In Search of an Artistic Sabbatical
I’d been running on empty for some time. The last seven years had been full. I was teaching adjunct at various universities, and for five of those years, I was a regional representative for the Dramatists Guild—advocating for local writers, planning events and potlucks—while steadily turning out at least one new play a year. I worked overtime to bring my plays to production, which often meant flying (or more often driving) around the country for readings, rehearsals, residencies, and openings. My two girls, born in 1992 and 2001, were beginning to take care of themselves, although each one was a cataclysmic event when she arrived, major speed bumps in my pursuit of a writing “career,” I’d kept at it without stopping.
The payoff came in 2015: I had productions scheduled around the country: a regional premiere at a LORT theatre, another LORT theatre committed to the world premiere of a different play, and my first opera libretto was having its world premiere, when life—or rather a death—happened. While the birth of my girls couldn’t stop me, the death of my sister, who had been battling cancer for those seven years I was so busy, did. On the outside, it seemed I was still on one of those briskly moving walkways in airports sailing to my next destination—in my heart and mind, I was grinding to a halt. And that, if I was being honest, was all I wanted to do.
A career needs to be nurtured to keep it going, new plays have to be fed into the pipeline; how can I stop now, when I was finally getting some traction?… Did other writers at a certain age and stage in their careers… ever feel like taking a break?
But I wasn’t being honest, instead I thought I needed to jump back into the work, write the next play, and the next opera. Maybe I should write a Greek adaptation, and how about a two-hander, or a solo show? I’ve never had a lack of ideas, and although now I had more time, I lacked energy. I didn’t think, “Honey, you’re grieving; you just need a break.” Instead I thought: “Oh my God, is this what happens when you get older?” Just like my physical metabolism had changed after a certain age, had my “artistic metabolism,” as playwright Eric Coble calls it, begun to slow? I chafed against this. A career needs to be nurtured to keep it going, new plays have to be fed into the pipeline; how can I stop now, when I was finally getting some traction? I came home from my last production that season, sat down at my desk and began to write the next new play and then…for the first time in twenty-five years, I decided I would give myself permission to take an “artistic sabbatical.”
I wondered did other writers like me, at a certain age and stage in their careers, working for years with and against all the various cataclysms of this life, ever feel like taking a break? And if they did, what would their ideal artistic sabbatical look like? I reached out to a dozen hard working and prolific writers with a significant body of work I admired. Six playwrights responded: three women and three men. Coincidentally, each one was a parent with children at different stages, from toddlers to teenagers to grown. I discovered I was not the only one who fantasized about taking an artistic sabbatical, or at the very least, could use a vacation.
The first writer I spoke to was Eric Coble, whose large body of work is produced widely around the world, and who still thinks of himself as “the hardest working lazy person” he knows. Uncomfortable with the term, “sabbatical,” he nevertheless fantasizes about retirement. When he first decided to become a playwright, his wife was the main breadwinner and there was the sense he’d better earn his keep. Now that he can support his family, he still feels like he has to keep going to “justify” his existence. Aside from a protestant work ethic, part of his “prolific-ness” is connected to his sense of career mortality. There will come a point he knows, “when people will stop wanting to produce [my] plays, this is the natural order of things.” So even if his “artistic metabolism,” which he says “used to be like a bag of squirrels, has [now] evolved into something like a well fed cat,” he wonders, as many of us in this profession do, “what am I still doing this for, the absurdity of it, the banging your head against the wall moments.” He admits he has more stories in him, but sometimes wonders if as a straight white male, he has an ethical obligation to take himself out of the pool “to make room for other people’s stories.” But retirement is a long way off for Coble, if ever. After taking off part of the summer to travel and to paint his house, he’s back to work with numerous plays on his docket and is enjoying writing them. Still, he accepts the idea of fallow time: “there is an absolute inner rhythm that matches the external world. Winter comes…and then we’re back at it come spring…”
Thinking of fallow time reminds me of Patrick Gabridge, a playwright, screenwriter, and novelist based in Boston. Like Coble, he is prolific, and recently finishing up a busy year culminating in a festival of his plays in Korea. Gabridge sometimes wonders, given his large body of work, what he has left to say that he hasn’t already. While the plays get better, they get harder to write; so he tries to challenge himself in terms of style, voice, and themes. He longs for a month to just read the piles of books on his nightstand, but worries about losing momentum if he stopped writing for too long. A man of many talents, Gabridge has built in periodic breaks from writing with manual labor; his skill set includes hanging drywall, carpentry, and farming. In his HowlRound essay, What Farming is Teaching/Reminding Me about Playwriting and Theater, Gabridge gained a new perspective on his own writing process: that for everything there is a season, a time to dig in the dirt, a time to plant seeds, a time to grow, a time to harvest, and a time to let the land go fallow.
While I knew the word sabbatical had its roots in the word “sabbath,” playwright Michele Lowe, explained to me the Judaic concept of “Shemittah,” which literally means “to release.” After the Jews settled in the Holy Land, they began counting seven year cycles, cultivating their fields for six years of sowing and reaping, then culminating in a year of rest, when people turn away from their labors and the material world to focus on the spiritual. Just as the land gets a break every six years, gathering energy by not producing, she wonders how would her writing change if she ever allowed herself an extended break, how would she change? Lowe, a prolific writer and sought after writing coach, rarely takes vacations; her breaks come between projects at different developmental stages: finishing a new draft, revising a commission, researching for a new musical collaboration. When she comes back to a project after letting it sit for a few months, she feels freer, less judgmental. She says: “The longer the break, the clearer my eyes.” If she were to take an actual artistic sabbatical, theoretically speaking, “since this is fantasy,” Lowe says, she’d “travel to South Africa to see Victoria Falls, visit Budapest, learn to snowshoe, learn to swim…how much time are you giving me?”
Two of the writers I spoke with are still actively parenting young children, Jacqueline Goldfinger a playwright who is also Dramaturg/Director of Education for Playpenn, serves as Philadelphia’s regional representative for the Dramatists Guild, and teaches playwriting, while raising twin toddlers. Then, DC playwright Gwydion Suielbhan, co-founder of The Welders Playwrights Collective, also does marketing for Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company while running NNPN’s New Play Exchange, and caring for his young son. They reminded me of the biggest impact raising kids has on writers: lack of down time. This is something Suilebhan feels keenly. “I can’t afford to write slowly...I have to dive into a play immediately within the span of an hour…and be ready to pull up from the nosedive, and go be a parent at a moment’s notice.” To rest, Suilebhan does what he calls “the equivalent of crop rotation” when his writer’s brain gets tired, he switches to his tech brain. Then, when his tech brain needs sleep, his marketing brain steps in. Though he can’t imagine being separated from his son for extended periods, his ideal sabbatical would provide “ample daydreaming/recharge time.”
Goldfinger’s process also changed when she had kids, going from a flexible to a more rigid writing schedule. She blocks out time to get away a few times a year to recharge her creative energies. When she takes a break, she makes it complete by interacting with art, music, and anything she’s curious about. She tries not to consciously connect it to current work, although everything ultimately feeds the project she is working on when she sits down to write again. Her ideal sabbatical is: “a few months abroad with time to wonder, explore, rest, and reflect.”
While our “artistic metabolisms” may slow in terms of speed as we get older, something else comes too: wisdom. Playwright Allison Gregory (who is having a fabulously successful year with work popping up all over the place) says “one of the beautiful things about aging” is we stop judging ourselves so much, we stop comparing and contrasting, and “that’s a relief.” While writing “grounds her,” it can leave her “feeling emptied out” at times. She also points out:
“I don’t make myself write if there isn’t a huge urge. I know time is precious; I don’t want to spend my days on this splendid earth struggling aimlessly. As I’ve gotten older I have confidence that what I need will be there. I don’t chase after things. I let them come to me.” Even when she’s not writing, she’s still working, “taking in information…rearranging and theatricalizing… making connections…listening…questioning.”
For Gregory, “a primo sabbatical” would include: someplace foreign, near nature with horses to ride and instead of a desk, a “super comfy bed.” If she’s inspired to write, she wants it to be “like capturing an unnerving dream.” Maybe she wouldn’t write at all…“just dream.”
In the end, my sabbatical looked like this: I stopped writing, except for morning pages. I practiced yoga and went for long walks, as cliché as it sounds. I filled the well, reading books I hadn’t had time for, and I had coffee with friends. I took a real vacation with my family to Iceland, where I detached from my usual urban routines for extreme encounters with nature (like whale watching and glacier climbing). When I came back, low enrollment cancelled my fall classes. I started thinking about my new play. I cooked soups and casseroles and slowly started writing.
Eric Coble reminded me, that ‘creative work…the kind where you go into an altered state of consciousness to see things that don’t exist and then drag them back here to our shared reality…that kind of shaman like work requires resting in between.’
And then after being on a waiting list, I was offered a residency at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts for two weeks in November. I arrived the night of November 9. And then life happened again—or rather an election happened—and I immediately felt engulfed by darkness; all I wanted to do was pack my car and drive back home to my family. But here I was, after months of rest from writing and teaching obligations, and I’d been handed the gift of solitude: a private studio in a beautiful setting of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The leaves were peaking, someone else was cooking my meals and I was in the warm company of other like-minded, compassionate and generous artists. The world was going to hell, but of course I was going to write. Long hikes in the woods led to long hours starting my new play, letting me finally face the tender wound losing my sister had left behind.
Given the desperate state the world is in currently, maybe a sabbatical is a luxury we can’t afford. However, Eric Coble reminded me, that “creative work…the kind where you go into an altered state of consciousness to see things that don’t exist and then drag them back here to our shared reality…that kind of shaman like work requires resting in between.” We need our shaman-artists to rest up so they can keep bringing back new versions of reality to bolster us against the one we’re in. To paraphrase Ovid, maybe it’s okay to take a break. Even a field produces a more bountiful harvest after a rest. We’re going to need a miraculous harvest to get us through the long winter ahead.
Special thanks to the playwrights Eric Coble, Patrick Gabridge, Jacqueline Goldfinger, Allison Gregory, Michele Lowe, and Gwydion Suilebhan for sharing their wisdom with me and to Karla Boos, Artistic Director of Quantum Theatre. Our conversations about the transformative benefits of sabbaticals, reading fiction versus nonfiction and raising children while making theatre, helped shaped my thoughts for this essay. Check out the groundbreaking work she’s been doing for the last twenty five years at Quantum Theatre.