Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Taking a Break (March theme: Spring Break) by Tracy Barrett



I recently resigned from my day job, and thanks to a lot of preparation, being day-job-free is turning almost exactly as I hoped it would. But I’ve stumbled on one problem with living the creative life that I hadn’t considered in all my planning: there’s no real end to the work day or week. Of course, this is true about many jobs, including my former position as a college professor: there’s no perfect syllabus, after all. But at a certain point, it’s good enough and you post it on-line. A class could always be better, but again, at a certain point, the bell rings and the little darlings troop out, and you’re done. You’ve accomplished something.

When have you accomplished the task of writing or revising a manuscript? You never have, really. Jane Yolen, whose Owl Moon has been called the perfect picture book, says that every time she reads it, she wants to tweak something. A few weeks ago at a workshop I read aloud an excerpt of my first novel, Anna of Byzantium, and I wanted to pull out my red pen and edit.

So with no finish line to cross, you keep working. I can write, edit, rewrite, revise endlessly, all day, every day. And this is no good. This is not why I quit teaching—so I would be chained to my computer.

And then on a recent Sunday I got a double whammy from The New York Times. One article told me that all the busyness that everyone complains about is, to a large extent, self-imposed, and in many cases is “a hedge against emptiness.” Well, my busyness is self-imposed (I don’t have a boss anymore!) and I do have a pretty big emptiness to hedge against—I’ve lost my self-definition as a college professor, 28 years’ worth of relationships with colleagues and students, and, obviously, all the time spent teaching and prep work and correcting and meetings and advising that I used to chafe at because it was keeping me from my writing.

A second article in the same paper pointed out that getting away from pressure releases creativity. So if I lighten up the pressure by putting my work aside, I might get more creative, huh? Worth considering.

To address the two issues (creating busyness to avoid emptiness; and unleashing some creativity), I resolved to make a change by taking a sabbath. Not a religiously-imposed one—that’s not the way I roll—but a mental-health break. So one day a week I don’t work: no writing, no editing (well, okay, mentally—but not at the computer), no conference prep, no work-related emails.

I chose Tuesdays. We traditionally go out to dinner on Tuesday, so there’s no cooking, or, worse, figuring out what to cook (as a rule, I cook; he cleans up). I linger over coffee and the paper and work all the puzzles. I go to a museum or a knit shop, or catch a matinee with my husband. I tackle my to-read pile.

At first it was difficult. I kept wanting to check email, fiddle with a manuscript, work on my presentation for a conference. But I resist as well as I can. I find that I return to my work refreshed, and happy to be able to get started on the ideas that came to me while I was away from my desk.

Adapted from a post that first appeared on my blog.

6 comments:

  1. So so so true, everything you've said here. It's annoying to me sometimes that people think that because I work from home that I am not really working, that I can go off for coffee any time or whatever. The irony is that I never stop working-- there is always more work to do. You're right about taking breaks too. Still working on that one!

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  2. I admit to some backsliding, Jody--I had three Skype visits yesterday on my "day off"! But then I had an afternoon coffee with a friend and dinner with awesome librarians. We talked shop (the coffee friend is a poet) but it was fun and it wasn't writing!

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  3. I loved this post, Tracy. I love all of yours, but his one spoke to me so deeply. I often think about the fact that desperately poor subsistence farmers observed a sabbath every week, but with all our privilege and luxuries, most of us are unable to take off even an hour from email, let alone a day. And I love that your sabbath is Tuesday. Yes!

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  4. Also, the New York Times article you linked to was so great! All busy people should make time to read it DAILY.

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  5. I make it a point to turn my computer off each evening--give myself some downtime every night...Sometimes, though, even THAT is tough...

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    Replies
    1. It sure is tough to take time out! But does it ever make a difference.

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