A journalist takes nine months away from work to write her memoir.
“There’s a story that’s been inside me for a while; I needed to write this book to keep living.”
Why did you take a sabbatical?
My job allowed me to take a sabbatical for up to one year for things they deemed useful and relevant to one’s career and employment with the company. I’d reached a point, approaching forty, where I felt I had a sense of stability. As soon as I had a home that was mine, something in me shifted. It was a visceral feeling that I needed to write this book to be able to keep living. I’ve heard writers say this before, that there are stories inside you, and you feel like you can’t live life until you’re done getting them out.
How did you think about work throughout your life?
My notion of what a career was, and the career I wanted to have, was in contrast to what I observed my parents doing. My parents were incredibly hard workers. Because they were undocumented for much of my childhood, they basically had to run around and do what they could to make money. Life was work. You dream of money so that you don’t have to keep trying so hard to survive.
I had this notion that I wanted to be a lawyer, because it sounded successful. I remember not feeling any passion around it. My parents were working to survive, so the notion of passion at work was pretty foreign. That all changed when my father was locked up to be deported when I was in college. My dad’s cause ended up being the vehicle where I found a deep sense of purpose. I guess you could say my first sabbatical was taking a year off in college to become an activist.
What catalyzed your sabbatical?
In most ways, my life was great. I had an intellectually-stimulating job where I had a public voice. I just didn’t have an emotional connection to it. I’d just bought my first house. My credit score was really good. Meanwhile, I had this story that had been inside me for a while. I felt that I needed to write this book to keep living. As soon as I had a home that was mine, something in me shifted. I went to my editor and asked for seven months. I ended up taking nine months, after which I returned to my old job.
What did you do during your sabbatical?
I basically just blew off the first month. I told myself I was doing research for the book, but it was mostly just me running around enjoying my hometown — I’m from New York City. I was so happy to be away from work because I felt like I could stop role-playing.
The next month, I began writing in earnest. I had the goal of writing 3,000 words a day, with one day off per week. I took a week here or there to decompress, including a silent meditation retreat. I finished the rough first draft in a little more than a month.
During the process, I cried more than I’ve cried in my entire life; the book was clearly a grieving process for me. It felt great. Frankly, like incredible therapy.
How have you changed as a result of your sabbatical?
I felt like a badass. I did something that is objectively hard to do, and I’m proud of that. I feel more confident and capable than I did before. I needed to know that I could do the heavy lift — and it raised the bar for what I’m looking to do going forward.
I don’t think it would have been possible to write the book to the quality that I feel I’ve written it if I didn’t have the free time to just lose myself in the creative process. In order to do really creative, original work, you need time to be lost in it. I think anyone trying to figure out some beautiful thing inside that they’re trying to push out into the world, whether it’s an idea for a product, or a dissertation, or whatever, having space to step out of your routine is crucial.
How will you use the practice of sabbaticals going forward?
My dream life is one where I am regularly doing long, intentional, complicated writing projects, and interspersing that with being in a world full of hustle where I’m helping people and doing my thing. Every year would have some kind of sabbatical handful of months built into it because I genuinely think that the creative process works that way.
Any parting thoughts?
Something I continuously heard was “it’s so great that you’re doing this while you’re young.” I don’t think of myself as particularly young, but I had fifty, sixty, seventy year olds all telling me that they “always wanted to take a risk and do something like that, but never did.”
“If there’s a transformation you’re aching for, don’t dismiss your own voice inside; figure out how to make the process work. Take it seriously. Ask yourself real questions, and be prepared to sacrifice, for example, stop living in your own home and couch surf for a year to make it work.”
Other quick hits:
What is a sabbatical?
When I think about a sabbatical, I think of an intentional exploration. A big chunk of time to help you interrogate, or explore, a really meaningful question, issue, or curiosity. The purpose is not, “I just want to relax.”
How long is long enough? To me it depends on who you are, and what you want to do. Something like one or two months to me just sounds like an extended vacation – it’s not a meaningful chunk of time. I think it has to be at least several months. One or two months goes by in a heartbeat, you’re doing your laundry, you’re taking a quick trip, and it’s done. There’s something beautiful and symbolic about nine months.
What would you do differently?
I should have asked for the entire year, which my employment contract would have allowed. The truth of writing is that it expands to fill up as much time as you give it. But I feel like I could have explored some other ideas, guilt-free, if I’d had time between finishing the book and returning to work.
An updated notion of work:
If you manage to figure out what work you’re passionate about, and structure a sensical approach to it, you’ll just do a lot better. There’s only so much you can grow and excel and succeed in something you’re not particularly passionate about.
Aarti is a best-selling author and journalist based in oakland, CA.
“I think anyone trying to figure out some beautiful thing inside that they’re trying to push out into the world, whether it’s an idea for a product, or a dissertation, or whatever, having space to step out of your routine is crucial.”