Writer for a Year

Our first guest post comes from a CUNY colleague of mine, Kathleen Collins.

A few weeks before the start of my year-long sabbatical, a colleague remarked that whenever I referred to said sabbatical, I would gesture as if cradling a small, precious object. While I was unaware of doing so, I believe I did instinctively think about said sabbatical as a discrete, special something requiring protection and care. It is, after all, a rare privilege afforded to a very small percentage of humans. I was not of a mind to squander it.

While it’s not true for everyone and doesn’t have to be (see unsolicited advice anon) my sabbatical project was clear cut. I had a book to write. I had been researching it for a few years, whenever I could find the time. So my sabbatical was, on the face of it, to get the thing written. On another level, it was to live out a fantasy I had nurtured since I was about eight years old: to be someone who makes her living as a writer. I had a whole year to pretend I was just that; not a faculty member nor librarian nor employee, just a writer.

To take this self image fantasy to the max, I applied – in retrospect a bit pretentiously and unnecessarily – for a couple of writing residencies, but they didn’t pan out. I wrote about that, and how I created my own neo-residency, here. “Where are you going for your sabbatical?” colleagues asked me in those leading-up weeks. Because I suppose some people have other places they go to do research or overlook a lake or just escape the demands of city and/or family life. Not me. “My apartment,” I said, probably exhibiting the cradling gesture then, too. Like, Maura, I did have a space at the NYPL, in the Wertheim Room, but I found it physically less than ideal to work there – no food or water allowed, a small and crowded restroom, and because it was so nice and silent in that giant mahogany space, any little sound inflamed my misophonia to a disruptive degree. Also, going there necessitated getting dressed and riding the subway, two things I needn’t do to work in my apartment. At home, I have the perfect chair and ottoman arrangement, and a bathroom and kitchen at close hand. Also like Maura, I had my favorite snacks which I could eat whenever I wanted as loudly or slovenly as I desired.

In general, I worked every weekday and some weekends. I did not work every hour of every workday, but neither do actual writers (I am inspired by the late David Foster Wallace in many ways). I am not a word count person nor an hours at the desk person. I feel productive when I have an insight that pushes me forward or if I successfully deal with a messy clump of disorganization. I am an 11th hour writer. Most of the work happens when I’m in the proverbial shower or on the walk in the park, where I manically jot into my phone some misspelled then hilariously autocorrected jumble of letters to remember my brilliant solution when I get back to my chair. Writing comes in spurts, and it is rare to see me typing for more than a couple of minutes at a stretch. It’s a matter of keeping notes and then the writing is patching those together into a cohesive narrative. Somehow, the article or essay or book gets written. As painful as the process can be, I have evidence that this seemingly inefficient process works for me, and I am still trying to embrace it. I have no choice.

So you might think at me, why do you need a sabbatical to get this done? Can’t you write a book in your jagged manner while holding down a day job and doing your patch thing for, say, an hour a day that you’ve carved out for yourself with your office door closed? No. You know what it’s like at work. And besides, after several decades of writing, I have finally accepted the inconvenient fact that I need a good uninterrupted seven hours of pacing, procrastinating, grazing, napping, and podcast listening to squeeze out a quality two hours of work. But those other five hours are essential to the package.

Now for some advice to potential future sabbatical takers. Most importantly, take one. You are entitled to it. Don’t wait until you have a fully formed project. It is a time for exploration, freeing your mind in ways that are unthinkable when hemmed in by the parentheses of an academic calendar and a Monday to Friday workweek.

I took a different approach from Maura and wholly renounced service obligations and did not look at my institutional email. For those faculty whose projects are enmeshed with their work (perhaps a frequent scenario for library faculty), it might be useful or unavoidable to stay connected to your job, but if not, I urge you to ghost your workplace. It’s distracting, interferes with any fantasy you might be trying to live out, and offers a way too tempting source of procrastination from the true task. Speaking of procrastination, delete all social media accounts or have a partner or friend create a new password so that only s/he can grant you access.

Don’t fuss about day to day accomplishments. Avail yourself of the slower, uninterrupted, un-earmarked pace to enjoy life and organically learn about your best habits. You might find out how useful naps are and that you work better at certain times of day. (After about half the year was over, I discovered that I could focus best between the hours of 8-11pm and that’s when I got my best work done. I then allowed myself to take long walks or do errands during the day without feeling guilty.)

You might not like this one: Start work on your project right away, even if it’s only one hour a day, instead of pretending that first you must undertake a deep clean of every room in your house or prepare your taxes or visit every remote family member you never see. You can actually do a little of both. Start forging the association between your sabbatical time and your project so it becomes an agreeable journey and not a looming chore.

I loved being a writer. I know I am still one, even though I am also back to being a librarian, employee, person-who-gets-dressed-and-goes-somewhere-else-to-earn-a-paycheck, but I still envy myself and that precious year. I wish every person in every job had the luxury of a sabbatical. I am unspeakably grateful for it, and I look forward to three years and two months and seven days from now when I am due for another one. When I get there I will likely do everything exactly the same way.


Kathleen Collins is a professor and librarian at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. She reads and writes about media and popular culture with a laser focus on television. Her two books, Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows (Continuum 2009) and Dr. Joyce Brothers: The Founding Mother of TV Psychology (Rowman & Littlefield 2016) were just a prelude to her work in progress which is a memoir of her life with television.

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The beginning of the beginning: fits and starts

Thinking back now on the first few weeks of my sabbatical I’m struck by what I don’t remember.

I remember flailing around a lot in that first month of sabbatical. As I mentioned in my first post, it’s been a big change for me to go from a very structured weekly schedule to having wide open spaces on my calendar to fill as I choose. It’s not that I’ve never had to deal with a lack of work structure before, but it’s been a long, long time since that’s been the case for more than a week or so. I am most definitely out of practice.

In a way the beginning of my sabbatical was just a bigger version of what often happens to me in the first few weeks of the summer, when the academic year has ended and projects and reports have wrapped up. Switching gears from very busy to less busy can be a challenge for me. I flail around a bit before settling on a list of what I want to accomplish over the summer and sketching out a rough plan for doing it in between vacation time and other commitments. I try to balance my wishlist of tasks with blocks of space and time to catch up on reading and thinking. And some summers (though probably it should be all summers) I end by taking stock and reflecting on what I did before heading into what I will do in the fall.

I keep a very brief research journal — really just a list of dates plus a couple of words about any research I worked on that day — and going back to consult it reminds me that I started my sabbatical by catching up on some writing that was coming due soon. I also made a Google doc called Sabbatical Plans (very literal!) with a list of all of the projects I’m working on during these six months, big and small, real and ideal. The blank page can be scary when starting a new writing project, and I felt that same fear when looking at 6 months of my (mostly) empty calendar. Starting to fill that calendar in with tentative, self-imposed deadlines helped.

It’s taken a while for me to settle into a routine, mostly because my sabbatical work is just less bound by routine than my director work is. Each day and week can vary, sometimes widely, in both what I’m doing and where I’m doing it. Some of my sabbatical work has been affected by external constraints, for example, interviewing students (which had to happen during the semester) or preparing for a talk on a specific date. Other work is less time-sensitive, like file management and CV maintenance. I update that Sabbatical Plans doc every week or so, tweaking and fiddling and adjusting and crossing off tasks as I finish them. Finding the structure in my unstructured time has in some ways been the biggest challenge of my sabbatical.