The swamp of sadness

This post is by my twin sister Anitra Nottingham. It will not surprise you that Anitra is an academic too and supervises people doing masters of fine art in communication. In the past she has told us how her thesis was a cupcake, not a dragon and about her experiences learning Derrida. In this post she reflects on the importance of finding your rope.

Students are far more likely to not complete a thesis than to fail. Part of the reason for this is what I like to call the swamp of sadness. The swamp of sadness comes from the kids book The Never-ending Story. In which a boy reads a book about another boy riding a horse around a mystical world to save a pretty girl.

It’s very post-modern.

Eventually, as things tend to go in kids’ books, the world ends, and then begins again, because a boy believes in the impossible. Despite the questionable gender politics, it is an awesome book, and, despite the dodgy special effects, so is the 80’s movie.

The Never-ending Story is, I think, something like a thesis journey. You read stuff, and then you create something out of nothingness. Your supervisor is the giant talking turtle who knows how to complete the quest, and at the end someone in a robe will hand you a “magic seed” of your degree, and a whole new world is revealed for you to explore.

But to get to the good bits, you have to get through the swamp of sadness.

The swamp appears about one third of the way through the book. The hero, Atreyu, and his horse Artex, have to cross it to speak with the giant turtle. Atreyu knows that the swamp of sadness will only suck you down if you stop believing you can walk through the swamp. He’s a hero. So while he is not happy about the swamp, he keeps walking, he’s muddy but moving.

Somewhere along the way though Artex just stops walking. By the time Atreyu realizes this (spoilers!) the horse is stuck. First Atreyu pulls on his bridle, then jollies Artex along, but it doesn’t work, the horse starts to sink. Atreyu then freaks out, he calls Artex stupid, he tells him he loves him, he tells him it’s all in his head and to just keep walking, but it’s no use. Eventually, (sniff) the horse is… just… gone.

Atreyu trying to drag Artex out of the Swamp of Sadness. Dammit, I loved that horse!

What gets you about this is that Artex doesn’t even struggle. He just stands there! Atreyu yells a lot of stuff about caring and trying and believing in himself, but I don’t think that’s the horse’s problem. He stops believing in Atreyu, and when that happens he stops listening to advice, and he is goop.

Now, every thesis journey, like any good hero’s quest, has some kind of swamp.

The swamp is usually a period where everything seems too hard, and to just moving forward is a struggle. The swamp is in your mind, but that is of course the worst place for it. Things in your mind don’t have to be real to kill you.

If you stop walking at this point, you will sink.

Even heroes struggle with the swamp, but they are awesome at everything. So their swamp is shorter, shallower, and less muddy. For most of us though thesis work is not easy, so our swamps are bigger and muddier. The danger is that the longer it takes to walk through a swamp of sadness, the muddier it is, the more likely we are to stop believing, stop walking, and start sinking.

So what should you do when you figure out you are in the swamp of sadness? Because it isn’t always easy to know when it starts, it’s usually only obvious when you are halfway through and you are good and stuck.

My extensive knowledge of fantasy books tells me that when you start to sink into a swamp one of three things will happen:

  • You will panic, and thrash around and make a lot of noise and just make yourself sink faster.
  • Or you will freeze and sink quietly, with no one noticing you are even in trouble
  • Survivor types, however, tend look for a rope.

The last point shows that you don’t actually have to be a hero to survive the swamp. It’s always possible to be rescued, because even if you stop believing in yourself you can still believe in the rope, and the rope will help you keep walking.

What’s the rope? Well, it could be anything. This blog, a conversation, a paper to read… Often though it’s just some timely advice from a teacher. Now the best teachers can make you believe that are throwing you a rope, but not if you don’t let them convince you. (Which is why the people you surround yourself with in your thesis journey are crucial. Cultivate those who can throw you the best kinds of rope, so you can more easily believe in their rope.)

I like the idea of believing in the rope because the idea that you can “just believe in yourself” and everything will magically be ok doesn’t actually work. This is what the book is actually trying to say I think: you still have to do the work.

Even with Arteyu pulling on his bridle, Artex still had to start walking and keep walking to survive, and so do you. You have to pull yourself out of the swamp. This sucks, because it’s difficult, slow, hand-over-hand, gritty, horrible work, and you will end up very muddy. But I think the muddier the swamp, the better the learning really. I suspect the best kinds of teachers have themselves walked through very horrible swamps.

So if you survived the swamp what was your rope? For me it was my Thesiswhisperer sister sitting by my side for nine hours straight and showing me patiently how to “mix the lumps into the batter” of my data analysis despite me telling her the whole time that I didn’t think it would work.

If you are currently sinking in the swamp, is there a rope somewhere that you haven’t noticed yet?

Related posts

The Valley of Shit

The Mountain of Happy

41 thoughts on “The swamp of sadness

  1. wanderwolf says:

    I like the use of The Never-Ending Story (one of my favorite books!) to help conceptualize a difficult point(s) in the writing. Something to add to “you have to do the work” is to focus on what one can control. One has no control over how muddy the swamp is, or the rule that no believing you can walk will make you sink. However, one can always control the way one continues walking.

  2. Susan Mayson says:

    Lovely parable and wonderful writing! The rope and the swamp is a reminder for academics as well as they go through their various swamps as they work on the next paper and the next one. Look for the rope!

  3. Heather says:

    So timely, thank you (lacked the courage to watch the video in case it spooked me I will get on with finding the rope!)

  4. Corinne says:

    Excellent Post! That scene in the Never-ending Story always made me so sad! This is full of things I needed to hear. While I am not anywhere near sinking, I have certainly felt the waters muddy and there’s not much you can really do except for to keep hanging on. Thank you! Feels good to not feel alone in the journey 🙂

  5. Kim says:

    Thank you for this timely article. Yesterday I was so deep in the swamp of sadness I just had to sleep for 14 hours. Today I’m looking for that rope.

  6. Rebecca says:

    Such a timely article. My supervisors recently let me know (1 week before submission) that they wanted me to scrap an entire chapter, re-do the work, and then “we’ll see where things stand”. Right now I’m finding it very hard to just not walk away. I don’t know what the rope is yet, but I’m slowly working on walking.

    • Anitra says:

      You know what though? That advice might actually be your rope. One of my favourite sayings about creative work is “murder your darlings” – sometimes things have to go in order for the work to get better. Good luck and keep walking!

      • Rebecca says:

        I’m not under any illusions that the chapter needed revision. But I also don’t think that it was so bad that it would make the entire thesis unpassable. And that I should have to take out thousands of dollars in student loans just to eat and pay fees (as I’m an out-of-time international student). But also, dropping this in passing in the hallway (and leaving me to scramble to find myself cash and explain things to the university) I found to be tactless. My supervisory team had clearly been discussing this for some time, and didn’t bother telling me about it.

  7. klinkehoffen says:

    Awesome post. Shared it with my students. I regularly tell them that their project plan should help them when they get into the doldrums. Now I can tell them that their plan is their ‘rope’ to haul them out.

    Thanks so much!

  8. Cherie Basile says:

    As a librarian in a university setting, I thought this was a very insightful, supportive and reassuring post. Thank you, I am passing it on too 🙂 I would like to remind you all that your librarian is also only a metaphorical rope away too by email, chat, skype, or a face to face consultation … It never hurts to have one more person believing in you and really interested in your work 🙂 !! (and it’s a plus if they also know how to find and/or reference some of the stuff that is driving you crazy).

  9. Kate says:

    Wonderful post. I have a few ropes – my friends who are currently doing or have done PhDs, my family and other friends, and my supervisors in their own, different ways. The idea of letting down my research participants by not completing is also quite motivating.

  10. reezam says:

    The ‘valley of shit’ and now the ‘swamp of sadness’?!! Truly, you two must have been posterior… Frighteningly however – IT’S ALL TRUE!!!!! [cue sound effect of scream disappearing into a void]

  11. ferrybot says:

    Thank you so much! I am in the finishing-my-PhD period and the swamp seems like never-ending! I love how you use and refer to the children’s tale! The very fat it is a fairy tale makes it even more powerful in its allegory. This article is one of the ropes and thank you for that!

  12. Alyssa Alcorn says:

    I finished my PhD several months ago at a UK university (and am still learning from this blog!). I definitely had swampy spells, and in retrospect I think an important rope was teaching. Now, I am a person who becomes not only annoyed but enraged at others saying “you can do it, you know how to do it” or (the absolute worst!) “it will be OK”. I never believed a word my supervisors said in this vein, and told them so. Teaching activity, on the other hand, was a concrete demonstration of my subject knowledge and competence. Tasks were accomplished, materials were produced, visible progress was made. There was clear evidence that I COULD successfully solve problems, meets tough deadlines, and generally “do things”. Basically, it kick-started my belief in making it through the swamps and I would start moving again. I think it is no coincidence that ALL my ‘swamps’ were in the summer months, between terms!

    I am sure there will be others out there for whom the rope is an activity or another type of non-PhD work, rather than a person or anything that looks like help/support. Indeed, others’ “help” may be irrelevant, if not counterproductive.

  13. andrewwentmad says:

    Thought I should share this email I sent to my supervisor a “few” years ago:

    Of course, I’m fully aware of the starring role I play in the epic saga that is my phd quest, as both chief protagonist, antagonist, comedic relief, and most other roles, akin to how Eddie Murphy plays an ensemble of characters in movie The Nutty Professor.

    But if I had to compare my story with a movie, I would optimistically suggest The Lord of the Rings, insofar as it began with me minding my own business in a distant corner of the world, oblivious to the turmoil soon to engulf it, until a wise and powerful wizard came along and sent me on a mighty quest… 😉

    Then there’s a whole bunch of wandering around checking stuff out, before gradually building up to a mighty war of attrition, and presumably ending in a climatic finale where I get rid of the soul-crushing burden I somehow still manage to call “my precious”, victory is clutched from the jaws of defeat, and then a giant bird flies me to a magical land of leisure, laughter and non stop congratulations…

  14. Virginia Rego says:

    A muddy swamp, andrewwentmad’s LoTR, love the metaphors! Mine was a block of ice that I was frozen inside while it spun me around, and I had to stick my hand out to grasp onto something (a rope I guess!) to stop the spinning and get me unstuck.

  15. Hazel Silistre says:

    I love this post! Although now I am on the other side of the swamp, I remember how I wanted to quit at the end of each academic year (even at the end of my 3rd!) and my rope was a colleague of mine who has left academia after her PhD and here I am, making arrangements for my first postdoc position.. She didn’t talk to me in the same way most people who tried to consult me did. Sometimes, hearing ‘I know you can do it’ from someone dear to you, even from a hundred people who believe in you doesn’t help, because you don’t believe in yourself at that very moment. What my colleague asked me was: ‘Do you want to be a quitter Hazel?’ and I made it to the end despite the challenges that lasted till the last moment (one of my supervisors was suspicious that the data I wrote a full chapter on might be all wrong a month before my submission deadline and I got the corrections for that chapter 3 days before I submitted).

  16. andrewwentmad says:

    Any time its even remotely tangentially relevant, my Dad loves dropping into the conversation with the story of how I cried in the cinema during that scene. In my defense, according to the Australian release date, I had just had my 2nd birthday. Also, somehow that movie is rated G?!?

    I watched it again relatively recently in an evening of nostalgic indulgence. That movie is all sorts of bleak existentialism. The Nothing is nothing less than a metaphor for depression surely. Fortunately, as I was still barely aware that I even existed, I was only traumatized for life by the horse scene.

    But I was originally going to say something about how that bit with the statues that shoot freaking lasers from their eyes, maybe there’s an analogy to examination there; well, if we had to do a Viva in any case perhaps…

  17. Christoph Schnelle says:

    Going to an event that has Inger presenting can be a rope.

    I went to two half-day events Inger did at the University of Queensland and at the end, when asked whether the event was helpful, a sea of hands were raised.

  18. Elina McGill says:

    Hey Thesis Whisperer! I’ve been reading your blog now for the past few months. It’s a great resource. Thank you for all the work you’re doing to help students survive and thrive in the thesis journey.

    With that being said, I don’t know whether to thank you for mentioning one of the best movies of the 80s or to sip a fine wine as I relive Artex’s horrifying death. Why didn’t he move? He was so close. *shakes head in sad disbelief*

    I’m using my own blog and huge public accountability as a rope. If you’re interested in following my journey to a 65-page thesis in 30 days, here’s the link: I would appreciate any mentioning of my blog, on social media or elsewhere.

    Thank you for warning me about the swap of sadness. This blog has been and will continue to be my rope. Here’s to all the ropes this blog has thrown out, and I pray raw materials never run out.

  19. Sorry, what? says:

    Questionable gender politics? You’re the one calling her ‘a pretty girl’ when she wouldd be better described as ‘the ruler of all Fantasia’, who happens to be girl.

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