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?

Two women standing by a stream
Tammy Ryan with her daughter in Iceland. Photo by Lawrence Mercurio.

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.

a winding road
Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Photo by Tammy Ryan.

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.’

a tree path
Hiking trails at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts at Sweet Briar College. Photo by Tammy Ryan.

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.

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Tammy, thanks for your honest exploration of this issue and for sharing what you learned. As I read, I kept thinking of this passage: “The psyches and souls of women also have their own cycles and seasons of doing and solitude, running and staying, being involved and being removed, questing and resting, creating and incubating, being of the world and returning to the soul-place.” ― Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype See you on the trail!

Fascinating -- and for me, perfect timing. I'm at a stage in my life where I can step back from commissions, teaching -- and write what I want. Nirvana, right? Well ... for eight months I have been trudging around my office and through my brain trying to make the ideas I already have work. They aren't. I thought, I'm old -- my brain is done. I'll have to devote my life to doing good works. I'm out of ideas -- this is it. I'll have to be something else -- which is hard, because I don't want to be something else. And then, in the last few days I've realized I can get rid of those ideas I've been dragging around -- I believe in fate and "no coincidences" but maybe these are not the plays fate has given me -- or maybe they are, but in some other form. I don't have to write any of them! I don't t have to write anything. I can sit in my "Scarlett Room" -- it has a purple fainting couch,etc., and read good trash. I need to remember, will find the idea, the person, the inciting incident -- the thing that makes me want to write. Don't know how,or where, or when -- but it will come. It has before. It will again.

Cynthia, we are living parallel lives. (though I am still teaching, probably too much this semester!) I am feeling like there is a cross roads up ahead....I'm taking a deep breath and asking myself...what's next? In times of uncertainty it makes sense that artists would pause, take stock, re-imagine what the work is, what it wants to be....at all the stages of our artistic lives. The best, I always believe, is yet to come.

I'm looking for the courage,as you wrote, to start the new play. I haven't written for 8 months and am wondering --am I too old to to be writing now? Do I get now?I'm always encouraged when I hear of artists doing something new at an older age -- as in Dustin Hoffman directing for the firs time at 70. As long as Bruce , Cher and Mick Jagger hang in there,I think I'm okay.I am thinking of applying to LaMama in Italy -- does it seem worth the price? And of course I may not make it in.I've traveled to Ireland several times and could easily live there -- it seems so suited to writers, but I'd need at least one person to go with me -- daughter, partner (I don't have one), friend. I jus really need a new,new place.Des Moines is so very nicely blah. I've outgrown the theatre that's here. I hope that doesn't sound presumptuous I was playwright in residence at the Des Moines Playhouse for years. Which looked good on my resume -- but the rest of the stuff, salary, insurance,office,phone -- nope. I wrote shows that premiered in the Kate Goldman Theatre, then toured. The director was not interested in the children's theatre side of things -- although that's what's brings in the revenue --so I blithely sold every one and didn't hand over any of the royalties. And I do knew there are bad bosses everywhere! I was told I would never create a play for the main stage,they said no one goes to see new shows.So that was a blow. I did write two one man shows for them which did premiere on the main stage and have been touring forever.I have a bunch of at French and Dramatic It is just not a hot bed of theatre around here for miles and miles and states and states -- there is the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa,but that's strictly unto themselves.I'm working in isolation. Yuck, yuck,yuck. I adapted The Little Princess, for Playscripts and it's doing well. I have written a few shows for an adult audience,and the one idea that grabs me now is about the "working Girls" in mining towns like Deadwood. But there are no resources here or interest to develop a show. THE TOTALLY TRUE COMPLETELY FICTIONAL STORY OF THE MOTHER OF JESSE JAMES,in which I used magical realism for the first time, has been performed but I want to adapt it into a 90 minute show and have no ideas where this might happen.I have sent it to few contests. Do I write a teenage show which would bring in an income. Do I take on the ladies of Deadwood? Do I stay here, which is rather depressing in career terms and just because it is so nicely blah and the people so pleasantly kind of stuck in their Iowaness _ i've been here 30 years and still don't get it. My hometown is Chicago -- that's where I get the raw energy. NY was never it for me,only Chicago.I'd move back but the old neighborhood is no loner the old neighborhood, and if I have to live in a suburb, I might as well stay in my urban Des Moines neighborhoodDo you have any suggestions on finding a theatre to develop Jesse's Mamaw? The cast is Frank,Jesse,and has a dynamite role for a woman 50's-60's.I've sent it to several contests and do follow up any leads. It was hard when a theatre in Chicago wrote and said, Hey,we love the show -- but we only do shows from people living in Chicago. I wanted to say ,I am living there, mentally, if not physically. I hvae blathered on and I'm sorry --but I rarely get any theatre or writing talk. Maybe I can find more playwrights on this link.Thank you for listening!

Hi Tammy. This was interesting to me as well as an actor. Unfortunately for me, my artistic sabbatical is called unemployment. When unemployed I often feel a need to fill that time to prove my "worth", instead of trying to fill that well with creativity and time to relax and think , something we all need to do. Thanks for the reminder. I lost a brother this last year. That in itself is a well to fill.

Elizabeth I'm sorry to hear about the loss of your brother. I hope you can give yourself permission to take the time you need to just "be." The thing I needed most after my sister passed was time just to think and do nothing. I've always needed a lot of down time. But as Allison Gregory told me even if we are doing nothing we are still creative artists...it's not page count or gigs lined up but "a way of being in the world" that makes us the artists/people we are.

This is a really important article, and I'm so glad so many playwrights were willing to own up to an unspoken but widely held secret: sometimes you just don't feel like writing. I stopped writing for five years after my father died. It no longer seemed relevant, so I didn't even try. Then one day the urge came back, and I became more productive than ever. Did I lose momentum? You bet. But it would have been much worse to force out a new play without any passion behind it. Those plays would have suffered badly. There's a wonderful and inspirational book from the 90's by Victoria Nelson, called On Writer's Block, which removes the negative connotations of that phrase, and affirms the rejuvenating effects of taking a break. I recommend it!

I love this. I too, am considering an artistic sabbatical. I've been fortunate enough to work, primarily in theatre, for the last 15 years. Nothing else. But the freelance hustle of gig to gig--acting, producing, adjuncting, designing, teaching, grant-writing, etc--has become too much. I'm working too hard for too little, and I'm becoming my work. I want to be more than work, and want to have a rich, full life, outside of the theatre. This article inspiring to me, as knowing others who feel similarly is always a breath of fresh air. I'm in the middle of work drought in my freelance schedule, which is nervous, stressful, and freeing. I'm trying to worry less about surviving in NYC, and instead working on myself. What do I really want as an artist? As a human? What do I need to take care of myself? And a break, might be that thing. Thank you for the permission.

A word to the wise playwrights thinking a residency may fill the bill. Many residencies DO have community engagement or work product requirements. Do your research Check out opportunities at allianceofartistscommunitie.... The last thing you need when your tank is on empty or you know a change of scene without pages is the ticket is an unpaid gig!

Thanks for this frank discussion. Just a note about playwright retreats. I have been organizing the La MaMa Umbria retreat for over ten years. We try to create an environment where writers find quiet, peace and inspiration from the beautiful Umbrian hills (and incredible meals) and an invited artist who can provoke different ways to think about writing and being. This year Erik Ehn will provide his unique zen-like approach to the practice. If there is anyone who can help writers connect to something bigger than themselves, it's Erik. If you don't feel like writing, there's no pressure to create anything. If you just want to dream, that's fine too.

Thank you! What a gorgeous and well-timed piece. So much to mull on here. As playwright/parent of toddler/activist recharging has been hard to come by of late. Good to remember the importance of all the seasons.

Giving in to the pesky urge to rest and rejuvenate is it's own kind of struggle. I resist, I resist -- can one procrastinate relaxing??? It's part wiring, part nature of the beast, and a whole lotta fixation. Thanks for writing so honestly about it.

I hear you, Allison! There is a point where the writing definitely becomes a compulsion. I have been thinking a lot about what you said about not wanting to struggle aimlessly since our time here is too precious for that. I've been trying to trust more in my process since it has always had its own timetable. I can push against it, or I can embrace it. When all else fails, catnaps are good too!

Boy, is this one timely for me. I haven't felt this over-burdened, intellectually, in a long time. I need to lay fallow and be alone for a week. Thanks, Tammy, for including me in the conversation!

Great piece, Tammy! (Thanks for asking me to be part of it.) So many words of wisdom from some very smart writers here. And I love what Allison Gregory says about getting older and not feeling the urge to thrash around so much and do so much self-judging and comparing.

Yes, Patrick, it was great to have you all "in the room" with me for this essay. I also appreciate Allison's wisdom of letting go of self judgement, trusting that what you need will come to you. Though a little thrashing around may always, to some extent, be part of my process. Why I need those hikes in the woods....