When my kids were ten and three years old, I ran away from home for a week. Given all the pre-trip planning, list-making, grandparent arrivals, and pantry-stocking, it might have looked like I was about to take a solo vacation, but appearances can be deceiving. Inside, I was holding my breath, telling myself I could get it all done, hold out until the day I would pack up the ridiculously large, white, American sedan I’d rented, and cruise onto the highway, the “Girls Singing for Your Trip” mixtape cd my bff had made me cranked up on the stereo. The first song was Vacation by The Go-Go’s [sic]. The second was Walk Like an Egyptian by The Bangles. By the time I was actually in the car, blowing bye-bye kisses to the kids, I felt like a teenage bandit who’d stolen Grandma’s Buick and could only count on a few hours of freedom before the cops pulled me over and ushered me home.
Did I feel guilty? Yes, I did. But I also knew that if I didn’t get away—my stated reason was that I wanted time to myself to write—I would either collapse into a useless puddle of mommy-shaped goo, or have to take refuge in a small closet and refuse to ever come out again.
Roanoke, Virginia to Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, is a long drive—though I confess I thought it wouldn’t be. They looked so close together on the map. It was a good thing I liked driving alone. The ferry ride that ended my journey was a kind of revelation, a reminder that I was, indeed, far from home. Ocracoke is overwhelmingly beautiful, with pristine, protected beaches, and (at least back then) a small-town vibe that made me feel comfortable and safe. I felt Very Far Away from my life.
Now, I had a pretty darned good life back home. I loved my husband and children intensely. It wasn’t like I couldn’t take time to write. I had part-time childcare, and a lovely house set up on a hillside, among trees. And I liked my kids. It didn’t matter that they occasionally vomited on me, or threw the occasional floor-pounding tantrum in the post office, or didn’t pick up their room. They were still mine, and I loved them. But every mother has her limits, and as much as I loved my family, I knew I had to go away for a little while so I could remain in love with them.
Have you ever felt that way? Perhaps not about children, but about your work, or your partner, or circle of friends?
A couple of months ago, I stopped writing. Oh, I didn’t stop completely. I showed up here, and also wrote a couple of blurbs. I journaled just a bit. But for the most part, my computer screen was fallow. At first, the stoppage wasn’t intentional. I’d had a professional disappointment that left me deeply frustrated. But like so many things that look grim on the outside, it was hiding something useful on the inside. It led me to take a good hard look at my work and career, and what they meant to me. And that’s when I decided that my writing sabbatical needed to continue for a while.
I love writing. I really do. It’s the only thing I ever set my heart on. I’m terrible at goal-setting because I’m easily distracted. There’s a story I heard once about a distinguished scientist who told himself he was going to count the steps he took walking to work every day. He did it successfully the first day. On the fourth day he remembered that he’d made that plan earlier in the week, but had only counted his steps that very first day. His is the story of my life. The good news is that I mostly get distracted in good ways, by new projects. But writing is the thing I’ve never been distracted from for very long. When I was in my mid-twenties, I decided I wanted to write fiction, and I’ve been trying to learn to be a better writer ever since. [Note: If you’ve stopped learning, go back to where you left off, and begin again.] It is the only vocation I have ever truly wanted to pursue because it’s the most challenging, maddening, rewarding work I’ve ever done.
Sometimes writing (and often publishing) will vomit on you. It will wring you out of every emotion, and leave you panting for inspiration. It will break your heart, and flip you the bird on the way out the door. It will whisper or shout your shortcomings. But then it will snuggle you like a puppy or a two-year-old wanting comfort. It will bring you bright and shiny presents—a brilliant detail, or the perfect sentence. Most of all, it will make much of itself. And I don’t know about you, but sometimes it can be too much of a muchness.
I’m not fond of crises. I panicked when I realized I wasn’t writing. For a while, I thought I might never write again. (Did I type that out loud?!) Fortunately, that panic didn’t last forever. But I did let myself feel the panic while it was happening. Yes, that old touch-feely feelings stuff. I let myself see that there could be a life beyond writing. I don’t have to write! Ever! In fact, there are already plenty of writers. I could clean houses, dig ditches, paint portraits, design video games, become a professional birdwatcher or baker or phlebotomist. In fact, if I stop writing and get a 9 to 5 job—or even take a permanent copywriting gig—it would be a financial boon to the family coffers.
I could have run away from my family. I could have stayed on that island beach until my money ran out, then gotten a job somewhere in the mid-Atlantic area. But I loved my family. Deeply. I just needed to be by myself for a little while so I could build up the energy to give them more, love them more. I hope I came back a slightly better parent.
During my writing sabbatical (a gentle word), I read some, watched television, bought furniture, decluttered the house quite a bit. I still have some power washing to do. And more reading to do. After two years of lightening the tone of my reading, and, to some extent, my writing, I’ve delved back into much darker stuff (the astonishing Mo Hayder has changed my life, I think). It’s got me thinking, and doing some unexpected planning. I’m still in love, but perhaps a bit wiser. That’s never a bad thing.
Have you ever had to get away just so you could stay?