The Stumbling, Grunting, Teeth-Gritted, Exhilarating Race to the Finish

I am hardly someone who has the right to use a marathon as a metaphor. Or any sports analogy, really (see here for proof). I have never run anything approaching a marathon. I can do the two miles and a bit around our local park, running along the shorefront boardwalk. After three miles you will probably find me in a ditch texting my insurance company to increase coverage.

Honestly, though, it isn’t even just the athleticism of the thing. I find running so intensely boring. Even with a great book in my ears and a lovely view, the pad pad pad pad pad pad of my feet hitting the asphalt comes close to driving me mad. There isn’t even a story to running, no beginning to end narrative arc like the tick-tock of a clock as life passes us by. It’s just painful uniformity gasping into the future, some unseen and invisible finish line that is never enough.

At the risk of breaking the rules of choosing similies, writing a Ph.D. thesis is like a marathon. Or maybe even like an Ironman triathlon, which rounds out a marathon run with a nice long swim and bike race. I would say it is like the 500-mile Camino de Santiago, but I think there are too many spiritual connections with the Camino to bring that up. The 5-month, 2,650 miles Pacific Coast Trail is closer. But perhaps the best analogy is Ross Edgley, who decided to swim around the British Isles. 1,792 miles, 157 days, his tongue disintegrated by the salt water, this is what he said of the 2000-hour journey:

“Another question I got from people a lot was ‘with this self-imposed solitary confinement, did you have any grand epiphanies?’ Really the answer was: ‘No, you just keep yourself entertained and do what you can to avoid thinking of jellyfish stings, sea ulcers or chafing’.” (link here)

Actually, that’s a pretty good metaphor for the Ph.D. dissertation. The sheer lonely, unhealthy, ridiculousness of it all.

I’m grateful I still have my tongue, but there have been terrible consequences along the way. And there is still a long way to go. In 2011, I began pretending I was writing a Ph.D. thesis. In 2013 I officially signed up. And I have been working on it in all my spare hours ever since, with a seven-month sickness while my mother was sick.

It has been a perilously long journey thus far.

I don’t want to reflect too much on the journey as I’m not done yet. But I thought of the marathon because of the runner’s wall, that place of sudden exhaustion where you are certain you can’t go any farther. And yet I did keep going. With some radical life changes, a redoubled family commitment, and not a little bit of grace, I reconfigured my work. I had a strong summer 2017 to summer 2018, and an excellent conference season in the spring (see here, here, here, here, and here).


Then, after the spring conferences, I set up a writing challenge for myself. I rebooted the writing process and started a 100-day challenge. I did a few writing exercises to test my capabilities. I had years of research and hundreds of pages of notes, and parts of each of the chapters wrestled into place. And I had a New Year’s Day deadline for the rough draft. As a thesis is 100,000 words, I did some calculation and set out a 100-day challenge: In the 100 days for writing in late 2018, I dedicated myself to writing 1,000 words a day.

100 writing days, 1,000 words a day, 100,000-word dissertation. After years of preparation, those are the little steps in this great part of the journey.

Of course, it doesn’t work quite that prettily in real life. One writing day I worked four 8 hours and produced 30 words. Today I decided to write this reflection as a break after working four hours to complete 105 words. On two days I hit 6,o00 words. 17 times I more than doubled my word count goal and 23 times I fell short. As of today, I have completed 68 writing days since the beginning of July and I am at 96,500 words and four chapters in draft. I have done pretty well, all told.

However, it is near the end of November and January 1st is looking pretty close at hand. My first chapter needs a complete rewrite, I am partway through my chapter five draft, and chapter six needs a lot of work. The whole project looks a bit like a lego castle built by a toddler or someone with a deep hangover. All the parts are there or nearly in place, but there needs to be some radical rebuilding.

I have stretched my deadline a couple of days, to January 3rd, but I am back in the classroom on January 4th and I would like some family time at Christmas. My deadlines are real. I have 32 days left in the challenge and about that many full and half days of writing ahead. I am pummeling toward the end. My heart is racing, my hands shaking, I am out of breath as I pound toward the finish line. Yes, the rough draft is still very early in the process, and there will be months of editing and rewriting. But I can see the end of this leg of the race.

Thinking of that poor swimmer, his tongue disintegrating as he watches his taste buds flow out into the swell, and there may actually be some truth to that image for me. My tongue is still in place, wagging and tasting. But I have lost my voice in critical ways. I have had to reduce blogging and fiction writing. I hardly ever write for magazines anymore, and I have had to leave off many of my great community connections. I now rarely go to public lectures or writing guild events or volunteer when help is needed. Beyond family, it’s pretty much this desk, a pile of wood to chop, 16,380 songs on repeat, and the sense of being hunted, always hunted. Edgley’s “self-imposed solitary confinement” is partly apt, but it also feels like I’m running through the woods with something on my tail.

Hunted, haunted, out of breath. And yet I feel fresh and positive. I am sad that I’m missing so many things. I’m missing your great blog posts and extended discussions here in the comments and on some facebooks and discussion boards that do the things I do. I’m missing that real-life community engagement. But there is also a sense of exhilaration as I reach toward this next finish line.

Now, back to my Word document. After a quick run.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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27 Responses to The Stumbling, Grunting, Teeth-Gritted, Exhilarating Race to the Finish

  1. Jared says:

    “Straining toward what’s ahead, pressing on.” I imagine that thought occurred to you looooong ago and “too many” times in between. But such as it is. Nail it, friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mudpuddle says:

    my word! true grit! good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. K.M. Oztul says:

    Sacrifice produces satisfaction. Stay the course! You can do it!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I wouldn’t run a marathon either but I do believe it to be an appropriate metaphor, although I preferred to think about it as a quest, probably because it sounds more heroic…

    I hardly remember a thing from the last few months of writing my thesis so I guess I was rather stressed. However, I do remember going to the library, looking for the shortest theses I could find, and deciding to write the shortest and simplest introduction I could get away with. In the end I wrote more than that but identifying some baseline helped.

    Anyway, I found that there’s light on the other side of the thesis tunnel and it is probably not a train. Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Bookstooge says:

    Oh man, that tongue photo was disgusting. I hope you enjoyed google’ing for it.

    I’d like to give you a word of encouragement, but since 1000words is my upper limit, and 600 is closer to reality, the whole 100K thing looks like the moon to me. So maybe I should start thinking of you as an astronaut instead of a runner. More glamorous anyway! 😀


  6. Kerry says:

    Proud of you honey!
    It has been a long race but you can do it. I’ll be waiting at the finish line with open arms to congratulate you. ❤

    Liked by 3 people

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Trollopean-impressive! 96,500 words, so far – well done, indeed! All good wishes for keeping up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A few years ago I spent quite a bit of time proof reading two PhD theses for a German husband and wife who had become good friends. As they were doing them in an English university they wanted a native speaker to do that job. As I read them I realised why I never wanted to do a PhD myself. The devil, as the old English saying goes, is in the detail and, Boy! there was so much detail and every single one of them needing to be checked.
    Our daughter, Bethan, is now working on a proposal for her PhD and I love the conversations with her about it but I am so glad that it is her and not me.
    My hat is off to you, Brenton, and I hope that your thesis will be well received.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. louloureads says:

    Well done! My thesis is not 100K (closer to 75K, though with a lot of appendices) because I am studying a STEM subject and so a lot of it is figures and graphs, but it still felt like a marathon! The deadline for my corrections is 24th February, but I want Christmas off so much that I am trying to have as much of it done in the next couple of weeks as possible. It’s such a nice feeling after you submit, so you have that to look forward to!


  10. danaames says:

    Go Brenton! Do give more time to your family and don’t stress about the blog. We understand, know you will be writing more later, and will wait for you.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Yewtree says:

    You have all my sympathy. I did a 15000 word dissertation for my MA, and it took me a whole summer, and I put on a lot of weight.

    I did end up producing 150,000 words for my last book (so I split it into two), but you don’t have to defend a book to a board of PhD examiners. And I didn’t have a deadline.

    Best wishes for a successful conclusion to your thesis.


    • Thanks! 150,000 words is quite easy for me. 100,000 good words is my challenge. I write long then struggle to put it into place. Others work the other way up.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yewtree says:

        Yes it’s the making sure that you can defend every claim you make in the viva and that every fact is backed up by a reference that takes ages.

        When writing a non-academic book, whilst you wouldn’t want to claim something inaccurate, it is a much less stringent process. Thank goodness 😅

        Liked by 1 person

  12. robgosselin says:

    Go Brenton!!!!!!! That’s all I can say, rooting for you! The finish line is in sight, the words that are right, will come.


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