When you start a new project… and fall into a swamp (again)

I shared this the other day and it made me smile:

— because, YES.

This chart sums up SO many projects for me. Homework as a child, the first 2,000-word essay as a pre-teen, and the joy known as my science project dissertation — oh, how I didn’t enjoy that, and yet it was more useful to me later for the not-enjoying of it.

I always found the theory of science more compelling than the practical and I was far from my comfort zone as I spent hours (days, evenings, weeks, actual months…) alone in a lab, getting tiny bits of solution to stain tiny bits of paper, and trying not to breathe near the fume cupboard or get shut in the cold room again. I struggled to take photos of results that I’d already dropped once, and developed them myself, fumbling in a dark attic with my hands in plastic bags, twiddling enlarger knobs (cue Miranda) and dipping photo paper in and out of stinking trays. I spent days deciphering smears of gibberish in my rancid lab book. Typing into night after night on some ancient PC with about 32mb of memory on the hard drive (who remembers Borland C?) while my boyfriend blinked through his tiredness behind me, in a heroic attempt to keep me company.

If I had to do that project now, I probably wouldn’t think twice about it, but back then it was a real struggle; my first time of having to run an independent project, half-paralysed with the worry that I might screw it up and end up with three years of college but no degree. Of course, that wouldn’t have happened, the college staff were supportive and would have dragged me by the scruff into the world of qualification, but I was young and scared and it all felt demanding at the time. I distinctly remember the pits of the wee small hours when I thought, damn, I hate this. This is just awful, there’s no mitigating anything; it’s going to carry on being awful until I have finished the thing, and it’s not even going to go quickly. Every hideous sentence, every shitty step, is going to drag like cat claws over skin. And the only way through is just to put up with it and bash on.

It did drag. I did hate it. I was so tired by the time I finished, I didn’t even feel elation, I just felt sick. I wrapped it up, slept some, woke, hauled my eyeballs over it as many times as the clock would allow, and then stumbled up to campus and dropped it onto my tutor’s desk with a thud of nihilism. Afterwards I lurked in a corridor full of students drifting in and out with the same sense of amiable shock, and once we had a gathering worthy of migration, we all trudged together to the pub and sank our noses into the local brew without saying very much. There was a quiet acknowledgement that yes, we’d finished, and yes, we’d celebrate in a while, but right now, just urgh.

A week later, we’d all partied ourselves into a state of near hospitalisation and shortly after, slunk home to our mothers to eat solids and ponder the thought of jobs. And then, soon enough, we all returned to stare at the notice board where our results were published. When we realised we’d all qualified, we were stunned. It was a thing. An actual, real life thing. We had a thing! None of us knew what to do with it, but it didn’t matter. We’d scaled the misery, and we’d come away with a thing! Yey!

That’s when the slog made sense — because for us, it was over. From that moment on, other people could make all kinds of sense and nonsense of our qualifications, while we enjoyed the freedom to enjoy science — everything — without grades, at least for a while.

That’s the moment I look back on, whenever I start a new project and find myself descending into the mire of hating it with more passion that I’d ever loved it. But the thing that inspires me to work through the “grind” is not only the goal at the end; it’s something else, less tangible. It’s not “the journey” — get real, the journey is often hideous. It’s more that it’s normal — it is the way it is. If you want stuff, sometimes you just have to work through levels of tiredness and misery that you really couldn’t have seen coming, but that’s OK. It doesn’t matter. I was never in danger, never homeless or starving, just a bit knackered. We don’t have to be precious about a bit of work and tiredness; we can handle it, and the time passes anyway, so hey. There is something freeing about suppressing yourself and just bashing through walls till you get where you want to be.

And then, at the end, someone else comes up and says, ‘Well done!’

And I think, thank you but no, not really. If I look back at most of my successful projects, they were anything but well done. Most of the time they looked like a series of horrible failures (overcome by persistence), writhing embarrassments (overcome by the passage of time), gormless rule breakages (overcome by apology/rectification), the help of the people around me, and deluges of sheer, dumb luck. The only skill I ever had was the ability to carry on, itself perhaps a form of stupidity.

I don’t know if this is how everyone gets through life. I look at some people and they seem to stand on their dignity — “professional” to the last, composed and be-suited… adherent to the rules and proud of their position. And I wonder, is it real, and if so, does it help them? If you worry about looking smart and presenting yourself neatly, does it not stop you churning through the muck required to do a really good job? Or does it mean you do the same work, but elegantly?

I used to be the chairman of an outdoor pursuits club at college. I didn’t do this because I wanted to be a pioneer, or because I wanted a brilliant student CV — I started because I fancied a guy who was doing it already and I spent the first year stomping up and down mountains, admiring whatever part of him I could keep up with. (He waited for me once he realised; that’s another story.)
We planned wilderness trips where we invariably got rained on, muddy, cold, more muddy, ridiculously filthy, scared, lost, blistered, bruised, and sometimes sick with exhaustion. But we did reach the summits, we did enjoy some spectacular views, and we did make some brilliant friendships.

1987, from the Horseshoe looking down on Rydal Water

One day we all sat on top of a hill, surrounded by dense fog, waiting for the feeling to return to our legs before moving on. There wasn’t much to do so we nibbled Kendall mint cake and played a game where we had to describe one another in one word.

One of them looked at me. “Elegant,” he said, and they burst out laughing. They howled. They didn’t stop laughing.

‘What?’ I said.

‘You,’ said one, ‘are the opposite of elegant. It’s the one thing you will never be.’

So maybe that’s why I liked that tweet about projects. Because if I were elegant, if my projects were all elegant, they might slip smoothly from A to B without plunging me into the swamp of despair in the middle — but then again, maybe I’m designed to swim through swamps, bash through mess, and cope with the bug-eyed, wee small hours of doom before I emerge victorious, waving whatever “thing” I’ve earned this time. Maybe that’s just me.

That’s why I like the tweet. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one.

Image attribution muddy woman and test tube.

Fling your veg: