Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Today's entry is a contribution to the blogging event "Break On Through to the Other Side: What inspired you to create a career outside the confines of the corporate world" instigated by Greg Spalenka, Artist as Brand blogger. Other participants include:

Miss Mindy-Pop Surrealist/Cartoon Folk Artist

Lillyella-Jewelry Maker and Champion of the Handmade

Anna L. Conti-Artist, San Francisco narrative painter

Maria Brophy-Art licensing Expert and Blogger, helping Creative People design their dream life.


So, yes. The Doors. It was The Doors, wasn’t it, who did the song? The door is the great, abiding metaphor for those occasions in life when we stand on the threshold of something new, when we are asked to risk dropping the baggage we have brought with us thus far and step on into the unknown.

The greatest of all doors in my own life opened for me in the mid-1980s. It was a terrifying and exhilarating moment. Greg’s question of the day is this: what inspired you to create a career outside the confines of the corporate world? Well, to tell the truth, I was never in the corporate world. I was in academia. Does that count? Perhaps it does. Academia, sadly, has become something of an industry these days, something of a sausage factory where fresh, raw meat goes in… and comes out at the other end neatly processed, packaged and labeled for the market place.

Am I too cynical? Perhaps. But I spent twenty-five years in academia, and I do know something whereof I speak. It has now been almost another quarter century since I was inspired to take the chance to be the writer I had always known myself to be, and I have not regretted that choice for a single day. I describe myself these days as employed more full-time than I ever used to be—though usually without pay. It works for me.

Okay, that “inspiration.” Again, that’s not really what it was. I had been “inspired” since the age of twelve. I knew then that all I wanted was to be a writer. I just got side-tracked—by the social expectations operative in those days, back in the 1950s. By parents. By my own inhibitions and fears. By thinking that poetry and money don’t mix (I started out as a poet, and poets notoriously don’t make much of a living.)

So I went first into grammar school teaching. I was attracted by the long holidays, when I’d be able to do all the writing that I wanted. In my ignorance, I did not take into account the fact that teaching is an enormously demanding profession; that by the time the long holidays came around, I would be so depleted—physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually—that I would not have it left in me to write. When I discovered that truth, I migrated into academia. Onward and upward, I thought. I was too na├»ve to anticipate the same result!

“Inspiration” came finally in the form of sabotage. I had a series of truly wonderful jobs in academia, and I sabotaged them all. I was a professor of Comparative Literature at USC; Dean of the College (and later Acting Director) at Otis Art Institute; Dean of the College of Fine and Communication Arts at Loyola Marymount University… At LMU, it was my privilege to have the job of creating a whole new fine arts complex for visual arts, music and dance. My inspiration to leave came when I found the Academic Vice President in one of my brand new painting studios, pacing it out to see how many desks he could fit in there for academic classes. I went back to my office, called my wife, and asked her how she would feel if I quit my job and went on the dole…

It wasn’t so much inspiration, then, it was reality that popped up and slapped me in the face. I was always meant to be a writer. For years I had been trying hard to kid myself that academia was an okay option, a way to keep bread on the table for the family and money in the bank. I could always do the writing “on the side.” But the writing didn’t get done, or only in small, frustrating doses. And I chose, for all those years, to deny the hard reality of the spirit and soul: I was devoting my days and weeks and years to doing something I was never supposed to do. In my heart, I knew it. I just didn’t have the courage to recognize—let alone to act upon—the truth.

I quit. When it came to that point, it was really no longer a choice. It was a recognition and embrace of who I am. I like to describe myself, these days, as an academic in recovery. I have kicked the habit, but I still miss some of the perks. A steady income, for example. Health insurance. Retirement benefits. And even, yes, in part, the identity. Because when I stood at that threshold, that was the baggage I had brought with me, and it was hard to give it up. What I have come to understand since I crossed that threshold is that it’s always necessary to leave some part of myself behind when there’s a new one waiting to be born. And that it’s all about freedom, and the joy that comes with finding it, piece by precious piece.


Miss Mindy said...

Wow-- you hit the nail on the head Peter! I quit as well----well, in animation, you get "canned" all the time-- ha haha.. but this last one- I quit, sucky boss-& my creative energy was not able to "double foot" anymore. Thank you for your comment too- we do have a lot in common, us folk who decide to 'go' --- I enjoy your writings, and am excited to keep in touch and read more of your work! - kindly, Miss Mindy

Greg Spalenka said...

Well said as always my friend! It appears there is always a bit of compromise on path we decided to journey upon. Whether it be the corporate world or going it alone.

Robert Henri wrote,"The work of the artist is no light matter. Few have the courage and stamina to see it through. You have to make up your mind to be alone in many ways. We like sympathy and we like to be in company. It is easier than going it alone, but alone one gets acquainted with himself, grows up and on, not stopping with the crowd. It costs to do this. If you succeed you may have to pay for it as well as enjoy it all your life."

Of course we are never alone really unless you choose to be so, but the empowerment that comes with knowing that we can go it alone is priceless. The health care will get taken care of somehow!

Thank you for leading the way!



Maria Brophy said...

Peter, I always thought of Academia as more of a cult than a sausage factory!

It can be very difficult to see things in a fresh way after being entrenched in a cycle of rules and expectations for so long. I was in a similar cycle myself.

After breaking out, isn't it amazing to look back and see just how much you've grown since leaving that world behind?! (And how much your growth was stunted while there...)

I'm glad that you broke on through to the other side - you have so much to contribute!