By Susanna Childress

Notes from Inside a Self-Imposed Sabbatical

Ten days (I kid you not) after my first child was born, I received a phone call from a press to whom, several months prior, I’d submitted my second poetry manuscript.

We’d like to publish your book!

I remember exactly where I sat, outside on the back porch, eating dinner provided by a family from church. It felt pleasant, even dreamy, garnered no less by the small boy I held, his head in my elbow and his lips puckering even in sleep, the salad someone else’s hands had tossed, kindness beside the cucumbers and cherry tomatoes in a bowl, and, of course, early summer’s dusk in Michigan.

I’d sent this manuscript out for three years, been a finalist 22 times, been rejected a good hundred, spent at least a thousand dollars in contest fees and postage; as it goes in poetry, a prize-winning first book had not helped procure a publisher for the second. How grateful I was, then, for this press to give me a chance, to put their good name behind my book, to print the pages and pages of my poetry. Someone, somewhere believed in my work: what a hardy shot in the arm.

Yet the joy I felt most deeply had little to do with getting my foot in the great, dark door of the literary market. I was a mama. I had a baby. Perhaps part of what brought me such quiet satisfaction was sensing I had entered a new season. I did not know then how thoroughgoing a change it would be, that my writing regime might not ever look the same again, that my priorities would, like a commercial airliner, never lift off without this new passenger aboard to alter and shimmy the destination(s). I did not dread this, but my spirit understood without fully understanding: it was, indeed, a different season.

Add this to the mix: months earlier I’d made a pact that if I could get this second book of poetry published, I’d allow myself some good and unhurried time to write short fiction, which I’d abandoned during graduate school and the few years after, as, respectively, my progress through the program and “establishing” myself was reliant on rather feverishly writing and publishing — a familiar sensation for most of us in the academy. In the small ways my situation as a first-time mother and part-time professor allowed me time, I was giddy to pursue another genre and, honestly, to give my poetry a rest.

I perused O. Henry Prize anthologies and collections of linked stories; in literary journals, I turned first to the featured shorts; I began to see plot lines where I’d seen end-rhymes, character development instead of lyric moments. Refreshing, confounding, surreal — it took me forever to get into the groove of writing fiction. In fact, it wasn’t until this spring (two years post-“pact”), when I’ve had the chance again to teach a fiction workshop that maybe I have, as they say, hit my stride.

The relationship between writing and teaching can be wonderfully symbiotic; it can also be paralyzing and parasitic (especially if one is loaded up with, say, freshman composition). It’s often true when I have a few “free” hours I lament that I must spend it prepping for class or grading instead of writing. It’s hard to stop myself from complaining, “I could be working on ______ right now!”

When I’m honest, though, I can see that teaching creative writing has powerfully affected my own work: I read the examples of fiction and poetry I assign ever so much more hungrily than when I leisure read, looking to suck from each a secret of strong writing I can pass on to my students; I’m compelled to create or find both interesting and worthwhile writing exercises because I, too, need to complete them, see what they’ll yield for me, push myself past or through what I could (or could not) do by my lonesome.

I’ve taught several fiction workshops, but this swoop through the pass has brought me breakthroughs in my own writing: finally, I’ve been able to see the structural flaws in a short story I’ve been working on, albeit sporadically, since 2003. Nine flogging years.

I’ll admit: there are still days when the panic to “succeed” in the poetry world washes over me like some scalding waterfall. It snatches my breath out from inside me. It rakes and burns. I’m terrified in the midst of this poetry sabbatical that I’ll never write poetry again, and that any yawn of productivity on my CV might mean something terrible for my already winding “career path.” But that admission ought to be followed with another, what disciplined Sabbath-keepers espouse, what the farmers of a different generation could tub-thump all the year round: fields must lie fallow, and for good reason; the soil needs to replenish and be replenished.

Sure, perhaps it’s one of those writerly excuses to be lazy, be scared off, be fooling myself by distraction. But, as we know, seasons give way to seasons, and what I’m striving to sow, little by little, unfaithful but also undaunted, may not be the same crop, or — dare we go here — even a crop at all. If we understand the significance of such entities, could we not also see the varied elements of our lives — writing, teaching, various academic endeavors, parenting, civic and neighborly activity — as the castings of worms in this field, the dung of cows or the droppings of chickens, rabbits, pigs? The mineral-richness, the revitalizing nutrients they provide. Part and parcel of what a farmer like Joel Salatin calls “perennial prairie polycultures.” Each element feeding the other, sustaining the other, protecting the other.

And each of these, in their own right, are, of course, so much more.

Have you had a fallow field yield goodness in time? What feeds your art, your study, your creative spirit, while you’re pressing into a seasonal Sabbath? How do you know when those seasons, fulfilling and fruitful as they may or may not be, draw to a close?

About the Author

Susanna Childress writes short fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. She authored poetry volumes Jagged with Love and Entering the House of Awe and a forthcoming collection of essays, Extremely Yours. She earned her Master's degree at University of Texas at Austin, her PhD at Florida State, and held a Lilly Fellows Postdoc at Valparaiso University. Currently she teaches at Hope College and lives with her family in Holland, Michigan.

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