The Last Sabbatical

Technically, my sabbatical will end when the semester ends in early May, even though I won’t be back in the classroom until late August. But as I start the last month of what would been a semester of teaching, I’m beginning to wonder what I’ve done. Have I just frittered away these weeks without the structure of a day job? I have been through one other, academic sabbatical. I was away for an entire academic year, and I worked on a small pottery business while attending to the needs of the publish or perish world of financial economics. I sold a few pots and published a couple of articles in academic journals. My pots were odd, hand built whimsical creations, so I didn’t sell enough pots to justify becoming a potter. But the academic work was enough to keep a stream of publications coming, a prerequisite to continue as an academic and get tenure. And that’s what I did. This time around, at a different school with different expectations, I have tenure, so the pressure is different. Still, the approved sabbatical plan was aggressive. I would work on a movie and a book – a lot to commit to.

As soon as the holidays were over, I began to feel stressed and pessimistic. Because I wasn’t sure I would actually do much of anything, I started keeping a diary of miles swum, biked and walked as some proof of doing. My left knee was screaming out in arthritic pain, so the swimming was intended to be the endorphin substitute for my usual running. Today, I added up the miles, I’ve logged 43 miles in the pool, over 300 on my bike, and 130 on my feet. I was hoping these miles would feel like an accomplishment, but somehow they don’t. If I had been riding my bike to school, as I usually do, I would have logged many more miles. And if I had been running regularly, those miles would have been far higher too. The swimming is an addition to my regular routine, an accomplishment of sorts. But when I started I wondered if I might swim 100 miles. That sounded like something. I may, before fall, get to 100 miles, but if my knee gets better, I will probably opt to start running again. The 100 miles, though possible, is not highly probable.

Thankfully, I’ve done more. After honing the film prospectus, I sent it out to drum up interest and recruit interviewees. I was not overly optimistic about the prospects. Though I am partnering with a highly respected filmmaker, I am the idea person, and I have no film experience, none. But the kernel of the idea appealed to people. We got commitments from some prominent voices and eventually we got funding to do the trailer. The less likely project, at least in my mind, though I had been talking about it for over a year, is actually moving along. And the energy is there.

The book, on the other hand, intended to be an academic treatise on the interdisciplinary arguments supporting wilderness protection is going nowhere. Of the two projects this initially seemed the more likely to materialize. At my core, wilderness is essential to my character. I have been teaching a wilderness course exploring the literature on the spiritual, philosophical, ethical, legal and scientific reasons for wilderness protection under the Wilderness Act for a few years. I had essentially summarized all these arguments in a public speech in the fall of 2013, and each of these categories would fit neatly into a chapter. It seemed it was just a matter of doing it, the same way I wrote a dissertation, with a schedule of page deliverables to keep me on track. I did not have a publisher, but given that I had never written a book and I was trained to be a financial economist, I realized I would have to write the book first. I had begun each of the chapters, completed the narrative required by the university press of my alma mater, and emailed my materials to a faculty member on the committee at that academic press whom I had met when he talked about his latest book on the history of the National Parks, at a local bookstore. He encouraged me.  But I have not spent even one day since working on that book.

January began with reading book after book on wilderness. Before I wrote, I thought I had to acquire total knowledge of everything anyone else had ever written on wilderness to convincingly transition from financial economics to wilderness author. If you have ever tried to master a body of knowledge, you know the challenge. One book leads to another two. One paper to another five. The books came every day. My eyes grew weary from reading academic journals online. My faith in my ability to be a wilderness expert waned. And my purely academic interest in wilderness began to feel less than satisfying. I wanted to climb a tree, not read another book. So I did. I climbed a tree in the park near my house, a good climbing tree, a pine with stair-like branches. And the world looked different. The academic strivings fell away.

In the late afternoons, I began to write stories about my childhood. These weren’t the first stories I had ever written. More than ten years ago I had written a book about training for a marathon. That book was neatly structured, or so I thought, around the day-to-day grind of running all the miles it takes to be able to make it through 26.2 without dying or thinking you are going to die. Yes, there were some stories about my childhood sprinkled in because they came to me while doing my long weekend runs, but mostly it was a training diary with recipes for vegetarian meals sprinkled in. The title “Run ‘n Sauce Woman” was supposed to be a clever play on “renaissance man.” It was too disparate, jumped around too much according to publishers.

Now I am writing stories and poems, starting with a memory, and letting the words go wherever they want to – children left to roam in open space. Most of the time the writing doesn’t go where I expect. It wanders and jumps, and I write until it feels finished. Most surprising for me is that this is my most satisfying work. It is the one thing that diverts me from stewing over expectations left unfulfilled. So these stories, more than 30, and poems, almost 25, are my book. But I can’t find a neat unifying theme, and again, they jump around. And when I read a book suggested by a publisher as an example of good essays, I was struck by how little pathos there is in my life and my writing. Mine is a voice that will probably not break through in a very noisy world. But then I think of Nicholson Baker’s A Box of Matches. The author and title immediately come to me even though I read the book in 2004, and I cannot list authors and titles even for the books I have read in the last month. Why did it stick?  The book is a series of careful observations of ordinary life written after lighting a fire each morning using one match from the box of 33. Baker’s insights create wonder out of everyday things that most of us don’t even notice. It’s a magical series of observations, written with grace. But my work is not the exacting observational miracle of a Nicholson Baker. And there is no neat tie between the stories. I can’t think of a title, and I can’t think of an organizing principle even for sections of stories. Even a chronological approach won’t work because many of these stories jump from one year to another one that might be decades before or after.

So what do I have to show for sabbatical, a sabbatical in which I committed to writing an academic treatise and didn’t? And what will happen when sabbatical ends and writing time is invaded by the daily job of being a professor? Will my writing go the way of the pots? I haven’t touched clay in years. I hope not. I hope that now I have tasted the joy of writing without expectations, just writing because it’s fun, because when I stand at my computer and let it go, the anxiousness wanes, I will not give it up. I will not return to the world where I do the expected, that which I was trained to do, the ordinary. I will keep climbing trees and being the writer I want to be. I will not get another sabbatical to try my hand at another totally different craft, to try to find my real inner artist. Retirement looms, and I want to be ready to go at writing with the eager energy of an unrestrained child. If I let it slip, it will be hard to retrieve. The fear of failing, of starting a story and having it go nowhere means it never gets started. The revival of the inner critic is death. The questions about why? Why write what no one reads? You can’t ask. It doesn’t matter. It’s all about the creating not the creation.

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