Thursday, June 11, 2009

Today's Essay

Still thinking about that book of essays.  This is today's:


Let me acknowledge an enormous debt of gratitude to Lawrence Block.  Many, I hope, will know Larry as the extraordinarily skilled, prolific, and deservedly popular author of mystery novels and thrillers.  I know him also as a man who introduced me to a whole new way of thinking about myself as a writer, and who 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—and this 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: earning a living to support a family—never mind my talent.  

Here’s the story: I had lost my job, the third in a multi-year succession of academic positions of increasing status and responsibility.  I had been, frankly, pretty much kicked out, as I had been from my two previous 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 should have heard what the experiences were trying to tell me: you do not belong here in academia.  You were never meant to be here in the first place and it’s time, now, to move on.   It was Larry Block who helped me hear that message.

At the time—this was in the mid-1980s—Larry had recently published a book called “Write For Your Life,” a kind inspirational guide for aspiring writers, as well as for those who had somehow lost their voice or their direction; and he was touring the country with a “Write For Your Life” workshop intended to spread the word.  I have no idea how I heard about the workshop.  It sounded like something I would have wished to avoid at all costs, with my scathing suspicion and disregard 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 of the game, I read the book in the days before the scheduled weekend.  It did nothing to reassure my inner skeptic, always quick to identify the bullshit in others but reluctant to acknowledge my own.  I had always recoiled from probing too deeply into the life of the mind, and I realized that I was going to be asked to explore some secret places that I would quite honestly prefer to leave undisturbed.  I knew, 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; and, now that I was committed, in order to be prepared, I set about asking myself what my Big Lie could be.  My high intellect judged that this was a pretty childish game, but I settled on one that sounded about right: “I have no time to write.”

I showed up to Larry’s workshop, confident that I could ace it.  I was, after all, a writer of experience.  I had a Ph. D. in literature in my back pocket.  I had spent four years at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, one of the biggest and best and oldest in the country.  I arrived still not knowing why I had signed up, nor 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 measure of satisfaction in my own clarity.  But Larry looked doubtful.  “That sounds more like a symptom than a cause,” he said.  And after a thoughtful pause added, “Is there anything you can remember about your birth…?”

I have no idea what intuition guided him to this 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.  But for the speedy response of the midwife (yes, I’m that old!) 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 alternative 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 from my mouth.  I choked on them.  They struck me, on one hand, as totally ridiculous.  And on the other… well, I broke down into 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 down deep into some part of my psyche, touching a truth so profound and so imponderable that my rational brain simply couldn’t deal with it.  It’s a truth, I understood, that had affected my life in many ways: most obviously, I had sabotaged all those jobs I mentioned earlier.  Even at the trivial level, I have always been the first to want to leave the party…

That’s the story.  I’ll freely confess that there was no instant cure, that the Big Lie has persisted in raising its head in numerous circumstances since, but it has been useful to know about it.  That moment of insight was a kind of liberation.  And the story clarifies, for me, a critical point about the way in which creative people can stifle their voice and their vision, for reasons unknown even to themselves, so long as they remain unexplored.  It reminds me that I am not disconnected from my past experience, and that such moments of trauma, without my bringing them to consciousness, can control my mind in unwanted ways.  It reminds me that, if I want to work, I need to work also on myself.  That the work I do is always a process of self-discovery.  The more I can learn about myself, the greater the freedom as a writer I enjoy. 

1 comment:

NellaLou said...

This birth story of yours is a remarkable coincidence. The circumstances are almost exactly the same as mine. The only difference is substitute doctor for midwife. To this day I cannot wear a turtle-neck sweater or tight scarf.

My big lie though starts even before that-I should have been someone else-I would have had an elder brother but my mother miscarried-so two girls (I am the eldest) and no one to carry on the family name. It's a strange process dealing with those lies.