How I spent my three-month sabbatical

Erin Strybis Washington Hike

On Dec. 2, I’ll step back into my workplace of over six years after a three-month sabbatical. Undoubtedly one of the first questions on my colleagues’ minds regarding this time away will be “So, how was it?”

To which question I’m struggling to find a succinct answer.

If pressed to sum it up in adjectives, I’d offer “restful,” “transformative” or simply: “necessary.” Alternatively, I could say “just what I needed.” (This is the most likely answer I’ll share.)

Such descriptors cannot adequately express what it feels like to step away from demanding work in an always-on capitalist culture that values achievement over rest. Or what happens in the heart of a 33-year-old person whose last similar break was the summer she was 15. I worked every summer after I turned 16; my first full-time job started two weeks after college graduation. Oh sure I had a maternity leave – any mother will tell you maternity leave is NOT a break from work. But I digress. 

Many will be satisfied by a short answer, ready to move on with their day. Those who are wanting more may then ask, “So, what did you do?”

Short answer: “Rest. Travel. Write. Spent time with family and friends.”

Longer: In September, my husband, son and I visited my grandma and extended family in Louisiana, saw my girlfriends from college and celebrated my sister-in-law’s wedding. I finished an essay that ended up figuring into the theme of my book project.

In October, our family went apple-picking, celebrated a dear friend’s wedding and enjoyed Halloween festivities. I read and wrote.

In November, I took my first solo writing trip to Holden Village and hosted both sides of the family for Thanksgiving. By the month’s end, I completed three rough chapters for my book proposal and had others in the works.  

These highlights are only half the story. In the spirit of authenticity and transparency, here are some things I wouldn’t share in casual conversation: 

In September, I went to a number of doctors for overdue appointments. I then found myself having unexpected crying fits and feeling general listlessness. Enter: Writer’s block. I returned to church after a long hiatus. 

In October, I pressed pause on all freelance writing work and returned to therapy. I also turned down two potential job opportunities. I realized the book I originally wanted to write is not the book I need to write right now. (Yikes!) Exit: Writer’s block. 

In November, while traveling, I had a number of breakthroughs for the book. I met incredible people at Holden Village and witnessed the Pacific Northwest in all its fall glory. I returned home to receive good news about my father’s health. I waited for news about mine. 

Still this is not the whole story.

It should be noted that in addition to writing, I read voraciously during my sabbatical. I finished:

  • Still by Lauren Winner (I cried reading the introduction, this book is so relatable and honest)
  • Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan (I laugh-cry all the way through)
  • Educated by Tara Westover (I read this twice because it’s so good)
  • Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (cannot stop thinking about this)
  • The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church (beautiful, challenging)
  • The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates (phenomenal, sobbed through this one)
  • Twirl by Callie Feyen (read for the second time, this book and its author are a gift)
  • Lit by Mary Karr (exquisite prose and storytelling)
  • A Book of Uncommon Prayer by Brian Doyle (hilarious and heartfelt)
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (powerful, must-read)
  • Where’d you go Bernadette? by Maria Semple (inventive story, strong satire)
  • On Writing by Stephen King (excellent straight talk on writing)
  • Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola (excellent slant talk on writing ;))
  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (touching, well-written page-turner)

Each of these books shaped my inner growth and influenced me as a writer. I’d highly recommend any of them to you, if you are looking for a good read. (I left five other books from my reading list unfinished, though reading multiple books at once is typical for me.)

And speaking of unfinished, if you’re reading this blog post and wondering where are all the stories from your time away? I usually write scenes and stories when I post on this blog. Here’s the answer: I’m hoarding them.

I would love to tell you more about my visit to Holden and someday I will. But those sacred, raw stories are in a special notebook that I’m slowly transferring to computer screen. The changes that took place inside me this past season? I’m saving for my book as well. I’m eager to share them. 

This is hard for me. I would love to share them right now as they are. However, when I decided earlier this year to write a book proposal I didn’t realize I’d be sacrificing the outward facing writing that is so satisfying to complete – freelance bylines and blog posts and micro essays – for the hard, behind-the-scenes work of building chapters and story arcs and investigating my life and turning it into art. In order to make space for this larger project in earnest, I must do less.  

As I mentioned earlier, I also thought I was writing a completely different book than the one I started. But if I look back at the arc of this year and reflect on the pain I’d only partially dealt with and had been so doggedly avoiding I realize how could I not write this story? 

And what, you might ask, is your book about? 

It’s about a girl hungry for love and for answers. This girl believed she had to be perfect in order to earn love. She believed in God. Along the way, she battled an addiction and had a baby. Then someone she loved got sick. Then someone else. A kernel of doubt lodged itself in her heart. It kept growing and growing. She found herself in crisis. 

The book is about how she moved forward.   

Writing a book is intimidating, grueling, holy work that is feeding my soul. I’m creating a precious gift. For others. For myself. (By the way I do plan to write my original book idea, which was a devotional. It’s also in the works, but on the back burner for the moment.)

So it’s been pretty quiet over here and will continue to be for some months as I chip away at chapters of my story. I’m opting out of social conversations, pitching less and posting less because I’m channeling all my creativity toward one of my heart’s greatest desires – to put a book in the world. I do not think this will be easy. I do not know if I will succeed.

I do know I have to try.

Every time I get distracted by the seeming pressure of endless “content-creation” (can we agree that this term “content” is just the worst?), I try to remind myself: I’m in this in the long haul.

It takes time to craft something brave and beautiful. I’m in the thick of it now and there’s no turning back.

So, here’s how I spent my three-month sabbatical — I breathed energy into another chapter of my life.

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