The Story Economy Blog

Does Leave Exist for the Self-Employed?

sabbaticalI need a sabbatical.

I didn’t know that was the word I’d been searching for until I talked to my neighbor, a Lutheran minister. Our kids are friends, and we were all at a community event Saturday night. I asked him how the ministering business was going, and he told me he just received a grant to take a sabbatical. I felt a tingle. A sabbatical? Even the word seemed to ignite something in me. This grant (which he had to work hard to get) will allow him to take time off next year to explore things he’s interested in, to travel for the purpose of learning and growth, and for general personal development.

I’m very excited for him, but also envious.

Is that kind of sabbatical possible for me? A “leave” of sorts, for the purpose of working on writing projects not related to the client work I do? How can I find a temporary easement of deadlines and professional accountability—without abandoning my responsibility to support my family? Surely other self-employed people who spend every professional minute in and on their business have this same longing?

Don’t get me wrong: I quite love what I do and take great pride in supporting the family! I just want a chunk of time to devote to growing a different part of myself.

Even as I write this, it feels very ungrateful. If I express this desire, what if clients stop hiring me? You don’t want this work because you want to do your own thing for a while? No problem. We’ll find another writer!

I backpedal in my mind, over and over again. I tell myself, I’m going to take a month to work on my fiction project. I’m going to do it! And then a killer project will come up. I can’t say no. I don’t really want to say no. It’s not just that I see dollar signs. It’s that I like clients, and the challenge of it all. The courting and wooing with my words and emails. Hire me. I’m really good. Are you interested? I love it, and at the same time, am exhausted by it.

I’ve been doing this since I started freelancing in 2002. The longest I’ve ever not been at it was two weeks in 2007, when my husband and I went to Italy for our honeymoon. (And yes, I’m counting giving birth twice; I was checking email, prospecting clients, and meeting deadlines within days. I’m neither proud of it, nor lament it: it’s just a fact.) I’ve always been so afraid of losing momentum if I stop, even for a few weeks.

Still, this idea of a sabbatical builds in my mind, taking on a life of its own. Time to write and think and reflect. To tell my story. Mine. I’ve been trying to write fiction in the mornings this year. But come 10:00 a.m., I have to send the muse away. She gets so pissed at me. “I’m sorry. But I have to support my family,” I tell her. “Come back again, tomorrow. Please?”

I’m never sure if she will.

An Absence Granted

I actually looked up the word sabbatical, to make sure I was understanding it correctly.

My dictionary says, “A leave from work, an absence granted, usually every 7th year, for rest, study, etc.” A little more sleuthing and I realized it had biblical origins (duh, “Sabbath”). Literally, it’s a “ceasing.”

Generally, in the world of tenured professors, it’s a paid leave they get to apply for and take every seven years. We have a thing about seven. Rest every seventh day. Seven wonders of the world. Be careful of the seven year itch. I’ve been at this self-employment thing 13 ¬Ω years, which is nearly seven times two. Maybe that’s why my itch is so strong. My goodness, they’ve been 13 fun and blessed years! But a few months . . . just a few months, with the security that I could return to a business as robust as I left it. Could that happen? Are sabbaticals for the self-employed even possible?

Certainly there are fellowships for writers—grants that exist for the very purpose I’m describing. I’ve applied for one fellowship (I feel nervous even saying it!) and am researching others.

It’s very much a high-class problem to have. Poor me, I’m so busy with paying work, I don’t have time to doodle on stories! I’m not complaining. I’m simply contemplating. It’s tricky to balance the gratefulness with the itch.

There’s something else in that definition I want to point out: the word “granted,” as in, “an absence granted.” That means somebody has to do the granting. If it’s not an institution, then I suppose the granting body has to be me. I have to grant myself a sabbatical. What a dangerous and lovely concept. I’ll have to work on putting my application to myself together. It might get denied. We’ll see.

For now, I’m going to enjoy rolling the word around in my mind. It calms me to hear it in the echoes of my breath. Try saying it yourself. Sabbatical. It’s beautiful.


  • Shel Horowitz

    Posted by Shel Horowitz on 08/19/15 2:04pm

    It's a dance we all do. I think you're on the right track by welcoming the Muse in the early mornings--but nothing stops you from taking a sabbatical as well, and inviting the Muse to join you on a longer vacation. I find my clients never object to absences of up to three weeks, and sometimes they have to wait that long for me to slot them in even if I'm not traveling. I have not tried an extended period, because I am happiest when I have a mix of my own and client projects. I need to shift gears every hour or two.

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