“I realized today that I’m just burned out,” I said to the Guy on the phone one evening. “I’m writing, but it’s not going anywhere. I can’t find the thread, and I don’t know what I want to work on.”
“Do you want a suggestion?” Right there is one of many reasons I love him: he’s thoughtful enough to ask before offering his opinions. I’m working on getting better at that.
“Here’s a thought exercise that I do about once a year: Ask yourself what you would want to do if you learned you only had thirty days to live. Write down whatever comes to mind without judging. Then repeat the question for longer time increments–if you had six months, or a year, or five years.”
“Great idea,” I said.
The next afternoon, I settled into my comfy chair, sunlight streaming in through the sunroom windows at my back, cleared my mind, picked up pen and writing pad, and began the Guy’s “what if” exercise. It didn’t take long; from the perspective of only having so much time to live, the answers came easily.
Looking over my lists, I was struck by how congruent my “what if” wants are with the life I’m living now. If I knew my life would end sometime in the next month or in five years, I would want to prioritize time with family and friends, finish a few projects around the house here and at the Guy’s farm, hike and/or ride every day, take another wilderness pack trip or two, work in Yellowstone and at Ring Lake Ranch, and write.
As I read over what I’d written, I noticed one thing I did not mention. Nowhere on any of the lists was wanting to earn more money from my work or become famous or be published in the New York Times or The Atlantic or O Magazine. The list included what I love to do, but no career ambitions.
And there was the “aha!” moment: I included writing, but not any specific outcome for the writing.
I’ve been a freelance writer for 32 years. Writing has been my career, my purpose, and provided my income. (Never a big income, but still an income.)
For thirty-two years, the income-earning was so tied into my writing practice that I couldn’t even consider a piece of writing without thinking about where to sell it. If that sounds crass, it’s not. Writing was my job. I couldn’t sit around and wait for the muse. I had contracts, deadlines, advances, editors depending on me to produce what we had agreed on.
I never wrote anything I didn’t believe in, nor did I compromise. I accepted assignments and wrote pieces–from short essays to whole books–that I thought would in their own small way make the world a better place. And perhaps they did.
But they didn’t feed my soul.
And that, I realized, is the problem. I am so used to writing for an income, as my job, that I have very little practice in writing just to say what I want to say. Writing and earning an income are intertwined like two vines that sprout next to each other at the base of a garden wall. As they grow upward, their branches weave so tightly together that each vine shapes the other. Separating them is nigh to impossible.
I’m tired of forcing the words to make my living. I want to just write. Whatever that means and whatever comes. Without considering where to sell it.
So I’m going to take an (unpaid) sabbatical. I have two book reviews and one manuscript evaluation on my desk. When I’ve met those deadlines, I’m not taking any more writing assignments until spring. I’m going to get up each day and “see what unfolds,” in the Guy’s words. I’ll walk or hike or ride, read, keep up with publicity for the release of Bless the Birds, and yes, write–but only if I have something to say.
Imagine: Months to recharge and reflect, with no agenda. I can’t wait to see what bubbles up….