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Thoughts on a Sabbatical

A sabbatical is a pretty great thing. The email is turned off, and there are no meetings or training sessions. It’s like being a student all over again, with blocks of time to read and write. Instead of scurrying around, I can focus. Let’s face it, email sucks.

I received the sabbatical because of a book contract. This is the hard part of being a student again: now I have to write a really big paper (80,000 good words, as I tell people). All the things that I have told students to do, now I have to do them, like hitting word counts with clear and concise prose. I have this deadline hanging over me, and with it comes anxiety and dread. Teachers have deadlines too, and there is a near constant, low-level stress with the deadlines of midterm grades, many papers to grade, classes to prepare for, reports to file, final grades to submit. Teachers, like students, always have something to do, are always bringing work home during the semester. But I have to admit that the faculty deadlines are smaller than the student ones. Faculty with large teaching loads don’t have the demanding weight of learning and writing under deadlines, the forced creativity of the student, journalist, and preacher. Deadlines are tough – ask Damocles, or the protagonist in “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

I do miss the camaraderie of graduate school. The burden was shared when we could commiserate and share ideas. There was a fecundity with the students, papers, seminars, libraries, and faculty, the atmosphere that stimulated ideas and arguments. My process is more lonely, working on my own and hoping for the best, interrogating an article or author but it’s a bit more one-sided than a live interaction. This is not to say that graduate school was smooth sailing, because there was a horrible guilt and competition. How do you share your pleasure at an effective day of writing with your friends, who may have been stuck or ineffective that day? Jealousy is rampant in academia, with high achieving people and agendas, and it all begins with graduate school and the oddness of writing a dissertation, which is something you’ve never done before and never quite do again. (Books are very different from dissertations. Books are written to sell to scholars and libraries, and to influence research and ideas; dissertations are written to please small committees, with copious footnotes, surveys of literature, and an air of defensiveness. The dissertations are often shelved and forgotten, especially given that the transition from dissertation to book is rare and rough.)

If someone asks how my classes and semester are going, I’ve learned to tell them about the book contract first, before mentioning the sabbatical. If I lead with the sabbatical, it results in suspicion and confusion; the eyes narrow judgmentally as they imagine a 5 month vacation. If I tell them about the book first, then there is sufficient respect to permit the sabbatical as potentially useful. People are funny like that.

I have a lot of notes on this project because I’ve been working on it for 5 years or so – ideas, paragraphs, research notes, and outlines that scraps of time here and there have created. I tell people it’s like the Pentagon Papers, that scene in the movie The Post where the reporters have thousands of photocopied pages from the Pentagon Papers, but out of order and without page numbers. They have stitch to the pages together and figure out the proper order. That’s a large part of what I have to do with all my notes. But then it becomes more than just stitching together, as new connections get made, new emphases, bits get moved, so it morphs in new ways. The parts don’t connect themselves, but form new connections that form new connections. It’s less of a paranoid bulletin board and more of being a lion tamer. But there is a thrill at the performing lion. Stephen King in The Green Mile writes how “the combination of pencil and memory creates a kind of practical magic, and magic is dangerous”; for Nabokov, “the pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.”

A sabbatical creates a different relationship to time. Blocks of time fly by as I try to absorb a book or article, or churn out my 930 words for the day. A whole day seemed like a luxury, but it quickly flies by. It is surprising just how much time is required to write, how quickly a few edits and expansions turn into 3 hours. Part of me is impatient and wants to get it all done, while the rational side urges “eye on the prize,” and “slow and steady wins the race.” I struggle between wanting it to be epic, and knowing it’s just a book, just a glimpse of an area that continues to evolve. I cannot master all the material, the endless books on tragedy and tragic theory. Just yesterday I bought another book, this one on Simone Weil and tragedy, but when and where do I draw the line? “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (Ecclesiastes 12:2). I imagine most books are a result of exhaustion, a mental shoving of the material off the table – here it is, I’m done.

Writing requires an obsession with a topic. Even when I’m not working on this manuscript, I’m thinking about it. It may be with a sense of annoyance because I’m not sure what my next point is, or guilt because I didn’t get as far as I expected to, or with frustration that I want to get back to it and I can’t due to time constraints. A thought hits me that I want to expand on, but I’m sitting in the choir loft at choir practice, or driving somewhere, or swimming laps at the pool. It would be more convenient if it could do its job at the right time. The mind is funny, it works through things even when it is doing something else or engaged in monotony. So I try to commit it to memory, but Plato was right about literacy and writing, and my memory is crap thanks to all the keyboards around me.

I’m fortunate to have received a sabbatical from my institution, and I’m most grateful. But I will be glad to have this manuscript submitted in all its 7 Microsoft-Word-document-chapters glory.

Email still sucks, though.

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