Creating Mental Space
A few years ago, when I started writing fiction again, I looked to Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft for guidance. I took to heart what he said about what makes a good writer, including his tips on work habits. I just had to make some adjustments to deal with my reality back then. When King advised to sit down in one block and not get up again until you’ve pounded out your daily quota of 2,000 word, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I was working full-time as an attorney and raising a child. I had to write in the way that King advised us to approach reading: “the trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows.” That was me, taking “small sips” by writing for 15 minutes in the car while waiting to pick up my son at the train station, or during his swim meets when he wasn’t swimming a heat and I could duck out of the pool for a ½ hour, or on weekends when I wasn’t researching a legal brief and my husband could watch our son. I couldn’t set quotas for myself. I already had enough deadlines and stress, and I didn’t want one more thing to put on my list of what I didn’t do that day.
Then this amazing opportunity came along. I am currently on a three-month paid sabbatical from my job, one in which I have no obligation to do anything connected to my profession. In addition, my son is now 15 years-old and while far from being independent, he needs me for chauffeuring duties now more than anything else. For the first time in twenty years, I have unlimited stretches of time to work on a novel that I am determined to finish. In the month of June, using King’s quota-a-day method (I set my daily target at 1500 words), I produced almost as much new prose as I had in the previous five years combined. And I am literally days, just days, from finishing a complete first draft of that novel.
Having the luxury of time certainly was a key to my productivity last month. But I realized that it wasn’t the only factor. Perhaps more important was the fact that my mind was clear of all the ruminations and concerns that I brought home from the office each day. I had an “aha” moment when I read a recent book review by Elizabeth Kolbert — No Time: How Did We Get So Busy? in The New Yorker. (By the way, that’s also something you get to do on a sabbatical – read all the back issues of The New Yorker piled on your coffee table.) The book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte tries to get at the phenomenon of why everyone feels busy to the extreme. Schulte considers as one theory the idea that we are not actually busier than our forefathers and mothers (hey, most of us certainly are not out there harvesting food and building our houses), but we spend a lot of time thinking about what we need to do and that’s what is overwhelming. As Kolbert puts it:
A doctor who’s running through the list of groceries she needs to pick up on the way home is not actually any busier than one who’s concentrating on the task at hand, but she may feel more beleaguered. Conversely, a lawyer playing with his kids is technically at leisure, but if all the while he’s checking his phone for texts from the office he may feel that he hasn’t had any time off. Schulte terms this the “mental tape-loop phenomenon,” and she argues that it’s sapping our precious energies, so that we can’t even “decide what to think about, worrying about home stuff at work and work stuff at home.”
That hypothesis hit home for me. While I was good about carving out time physically away from the office in the evenings and on weekends, I still thought a lot about my work when I wasn’t at my desk. I pondered how to fashion legal arguments in briefs, which attorney to assign to what case, and, mostly, how the hell I was going to get everything done on time. I sometimes fell asleep visualizing arriving at the office the next day and the order in which I was going to tackle tasks, to reassure myself that I could complete all my projects. Yikes.
My sabbatical is not only giving me the physical time to write my novel but the mental space to think about the story and characters, the structure and tone. To push my writing forward, I have to be present in more than the corporeal sense (though I certainly need to pick up a pen or poise my fingers over a keyboard). I must leave aside hundreds of distracting thoughts — the “mental tape-loop” — so that my mind and emotions can be fully employed in writing my story. I’m sure this resonates with so many people who seek fulfillment in other pursuits — whether it be art, music or sports — outside of their day jobs.
This realization makes me question whether I, in fact, did have the time to write more when I was working, or if it was really a matter of not being able to let go of my job and bring my whole self to the writing. I will return to work on the Tuesday after Labor Day, and it will be as demanding as it was before my sabbatical. I now recognize that I need to figure out some way to more fully disengage from the worries of the office for at least part of each day if I want to maintain the high level of writing – both in terms of quality and quantity – that I’ve achieved in the last few weeks. So I’ll be figuring out how to internalize that zen meditation garden you see pictured above.