By Steven Pressfield
Published: February 25, 2015
In last week’s post we were examining the idea that from a single modest fragment—a scene, or even a couple of lines of text—we as writers can extrapolate a big bite of the global work. Let’s keep biting.
Here, to refresh our memories, are the two lines that popped into my head one day about ten years ago and that I knew at once were the opening sentences of a book (though I had no idea what book, or what that book would be about):
I have always been a soldier. I have known no other life.
Last week we unpacked from these lines our protagonist, our narrator, our point of view, theme, about two hundred pages of text, and our interior villain. Let’s keep going. What else is implied by these two lines?
First, an identifiable emotion. Pride. When our narrator and protagonist Alexander says, “I have always been a soldier,” he is clearly not ashamed of this. He’s not ambivalent. He is proud.
So we know this book is not going to be Dr. Strangelove or Oh, What A Lovely War.” It’s going to be the unapologetic testament of a warrior and a conqueror. He’s going to depict the soldier’s craft as a noble calling, the “profession of arms.” And since we know from history that Alexander indeed conquered the world, we can imagine that he will be writing in praise of material ambition, in praise of military victory, and that he will be citing, as the foundation of these, the virtues of a soldier.
What are the virtues of a soldier?
Courage, patience, self-command, the willing endurance of adversity, love of honor, love of one’s comrades, contempt for death, etc.
I wound up titling this book The Virtues of War. It was divided into nine books. Each one was titled after a specific virtue.
Both these came, again, from those first two sentences.
So now we’ve added our title and our division of structure. There’s more. Let’s go back to the first two sentences.
Alexander in real life was a warrior, a king, and a conqueror. Yet he doesn’t use any of those words in his first two self-descriptive sentences. The word he uses is “soldier.”
What does he mean? Soldier is a humble word. A soldier tramps through the muck, he sleeps in the dirt, he lives in the weather. “Soldier” doesn’t imply anything lofty. A soldier is not necessarily issuing orders; more likely he’s obeying them.
Yet Alexander picked this word to describe himself, and to describe himself with pride.
Clearly the qualities that make a warrior are to him humble, simple, and basic.
When I was ten I begged Telamon [a mercenary and tutor of Alexander] to teach me what it meant to be a soldier. He would not respond in words. Rather he packed Hephaestion [Alexander's boyhood friend] and me three days into the winter mountains. We could not get him to speak. “Is this what being a soldier means, traveling in silence?” At night we nearly froze. “Is this what it means, enduring hardship?”
At the third dusk we chanced upon a pack of wolves chasing a stag onto a frozen lake. Telamon spurred onto the ice at the gallop. In the purple light we watched the pack fan out in its pursuit, turning the prey first one way, then another, always farther from the treeline and the shore. Wolf after wolf made its run at the fast-fatiguing buck. At last one caught him by the hamstring. The stag crashed to the ice; in an instant the pack was on him. Before Hephaestion and I could even draw rein, the wolves had torn his throat out and were already at their feed.
“That,” Telamon declared, “is a soldier.”
Posted in Writing Wednesdays
By Shawn Coyne | Published: February 27, 2015
[Join www.storygrid.com to read more of Shawn’s Stuff]
Like you, every Wednesday morning, with my first cup of coffee in hand, I sit down and read Steve’s WRITING WEDNESDAY posts.
His recent series on “killer scenes” and the ways in which he constructs his work have been off the charts for me. Here’s what I love about them:
- They’re personal…Steve does not pretend to be speaking from Mount Olympus. He’s just giving us the straight dope about how he keeps his writing engines primed and working at peak efficiency. I was reminded of the importance of these idiosyncratic methodologies we all develop from Jeremy Anderberg’s Twitter post that linked to Hemingway’s interview in the Paris Review. If Papa was timid talking about his process, fearful that to talk about it is to dissipate its magic, you know this stuff ain’t for the faint hearted.
- They’re Meta-entertaining. I love reading about how people create things. What went through their minds. How they solve problems. It’s the classic “origin story” Subgenre of the Performance Genre. Which as you know has the core value of Honor/Shame. The trick is to honor your process, not to degrade or cheese it up for profit. You’ve got to be truthful. And yes, as Steve proves over and over again, you can write about writing with honor.
- They’re Inspiring. I’m an editor/Right Brain kind of writer. What that means is that I want to create a lot of little boxes or units of story, fill them up, polish them and then link them all together. I start from the structural point of view. That’s what makes me comfortable.
Reading about how Steve does it from the Left Side of the brain takes away a lot of the terror I’ve associated with the Muse. I’m the kind of person who thinks the Muse has no interest in me. I’m a blue-collar worker just banging out the word count and then getting out the sander after I’ve got some knotty pine to smooth.
It’s obvious that Steve does not do anything of the sort that I do. He does not construct his stories so much as he tunes in and listens to his inner word whisperer. He then pulls out the meaning of the messages that come to him from the great unknown.
Of course he’s a pro, though. He wears the same blue-collar I do.
He knows all of the stuff I know (more even) so he organizes the messages in a general/global structure that aligns perfectly with Story nerd systems like mine. He knows he needs inciting incidents, progressive complications, crises, climaxes and resolutions in every scene he writes etc., but instead of working to fill up boxes, he thinks about the whole trunk first.
I find his technique terrifying.
If I can’t label something and put it inside a methodology, I just as soon toss it in the trash can. But after having read Steve’s Killer Scenes series, I feel better. I’m more open to the quantum soup. I’m not so quick to toss out a phrase that somehow jumps into my brain. Now I’m putting them in little folders to marinate.
Which brings me to the title of this post…TOO OLD FOR HEROES.
Posted in What It Takes | 11 Comments
By Callie Oettinger | Published: February 20, 2015
(This first ran August 10, 2012. It’s making a repeat appearance this week as a reminder to unplug and clear the head while clearing the snow on the ground.)
The headline stared out from the magazine rack in the check-out line. Beyond the guess-which-celebrity-has-the-worst-beach-body headlines was:
Panic. Depression. Psychosis.
How Connection Addiction Is Rewiring Our Brains
It was splashed across the top of Newsweek.
* * *
In January, my husband and I bundled up our kids and headed skiing. The lodge where we ate lunch was the only place to plug-in during the day.
The first day I was a wreck. I needed to get online.
“You’re on vacation,” my husband reminded me. “People know you’re gone. It’s ok.”
That wasn’t the point. I needed to know what was going on. What was I missing out on?
And then it started to pass.
And by the end of the trip, I realized my head was clearing.
And I knew why.
The things missing during vacation—those things that ate up much of my usual day-to-day life—were e-mail and the Internet.
* * *
I found iCrazy by Tony Dokoupil sandwiched between pieces about Tom Cruise and Syria. It opened with the example of Jason Russell, the man behind the documentary “Kony 2012,” who went from little social presence to overload—to stripping down on a street corner, slapping the pavement and ranting.
* * *