Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Having A Practice

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 9, 2009

Last Wednesday I wrote a post called “Self-Doubt.” It shared a rough patch I was going through on the book I’m working on now. I put it out there because I wanted other writers and artists (who know this already but perhaps needed a little reminder, as I do) to remember that they aren’t alone when they themselves struggle with this demon. People wrote in. I want to say thanks to all of them, to those friends and trench-mates who said thanks and who offered me encouragement. I appreciate it. It meant a lot to me.

Where am I this week? Still wrestling with that same alligator–but with my head, at least, out of its jaws. Thanks, you guys!

The episode got me thinking, though, about a writer or artist or entrepreneur’s real motivation. Why are we in this game? What’s the bottom line, beyond money or success or a pat on the back at the end of the year?

The hierarchical orientation

To me, there are two levels on which our artistic aspirations operate. The first is what I would call the hierarchical. That’s the competitive level, the plane of ambition. It’s the dimension of ego and of recognition seeking. On that sphere, we aim for success. We want to achieve something, and we want to be acknowledged for it.

In the hierarchical orientation, we’re attached to outcomes. We feel hope. We experience fear. On this plane, terms like “failure” and “success” have meaning.

“Sit without hope”

I used to have a meditation teacher whose unvarying admonishment to us, his students, was, “Sit without hope” and “Sit without fear.”

He wanted us to just sit. Just breathe. Just be. The lesson was to “just live.”

I always admired that. I couldn’t achieve it very often, but when I did, I knew it was a true place.

The territorial orientation

Which brings us to the second level on which our endeavors as writers, artists and entrepreneurs operate–the territorial level. Territorial is different from hierarchical. A territory is our home turf. If we were hawks or wolves, it would be our hunting ground. If we were Stevie Wonder, it would be the piano, the music studio. As writers, our territory is the page; as painters, it’s the canvas.

When I was getting my butt kicked by self-doubt last week, I had strayed off the territorial path. That was my mistake. I’ve made that same mistake fifty times before. I keep forgetting the lesson–and keep having to learn it again.

I was not sitting without hope. I was not sitting without fear. I hoped my stuff would succeed. I hoped it wouldn’t fail. I was attached to both outcomes.

In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna, “We have the right to our labor, but not to the fruits of our labor.”

A spiritual practice

Krishna was talking about a spiritual practice. Our labor, the Lord of Discipline meant, must be offered freely for its own sake–not for hope of gain. That’s hard to do. For me, it’s a lesson I have to keep learning over and over.

In the end, our work must be a practice. We enter our office or studio each morning the way a martial artist enters his dojo or a monk his temple. We pause on the threshold and, in imagination at least, take our shoes off. We wash our hands. We purify our minds. We bow to whatever guardian spirit or muse we imagine inhabits this sacred space.

We will be our best selves for this goddess. We’ll come before her in humility, asking nothing, but prepared to give her our all. While we abide in this space, we will regard our practice as holy. Asking nothing, we receive everything. But what is everything? We can’t count it or measure it. We can’t take it to the bank. No one can feel it but us.

That’s what we’re here for as artists and acolytes and students of the mystery. That’s what I had misplaced last week. It’s what I’m trying to find (and hang onto) this week. I’m trying to sit without hope. I’m trying to sit without fear.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

12 Responses to “Having A Practice”

  1. December 9, 2009 at 3:46 am

    “Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got!” – Steven Pressfield.

  2. December 9, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Steven,

    Writing is not like meditation. Writing is like sex.
    You have to show up. You have to focus on craft.
    But you can’t be mechanical. You can’t detach.
    You can’t just keep thrusting, hoping for the bliss.
    You have to engage the sensation, fuel the erotic.
    Writing is not spiritual, intellectual, or emotional.
    Writing is a physical act. A hard act. A fluid act.
    The muse doesn’t want you to sit and worship her.
    She wants you to fuck her. And she wants you to fuck her good.
    (Or him. I remember you said you muse is a boy.)

    – Jack

  3. Mack
    December 9, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    Steve,

    I am not a writer. I am however a huge fan of your writing. I am also a huge fan of not only your novels, but of “War of Art” as well. In my profession, which is one of life and death – literally, most if not all of your “rules” or “teachings” apply. Fear? It is the greatest, craftiest and most lethal form of “resistance” in combat. As for what Krishna tells Arjuna? If you do what I do for promotion or awards or accolades beyond of that of your enemy or your own men – you are evil and immoral. And as for the “wrathful god of combat”…you ask from her very little, a worthy enemy and the chance to fight; and yes, she expects from you everything – even your life – as it should be.

    I have taken “hope”, “wish”, and “luck” completely out of my vocabulary. They will only cloud the subject or task at hand and ultimately give “fear” (the mother of all whores)…a chance to get her claws into your back.

    I enjoy your books and this web-site immensely.

    Keep up the good work.

    Mack

  4. johnmark7
    December 10, 2009 at 2:13 am

    Jeez, Jack, what a sick load of nonsense you threw up there (pun intended). Truth, goodness, and beauty don’t require any kind of “fucking”. They don’t even require communion. They require faith.

    Steven, what you said wasn’t so bad, faux Buddhism and all that, but misses the point of acting as a creator. And you miss the point and have doubts because 90% of what you’re doing is trying to make money (and succeeding at it).

    You’re not doing anything at the level of Shakespeare or Tolstoy, etc, and so you try to content yourself with the commercial niche you’ve had some success in. Who can blame you in a world were money rules?

    But the voice at the heart of your soul feels hamstrung, castrated, and narrow minded since it can’t ever say what it actually knows to be true or honest. Not that you’re lying as a writer. Just that you’re compromising and going for the gold.

    When you work exclusively for gelt, the soul suffers.

    • P-dawg
      December 10, 2009 at 5:04 pm

      Easy now, buddy. That is a decent first paragraph, altho’ a touch confining and dogmatic. But when you start telling a man who he is and what motivates him–as if you actually could know– it is apparent that you’re only describing your own condition. Of course, if you know Steven intimately then you may have some valid basis for your sweeping pronouncements.

      Your expressed certitude about the roots of Steven’s occasional inner turmoil is harsh, presumptive and unseemly at best. I believe the psychological term for the transfer of one’s dissatisfaction/frustration onto another is called “projection.” You’re way out of bounds when you presume (and publicly announce) that his condition is what you see, not by way of knowledge, but through the self-reflection of your imaginings.

      How would you know what “percentage” of Steven’s motivation is for money? Or even that the gelt-ridden soul suffers? From what source do you draw to say that Steven’s voice is not honest and true to himself? Truth is, you have no clue much less actual knowledge. You judge from afar, and most erroneously.

      I must say, your judgments sound more like high-sounding assumptions cooked up by a cynical imagination. With perhaps a pinch or two of envy. If you go face the bathroom mirror and repeat your above speech to yourself, at least you’ll have the right audience for your mean-spirited misconceptions. Then maybe you can make some progress in self-realization.

      Speaking of faux knowledge, Krishna and Arjuna are of the Hindu, not Buddhist, tradition. Back to the drawing board with you, ol’ sport, and best of luck.

  5. December 10, 2009 at 7:52 am

    Thank you SO much for this post! Running, lately, into quite a block myself, this was the inspiration I needed to get me back on the right path. How could I have forgotten Lord Krishna’s teaching? How could I have failed to remember that I let the muse work *through* me – that I am on a vessel; this is not for me, but for the sentient beings my writing my touch, help, inspire, motivate.

    Thank you and Namaste!

  6. December 10, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    JM7,

    How is “Tides of War” going for the gold? The man has granite balls. If ever there was a hardcore motherfucker who wrote for the poetry of the thing, it’s Pressfield.

    – Jack

  7. December 10, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    I like this, Steve. Really like it.

    I always look forward to Wednesdays for a little ‘starch and inspiration’.

    Keep it coming.

  8. December 11, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Stephen – From a blogger’s perspective, it is customary to create a live in-post link, when you refer to another post that you have written. That makes it easier for someone to follow your writing. For example, when you wrote,

    “Last Wednesday I wrote a post called ““Self-Doubt.” – Self doubt should be a link that goes directly to that post. It’s not only good for your readers, its good for the search engines, which can more easily classify and list your writing. This is especially true in a blog like yours when the first page could have topics from a variety of different categories.

    Thanks for “The War of Art.” I would like to say that it has saved my life, but that would be grandiose. It has however, given me hope. Hearing you read the audio version is priceless.

    – Ryan Nagy

  9. December 11, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    Lovely! I have been in that place when the words flow and they feel like gift. When I myself am different because I was part of the process of creation. When words from my fingers speak to me as if they were written by someone else, and the only appropriate response is gratitude. It is sacred and mysterious.

    Thank you for the challenge to “sit without hope”. Thank you for articulating it compellingly.

    I eagerly anticipate your next offering…

  10. December 15, 2009 at 9:20 am

    I loved “Gates of Fire” and “The Legend of Bagger Vance”. “Gates of Fire” for the historical perspective and “Bagger” for the metaphorical treatment of metaphysical texts that seem inaccessible to me until I saw them in this context (golf).
    I am a huge Seth Godin fan and I saw your entry in “What Matters Now”. I didn’t even know you had a blog until then, but I hope to drop by regularly now. As a writer/entrepreneur myself, I am very familiar with the self doubt you mentioned.
    It’s nice to commiserate, however. Misery loves company, so I’ll see you here again soon!