Sabbatical

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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?

 

 

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

22 thoughts on “Sabbatical

  1. I started out on track to be a great writer (or so I thought). I was the Features editor for my high school paper. My favorite interview was the Navy’s rock band Freefall. At the time I thought this was a coup due my brilliant writing. They took me seriously (I thought). Looking back, I was a busty blonde sixteen-year-old in a miniskirt. Still, it was a good interview. They were respectful and I got an A . They got a copy of our high school paper with their picture and article on the front page. Double win.

    I love to write but I have to fit it in around real life – a terminally ill mom when I was young, an Air Force career (both of us), a child in neonatal ICU for three months, working more than one job at a time post-Air Force (both of us), giving our mostly undivided attention (entire family) to my mother-in-law during her last years.

    Most of the things I’ve sent out have been published. The ones that haven’t always came back with nice letters from editors who said they loved my writing, please send me something else and included their phone number. The agents I’ve come to know every once in a while say “Soooo when are you going to send me something?”

    For years I didn’t write because I couldn’t do it every day. I was doing it wrong.Then I discovered other writers didn’t do that either. I started writing again. I thought I was a failure. My family thinks I’m brilliant. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between.

    Yesterday was my birthday and as always I set goals for the year. I realize I have a lot of manuscripts worth finishing. My intent is to finish them and see what happens. I realize I’ve only just now reached the stage where I can write the books I want to write – the ones that make people laugh and cry and think.

    Not so bad a Sabbatical after all.

    • Your story is wonderfully inspiring, Cynthia. Thank you for sharing it with us. It’s a terrific reminder that every writer’s journey is unique. I hope memoir is one of your chosen genres.

  2. I build mini-sabbaticals into my writing process. I don’t write from Saturday afternoon until Monday morning, and every 13th week I don’t write (or I do something different like poetry). That’s enough recovery time for me at this beginner writer stage. I guess I’ll see what happens a few years from now.

  3. I could have written this, Laura. Every paragraph, except the part about the kids. (Don’t have any; just three little dogs.) I am now in a mini-sabbatical of my own after a bone-jarring work disappointment (I think of it as a quick, necessary and very wise divorce). I don’t feel guilty about not writing steadily right now. It just doesn’t feel right, and frankly the story I chose is fighting me. The urge will return. I have been in this place before. That is the beauty of getting old, knowing yourself well enough to slow down when needed, look around at life a little more — and then go back renewed.

    • I hope you’re treating yourself kindly, Kris. I’m comforted to hear that you’ve also been here–under similar circumstances–before, and came well out of it.

      The last time for me (2010/11), it took me a full year to come back. Things felt different in a good way this time. “That is the beauty of getting old, knowing yourself well enough to slow down when needed, look around at life a little more — and then go back renewed.” Perfectly said.

  4. I am not an author although, I did start writing down the stories from my life as a pizza dude. Maybe one day it will be somewhere other than a file on my computer.

    But I do work two jobs, seven days a week, for a total of 60-80 hours a week. I have been working like this for 20 years. Now that is scary to put in print. I am the primary care giver of two wonderful children. My house is a mess, and at 5:00AM I was putting laundry in the dryer so the children had their work shirts for their respective summer jobs.

    I am a big believer in taking a break. Mine tend to be short. My last one was interrupted with several emails from work a day and included almost 2000 miles of driving in five days. An interesting break from my weekends of pizza driving, I need to get out more.

    Take the break. Put away the WIP. Don’t look at the computer. It will do you good.

    • I feel compelled to encourage you to take a break in the near future, Alan. It applies even if you aren’t a published author. You are one busy parent. Let’s all get out more!

  5. Beautiful essay, Laura. I too am someone who periodically needs to recharge with some alone time to avoid running away forever. : )

  6. Great post.

    I have never thought of writing as a full-time job. Yes, it’s a job, and contracts must be honored, but if I had to sit in my office and make stuff up for eight or ten hours a day, I’d jump off something high. Taking time off, whether for days, weeks or years, is nothing to apologize for. (See above, about honoring contracts, though.)

    My wife and I travel a lot, and when we’re on the road, I rarely get any meaningful writing done. Ain’t nothing wrong with sabbaticals, official or un-. The way I look at it, I wrote the vast majority of my books when I occupied high-profile executive-level jobs. I traveled well over 120 nights a year, and still delivered a book every September. If I could do that, then I can certainly take a weekend off to visit the Eastern Shore and pick some crabs.

    As a serial procrastinator, I have accepted that my annual September 15 deadline means that my Augusts will always suck. They’ll be filled with 10- and 12-hour writing marathons that leave me exhausted and with a three-foot focal distance. Then, every September 16, we jet off on a two-week trip to somewhere. This year, it will be an apartment in Lisbon, and I won’t write a word, except perhaps for Facebook updates.

    I don’t live to write, never have. I write to tell stories and be productive, but squeezing the most “real life” out of every day is and always has been my highest priority.

    I say relax and enjoy.

  7. Ever since I read about Ray Bradbury’s practice of writing every day and taking weekends off to be with his children, I’ve advocated the writing Sabbath. When the kids were young it was five days a week to get my quota in, some on Saturday morning and the rest of the weekend for the fam. On trips I would write very early…being the one who gets up a couple of hours before everyone else. Now I take Sundays off. If I miss more than two days of writing in a row I start scratching at the stall with my hoof.

    In 1991 I met the great Ray B. at my local library branch, where he signed my copy of Zen in the Art of Writing. He asked if I was a writer and I cheekily (unpublished) said, “Yes.”

    “When do you write?”

    “I write every day, and take weekends off for family.”

    His face beamed and he said, “That’s the way to do it!”

    All that said, a planned break from writing can be a good thing, too, though I don’t know if I’ve ever planned one…they’ve come on me unbidden, usually accompanied by sickness!

    • There’s always a first time, JSB. Maybe plan a day off with someone you love? Imagine–you won’t even be sick!

      Only kidding a little. Your productivity astounds me.

  8. My husband’s often telling me that I’m burning the candle at both ends. I have a one-hour commute to my normal day-job (8:00-4:30), then every day after work, I’m at the gym from 4:45 to 5:30. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I’m teaching a martial arts class from 6:00-7:00pm. And, I have a one-hour commute back home, so I’m home any time between 6:30 and 8:30pm Monday to Friday.

    Weekends aren’t usually much better- I have a committee meeting for my local writing group on the first Saturday (or Sunday) of the month- a full-day affair complete with lunch; another writer’s group meeting on the second Saturday of the month (another all-day affair, since we have a huge catchment area and need to commute to the meetings), and the local writing group meeting on the last Saturday of the month.

    Add onto all that the normal day-to-day stuff like taking care of the house (laundry, dishes, cleaning, etc) and cooking. I’m not totally sure what I would do if I had kids.

    For me, writing *is* the get-away from it all; it’s that place I run away to, my little recharging space, that place where there are zero expectations. Probably the only time I don’t write is when I’m visiting people or when I’m on holiday.

  9. I applaud you on so many levels, as you know. I think it’s so smart to take a break. I took one of these serious sabbaticals in 2010. Four months of soul searching and I was okay with walking away. And then that sentence happened. And then that paragraph. And then there was another book.

    I think it’s easy to forget we are human, sometimes. Not word making machines, but actual people, who are affected, for better or for worse, by the situations around us.

    I will read your grocery list. Just FYI.

    • It’s so often that moment when we give ourselves permission to stop that we rediscover the joy. How funny.

      Always happy to be reminded about being human by you! And ditto on the grocery list, of course. FYI

      xx

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  12. Thank you, Laura, for addressing this topic. Your timing could not be better. I’ve been struggling to make headway on the new book in a way that’s completely foreign to me. After hearing about “burnout” being recognized as a medical condition, I began to wonder if I might have a touch of it myself. I’ve never taken time off of writing (unless I was out of town). I’ve been thinking it’s caught up to me. The notion of time off/away from writing isn’t something I normally would consider. I’m two weeks in and hate it, but your advice has helped me put it in better perspective. I’ve earned a little sabbatical. Surely it will recharge me. Right? Thanks again! And best to PB!

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