The Big Lie: The Root of Self-Sabotage

By Peter Clothier | Posted 6/1/10 | Updated 9/8/20
Based on Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit

Let me acknowledge first an enormous debt of gratitude to Lawrence Block. Many, I trust, will know Larry as the extraordinarily skilled, prolific, and deservedly popular author of dozens of mystery novels and thrillers and, for many years, a contributor to Writer's Digest magazine. I know him also as the man who introduced me to a whole new way of thinking about myself as a writer. He opened the door for life without the day job in academia that had consumed the better part of my time and energies until I was well into middle age despite the fact that I had known, since the age of twelve, that I was supposed to be a writer. Like the vast majority of creative people, I suspect, I had put aside my passion in favor of what I saw to be the practical necessity of earning a living to support a home and family.

Here's the story: I had just lost my job, the third in a multi-year succession of academic positions of increasing status and responsibility. I had been, to be utterly honest, pretty much kicked out, as I had been from my two previous jobs. I had refused to conform to academic standards and expectations. I had published poetry, for God's sake, rather than scholarly articles. As a dean, I had continually provoked the wrath of vice presidents with my demands for adequate funding for my faculty and programs. I had alienated boards with my stubborn refusal to go along with what I considered to be their ill-advised policies. Eased out of these jobs, I managed to put a conveniently plausible construction on the facts each time in order to rescue my own sense of self-respect, but in retrospect I recognize that I was simply closing my ears to what the experiences were trying to tell me: you do not belong in academia; you were never meant to be here in the first place, and it's time to take the risk you always lacked the fortitude to take — to be a writer. It was Larry Block who helped me hear that message.

At the time — this was in the mid-1980s — Larry had recently published Write For Your Life, a kind of inspirational guide for aspiring writers as well as for those who had, for a variety of reasons, lost their voice or their direction; he was touring the country with his "Write For Your Life" workshop intended to spread the word. I no longer remember how I heard about the workshop. It sounded like something I would have done anything to avoid, with my scathing intellectual skepticism and contempt for anything that sounded like self-help. No matter. Something called to me, and I signed up. Eager as ever to be one step ahead, I read Larry's book in the days before the scheduled weekend. It did nothing to reassure my inner skeptic, who is always quick to identify the bullsh*t in others but equally reluctant to acknowledge my own. I had always recoiled from probing too deeply into the life of the mind, and I was pretty sure that I was going to be asked to explore some secret places that I would quite honestly prefer to leave undisturbed. I knew from the book, for example, that we would be asked to identify the Big Lie — that mental formulation we invent to stand between our creative impulse and its fulfillment (absurd!); now that I was committed, I set about asking myself what my Big Lie could be. My intellect judged that this was a pretty childish game, but I settled on one that sounded about right: "I have no time to write."

So I showed up at Larry's workshop confident that I could ace it. I was, after all, a writer of experience. Did I not have a doctorate of literature in my back pocket? Had I not spent four years at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, one of the biggest, best, and oldest in the country? Had I not already published two books of poems, numerous articles, and critical reviews in national magazines? I showed up at the Hollywood Holiday Inn still not knowing quite why I had signed up or what I expected to learn . . . I knew it all, didn't I?

Sure enough, the moment came when we were invited to identify and announce our Big Lie to the group. When called upon, I had mine down pat: "I have no time to write," I said with some satisfaction at my own clarity. I was distressed, however, to see that Larry's response was a doubtful frown.

"That sounds more like a symptom than a cause," he said, and, after a thoughtful pause, he added, "Is there anything you can remember about your birth?"

My birth? There was a moment of sheer shock and panic. Even my worst apprehensions had not prepared me for this bizarre diversion. I have no idea what intuition might have guided him to the question, and the occasion of my birth could not have been further from my mind. But yes, there was something I knew about my birth: I was a blue baby, born with the umbilical wrapped like a noose around my neck. If not for the speedy response of the midwife with a handy pair of scissors, I would certainly not have survived. I passed this information on to Larry.

"Well," he said, "I have a suggestion." And he offered me an alter- native Big Lie: "I have no right to be here."

The next step was for us to walk around the room and introduce ourselves to other workshop participants by our Big Lie. "Hi, I'm Peter. I have no right to be here." At first, I was unable to bring the words out of my mouth. I choked on them. They struck me, on one hand, as completely silly. And on the other . . . I broke down in hysterics. I couldn't decide if I was laughing or crying and realized that I was doing both at the same time. It was clear that the words had reached deep into some previously hidden part of my psyche, touching a truth so profound and so imponderable that my rational brain simply couldn't deal with it.

It was a truth, I soon began to understand, that had affected my life in many subtle and not so subtle ways: most obviously, I had sabotaged all those jobs in the ways I mentioned earlier. I had no right to be there. Even at the most trivial level, I was always the first to want to leave the party. While I'll freely confess that there was no instant cure afterward and that the Big Lie has persisted in raising its head in numerous circumstances since, it has been vital to know about it. That moment of insight was a kind of liberation.

For me, the story clarifies a critical point about the way in which creative people can sabotage their voice and their vision for reasons unknown even to themselves so long as those reasons remain unexplored. It reminds me that I am never disconnected from my past experience and that such moments of trauma, without my bringing them to consciousness, can control me in unwanted ways. It reminds me that, if I want to work, I need to work also on myself, that there is no need to be held hostage by old thought patterns and habits, that the work I do must be a continuing process of self-discovery. The more I can learn about myself, the greater the freedom I enjoy as a writer. Here's another thing I learned: never be satisfied with the first answer or with the easy one. The moment I think I have it is often the moment I most need to keep digging. Answers, it seems to me, are always provisional. It's the questions that keep moving me forward into the unknown — which is where the good stuff is to be found.

©2010 Peter Clothier. All rights reserved.

The Big Lie is an excerpt published with permission from Peter Clothier's book Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit (Parami Press, 2010). Written after "Write For Your Life," a workshop at the Holiday Inn in Hollywood, California, in 1986.

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Peter ClothierPeter Clothier writes chiefly about art and artists in Southern California. He has published widely in national magazines, and is the author of David Hockney in the Abbeville Modern Masters series. ...

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