Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Independence Day

I had lunch last week with two university friends. One is teaching summer school; the other had just finished making syllabi for her fall classes. What had I been up to? they asked. Well, there was my trip to Italy to talk about, but other than that—futzing with my manuscript. That was it.

Which is great, and which is why I quit teaching: so I could spend time writing. But it brought home a major dilemma of the creative life: you don’t know when you’ve finished. Of course, this is true about almost any job, including the ones my friends were talking about, but in those cases, there's a bit more clarity. True, there’s no perfect syllabus, but at a certain point, it’s good enough and you post it on-line. A class could always be better, but 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 editing 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, to illustrate a point, and I wanted to pull out my red pen and edit.
So with no finish line to cross, you keep working. I can 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 last Sunday I got a double whammy from The New York Times. One article told me that all this busyness that everyone complains about is, to a large extent, self-imposed, and in many cases is “a hedge against emptiness.” Well, in my case, it is self-imposed (I don't have a boss anymore!) and I do have a pretty big void to fill—my self-definition as a college professor, 28 years' worth of relationships with colleagues and students, and everything else I've been blogging about for over a year.

A second article 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.

My resolution: to take a sabbath. Not a religiously-imposed one—that’s not the way I roll—but a mental-health one, an Independence Day. One day a week I’m not going to work: no writing, no editing (well, okay, mentally—but not at the computer), no conference prep, no work-related emails. Once a week, I’ll take off a full day.

Yesterday was the first attempt. I hadn't planned ahead, so I did need to do one work-related thing (mail books to an event I'm speaking at), but that was it. I slept late (7:00!), and didn't get dressed until 10:00. Lingered over the Science Times; the fact that it's the Tuesday insert of The New York Times is one reason I chose Tuesday to be Independence Day (the other is that we traditionally go out to dinner on Tuesday, so there's no cooking, or, worse, figuring out what to cook). We went to the Frist—quilts for me, sailboats for Greg, and the unexpectedly wonderful Bill Traylor for both. I finished a book (Sailing to Freedom by Martha Stiles; it's terrific) in one gulp instead of snatching a page here and a page there.

Out to a dinner that I didn't cook, then knitting and Netflix.

It was a bit difficult; I kept wanting to check email, fiddle with the manuscript, work on my presentations for the conference next week. But I resisted and will do it again. Will it help? Time will tell.

9 comments:

  1. Tracy, I'm finding that writing and everything that revolves around it, including my platform, is taking up nearly all my time! I desperately need to find balance. Thank you for reminding me to do so ...

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    1. The platform is the real time-suck, isn't it? I think I could have handled teaching and writing, but teaching, writing, and promoting was just too much!

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  2. Hi Tracy,
    It might take a while to get used to chilling on the front porch with a glass of tea, but I have faith in you--you can do it!

    Congratulations on your solution. I enjoyed the articles you referred to, especially this funny line: "The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment."

    I'm enjoying your blog!
    Wanda

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    1. Thanks, Wanda--I liked that line too!

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  3. It is tricky to take a day off - but trust me - it is SOOOO important. And it is the day of no guilt - no guilt that you should be doing something else. Our bodies need that. Our creative brains need that!!! :) e

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    1. I agree, E--working nonstop would only make me hate the work.

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  4. Thanks for sharing, Tracy - best wishes as you continue on in this creative transition. May your Muse emerge from the day off refreshed and ready to go....

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    1. Thank you, Robyn! There's a learning curve, for sure.

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    2. Thanks, Robyn! I think it worked!

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