One writer’s sabbatical

Morning ritual?

It’s September again.  That usually means some new school supplies and back to the classroom for a hard-working university prof.  But not this year.  This semester I’m on sabbatical.  It’s funny how people respond when you tell them you’re on sabbatical.  Usually they say something like: “Gee, must be nice.”  (With just that slight edge of sarcasm.)   Or they say, “You university people have all the perks.”  Well, let’s just say that there are few people who would not like to be in my shoes right now regardless of how  much they like their jobs.  So, what’s a sabbatical for anyway?

Naturally, the web is full of definitions.  Let’s start with the etymology of the word (where the English word has its source).

The word itself derives from and is related to a bunch of words in other languages.  The Latin sabbaticus, the Greek sabbaitkos, and even the Hebrew Shabbat, all have similar meanings.  They refer to a hiatus from work.  This is interesting to a university professor, I’m sure, since a sabbatical does mean a break from one’s regular teaching and administrative responsibilities, but the requirement to produce work related to the other components of a prof’s contract is even higher.  That part, of course, is the research and writing part.  A university professor on sabbatical is supposed to be researching and writing.  The idea, though, that one can be freed up from other daily responsibilities to focus more fully on the kind of work that really is done better with single-minded focus from time to time, is a forward-thinking one.  Everyone should have a sabbatical once in a while.  But not to lie around slothfully and vegetate, in my view.  So, what kind of productive work can a writer produce when she is on sabbatical from other work?

Believe it or not, there is a web site called YourSabbatical.com that provides services for employers and employees regarding sabbaticals.  Who knew?  According to their web site they partner “…with businesses to implement customized sabbatical programs that attract, retain, and accelerate top talent through personal and professional enrichment…” They do, however, have a useful blog for people on sabbatical, and I was especially interested in their interview with a “prolific writer” who has the following tips for productive writing when taking a hiatus from your regular work.   According to Casey Hawley (author of 10 Make-or-Break Career Moments: Navigate, Negotiate, and Communicate for Success, a book that I cannot recommend since I have not read it), we all need to…

  1. Have a schedule for our writing.  To tell you the truth, this is a no-brainer for me.  I think that if you can’t even make a date with yourself to write, then you’ll never get a project finished especially when you have so much more freedom than usual.
  2. Reward ourselves.  She suggests that if you set a word goal, for example, then you reward yourself – perhaps you can go out to lunch.  Whereas I do agree with this suggestion, I also think that you need to revisit tip #1 and add that your goals should be realistic, and also more than the minimum.  I can write thousands of words a day but that doesn’t mean they will be the words I should write.  On the other hand, if I were to set my goal for 500 words a day and then went out for lunch as a reward, not only would I be under-performing, I’d probably be fat!
  3. Have writing rituals.  Lots of creative people tell us this.  Twyla Tharp, world-renowned choreographer and author of The Creative Habit (which I can and do recommend), says, “It’s vital to establish some rituals – automatic but decisive patterns of behavior – at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back…Turning something into a ritual eliminates the question, why am I doing this?” She then provides numerous examples of artists’ rituals.  Evidently Igor Stravinsky always did the same thing every morning as he entered his studio: He sat down and played a Fugue by Bach.  Then he got to work.  These days we’re more likely to check email or a Facebook site – but that little ritual can get you into a whole lot of trouble as the act itself begins to consume ever larger portions of your day.  I suggest leaving the online rituals until later.  Perhaps make them the reward! (see #2 above)

So, those are the three tips for being more prolific in your writing.  I better move on and set my goal for the day which will be followed by my reward, but not until I perform my ritual.  That ritual is setting my goal for the days and deciding on what kind of a reward I’ll have if I produce.  A bit circular, non?

Off to San Francisco tomorrow for a wedding and a bit of a reward for all this writing.