Monday, August 2, 2010


This is something I've been thinking about for a while, and since Donna Hole is hosting a Milestones blogfest, it seemed appropriate to post it now.

* * *

One of the things I keep seeing from successful writers is the importance of being persistent. Of not giving up. Writing's not easy, at least not writing well, and it's the ability to keep writing, keep revising that separates the professionals from the amateurs.

To be honest, the idea scared me. How could I be a successful writer if I had to be persistent?

I've always given up on things easily, haven't I? I mean, I cycled through after-school activities like a kid in a theme park, staying with each ride just long enough to see how it felt. If it wasn't just right, I moved on.

Did I have it in me to be persistent? Would I give up if it wasn't easy?

I was afraid of my inability to persevere.

But last Monday, I wrote a post about my husband, and writing that post reminded me of the trials I went through to finish my post-graduate work. I realized that I can persevere when I want to.

After all, when you invest two years researching the hormonal control of reproduction of southern hemisphere birds (sounds dry, I know, but it's actually pretty interesting*), only to have an outbreak of avian malaria kill a number of your research subjects (and the ones that live aren't particularly interested in reproducing), it's pretty devastating.

Two years of my life gone. Nothing to show for it. Not one step closer to finishing my degree. It was like looking down a long tunnel and feeling myself get further and further away from the light at the end. It started to look like a pinprick.

To complicate matters, Beloved (soon-to-be) Husband got an offer for a post-doc. We were planning to get married and move together after finishing our degrees. But he had collected notebooks full of data and published at least two chapters of his dissertation, while I had nothing.

I had a long heart-to-heart with my advisor, and we decided that the only way I could salvage things was to use his 30-year record of behavior. I could sit in a little room, analyzing film and video, and do something completely different from what I wanted to do.

But it would let me finish my degree.

The next morning, I was at our field site, videotaping birds when an unfamiliar car drove up. There was only one access rode to our aviaries (yep, that's where the idea for my challenge offering came from), so they had to be there intentionally.

A good friend hopped out of the passenger side and headed for the observation blind where I was working. I climbed down the steps to see her face pinched with worry.

"Sunshine," she said. "Frank's dead." 

For a moment, the world ceased to spin. My advisor, who I had met with justthe day before, died of a heart attack only three hours after I left his office. He got in his car and his heart gave out.

So there I was, no advisor, only his collection of film and video to get me through a Ph.D. project (something that should take three years to complete), and I had one year in which to grieve, pull myself together, and make something out of nothing.

But I did.

I spent god-knows how many hours sitting in that room analyzing video. It got old, it was tiresome, but something in me drove me to finish it.

At my dissertation defense, I expected to pass--after all, how can you fail the student who's had absolutely everything go wrong? But I also expected my committee to feel that I had scraped by.

Imagine my surprise when they were excited about my findings, when they thought that what I had done contributed valuable information to the field.

It made my success so much more meaningful.

* In case you are interested: In the northern hemisphere, most birds migrate for the winter. To make long-distance flight easier, their gonads (testes and ovaries) shrink to almost nothing. In spring, when the days start getting longer, they increase in size in preparation for breeding.

In the southern hemisphere, animals may be nomadic, but they generally don't migrate. No need to, since it doesn't get cold enough to lock up food and water under a blanket of snow. Birds in the southern hemisphere can breed year-round, and I was interested in the hormonal control of their breeding cycles and parental care (some fathers care for the young, others don't, and I wanted to know if hormones influenced the difference).

What helps you to persevere?


  1. Alison, I am so moved by your story. You had two (or more) major roadblocks, and you overcame them. I think the secret to perseverance is to remind ourselves every day of our past successes and know that current circumstances and frustrations are only temporary. As Woody Allen said, eighty percent of success is showing up.

    I enjoyed your loving tribute to your husband, too. :)

  2. This was well worth the wait Allison. Yes, you perservere, and have been rewarded.

    I had many difficult decisions to make myself while obtaining my bachaelors in social work - nothing of this magnatude. Work, family, school, just everyday life.

    Its amazing what you can do when you set your mind completing a milestone. The only thing that kept me going was telling myself over and over that if I didn't quit, if I just got through it, all the sacrifice would pay off in the long run.

    It has for me. It appears it did for you too.

    Thank you for participating in my blogfest, and for sharing such an amazing story. I'm so glad to have met you, and exploring your site has been a real treat. I look forward to reading more of your writings.


  3. I included this quote said by James Scott Bell in my post today: “The main difference between successful writers and unsuccessful writers is persistence.” ~James Scott Bell

    You could insert "writers" with anything: students, plumbers, videographers. Good for you for overcoming those obstacles!

  4. Toby: Sometimes I have to remind myself to keep showing up. Thanks for your kind words.

    Donna: I often tell my students that sometimes life gets in the way of life. Things happen. But everyone can make it through if they just keep going. Good for you for sticking it out - the world needs dedicated people like you. :)

    Laura: Thank you! The quote is one I should probably post on my desk, so that I see it often.

  5. My fiance, my mother, my childhood best friend. All gone. But not gone.

    During the dark night of the soul we all must endure over and over in our struggles in what it means to be human, I hear their voices : "You can do this. You don't see you as we see you. We saw a man who might win, might fail, but who would not quit. You're not going to make a liar of us, are you?"

    And so far, I have not. May you soon have your publishing dreams come true. Thanks for your constant great comments on my blog. Roland

  6. Roland: Your perseverance trumps mine, I think. I would agree that you have not made liars of them.

  7. Alison, I so needed to read this today. I never made it around on the 31st (so sorry) but now I see why. I needed your experience, strength and hope today. Thank you.

    Recently a second novel has usurped the one I was working on and now, they both feel insurmountable. You reminded me of all those times I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, whether I wanted to or believed it would work, and made it to the other side, achieved what had felt unachievable.

    Thank you so much, ~that rebel, Olivia

  8. Olivia: I'm touched (and delighted) that you found strength in this.

    Keep going... you'll get there. Don't think about the other side of the mountain, just focus on the steps you can take today. :)

  9. Yes. Just keep going. This morning I woke early and opened my lap top to both novels. One is about 40% done, the other barely started. I had nothing for the new one, but was able to read several chapters of the first and make a few edits. But mostly I realized that it's really good.

    I definitely will keep going. Thank you!

    ~that rebel, Olivia