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Sabbaticals are not as great as you imagine...

So here is a big old lie that we all tell ourselves: if I could just get some time off work I could write a novel.

I am here to tell you not to be fooled, and hereby stop pining for unfettered time to write.

It’s a fantasy.

How do I know this?

I speak from experience, friends.

About six years ago I got out of a toxic, soul-destroying, energy-sapping job and took a low pressure one in a supportive environment. Aside from being a comparatively chilled-out role, what also sold me on it was the holidays. I work in a University, so I have (try not to hate me) ALL SUMMER OFF. That’s right. Four glorious months from the beginning of June to the end of September.

Imagine my glee. Imagine the hours spent imagining my work-free self, plugging faithfully away at the laptop and getting that novel done and sent out to agents. This is what I needed all along, I thought.

I immediately set to planning out my time. It seemed so intuitive, so simple. Get up early and write in the morning. Take a break at lunchtime, spend the afternoon engaged in restful, creative activity. Long walks with the dog, a spot of painting, knitting whilst watching French films, reading in the evening and going to bed feeling accomplished and fabulous.

This is not what happened.

I discovered very quickly that the lack of externally imposed structure was paralysing and depressing. I was overwhelmed with the things I thought I should be doing, and distracted by the minutiae of everyday life.

Instead of being up at dawn to work on my novel I was dicking about with laundry, checking my emails and scrolling through Pinterest. It was a good day if I managed to open Word before lunchtime. My motivation evaporated and before long I was sleeping in, telling myself I would just compensate by working later. I didn’t, of course, and the end of my “working” day came earlier and earlier.

And let’s not forget life. Time off work does not mean time off all the other nonsense we have to do. How much easier it was to let stuff encroach on my ring-fenced writing time. In the day job, I wouldn't dream of (or be allowed to) chat to friends for an hour on the phone, or go for an eye test in the middle of the day, or go shopping. But my own time was apparently fair game.

Predictably, I got very little done - nowhere near what I had imagined. In the blink of an eye I was back at work, steaming with resentment and vowing to do better next summer. Forewarned is forearmed , right?


The following summer was exactly the same.

I was heartbroken, and also not yet aware of my neurodivergence. I didn’t know I was time-blind, or disorganised or highly distractible. And this is key for us.

Our neurotypical writer siblings may be able to muster the motivation and self-discipline required to manage sabbaticals and be enormously productive, but for us, it’s close to impossible.

That is, if you keep trying to imitate the neurotypical, do-things-in-a-straight-line kind of way.

Happily I found another way.

First of all I relieved the pressure.

I don’t have to write. I don’t have to do anything, actually. I can play sudoku all summer if I want. Life has no expectations of us, it’s enough just to be here breathing every day. I’ve fulfilled my biological destiny. We are the only animal with this sense of “I must accomplish this list of amazing shit before I die.”

Schedules, plans, goals…they don’t work for me, maybe not for any of us. The more I try to force myself to do things at a certain time, the less able I feel, and it sucks the fun right out of it. And writing should be fun, it should feel good, not like I’m trying to beat some existential clock.

We have to drown out the noise of what the world thinks we should be doing, especially this go-getter, type A bollocks. Our brains don’t work like that. We need community, love, and self-awareness. We need a gentle inner dialogue that sounds like a parent asking a kid what they’d like to do today with not too many confusing options on the table (Shall we go for ice-cream or play table tennis? Shall we finish that blog or mess about with that short story idea?)

If you can get this in an external form - such as another human being, so much the better. Company works, body-doubling works, coaching and mentoring works, just a little bit of friendly accountability. Share your intentions. A good mentor or writing friend can help you actualise things.

In the end I had to let go of the idyllic summer fantasy. It will never be perfect, but it’s nicer now. Julia Cameron, author of The Right to Write (highly recommended) has it bang on: don’t make writing into this thing that you do when you aren’t busy with life. Writing, being creative is my life. My life happens around my writing, not the other way around. I have notebooks all over the place, so that I can wander back to the page, whenever.

Sometimes I write in the morning, sometimes I do it after tea or after I finish helping my son with his homework. It doesn’t matter. It also means that it isn’t all over when I’m back at work, and I don't have to feel miserable about it. I can write between students, even if it’s only a few words. Those few words are sometimes exciting enough to make me want to chase them, shape them into something bigger, give them more of my time. I slide my writing into the nooks and crannies and I have a much better time of it.

So, stop ring-fencing time and trying to force yourself into sterile writing plans. There’s really no need.

Hang loose with it my friends, and all will be well.

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