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.


Sitting, stretching, and shelf number five

Before my sabbatical began I didn’t really spend much time thinking about where I’d be doing my work, especially writing or other computer-enabled work. While I live in an apartment and my spouse works from home, our kid is in school so there’s relative space and quiet for most of the day (plus cats!). I also knew I’d be spending some of my sabbatical time at my research sites — three colleges in my university — doing things like hanging up recruitment flyers and interviewing students.

It’s kind of a basic concern, but figuring out where best to work was a super important part of the early weeks of my sabbatical. In my office in the library I have a desktop computer with an adjustable desk so I can sit or stand, plus an antifatigue mat for when I’m standing. Typically I sit more on the days when I’m running around to meetings or other commitments, and I alternate standing and sitting every hour or so when I’ve got longer stretches of time in the office. I’ve tweaked my computer setup to allow me to work pretty comfortably throughout the day, avoiding carpal tunnel and other assorted body aches (sigh, aging).

Getting together a comfortable setup at home took some time. My home computer is a lightweight laptop: portable but not exactly body-friendly. My apartment has windows on the north and the south, and the light varies throughout the day. What’s ended up working best for me is to use four big books to raise the height of my laptop, and plug in an external keyboard and mouse. I usually work at the dining room table in the mornings, when the light is best there, and move to my desk in the bedroom in the later afternoons, which also happens to be when the kid gets home from school. And on the plus side, being at home has actually made it easier to remind myself to get up from the computer and stretch every hour or so.

While I do work at home many days, as I was starting my sabbatical I also realized that I’d occasionally need to find other locations for work, for example, when my kid has the day off from school. I’ve sometimes needed to go to one of the colleges at CUNY for a meeting, and on those days I’ve brought my laptop and settled in for some work in that library before or after. But most often when I’m not working at home I’ve been at the Allen Study Room in the New York Public Library on 42nd St. in Manhattan.

A colleague of mine at City Tech turned me on to this spot, and I am so glad she did. The NYPL has three study rooms that scholars can apply to use. Each room has cubicle desks (the Allen Room has 10), and each person assigned to that room gets a keycard for entrance and a shelf for materials. Books from the research collection can be paged and are delivered right to the room, and the materials can stay on your shelf for as long as your study room contract lasts. It feels super fancy using the keycard to open the carved wood Allen Room door, at the end of a long marble hallway. I am shelf #5.

Through most of the late winter and spring the study room wasn’t crowded with other researchers, though on a warm Thursday afternoon in June I got the last cube, with the somewhat crappy chair (padded, not adjustable, no wheels, as opposed to the fancier rolling ergonomic chairs). The space feels very private even though it isn’t, which I always remember when I stand up to stretch a bit. I’ve been using the room about once a week so far, but once my kid gets out of school at the end of June I expect to be there more often.

I can’t stay at the NYPL (or other non-home location) for more than a few hours, since using my laptop without an external keyboard and mouse and raised height doesn’t work for my body for very long stretches. But I’m grateful for to have access to this as a workspace, even with the 45-minute commute each way to get there. There’s lots of history for me at the NYPL generally. As a grad student in archaeology I used the print collections heavily to supplement my university’s holdings, and the final course in my MLIS was a map librarianship class taught on Saturdays in the incredible map division of the NYPL. All of this history plus the special workspace feeling help me focus in the study room, too.