Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Book #18: The Elusive Life of Inspiration

“Just across from us, overhanging us, indeed, stood the mesa, a pile of purple rock, all broken out with red sumach and yellow aspens up in the high services of the cliffs…. It was the sort of place a man would like to stay forever.” -Willa Cather, The Professor’s House

I first read The Professor’s House in a seminar on American Modernism, halfway through my master’s. The professor appeared barely older than me – way too young to be a professor. Still, there was something wearied about the first grey wisp in her tendrils and the way she trudged into class, as though the epiphanies of modernism had long grown boring. She didn’t want to be there, and I couldn’t understand why.

But five years later, it was me up in front of the auditorium of students – now they expected me to be waxing lyrical and conjuring pearls of wisdom from the text. Pearls? I was more concerned with controlling the sweat drops on my nose. Dwarfed by their fresh-faced smiles and shining eyes.

It’s a strange thing being a professor. Everyone looks to you for inspiration, but what are you supposed to do when your mood plummets and you want to shut out the world?

This is why I’ve come to love The Professor’s House. It’s the story of a professor who has a mental breakdown. After decades of toil in the badly ventilated “office” of his attic, Professor St. Peter falls out of love with the life of the mind. Suddenly, he wants to break out of his head – he wants to do something real instead. His life of contemplation and critical navel gazing pales in comparison to the lives of the primitive men he studies (his discipline is Spanish colonial history). Sound depressing? Not entirely. For St. Peter has an active imagination. In the midst of his despair, he finds himself fantasizing about what it would be like to be one of his students, a young man by the name of Outland. Outland used to live on a mesa - a life as authentic as his name. As St. Peter gets to know him, Outland becomes his alter ego, casting light on the man St. Peter could have been.

(Since I have been warned by a certain follower not to give away too much – lest my entries turn into SPOILERS – I’ll leave off here. Suffice it to say that The Professor’s House is the perfect bed companion for anyone who has gotten used to going to bed alone, pondering how to go on when life seems to have lost all inspiration….)

There is a way to jumpstart your creativity. It begins with making up stories about other selves, fantasizing your alter ego....

Photo from: here


Bushpig.vrc said...

and what about fantasizing our current self!

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Too true! (But not easy to do....) I recently came across this Buddhist quote:

"The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, not to worry about the future or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly."

Yet there's something about the act of reading/reflecting/writing that always takes me out of the present into the realm of memory, inner wishes and desires....

Blaire said...

The Professor's House is one of my favorites!

Blaire said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Blaire said...

I came incredibly close to pursuing a literature PhD, even studying and taking that crazy Lit GRE, but at the last moment took the LSAT and embraced law school instead. Finally, after being an English major, I had made the first practical decision in my liberal arty life.

Yet here I am, trolling book blogs, looking at community college creative writing classes, and trying to summon even half the interest I once felt studying poetry and literature for cases that seem empty of meaning. The grass is not greener on the other side, it is just more expensive. Now I spend a lot of time calculating and recalculating exactly how long, and in how many ways, I'll be paying off this decision.

I'm sorry being a literature professor has not turned out to be what you hoped. But I applaud you for following your first love, something which must have taken more courage than I could muster.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

It sounds like our paths have been similar in certain ways.... When I finished my undergrad, I contemplated applying to law school - the artistic and practical sides of me are constantly warring - and I often thought, once I'd become a depressed academic, that I should have chosen law.

To be honest, my decision to go into academia was something of a "practical" compromise, too (what I really wanted to do was write - not study - literature.... But the creative life seemed fraught with uncertainty.... It scared me.... I wasn't sure that I have what it takes).

Yet in the end I find that my desire to write is so core to my identity (and mental wellbeing!) that I've circled back to my first love irrespective of "practical" considerations....

Bushpig.vrc said...

The Pig is a lawyer but with a passion for knowledge and abstract thought.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Thanks for introducing yourself, Bushpig! I look forward to learning more about you & your diverse interests (both intellectual & swinely....)

Bushpig.vrc said...

thinking about your buddhist quote - if you haven't, I highly recommend reading some of the quotes and poetry by Ikkyu Sojun - a colorful and delightful monk.


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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.