Tuesday, January 19, 2016

An arts administrator retires

I enjoyed my retirement party.

Friends and coworkers gathered to see me off Friday with munchies and cake. My colleague and ace baker Rachel made the cake, a chocolate confection that melted in my mouth as I licked the frosting off of my fingers. I recommend that you look up Laramie's Red Chair Bakery on Facebook. 

It's the people. Always. You work side-by-side with humans for years and then, suddenly, they're gone, or you are, and you cease to see each other every day to compare notes, complain about the state of the world, and seek solace when life goes off the rails. A workplace is a family, with all of it wonderful and dysfunctional attributes. On retirement day (R-Day) you tend to remember the warmth and wonderfulness and forget about the stressful times. Arts workers tend to be a tight-skit subculture, possibly because we work in an arcane field and possibly because the arts draws temperamental people. Am I moody and strange? You betcha. But I am also congenial and collegial. I read recently about a group labeled extroverted introverts. They are introverts who welcome the Great Big World in short bursts, and then have to retreat to marshal their emotional forces. That's me. As a writer and reader, I require plenty of alone time. But, as an arts administrator and communicator, I have to deal with people -- in my case, everyone in the state of Wyoming. As a political animal, I am charged to do the same thing. Now sometimes, I am forced to admit to myself that "I hate the living," the phrase made famous by the woman coroner in "Men in Black." Yes, the living can be a pain. They also are a source of joy. Introverts learn how to strike a balance or we will go crazy (and sometimes do). 

How did I end up working in the arts? Glad you asked. When I attended graduate school at the ripe old age of 37, my intention was to get an M.F.A. in creative writing and teach the subject in the hallowed halls of academe. When I left the corporate PR world for grad school, my coworkers gifted me a bull whip for my students and advised me that my very un-corporate attire of tweed jackets with elbow patches would serve me well. My boss told me that it was too bad as I was leaving, as he had selected me as his next project. My boss, you see, was bored as his most recent "project" had been shown the door a few weeks earlier. Who said there was no dark humor in the corporate world?

In academe, I discovered a wonderful coterie of like-minded people with whom I could share my creative vision. I also learned how to teach in a college classroom. The bullwhip was out – drat. I was challenged by a new generation of students raised on Ronald Reagan and Mario Brothers and anime. As an extroverted introvert, I discovered people skills. I was volunteered for the university's fine arts committee. I liked hanging out with professional writers and arranging their readings and workshops. I assisted Etheridge Knight with a poetry workshop at the county slammer (Etheridge had experience in the joint). I hung out with Larry Heinemann and Gwendolyn Brooks and Joy Harjo and David Lee. I learned how to write grants, although my first attempt was a failure. I discovered that there were such things as state arts agencies and that Colorado had one. I applied for the Colorado Arts Council’s (now called Colorado Creative Industries) roster and received my first assignment, which was a gig in a school in a windswept eastern plains town. Had I remained in my home state, this would have prepared me for life in the high prairie of Wyoming. And that’s where I landed a job as arts administrator with the Wyoming Arts Council. I was unqualified, but was hired anyway, thanks to Joy Thompson, who immediately left for another job. Fortunately, my new colleagues were patient and taught me the ropes. I wrote successful grants to the National Endowment for the Arts. Two years later, I was hired for a two-year gig by the NEA. As assistant director of the literature program, I learned tons about the national arts scene, and carried that back with me to Wyoming.

What does one say about a career? It included triumphs and terrible failures. When I set off for grad school, family in tow, my one-and-only literary agent, Ray Powers, advised me to just stay at home and write. I didn’t listen. I knew myself enough to know that I would not thrive as a lonely writer tapping away at home. I struggle with depression, and life in my basement office was a recipe for disaster. I lacked confidence in my ability to make a living as a fiction writer. How would I support my family? My memories were haunted by my father and his problems as a bread-winner. Yes, he had nine children to support but he also had a wife with her own career as a nurse and hospital administrator. She always yearned to write a book about her “damn hospital,” which was part “Peyton Place” soap opera, part Paddy Chayevsky’s lunatic asylum of “The Hospital.” She died too young and never got the chance to write that book.

Did I make the right career choices? I was a newspaper reporter and editor, a PR guy, a freelance writer and an arts administrator. I remain a fiction writer. People are complicated beasts and I am no less so. I am dubious when people say they have no regrets. How can you live a long life in a complicated world and not have regrets? In the end, all fuel for the creative fire.

1 comment:

Sam said...


You have come a long way from the house on 10th Street in Gainesville. Well done. Now, let's get to work, I look forward to reading more Michael Shay.

And yes, I am quite jealous!


PS Bart still ranks as one of the great dogs of all time.