* * *
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?