Back at Work: How to Cope with a New World and Bounce Back into Work after a Hiatus
by Devyani Borade
I’m taking a sabbatical to have a baby!’ I announced to my editors, publishers and writer friends.
After the initial wave of congratulations, well-meaning advice ('Ice cream is great for reducing heartburn!') and jokes ('A writer going out of circulation for a change, ha ha!') had subsided, conversation turned to the inevitable question. ‘When are you planning to return to work?’ they asked.
‘I don’t really know at this point,’ was my truthful answer. What I did know was that it was going to be an important, serious and possibly uncomfortable choice to make, one that could be life-changing.
A year later, as I neared the end of my self-imposed maternity leave and the manic feeding-changing-sleeping frenzy settled into a regular and relaxed routine with my baby, I decided I was ready to rejoin the world of the working-and-earning. I was looking forward to writing and marketing and being part of all the action again. However, I knew it wasn’t going to be a smooth transition and I wasn’t wrong.
Returning to work after a hiatus – be it parental leave, a long vacation, a period of illness, or even the dreaded Writer's Block – is fraught with challenges. You need to shrug off the fatigue of having looked after the young or infirm, or put away those swimming trunks and don the ol' pinstripe, or even forget the bitter taste left behind in the mouth: the inertia and anxiety can be crippling. Sometimes it can feel exactly like starting a new job or beginning an altogether different life. ‘What if I can't write good queries anymore?’ ‘Am I sounding professional enough?’ ‘Do I remember how to negotiate well?’ The potential for failure can be nerve-wracking.The world has moved on, you need to catch up.
The playing field changed when you weren’t looking. Writers who continued at work know about the hot trends, are aware of new industry ideas and concepts, and have developed new skills. Their personal worth and value has increased by virtue of these small incremental additions to their professional self. They’ve sustained business continuity and know where the publishing industry stands today. You, on the other hand, are just back from a long break and have a lot of gaps to fill in. In such a situation, it is normal to feel a bit out-of-sorts to begin with. Old projects have ended, so new ones need to be won; old clients may have left and commissioned other writers for their assignments, so new customers need to be sought and welcomed; even at your local writers' group, new faces may be peeping out from behind manuscripts while the familiar mugs are nowhere to be seen.
To get a grip on all that’s been happening, especially if the break spanned several weeks or months, is a mammoth task and can easily feel overwhelming. Intuitively we know things aren’t going to be the same as we left them, but the ability to handle changes can be acquired with a few simple adaptations.
1.Keep in touch (or get back in touch)
Even before you return to actually working, stay in touch with the industry buzz using social and traditional media. Keep up with the latest by reading your target magazines, following editors and other writers on Twitter, Facebook or blog feeds, and participating in online forums and discussions. If you can manage it, an occasional phone call, email message, or social get-together with colleagues to find out about any interesting developments can be a big stepping stone. An easy way to stay abreast of the industry gossip is to subscribe to newsletters, especially those that announce new markets and market updates. This is a passive way to keep your finger on the pulse and can be done at your convenience. If you feel the need for it, take a writing course or attend writing workshops and conferences to bring yourself up to date with current affairs. Remaining competitive is key.2.Get organized
On your first day back, come to terms with the most vital issues of the day by making a simple bullet-point list. Taking action on work items in decreasing order of priority will help get the urgent matters out of the way and thus reduce stress. Using your best estimation or approximation skills based on past experience of similar work and how long it took to complete, allocate appropriate timelines to each assignment. This will give you an idea of how you should schedule the remainder of your day or week so that you are neither overworked nor left idle.
Eventually you may want to chart a personal development plan to lay out your career roadmap, or refresh your mind with one if you've already made it before. Think about appointing a writing coach or mentor to help you do this. Determine your short-term and long-term goals. Need to begin work on that second novel? Bag a few more regular clients? If you know where you’re going, you’ll find it easier to get there.3.Be open to change
You may find that things are not done the way they used to be. Your favorite editor may have discovered a quicker, neater, or more efficient way of accomplishing something and may ask you to invest time and effort in learning and mastering it. It is understandable to feel a slight resistance or even dread or uncertainty regarding change. ‘What if I can’t do it? Will they not want me anymore?’ Remember that change is usually for the better. Change drives development and improvement. At the end of the day, whatever helps the business — both yours as well as theirs — to grow and thrive is what is required and what will benefit everyone. So think positive. Give the new technique a chance. Even if you don’t get it right the first time round, rest assured that there will be a second opportunity. The people you will work with know you've been away for a while and it takes time to get stuck into things. They'll accommodate.4.Jump into the deep end
There’s nothing like getting your hands dirty straightaway to get into the swing of things. The more you delay direct action, the more your mental block will grow, and so will the pile of demands on your plate. For example, phone calls are a great way to familiarize yourself quickly with the current situation. A quick call to an editor to ask for the new editorial calendar, or even just to inform them that you are now back in business, will ensure that you are quickly brought into the loop of what’s happening.5.Take baby steps
Break down large and complex tasks into smaller chunks of manageable, doable work items. A task that looks insurmountable at first will become achievable when done in logical stages. Begin small.6.Be disciplined
Once you have your to-do list, make sure you stick to the deadlines and avoid distractions. No ‘just a quick refresh of my Inbox’ or ‘let me take that call’. Wear blinkers. Focus.7.Keep everyone informed
Share what you are doing with your editors so that any potential for error or deadline slippage is detected and flagged sooner rather than later, when it may have caused irreversible harm. Talk to your clients; they may have suggestions and tools to do a task more quickly or efficiently and may be able to save you time and trouble.8.Reward yourself in small ways
As each item on your to-do list gets done, tick or strike it off. This helps you feel a sense of accomplishment and acts as an incentive to get more done. Work for a couple of hours with concentration and then take a break. Get some fresh air or make yourself a cup of tea. Remind yourself of your accomplishments in the past. You were a professional worker before and your skills have not disappeared, they just need some polishing up.9.Use prompts to kick-start the grey cells
Still feeling stuck? Cannot think how to fill that expanse of white paper with meaningful, saleable words? Take advantage of the Internet. Check out writing prompts available on numerous writing websites and get your creative juices flowing again. Maintain a relaxed, dynamic atmosphere. The human brain retains more data when it is relaxed than when it’s in a tense, volatile environment. Be productive, and creative and make every minute count.10.Enjoy a pleasant comeback.