There’s a scene in “The Shining” where Wendy comes up to Jack at his desk to ask him how writing is going. They’re in a huge hall with tall ceilings and shiny hardwood floors. A single lamp radiates a golden glow. Eerie music plays in the background and all you hear is the clack-clack of Jack’s keyboard, echoing loudly through the hall. Wendy walks up to Jack, and in a high, upbeat voice says, “Hi hon, (kisses him on the cheek), how’s it going?”
Jack: (Puts down his papers and takes his hands off the typewriter). “Fine.”
Wendy: “Get a lot written today?”
Jack: “Yes”. (Looks up at her blankly).
Wendy: “Hey, weather forecast says its going to snow tonight”.
Jack: “What do you want me to do about it?”
Wendy: “Aw, come on hon. Don’t be so grouchy.”
Jack: “I’m not being grouchy, (scowl), I just want to finish my work”.
Wendy: “Okay, I understand. I’ll come by later with a couple of sandwiches for ya, and maybe you’ll let me read something then”. (Smiles).
Jack: (Stares at her in disbelief). “Wendy, (clears throat), let me explain something to you. Whenever you come in here and interrupt me, you’re breaking my concentration. You’re distracting me (hits himself on the head dramatically). And it’ll take me time to get back to where I was (he tears up the papers he just typed). You understand?”
Wendy: (Wide-eyed). “Yeah”.
Jack: “Fine. And we’re going to make a new rule. Whenever I’m in here and you hear me typing (he hits a few keys on the typewriter), or whether you don’t hear me typing, or whatever the fuck you hear me doing in here – when I’m in here, that means I’m working and that means don’t come in. Now – do ya think you can handle that?”
Jack: “Fine. Why don’t you start right now and get the fuck out of here?”
Wendy’s footsteps echo down the hallway.
Whoa, whoa, ….whoa.
I know what you’re thinking – what an abusive, temperamental asshole! …And, what a surprising and uncanny resemblance to thesis writing!
My thoughts exactly.
Indeed, during those months of writing my dissertation, my temper was short, I was quick to snap, quick to laugh, and quick to cry. I avoided social interactions because they took away precious time and energy. I avoided information – any information unrelated to my thesis because it would take brain power to digest. I holed myself off in the library in hopes that the Writing Gods would bless me with abundant, free-flowing text. Instead I drank tea, went to the bathroom a lot, and hit the delete button till my carpel tunnel came back. Some days I succumbed to an overwhelming anxiousness and fear that chewed deep through my bones. Other days, I battled through that fear and directed my energy to focus on one – single – tiny – task – at a time. On those days, things got done, though I didn’t dare look back in case the fairy dust would wear off. I worked nights. I worked weekends. I took walking breaks in the forest. I felt frazzled and tense like a cold rubber band. If I was in an abandoned hotel in the middle of the mountains, I might have gone berserk and snapped too.
Now that I’m done, I can safely look back at the five years I spent on this dissertation and view it from a distance. I have time to think, reflect, breathe. Slow down. As my dear friend C puts it, “to put a finger on the pause button”.
For the first time in five years, I have no commitments. No deadlines. No looming tasks or to-do lists. I can wake up and think about what I want to do today, rather than what I should or need to do. I have the space to try new things, experiment, explore. I can re-evaluate my life, where I am, where I’m going and who I want to be. And most importantly, I can nap in the middle of the day.
Though I learned many things in this PhD, perhaps my ultimate lesson was figuring out that I needed to surrender. To give up control, or rather, the perception that I had any control. To loosen my tightly clenched fists that were forcing its way with raw brute force in hopes to achieve tasks, deadlines, goals. To realize I don’t have all the answers and that its not going to be glorious and perfect, the way I envisioned. That dammit, I’m only human and I’m just doing the best I can.
So I gave up. Or rather, I gave in. I stopped trying to orchestrate things. Stopped trying to force and manage. I let the current take me.
As Lao Tzu said, “By letting it go, it all gets done. The world is won by those who let go. But when you try and try, the world is beyond winning.”
Lao Tzu, I think you’re onto something.