Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Amnesiac’s Story

By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 21, 2010

Two of the most popular movies of the past few years are The Hangover and The Bourne Identity. What do they have in common? They’re both amnesia stories.

I love amnesia stories. What could be more fun? Guy wakes up face-down on the floor of a villa in Vegas, or floating in a wetsuit off the coast of Marseilles. He remembers nothing. Who is he? How did he get there? And where the hell did that tiger in the bathroom come from?

Matt Damon and Franka Potente in "The Bourne Identity." It can be fun, finding out who you are.

Why do we love amnesia stories? Because we sense, at some level, that they’re the secret narrative of our lives. We’re searching for ourselves too. We know we’re somebody; we’re just not sure who.  Remember Stanislavski’s famous questions that every actor must ask himself in a role: “Who am I? How did I get here? What do I want?” In My Dinner With Andre, Andre Gregory relates an encounter-type experience that he witnessed in a Polish forest, where real people–guests at an event–were really assessing their real lives by asking those same questions.

Do you feel like that sometimes? I do. If you’ve read The War of Art, you know that there’s a philosophy, a view of life that undergirds the concepts of Resistance and Professionalism and Inspiration.  That philosophy says:

Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.

Jackson Browne says he writes a song to find out what he thinks.  He doesn’t know going in.  The process for him is one of discovery, of self-discovery.  That’s what I’m trying to do with my books.  Who was I before The Legend of Bagger Vance? I had no idea that stuff was in me until it suddenly came out. Or Gates of Fire, or any of my other books. I didn’t even know I was interested in such subjects until they seized me and compelled me to immerse myself in them. One of the most telling moments in The Hangover is when Stu the dentist (Ed Helms) says something like, “I would never have done that. But it must have been me because I did it.”

That’s how I feel. It must have been “me” or I wouldn’t have written it.

One of the mandatory scenes in any amnesia story is when the protagonist encounters someone who knows him–a lover perhaps, who suddenly rushes up and kisses him, or slaps his face. Or an enemy who draws a gun and tries to kill him.  These are clues. Like Mister Chow leaping naked out of the Mercedes trunk. Or Clive Owen as he’s dying, telling Matt Damon, “We always work alone.” Who are these guys? What do they know about us that we don’t?

"Hurt Locker?" "Avatar?" No way. This was the best movie of 2009.

Friends and lovers help unravel the mystery of who we are. So do our passions. To me the practice of art or entrepreneurship is an Amnesia Story. The act is one of self-discovery. Who are we? What are we good at? What brings us joy?

Why is the practice of art or entrepreneurship a vehicle for self-discovery? Because these enterprises are ours alone. They spring from the unfeigned gifts, joys and enthusiasms of our hearts. They are us “at play”– and thus at our most authentic.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The soul that rises in us, our life’s star,

Hath elsewhere had its setting

And cometh from afar:

Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come,

From God who is our home.

I’m with Wordsworth on that. Including the “sleep and forgetting” part.  The ancient Greeks believed that souls before their birth–or returning to life after their round beneath the earth–were required to drink from the stream of Lethe.  That draught (like the light-flasher in Men in Black) erased all memory of prior existences.

I have a theory that charisma arises from authenticity. When a writer has found his voice, when a singer has discovered her style, they have power. We feel it. It draws us to them. Why? Because we want it too.  We want to be ourselves they way they are themselves. One of the reasons wild animals are so compelling is that they are entirely themselves. They can’t be otherwise.

That’s how I want to be. I want to “coincide with myself,” as the great Southern writer Walker Percy phrased it. I don’t want to second-guess myself, in life or in art. I want to speak in my own voice and act from my own center. Plato said that nothing is ever learned, it is only remembered.  I believe that.  It’s the Amnesiac’s Story.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

21 Responses to “The Amnesiac’s Story”

  1. April 21, 2010 at 8:10 am

    A most intriguing post. You challenge us to allow our authenticity to come to the surface. Thanks

  2. Quin
    April 21, 2010 at 8:32 am

    I’d recommend adding Memento starring Guy Pearce to your short list of quality amnesia stories. Guy’s character is unable to create new memories and has forgotten the past thanks to a traumatic event. He uses notes, a polaroid camera and tattoos to hunt for his wife’s killer.

  3. April 21, 2010 at 9:50 am

    Thank you for an inspiring post and to Jim Knight for pointing me in the direction of your blog. Your question Why is the practice of art or entrepreneurship a vehicle for self-discovery? It caused me to stop and reflect on my own experiences and learnings. Thanks for that!

    Love your theory about charisma and the attraction factor again something I hadn’t been able to put into words myself but totally resonates with me.

    Thanks for the learning!

  4. April 21, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    Good stuff, Steve, as always. Felt a little unsettled when I checked the blog at 9 am EST and a Wednesday post wasn’t there. Whoa. I must be hooked. Which is a good thing.

    Thanks for posting.

    Walt K

  5. April 21, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    Thanks, Steven – great food for thought, as always. I agree, we need to let our own projects guide us towards who we are, rather than trying to make them fit into our narrow view of what ‘the market’ wants. We are all unique individuals, each with their own gifts to this world – and it’s a matter of finding clues in our lives to uncover those gifts rather than constantly second-guessing ourselves, otherwise we rob the world of our own unique input. Many thanks for the inspiration, always much appreciated.

  6. April 21, 2010 at 11:00 pm

    thanks for sharing.

    hope you do create a part II to your war of art book, too. that is one of my favorite books.

  7. April 22, 2010 at 4:40 am

    em! sorry, what is the name of the movie (best for 2009)?.. I can t zoom it.
    Excellent post..

  8. Steven Pressfield
    April 22, 2010 at 6:46 am

    “The Hangover,” Elina …

  9. April 22, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Thank you Mr Pressfield..

  10. April 22, 2010 at 10:11 pm

    Great stuff. Your insights are almost as powerful as coffee to keep me thinking. And since you bring up Walker Percy, his novel The Second Coming needs to be added to your list of great amnesiac works of art.

  11. Annette Mencke
    April 23, 2010 at 4:47 am

    Steve – you amaze me every week……you are so spot on with the topics and like Walt K – Wednesdays is a special day – your blog is a must read for me. 🙂

  12. J. Scott Shipman
    April 23, 2010 at 7:26 am

    Steven, Excellent post. I have been wrestling with this very topic in my efforts to brand my speaking business. Thank you! Scott

  13. S.J.B
    April 23, 2010 at 11:00 am

    My favourite book with this theme is, I’m Not Stiller, by Max Frisch.

  14. April 23, 2010 at 11:32 am

    You destroy me sometimes. Absolutely destroy me. And I appreciate it.

  15. April 24, 2010 at 10:49 pm

    Great insights! And very well written, if I may add.

    I loved the expression –> “We want to be ourselves they way they are themselves.”

    However I don’t agree with –> “I have a theory that charisma arises from authenticity.”

    Authenticity may lead to charisma but all charisma does not arise from authenticity. I’ve come across so many charlatans/ phonies/ frauds who leverage their charisma to perpetuate their act (as I’m sure so have you, and most others).

    Charisma is about personality, authenticity about character. When the two go together, we have a human being we all respect and admire.

  16. April 26, 2010 at 6:44 am

    Awesome stuff, Steven!

    Yet I can’t help but notice that that’s like the third Walker Percy quote that’s appeared in these Writing Wednesday essays. I’m dying to know: have you ever read his non-fiction – either Lost in the Cosmos or The Message in the Bottle? Walker discusses amnesia in those two books from almost the same angle as you. I think you’d love Percy’s non-fiction if you haven’t read it and would be more than happy to send you a copy? Let me know.

    Also, I know you mention Tom Laughlin in The War of Art but was wondering if you’ve read other Jungian Psychologists. James Hillman has an entire book out on Plato’s Myth of Ur and each individuals journey of self-discovery. It’s called The Soul’s Code. Have you ever read any Hillman?

    – Jeff

  17. Steven Pressfield
    April 26, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    Yeah, Hillman is terrific, Jeff. I was reading “The Soul’s Code” last year. And of course I’m a huge Walker Percy fan. I once had a dream about him, wrote him a note (this was thirty years ago) and he wrote back and invited me by for tea. Alas, I was twenty states away and never made it. Who else would make that offer?

  18. April 27, 2010 at 8:49 pm

    So much of life seems to thrive off being prepared, and planning ahead. But this is driven by fear, not what is within us. I’m grateful to hear though that this does not have to be the case. I want to be committed to getting out what is inside of me, to better learn and know me, even if I dont know where it might take me or what it could look like. Make Resistance never win…. but only fuel be further down this path.

  19. May 1, 2010 at 10:28 pm

    “We want to be ourselves they way they are themselves.”

    Wow. Thank you so very much for this post, specifically that quote. I’m working on my first book, a memoir, and was feeling so blocked that I took a break to procrastinate (and, actually, to buy The War of Art). I came across your blog in the process, and that quote was exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you.

  20. May 12, 2010 at 5:19 am

    I love this… I’m still coming down from my War of Art high – going to read again this weekend.

    In particular from the post above…

    “Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.”

    This is something I think about often.


  21. John-Boy Kane
    May 12, 2010 at 5:31 am

    Crap-O-La Steven,

    I’m not sure whether to curse you to hell or thank you 🙂
    I’ll get back to you on that.

    Your writing, although very entertaining,is making me ask myself some very serious “Big Boy” questions of myself.
    Many I should have asked years,no,decades ago.

    Thanks to you there are some Crazy Dragons in my head that will need attending to.They are now awake, hungry,pissed and will no longer take being ignored.

    Thanks Dude! LOL