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.


  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!

  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!

  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!

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

  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...

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


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