A Dissertation is a Thousand Cranes

Being from a working-class background, I grew up identifying “work” as something with visible, tangible results. My stepdad poured concrete. His work was a series of discrete tasks. That is not to say it didn’t take skill–it absolutely did–but at the end of the day, when his work was done, there was concrete where there had been no concrete. My grandfather was a machinist. When his work was done there was a thing where there had been no thing. My mom was a secretary and a large part of her job was archiving documents. She started the day with a pile of documents to archive and at the end of the day they were archived. That’s how you knew that work was done.

Academic work is not like that.

Writing, in general, is not like that.

You sit down at your computer and you start to write. Then you start to edit. You might end the day with more words than you started with. You might end the day with fewer words than you started with. If you track your word count over time you will see a steady increase, but even then there often isn’t a tangible product at the end of the day to show that you did something other than sit at a desk all day. And that’s on the good days! The days when you actually get to write. There are other days where you go down research trails that may or may not lead somewhere. (Well, they all lead somewhere, but they often don’t lead where you expect them to.) There are days where you are mired in meetings or days when teaching takes all of your energy and you feel like you didn’t make any dissertation progress.

Without concrete proof that you are moving forward, the ebb and flow of writing can feel discouraging and self-defeating.

To help myself fight this discouragement I made a seemingly small decision on a completely ordinary day. At the time, I was using this little post-it sized to-do lists I’d gotten at Target. I had enough space to write about five tasks on each one and, because they were square, they were perfect for origami. I decided that, when I completed all five items on my to-do list, I would fold it into a paper crane.

I had no idea how to make paper cranes.

I finished the to-do list and looked up a YouTube paper crane tutorial.

I made a crane.

There it was, sitting on my desk, a little reminder that I had completed the tasks I had set for myself.

The next day, I decided to try the same thing. I made a small to-do list. I completed it. I made another paper crane.

Now I had two cranes and two tangible reminders that I had completed all my tasks for the day. When I started there was no crane. When I finished a crane existed. This was a form of work that made sense to me.

I found that this method helped keep me focused on my progress rather than what I didn’t get done.

About a week into this I thought, “Wouldn’t it be neat to make 1000 cranes and turn them into streamers for my dissertation defense?” It’s said that, if you make 1000 cranes you get a wish. Maybe I could use them to wish to become a doctor.

Reader, I did it.

I made 1000 cranes.

They weren’t all to-do lists. I also used the hard copy drafts of my dissertation that I printed out to edit. (You can get about 4 cranes out of an 8.5×11 piece of paper, btw.)

Was it great to have my crane streamers in the room when I defended my dissertation? Absolutley.

Do I still have them? Of course.

Here’s what making 1000 cranes taught me.

  1. You will get bad advice. You will recover. Remember when I told you that I didn’t know anything about making paper cranes and searched a YouTube video to learn how? Well, the first video I found was not a good tutorial. I don’t think the maker of that video new how to make a crane either. As a result, my first dozen “cranes” aren’t, technically, cranes. They kind of look like cranes, if you squint. When I realized that these first cranes didn’t look right I found another tutorial which I followed religiously until I could make a crane with my eyes closed.
  2. You will feel crazy. Here’s the thing about making 1000 of anything. At first, it will be fun and cute. People will comment on it saying, “What a neat idea!” or “How fun!” Once you get about 30 of them and they are strewn across your desk people will stop commenting. They are no longer cute. They are messy and a little weird. When you have to get a box to store your first 100 cranes in you will start to wonder if you are crazy. Once you reach 500 it will feel like there’s no point in stopping. Once you reach 925 you will wonder if you *really* have to make it to 1000. Once you hit 1000 you will be so incredibly proud of yourself.
  3. It’s not about one crane. Remember back in step one when I said that my first dozen cranes were made incorrectly? Well, they weren’t the only ones. Even after I learned to make cranes there were still days when I made bad ones. The paper wasn’t perfectly square or my fold was off. The thing is, though, when you make 1000 of anything what each individual one looks like isn’t as important as what they look like together. Let me tell you, friends, those 1000 cranes together are a beautiful sight to behold.
  4. Ask for help. It may sound odd given everything I’ve said up to this point but making 1000 cranes was actually the easy part. I severely underestimated the difficulty of making streamers out of 1000 paper cranes. I’m also not what you would call a “crafty” person. This meant that I was about a week out from my dissertation defense and had no streamers and felt frustrated and overwhelmed. I reached out to see if any of my friends wanted to come over, watch movies, and make streamers. I will be eternally grateful to the people who came over and engaged in that ridiculous activity to make this dream come true.
  5. Celebrate. You did something difficult. Show it off! Be proud of it! Tell people about it! Do your favorite thing! You earned it.

A dissertation, it turns out, is remarkably similar to making 1000 cranes.

  1. You will get bad advice from faculty who think grad school hasn’t changed since they were in it, from abusive advisors, from bitter grad students. You will recover. Your ability to course-correct is unlimited.
  2. You will feel crazy. At first it will be exciting (and intimidating), then it will feel boring (and daunting). You will feel crazy. Then you will feel like you might as well keep going since you’ve gotten this far. You will feel crazy. Then you will wonder if you really wanna finish this thing. You will feel crazy. Then you will be done and feel glorious.
  3. It’s not about the individual words or sentences. It’s not that words aren’t important, because they are. It’s just that there’s no reason to get hung up on individual words or sentences that don’t sound “perfect” because it’s about the totality of the thing you are doing. It’s about the book, not the paragraph. Just keep writing. You might come back and find those sentences you agonized over weren’t so bad after all.
  4. Ask for help. Find people you trust. Ask for help. Do this often.
  5. Celebrate. Celebrate fiercely. Celebrate the little wins and the big wins. Celebrate.