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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Vacationing while on sabbatical 

To some it may sound a little crazy to schedule a vacation during sabbatical, after all isn’t a sabbatical like one long vacation?
At least that’s what an unnamed family member thinks I’m doing. 

Actually, I have been working like crazy and my mind is in constant motion about all kinds of librarian-ing that was so much harder to do while I had daily responsibilities. For example, what are my new research goals now that I have passed the tenure benchmark? What does it mean to be an instruction librarian in a post-Framework profession? How do I want to re-envision my contributions to librarianship? How can I contribute anew to my library and support my colleagues? How am I going to keep the fresh sabbatical feeling??

But right now I am on vacation. I left behind all of my sabbatical work and have been trying to keep from thinking about work because I am scheduled to be back in the library in six weeks. [My sabbatical technically ends mid-July but I added a month of vacation.] I called the cat sitter, finished a crazy deep clean of all the closets and drawers, and planned a new crochet project since I finished my sabbatical blanket (yay!). Then my family and I packed up and hit the road. Since I grew up near the sea, I cannot seem to go many months without a re-charge of salty air and lobster and chowder (as more commonly known by is Mainers as lob-sta and chow-da) and sand in my toes. We are visiting family, taking in a few baseball games (have I told you I slipped to 8th place on my fantasy baseball team?), enjoying a few art museums, lazying on several beaches, and catching up on those deep family conversations that come easy from extended time in the car together. I have talked my daughter into a few cribbage games and she’s taught me a new game on my phone. My husband will be heading home early to finish an art project as my daughter and I will spend a few days exploring the northern coast before she starts her senior year. 

But I have done a bit of work, too. This isn’t unusual for me. When an idea strikes, and so many have the past few days, I like to work them through my process as soon as possible. That usually means typing on my phone while the room is quiet and dark after everyone else has fallen asleep. This post for one, a few emails and a conference paper review for two, and three an article idea I have been ruminating on for months. I am so excited about this article! It is the first piece of writing that isn’t part of my traditional research agenda. It is based on an idea that I presented at a conference awhile back. I have always seen writing as something enjoyable but when it comes to getting tenure the academic writing process is mostly about how many words I can get done over the weekend. The words come harder when you have to force them. And writing for tenure is sometimes forced, mostly because there isn’t time to slow down. Some days I really wished that a tenure clock could be determined by my own cycle but then why would we ever finish, eh? Tick tock. 

When I wrote for tenure, I fell into a rhythm – one project idea in the works, one project in the planning or data collection stage, one project in the writing stage, one project in the submission phase, and one article waiting to come to publication. This was safe advice I was given early on in my career and I tried to stay on that course because I learned that it was the easiest way for me to stay engaged. 

On sabbatical, the writing process evolved a bit because there was less time pressure. And for the most part, I wasn’t adhering to deadlines so if I wanted to work on that piece instead of this piece, I could. Or I could put it down and watch Netflix instead. But this paper is different and my whole writing process has been upended. In a good way. Maybe an excellent way. I don’t know how others approach writing so maybe it’s worth sharing with you?

This may sound elementary but I always start writing at the beginning of a project. Because I don’t know when an idea will strike, I keep a note file on my phone where I can jot phrases or copy citations or mark articles to read. Sometimes I ask myself questions because isn’t that the best part of research? Once I have gathered data and processed it, I start to write my article/book chapter/conference proceeding/etc. Maybe this seems obvious to you but it didn’t to me when I started. I am a logical, start-at-the-beginning type of person, When I sit down to write, I start with the introduction. Not exact sentences but phrases and ideas I want to make sure to include. Then I write the methodology in its entirety and I don’t think about anything else until I know that it’s inclusive of my entire process. Then I write the results and start framing the discussion section. Next I pull together a literature review from my notes and my previous reading and do the final reading necessary to fill in the blanks. Again, I don’t move forward until this part is done. The final part for me is done in usually one to two writing sessions where I write the entirety of the discussion and conclusion together. And finally I go back to the introduction for refinement and brainstorm a title (I am the worst at titles and am always bugging my colleagues for better ideas). I have fussed with this strategy but I have found this works for me and when I am collaborating (which I do frequently), I do my best to adapt and accommodate my partner’s preferences but it isn’t always easy since I know what works for me. As for timing, my writing process usually takes only two to three weeks and this is by design because when I am writing all I can do is think about writing. Everything in my life is put on hold – my husband feeds me, my daughter does laundry, and I sleep very little. My final step is to ask a trusted colleague(s) to read and comment. I find this is the most valuable part of the process for me and I have been known to completely re-construct an article after reviewing comments. I want constructive criticism on my writing, I am not hurt when someone suggests to go in a different direction or delete a paragraph or change a title. Constructive criticism has made me a much better writer and I am so glad I have a few trusted people in my life that will go there with me. 

So how is this time different? I have been constructing this article in my head and on paper for over a month already. I have sentences and phrases in one document without any structure yet. I have been working in fits and starts and it’s always in the back of my mind. The idea for the article isn’t anything I have written on before and it has no actual research to report. It is just me and my experience and my ideas. I talked it through backwards and forwards with my husband (or as he would say, around and through the problem) and he rarely engages with me this deeply in my work. I cannot tell you how it is going to turn out just yet and I have not decided where I want to send it for review. I am hoping to finish it before I go back to work but that’s the only deadline I have for myself. I will keep you posted. 

Back to my vacation: we move to the next destination tomorrow and I am looking forward to the change in scenery again. Being on vacation has been different from sabbatical time, mostly because I have left home but also because I have allowed myself to disconnect not only from thinking about librarianship but also the (depressing!) news about the Illinois budget

Thanks for joining Maura and I on our sabbatical journeys. We hope if you have ideas you’d like to see us address in a future post that you’ll leave a comment. 

Next :: Ending a sabbatical