Like most authors who don’t sell a million books a year, I have a day job. I’ve been a journalist since before personal computers. It’s a fun gig that pays the bills but also a challenging one that limits time for making things up. This past summer, my bosses at Blooomberg Businessweek allowed me a six-week sabbatical so I could focus on writing a second novel I owe my friends at Amazon Publishing’s Thomas & Mercer imprint.
I loved the break, though maybe not for the reason most people would think.
I approached the sabbatical with equal measures of excitement and apprehension. I was glad to be out of the office, away from the bank of overhead televisions blaring the hourly apocalypse, unchained from the pressures of concocting and delivering stories. At the same time, I wondered whether I’d be disciplined enough to exploit the opportunity to think about fiction only. Would I behave as if this was a vacation? Might I start cracking beers before noon?
I set a goal of writing 1,000 words a day. I know authors who write a lot more, but I didn’t want to risk discouraging myself by being unrealistic. Hell, it took me almost four years to write my current novel, Bleak Harbor—an eternity to most writers in my genre.
I committed to a schedule: Get to the keyboard by 7 a.m. Write for two to three hours. Take a few hours for food, exercise, research (nope, no beer). Return to the laptop for two hours, maybe three. Then leave the book behind to enjoy the evening with my wife, Pam. Setting the schedule turned out to be more important than word counts.
I allowed myself some vacation activities: a weekend with family in Northern Michigan, another with my wife in New York City. But I stayed on task, writing every day, as natural a part of my routine as brushing my teeth.
Nonwriter friends said they envied my being able to walk away from the daily grind. But I didn’t really—and that’s what I appreciated most about the retreat. Not that writing was a grind, but that I treated it less as a break than as an assignment, as if I had simply moved from my job at Businessweek to a new one. The rhythms of producing imagined words and scenes seamlessly replaced those of writing nonfiction. For me, it was more about the future than the present, giving me a glimpse of what my fiction-writing life could be.
As the end of my leave neared, I was confident that I had learned two things. First, that I could do this novel-writing thing as an everyday job like so many of my novelist pals: a book a year—a good book a year. The other, just as important, was that I liked doing it. My agents have warned me to think hard before abandoning the day job; I’ll miss the paycheck, they say, and maybe the work, too. I can say now that, while the former might be a minor issue, the latter probably would not. The immersion in the characters, setting, and conflicts of my next book, Purgatory Bay, energized me every day.
Others might discover that they need more structure in their day, or that they prefer to work alongside like-minded colleagues. I nevertheless recommend a sabbatical for any fellow scribes who have alternate professions, if only as a way to see if that life might be for you. I’d urge you to set a schedule, make to-do lists, resist temptations that could distract from the mission. It helped me envision a life beyond the one I have now, filled more fully with fiction. At 61, I’m closer to that than most.
My dad, a hardworking guy, had a favorite saying: “This working shit is never gonna be popular.” True enough—unless, of course, the working stuff isn’t actually work. Which reminds me: when I was in Northern Michigan on the shore of Big Twin Lake, I did indeed crack a beer before noon.
Bryan Gruley is the author of Bleak Harbor (Thomas & Mercer, Dec.) and the Anthony, Barry, and Strand Award–winning Starvation Lake crime fiction trilogy. He is also a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist.