of course. In every other shot I took of him he has his head up, looking around, interested in the world. And I just as easily could have titled it “Bird Looking Down.” But I’m a writer, after all, and I deal in imagination. It’s just that sometimes it gets the better of me.