Sabbatical Blues

February 16, 2006

The sky is February gray. I haven't worked on my novel in weeks. My friends and colleagues seem far away. Yes, they've hit with a vengeance: the sabbatical blues.

They hit because life with its ups and downs continues during a sabbatical: life with, in my case, a serious illness in the family and a move required by my husband's job.

And they hit because of the unscheduled nature of a sabbatical. I'm not held to a production calendar by deadlines or class appearances; I can disappear into my home office, stare into space, and appear to be working. I don't even have to go through the motions if I don't want to, and sometimes it's those motions that keep one's mental health intact.

Lurking in the back of my mind is a remark from my dean: Half the people who go on sabbatical never get any project done, anyway.

So in some sense, it doesn't matter if I get the book done. And my mind is playing tricks, making it existential: Does the book really matter at all?

The book, you see, is at the heart of the problem, because the book is not going well.

Project Problems

The difficulty of my sabbatical project, like most, is that it's big. I direct a program in writing popular fiction at my university and I've written several short novels for young adults. My sabbatical project was to write a longer, more intricate novel for that same audience than any I had done before.

That was the point, right? You don't ask for a sabbatical to produce some ordinary piece of work that could easily be accomplished in a typical academic year. No, you request a sabbatical -- especially a yearlong leave -- to produce the big one, the research-heavy masterpiece, the career-maker.

When you start out, it all sounds so feasible. You'll have long days for the life of the mind, hour after hour in the library, time to really tangle with the thorny problems your project presents.

In fact, I do have those advantages of time and space. Only they're real days, not idealized ones. Days full of everyday problems, like the cable company coming to fix the Internet connection. And the preschool's water-main break that brings my daughter home early. And my own tendency to stare out the window wondering where the neighbor is headed with that giant box ... and worrying about whether the project is any good.

I have a sinking feeling that it isn't, that nothing will ever come of it, that this perfect, precious year will have been wasted.

The truth is that big projects present big problems. It's not just a chapter that needs fixing: Is its focus on a dark crime too at odds with its sarcastic tone? Does the main character need a personality overhaul? Should I shift from first person to third, or be really experimental and try a second-person narrative?

The questions are too big. I know I need to take things one step at a time, but instead I just feel overwhelmed.


What is that siren song pulling me away from re-engaging with my own work? Actually, it's not just one song.

Closest at hand is a nagging feeling that I should be writing a different kind of novel. Maybe the young-adult audience isn't my thing. Maybe I ought to ditch this project and write for middle-schoolers, or even young children. I have a few ideas: a book for young children based on my daughter's vision problems; a book about the challenges faced by inner-city, elementary-aged kids whom I work with in a reading program. Those would be really worthwhile projects.

Or come to think of it, maybe fiction isn't right for me. I spend more than half of my time reading nonfiction. I've played around with a book proposal about women and the writing process. Maybe that's the project I should attack.

When I get really discouraged, I begin to suspect that I may not be cut out to be a writer at all. I'm fascinated by the literacy challenges of younger children; I wonder what kind of training is needed to become a school reading specialist. I'm pretty good at fund raising on a small scale; maybe I should do development for a literacy nonprofit. Or maybe something altogether different. I could always join my friend (another academic) who day dreams about being a Wal-Mart greeter.

Daydreams like those, and the accompanying Internet searches, can take up many a sabbatical hour. Which leads me to another truism of sabbatical life: Work expands to fill the time available. The two pages that took me 30 minutes to write when I was squeezing them in between teaching now occupy an entire afternoon. The bit of research that took five minutes at the library with a day-care deadline looming, now expands into two hours of digging for a "more perfect" fact.

The upshot: I'm not getting my work done, and that's depressing.


What is the way out of the sabbatical blues? Well, there's the common magazine advice: Exercise, get sunlight, eat healthy foods, and consult a doctor. OK, I've done all that, or I'm doing it. Except for the doctor bit because this isn't a depression to medicate with anything more than a little St. John's wort.

Next tactic: Stop the downward-spiraling thoughts. Such thoughts are, according to happiness psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, symptomatic of a sort of pessimism that can be changed.

Now that I am writing my thoughts down, I can see just what to do: I need to assemble evidence for and against my belief that my novel is a worthless waste of trees (by seeking feedback from my writers' group and from an agent), think about how to make it better (it has some good points, after all), and do a "what's the worst that can happen" scenario (if the book is really unpublishable, I can always write another one).

The way back has to be the work. the same work I planned, the work that, in my heart, I love. Goodbye, Wal-Mart greeter fantasies.

Step by step, I'm trying to ease my way back into it. At the beginning of my sabbatical, I had the ambitious plan of reading 50 young-adult novels to bring myself up to speed on the genre. Instead I've been reading a lot of unrelated nonfiction. I haven't kept track, but I would guess I've read only about 10 young-adult novels of the sort I write.

Reading more of them -- both the good and the mediocre ones -- would give me a clearer perspective on my own project. So it's back to the plan. I have about five more months of sabbatical, and if I want to read 40 more novels, two a week should do it. I hereby pledge to keep track both of the time I spend reading and the books I read.

Next, I need to get back to my writing. I'll start small, doing two new pages, or three planning pages, or a chapter revision, each day. Even if I don't know how to fix the whole book, I can figure out how to fix a page at a time. It's not enough. It's not the perfect life of the mind I had planned. But for now, it's a way to start climbing out.

The Revelation

So here's my light-bulb moment: Sabbaticals aren't that different, at base, from ordinary life.

While anticipating my sabbatical, I imagined myself as happy all the time. After all, I put together the proposal when I was way too busy with teaching, grading, committees, and administrivia. It seemed as if lightening the load, just getting out of there, was all I needed to reach nirvana.

But of course the reality is that there are good days and bad days, even on sabbatical. In fact, research indicates that lottery winners and disaster victims are almost exactly as happy a few weeks after the big event as they were before. So are sabbatical-takers, apparently.

To my own shock, I have almost exactly the same number of productive and unproductive days as I had before. And that means that there is no nirvana, that even a year off with pay and a project I love is not enough to propel me into perfect writerly bliss.

Well, rats. But in a strange way, my newfound knowledge is heartening. The fact that the sabbatical of a lifetime is really not that different from my ordinary, busy life means I don't have to mourn, quite so much, the fact that it must end.

Lee Tobin McClain is a professor of English and director of the master's program in writing popular fiction at Seton Hill University, in Greensburg, Pa. She is the author of three novels for young adults.