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What I Learned on Sabbatical

Greek monasteries atop rocky cliffs

Wow. Has it really been a year since I went on sabbatical from management consulting? After twelve months without a project, it seems like a good time to reflect on what I learned during my year of travel and debauchery.

What a year it was! I learned that the world is indeed a beautiful place, full of history and wonders, all set across the tapestry of our shared human values. Patrick and I attended the Women’s march in Washington DC, walked the Roman Forum in a state of awe, learned how to relax on the southern coast of Spain, and expanded our knowledge of the world in South America. I’m profoundly grateful for my travels, and for a year of unbroken time with my husband. He is, after all, my favorite person. 😊

I hoped my sabbatical would give me a fresh perspective on my life, and it did. But that i wasn’t always easy, or pleasant, or simple. Change always comes with bumps along the road. My sabbatical was a delight, but there were growing pains aplenty.

What I Learned on Sabbatical

I’ll share the five most important lessons from my year without working:

What My Heart Wants – During my consulting years, my brain called the shots. And because of this I spent my time in efficient, productive, and profitable ways. My decision to go on sabbatical was a purely emotional decision, and I had a hard time rationalizing it. Predictably this caused me a lot of anxiety.

HOW DARE I DO SOMETHING JUST BECAUSE I WANT TO? HOW SELFISH. (screamed my business-brain)

But here’s the thing. My heart knows what it wants, and that’s good! On sabbatical I re-learned that decisions can be emotional, personal, and exploratory. Sometimes those “I can’t explain it but I just need to do this” moments are a sign that you’re onto something. In my case, it led to one of the best years of my life!

reflective blue water of the columbia river
We traveled here for no good reason.

Letting Go is a Life Skill – Last February I was struggling. We were traveling and I loved it, but I was negotiating with a client how I might fly home for the summer to run a project for them. And I really didn’t want to go! But I felt like I had to, because if I stopped working even for a minute I’d never work again.

Thankfully I realized what a chicken I’d become! Work was my security blanket, and I was gripping the edges with my fingers. I went on sabbatical “for real” starting in April of 2017. Letting go is a life skill, and I wasn’t very good at it.

When my real sabbatical started, the benefits of my time off accrued quickly. Go figure! But I wasted four months figuring that one out.

Decompression is Uncomfortable – Once I stopped consulting, my values changed in unexpected ways. My introversion came roaring back, after decades in an extrovert’s job. And the externals that used to drive me, things like goals, praise, and accomplishment— they began to feel hollow.

I’ve become averse to the superficial aspects of corporate life. Particularly the buzzwords, circular trends, and the endless bouts out self-congratulation. And while doing meaningful work still holds an attraction for me, much of the corporate Kool-Aid has turned sour. When I visit LinkedIn, sometimes it feels like a massive ego party, with everyone patting each other’s backs and trying to look good for the cameras. I used to be fine with this. Heck, I participated with gusto! But now the whole thing makes me queasy.

Over time, I’ve made my peace with these changes to my personality and attitude. But while the shift was happening I felt deeply confused. Conflicted too. Why were my values being upended? And why did things that once excited me become tacky? Decompression can be painful! If you attempt it, my advice is to be patient and go easy on yourself. You can’t force your way through; it’s more like a long and bewildering surrender.

Worth it! (but ouch)

Coworkers aren’t Friends. Sorry! – Throughout my adulthood I’ve had a small number of friend-friends and a larger number of work-friends. And this never seemed like a problem while I was fully employed. On sabbatical though, work-friendships get weird! Like when you meet someone for lunch and all they talk about is work, because that’s been the basis for your entire relationship. And it’s not their fault, because you used to lap that stuff up. But now it’s like listening to a proctologist describe all the butts they’ve looked at this week, and you’re like DUDE, I’M EATING. PLEASE STOP.

A sabbatical might reset your bar for friendship. My work-friends are lovely people and given enough time some will become friend-friends. But it’s tough! When the context of work drops away, you might wish you’d spent more time cultivating your non-work friendships. I know I did.

What it Means to be Free – This one’s a doozy. Are you ready for it? Here we go: Even though my sabbatical is coming to an end, I’ve never felt freer. Isn’t that strange?

Consider this: For years I told myself that I couldn’t travel. But this was a lie! A more accurate statement would have been “I could travel, but other things are more important to me right now. Like maintaining my earning power, and saving money, and working.” And while that might sound like a quibble, or merely a matter of word choice, it’s really not.

We humans have a tendency to lock ourselves in boxes, while pretending that someone else is the jailer. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called this Bad Faith and it’s the thing that happens when we’d rather say “I can’t” than face the anguish of difficult decisions. Even your job title can become a prison under the concept of Bad Faith. After all, a consultant behaves in a certain way, dresses in a certain way, and uses certain words. If we’re not careful, we end up playing a role, trapped by our own labels.

“Well, I can’t do this because…”
“Well, I wish I could do that! But…”
“As a consultant, I must…”

The opposite of Bad Faith is living authentically, which isn’t about traveling the world or even following your dreams. Instead it’s about acknowledging, moment-to-moment, that you’re free to pursue all your options.

You can stay in your job, or quit, or look for a new one.
You can take a risk, or not.
You can pursue stability, or seek out adventure.
You can stay in a relationship, or leave.
You can keep your peace, or speak up.
You can follow the rules, or not.

Don’t mistake me. I’m not saying that any of these choices are better than the others. Or that consequences and constraints don’t exist! Only that they are indeed choices, and we get to make them. The person we are today, and the choices we’ve made in the past, those things are only as limiting as we decide they are.

Boots by a fireplace.

Going on sabbatical taught me that freedom is a state of mind, not a state of employment. But I had to leave my job behind to figure that out. Just as it’s difficult to appreciate architecture while you’re standing inside the building, you might need some distance from “normal” to gain a new perspective.

An End to My Sabbatical

Over the last year, I’ve caught up on some zillion hours of missed sleep, read a hundred books, and watched my stress level plummet to zero. Who even knew such a thing was possible? I’ve remembered how to play, and how to rest, and what it means to be a human being who does things, instead of a job title with legs.

When I started my sabbatical, I figured it would have a specific end point. But instead it’s petering out, like a ball rolling to a stop, half-hidden in the tall grass. And now I’m left with two questions. Where am I now? And what do I want to do next?

Oddly enough, the answers are easy to come by. Where am I now? I’m in this place called “my life” and I like it just fine. And what do I want to do next? Right now, I want to write novels, and travel, and enjoy the people in my life. But that doesn’t mean I can’t consult if some of that meaningful work floats across my desk. But I expect I’ll be picky.

The best part? Every day I get to choose.

Thanks for reading, friends. 😊 Have a great day.

A Writer's Development

If you write, you’re a writer.

There’s no secret handshake, and no gatekeeper. The only permission slip that matters is the one you give yourself. And while you might choose to get an MFA degree, or to take a class, or get an agent, exactly zero of those things are required.

It’s easy to get lost in the forest of self-doubt! For years, I threw roadblocks into my own path. I told myself that I needed to do X or Y before I could be a Real Writer. And I convinced myself that writing was self-indulgent, not very respectable, and not important enough to spend my time on.

Look, most of us go through a beginner-angst-bullshit stage. But if you’re persistent, the day will come when you get over it. You’ll begin respecting your writing goals, and by extension, yourself. And once that happens, you’ll begin thinking about questions like these:

How do I become a better writer?
And how do I get faster?
And how do I fit writing into my life?

I love these questions! And I expect I’ll be answering them for a long time. But I’ll tell you what I’ve figured out so far.

Becoming a Better Writer

When you learn something complicated, there’s an awkward stage where you’re no longer a beginner but you’re not yet competent. Unlike a true beginner, you can see your flaws clearly. This can be discouraging, because you’re wise enough to know you’ve got a long road ahead of you.

I’m working through that stage right now. When I write, I sometimes feel like an untrained swimmer trying to doggy paddle across the pool. There’s a lot of struggle and splash for each small amount of forward motion, and I tire quickly. I love the work, but I wish it wasn’t so difficult. And I’m often unsatisfied with my progress, even when I put in maximum effort.

I’ve got some goals for my writing in 2018:

  1. I want to improve my storytelling skills. (Pacing, suspense, dialog, character motivation, and language)
  2. I want to produce books more frequently. (My stretch-goal for 2018 is three novels, but two is probably achievable.)
  3. I want to have more fun along the way. (Writing is already fun, but it’s also more difficult than I want it to be.)
  4. I want to earn income from my work. (Yes, I have numbers, but I’m not posting them here.)

Those are my goals. Why not take a moment and write down yours? I’ll wait.

Reading Assignments

If you are reading this blog post because you want to write fiction, I’m going to suggest you pause here and order some books, either from a store or from your local library. These five books that will teach you much of what you need to know about authorship:

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
On Writing by Stephen King
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

There’s a wealth of information in these books, and I won’t reproduce their wisdom here. But I will offer a spot of advice for you rational types who pick up The Artist’s Way and think it’s too woo-woo. _Hey, I get it. It took me three tries to get through that incredible woo-woo book. _ Read it anyway. Do the exercises, anyway. Suck it up, left brains, and do the homework.

Think of those five books as your prerequisites for what I’ll outline below.

A Writer’s Development

Last year, I put together a model that I could follow to reach my writing goals. I was tired of flailing, and I wanted a roadmap like those I used to build for my clients, only focused on creative writing instead of leadership. What I came up with blends together what I’ve learned from experience, and what I’ve learned from books, and some tips I’ve gotten from other smart writers I know.

As you can see, there are four main elements.

Self-Care means that I’m getting eight hours of sleep each night, I’m eating healthy food, and my stress level is reasonably low. It means I have a positive attitude about my writing, and that I’m being compassionate towards myself. Also in this category, I include financial wellness. I agree with Liz Gilbert’s assessment that you shouldn’t be relying upon your creativity to pay the bills, especially at first. For most writers, that means having a “day job” that can pay the bills, and which doesn’t leave you creatively depleted at the end of the day. When self-care isn’t happening, writing becomes far more difficult than it needs to be.

I want to offer a big Thank You to Seattle writing coach Peg Cheng who got me thinking about the importance of self-care!

Daily Practice refers to my habits behind the scenes of my current project. Julia Cameron suggests three pages of longhand journaling every day, which is the kind of thing that sounds like a massive pain in the ass but turns out to be indispensable once you get going. Daily practice also includes setting aside dedicated time to write on your current project, practicing your observational skills, and collecting shiny objects (words, phrases, images) like a crow might collect baubles for her nest. You need to think like a writer, even when you’re not in front of a keyboard, and that takes practice. I encourage you to find what works for you, rather than adhering to arbitrary rules. As one example of this, I now do my morning pages in the evening before bed.

Craft is skill development, and for writers this begins with getting quality “intake” into our verbal diets. Stephen King famously said, “read a lot and write a lot” but I’ll expand that to all storytelling mediums, including movies, TV, poetry, and the visual arts. Craft also requires that we develop writing-specific skills, such as description, how to break a story into scenes, and how to create multi-dimensional characters that speak and act in interesting ways. Pacing, dialog, story structure— there’s so much to learn here!

Shout out to Jami Gold and Rachel Aaron who have been generous in sharing their knowledge with other writers.

Delivery is about getting your books to the people who will enjoy them. This element is about putting your work out into the world and convincing people to give your work a try. It also includes marketing skills like cover design, metadata, and how to build a mailing list. Ideally these activities will become an ordinary part of your work, and your week, but it will take some time to discover what works and what matters.

Writer, Teach Thyself

What I love about this model is that it’s non-sequential, meaning I can pick and choose activities from all four quadrants, based upon what seems relevant. Here’s what I’ve been up to the last couple months:

Fiercely guarding my writing time, even when it means turning down fun activities.
Honing my editorial skills, trying out a variety of editing software tools, and spending quality time with the Chicago Manual of Style.
Reading books and watching movies. (This hardly feels like work, but I have to ration my TV time carefully. Too much screen time means I’m not reading enough.)
Learning about story structure; and applying those lessons to my current project.
Learning about marketing elements like covers, blurbs, and metadata, and applying those to my finished projects.
Jotting down details of what I see, hear, and notice when I go someplace new, to hone my descriptive skills.

How It’s Going So Far

These practices have already changed my my writing quality, output, and attitude in positive ways.

My first surprise was this: most of this “work”; occurs when I’m not writing my novel. Sleep occurs at night, obviously. My morning pages take about thirty minutes upon rising. I read books and watch movies at night, like I always have, only now I do so with a sense of purpose because I’m studying instead of being passively entertained. Observational skills can be practiced anywhere, even in line at the grocery store. And the craft-work occurs as I need it. When I’m getting ready to tackle a piece of description, for example, I’ll do some reading on descriptive techniques before I start.

Right away, my writing process changed. I used to sit down at the computer and feel like I was climbing a tall mountain with my teeth. Now I sit down at my computer with a short list of things I want to accomplish, and I do those things.

Old me: I GOTTA WRITE 1500 WORDS TODAY OR I SUCK AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M GONNA SAY AAAAARRRGGGGHHH…

New me: Okay. Yesterday I sketched out the setting for this murder mystery, including the floor plan of the lodge. Today I’m going to put that information into a scene where my heroine arrives at the retreat. I have two goals for this scene. I want to describe the setting where the story will take place, and introduce CHARACTER as he welcomes the party to the lodge. This scene is part of the setup, meaning it should be descriptive but not too long.

Most importantly, I see a direct connection between my development activities and the quality of my writing time. When I sit down at the keyboard these days, I’m well rested. By the time I wrote that scene, I’d been thinking about it for a few days. When I saw some relevant detail I could use, as I went about my daily life, I jotted it down. All those little things add up, and they’ve made my writing time more productive and more enjoyable.

So far, so good! My word count per hour slowed down for a while, as I worked on my consistency and quality, but it’s starting to rise again. And I love knowing that I’m moving my story forward in concrete ways each time I work on it.

So far, so good! ☺️

What Kat Voyzey Taught Me

a manuscript rests on a table with a pen

Writing fiction is a strange and delightful process.

For me, a story begins when a character wanders into my head and demands my attention. Kat Voyzey arrived one winter while I was writing my masters thesis and stressing out about my decision to start a consulting business. I was way too busy to write a novel, but she wasn’t interested in my excuses. Kat told me that she was an HR Director, that a woman had been shot in the hospital where she worked, and that she got involved because the victim was being unfairly blamed for her own death. She was persistent and weird and she swore a lot. And even though I was too busy to give her much attention, she hung around for the decade it took for me to tell her story.

Kat was more than a protagonist. She was also one of my teachers.

What Kat Voyzey Taught Me

Completing my third novel feels like a graduation day of sorts, and in the absence of a hat to throw into the air I’ll settle for feeling giddy. In a way I feel like Kat and I have been walking the same road, figuring things out together. Kat went from being an incompetent sleuth to a becoming talented investigator. And I went from a clueless wannabe novelist to an author of three wonderful books.

Here are some things I learned along the way:

Write Your Own Story

When I wrote Involuntary Turnover, I was told by several early readers that Kat wasn’t relatable because she was childfree, non-religious, and she liked to swear. Feeling unsure of myself, I took that advice hard and tamped my character down. As a beginner writer, I lacked confidence, and I was really worried about screwing up.

I’ve revised that novel, now that I’ve got a bit more experience, and I’m happier with the results. One thing I’ve learned is that I don’t need a novel to appeal to all people. Some people will love a cussing, upbeat, irreverent protagonist. Others won’t, and that’s fine!

Twist the Tropes (But Don’t Reject Them)

I love a good puzzle, but many cozy mysteries are too cozy for my tastes. I don’t want cupcake recipes, or endless girl-talk, or the inevitable requirement that my sleuth fall in love with some sexy sheriff or FBI agent. Therefore I was determined to avoid writing those kinds of things into my stories.  My mysteries would stick to the crime, thank you very much.

But I was being naïve! Characters are people, and if you want them to be real they need to exist in an emotional world. Kat got her romantic subplot, and she was happier for it, despite my earliest intentions. In fact, if she were here, she’d be rolling her eyes and telling me she’s entitled to personal relationships, just like anyone else. But we managed to avoid the cliché aspects of the romantic subplot. Her guy wasn’t a member of law enforcement, he didn’t show up at the crime scenes, and he didn’t do that I’m the big strong manly man; thing that drives me batshit when I read it in other novels.

Use a Light Touch

I spent the month of December revising Involuntary Turnover to remove my of my beginner mistakes. And I laughed several times during that process because I made the murderer so freakin'; obvious! I mean, I practically walked over to the clues and wink-winked at the audience, out of fear I wasn’t being clear enough. I was such a noob.

There’s a balance between revealing too much and too little in a mystery novel. If the clues are entirely hidden, the reader may feel cheated because they never had a shot at figuring it out. And if the clues are too obvious, readers may get bored. And where’s the fun in that?  Over time, I’ve learned to trust my readers. I don’t need a flashing light stationed above every clue.

Throw More Rocks

Vladimir Nabokov once said: “The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.” My first three novels are short, similar in length to a Hercule Poirot mystery, because I enjoy a murder-mystery you can finish in one sitting. Partly this was by design, but it’s also true that I wasn’t throwing enough rocks at my heroine.

While Death by Team Building is still a quick read, I did a better job at throwing rocks at Kat. And in future works, my pile of rocks will be bigger.  I’m ready to try some longer and more complex stories, having gotten a handle on the shorter ones.

There’s Magic Here!

I saved my favorite lesson for last. I’ve learned that creative writing is a strange process, full of the unexpected.

Characters walk into my head and tell me stories. I hear snippets of dialog when I walk down the street. And there are times when I’m writing a well-plotted scene and it goes an entirely different way than I had anticipated. That feeling of delight when you’re surprised in a story? It happens to writers during the process, and it’s the coolest and weirdest thing.

Here’s an example: At the end of book three, Kat makes a small discovery. And while that moment fit perfectly in the context of the series, it was as if I’d planned for it all along, I had no idea it was happening until it did. Imagine creating a story, then at the very end you discover something tiny and perfect, only you didn’t make it. It’s waiting for you, like a gift. Where do those things come from?

Magic, my friends.

Thanks for everything, Kat! I hope we get to adventure again, and soon.  And if you’re interested in a fun series of corporate murder-mysteries, check out Involuntary Turnover. It’s the first in the Kat Voyzey series and a great place to start.

The New Endeavor

Welcome to my new website!

I’ve been on the road these last two months, traveling through South America and experiencing different cultures. And while it’s been a great trip, it hasn’t been a vacation, because we’ve been working along the way. P & I have been creating a business plan, setting goals, and dreaming big. And one week ago, our new business Adventurous Ink was born! And with it, my hopes for a long and successful career as a writer. For a while now, I haven’t been able to escape this question: What would happen if I gave my fiction writing the same level of energy, curiosity, and commitment that I’ve given my other business ventures? I’ve been a hobby writer for years, and it’s time to take the next big step.

As my sabbatical is winding down, something else is winding up, a small publishing business. I guess I’ve got a job again! And to my delight, I have a business partner too. Patrick is handling the tech and project management aspects of the business to leave me free to focus on the writing. I’m feeling pressure, but it’s the good kind,  based on excitement and an eagerness to do well.

Huzzah to a new year, and a new experiment! And thanks for coming along for the ride.

Pagination