The Last Word : Sabbatical: The gift of time
I took the month of November off from all extraneous activity to focus on finishing the second half of the Work In Progress. Unlike the academic sabbatical which can include foreign travel, or a full year of research, mine was brief and entailed giving up most of my day job schedule and all of my outside writing, i.e. this column. Did you miss me?
When I envisioned being on sabbatical, I imagined that these unencumbered days would open themselves up to me in glorious plentitude, and I'd effortlessly devote eight hours a day to the story. On the first day of my sabbatical I discovered to my horror that after one and a half hours, I started looking around for distractions - which were plentiful, what with the bird feeder needing replenishment and the checkbook needing balancing. Because my writing time is so circumscribed under my normal schedule, it was hard - really hard - to expand on it. I was like a weightlifter who stops at 50 pounds. I needed to push on to 75 then to 100.
Evidently my brain has been trained to accomplish quite a bit in a short period of time, so I was stumped when the juice ran out at exactly the same time I usually have to close up and get ready for work. That was the first couple of days. Then I began to figure out that with a little break after that one and half hour hurdle, I could go back and actually review what I'd written that day and then go on re-energized. Or, go back to way earlier stuff and examine it with a slow perusal that revealed elements of brilliance and continuity I had not heretofore recognized. As well as some really dumb sentences that were relegated to the trash heap.
I suddenly had the luxury of going back to earlier chapters and driving out the demons and smoothing off the rough places. For the first time it wasn't losing time to re-read. It was heavenly. And writing new stuff was such fun too. I had my beginning, I had my end. I had my consultation and counseling from my editor and my agent and now I could sit down and make the beginning and end come together in a compelling, believable, dramatic way. I had the time to say, 'what if' and then try it out and see if it fit. If it didn't, okay, get rid of it. If it did, all to the good. Under normal circumstances I was always hesitant to dump too much because it would mean my morning's work was meaningless.
By the second week of my sabbatical, I was writing six days a week, four or five hours a day. Some of this time was punctuated by walks or errands, but being able to leave the computer on, and walk back into the room to tweak a sentence, add a line, delete a paragraph at the moment it became obvious to me what most needed attention; when the sentence that came into my head could be added to a chapter without having to wait to the next day...well, that was pretty wonderful. To continue with the weightlifter metaphor, by week three I was competing in the heavy-weight category. Or, to change the metaphor, I was no longer running sprints, I was competing in marathons.
What at the beginning looked like an endless stretch of time came to an end, much sooner than I imagined. Days sped by and the pages increased in a satisfying way. Word count inched toward the 80K mark. But so did the approach of Thanksgiving and the end of my sabbatical. Time to climb down out of the cockpit and get my feet back on the ground. I could linger, savoring every page over and over, tweaking minutia with a number two pencil, but I won't because, with almost all the time in the world, I finished the novel. Well, maybe not finish-finish, meaning that it's ready for covers, but finished in the sense that the story is coherent and my protagonist has evolved. It is time to stop. To paraphrase 17th century poet Anne Bradstreet, I've 'washed its face, but more defects' I saw. In her poem, "An Author to Her Book," she writes: "As for thy Mother, she alas is poor/which caused her thus to send thee out the door." The book is ready to be sent out the door to my anxiously waiting editor who will, fingers crossed, give it her blessing.