Today is the first day of my year of being on unpaid leave from my permanent job.
It is a slightly confusing situation to explain. Am I employed? Yes, but I won’t be at work for a year. Sabbatical, then? No, I am not getting paid. So, it’s a holiday? Not exactly. I have outstanding professional commitments to honour. I still have plenty of academic work on my desk including undergoing tenure, going to conferences, writing a major grant application, reviewing a book and trying to finish two article drafts. So, not so much a holiday as a desperate attempt to do everything I think ought to be possible in 12 months of not having to teach or attend committee meetings.
There isn’t anything abnormal about this as such. All the people I know who actually have had sabbaticals have described the delirious joy-panic (I am sure there must be a single German word for this compound emotion) of realizing that they have an ‘unstructured’ year in which to do their own work. However, as a procrastinator this situation is a classic set-up for me. It is the opportunity, finally, to do everything right, to become the disciplined person I’d like to believe I can be, to have time every day to write, read and think. What could possibly go wrong?
Self-help literature loves nothing more than to convince you that all you need to do is replace your bad habits with good ones. Habits are not the problem, the latest self-help guru tells you, bad habits are the problem. It is undeniably true that good habits are better than bad ones (much better to brush your teeth twice a day than ignore your dental hygiene altogether), but that isn’t the end of the problem. Pema Chödrön explains it like this:
The habitual pattern never unwinds itself when you’re trying to improve, because you go about it in exactly the same habitual style that caused you all the pain to start.
I am finally getting wise to the fact that setting about the year ahead with the notion that I am finally going to fix all that is wrong, missing and lacking in my writing life by becoming ‘disciplined’ is itself part of the problem. I habitually approach writing with the view that it is the most important and self-defining act I can engage in, and therefore I mustn’t do it ‘wrong’. Whether I actually write or not, my attitude remains the same and so, often, if I am honest, getting some writing done doesn’t help me understand that it is just writing, instead it reminds me that I am so far behind on getting the ‘important’ writing done that I feel defeated and stop writing again.
The point isn’t to develop a better habitual style (what would that be?), but to confront the thoughts that animate your habitual style in the world as real, unwavering truths. Right now, for me to imagine myself as a person who doesn’t write is to imagine myself as a failed person. I can’t just switch to some other self-defining activity, something easier, simpler or more commercially viable, because I have attached writing to my sense of self.
You’d think, perhaps, that this could make it easier to write (‘It’s who I am’, ‘Writing is my life’), but it doesn’t because there is also a judgment attached to this writing–it has to be good writing. Actually, let’s be honest, the little critic demands that it has to be bloody excellent writing to confirm my right to exist.
Instead of screwing my courage up to attempt some more heroic writing, then, what I need is to fully experience the ordinariness of writing by sticking with the basic task of arranging and rearranging words on a page. I don’t for a minute suppose that I can outwit my habitual style in this way, but at the very least I might be able to unsettle its certainty.