Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Icons and Iconization, Part Two

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 21, 2010

Last week’s post was great fun for me because of the generous, insightful and tremendously articulate Comments that came in. Thanks to everybody who took the time to write; I appreciate it and I’m sure everyone else does too.

Marilyn Monroe's house. How soon can we move in?

When I first started Writing Wednesdays about a year ago, friends told me I would be surprised at how interactive the exchange would become. That’s starting to come true and I love it. If you haven’t glanced through last weeks’ Comments, a quick scroll will be well worth it.

What I enjoyed most about last week’s Coments, even beyond the content, was the tone of voice.  Almost universally, the tone was peer-to-peer. Nobody was being snarky on the one hand, or overly diffident on the other. My own view of this forum and those who read it is that we’re all soldiers in the same trenches, fighting the same enemy (which is the Resistance and self-sabotage inside ourselves) and that we’re trying to help each other and psych each other up by sharing experiences and insights.  So thanks again for the tremendously thoughtful and generous contributions. That’s what I was hoping Writing Wednesdays would be all about.

My faves

Two of most provocative Comments were about demonization, the opposite of iconization, from John Terry’s Mum–and self-iconization from Robert Burton Robinson. Talk about new forms of Resistance! Our cup runneth over.

If iconization is endowing others with powers or gifts that we ourselves possess but are afraid to claim or embrace, then demonization, its reflection, must be the projecting onto others (or groups of others) of those vices and character defects that we ourselves possess but insist on remaining in denial of. Surely we are living in the Age of Demonization. Someone should write a book about it? JT’s Mum?

Even more intriguing to me is the idea of self-iconization. Could this be the disease that brings down so many celebrities and scandal-busted politicians? If we make an icon of ourselves and then worship it, hmmmm … that doesn’t sound like a formula that the gods are going to be too happy with.

Quick, somebody start this T-shirt business!

But the most potent Comment on last week’s post, I think, was the one from Jon, remarking on T-shirts that say What Would X Do? Jon wrote:

I want a T-shirt that says “What Would I Do?”

Amen to that!  “What Would I Do?” is, in my opinion, one of the hardest questions we can ask ourselves, if not the hardest. The object is authenticity. Self-realization. This is what each of us, as artists and entrepreneurs, is seeking—in our professional lives and hopefully our personal spheres as well. The pursuit of What Would I Do leads to non-iconization, non-demonization, non-self-iconization. Its object is the finding of our own voice, the realization of our own selves.

Iconization and emulation

Thinking about this stuff over the week, it occurs to me that iconization is the evil twin of something far more positive and benign: emulation.

Emulation is good. Emulation is the conscious incorporation into ourselves of virtues, skills and gifts that we perceive in others and wish to make our own.

When Bobby Jones, the great golfer of the 1920s, was a little boy growing up across the street from East Lake Country Club in Atlanta, he used to tramp around the fairways, following his hero, the local pro, Stewart Maiden. Young Bobby modeled his swing after Maiden’s. That’s not iconization, that’s emulation. It worked out pretty well for Mr. Jones.

I saw an interview with Kobe Bryant a couple of weeks ago, just after the Lakers won the NBA Championship. Kobe was asked to compare his stature, now that he had won five rings, to that of Michael Jordan.  Bryant deflected the question with humility (which I admired), saying that 90% of the skills and moves that he possesses today he learned from studying MJ. So he didn’t see it as a competition; he was the student and Michael was the master.

Isn’t that what we all do? Students of painting copy Rembrandts and Vermeers. I myself used to laboriously type out page after page of Hemingway and Henry Miller, trying to figure out how they worked their magic. The rite of satsanga in the Eastern tradition believes we can elevate our consciousnesses and our souls simply by sitting in the presence of a master, without a word or a teaching being spoken by anyone.

The difference between emulation and iconization

The difference between emulation and iconization lies in the retaining or giving away of our personal power. When we emulate someone, we hang onto our power—and we remain conscious. We see clearly that our chosen mentor possesses skills or gifts that we don’t yet (usually because we’re a lot younger and haven’t had time to gain the experience that the master has), so we apprentice ourselves to him or her with the conscious intention of learning what he or she has to teach us.

Iconization, on the other hand, is unconscious. Resistance and fear have blinded and benumbed us to our own gifts and powers. We don’t believe we’re smart enough, brave enough, passionate enough to achieve our ambitions so we project those gifts onto another person and then worship that person.

The gods don’t like that. They want us to wake up, to face our fear of claiming the powers they gave us at birth. They want us to embrace our unique gifts, to become our best selves. As Rob commented (another great axiom), “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Note to SJB: I’m as guilty as you are. I’d like to buy Marilyn Monroe’s house too.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

19 Responses to “Icons and Iconization, Part Two”

  1. July 21, 2010 at 6:07 am

    Yup, it goes back to going for what the person you would emulate is going for, not who they are. “Seek what they seek, not what they have.” Can’t remember where I heard that.

  2. July 21, 2010 at 6:20 am

    Years ago, I read an interview with poet Gary Snyder where he said that a young poet should not rely solely on traditional education to learn a craft. Rather, the student should seek out a specific teacher, approach them personally and ask to study under them. This master/apprentice and mentoring theme seems to be bubbling up in multiple, independent things I’m reading lately. (Maybe my antenna’s up.)

    I’m interested in your thoughts on how an emerging writer/poet/artist/craftsman should think about and pursue a relationship with a master/mentor. Did you actively seek out masters in your craft from which to learn (in addition to doing the real work of writing, of course)? And how does one know when that type of relationship has run its course?

  3. July 21, 2010 at 8:15 am

    The most effective teacher is experience. When you fall flat on your face and get a bloody nose, you’ll never forget it.

    But you can avoid many mistakes by learning at the feet of a master. You’ll have a chance to do your best work earlier in life. And not waste half your time nursing a nose bleed.

    P.S. Thanks, Steven, for the “thumbs up” for my self-iconization comment. :)

  4. July 21, 2010 at 8:25 am

    I feel that emulation, at least as far as writing goes, is a baby step. You can learn craft by emulating someone else, if you’re paying attention, but the real benefit comes when you internalize what you’ve been learning and when you reject that emulation. Rejecting emulation is required to give birth to your own voice. I love Daishell Hammet. I love his ‘voice’. Emulating him teaches me about terseness and creating emotion in my writing but I can’t emulate his ‘voice’. If I do, I stay a child, I stay a student. I think it’s only when we reject emulation that we actually begin to grow into ourselves.

    As always, just my $.02

  5. July 21, 2010 at 8:42 am

    Great discussion. I particularly appreciate Keith’s comments and questions. Every successful writer I know is a huge reader. Their “mentors” were their books. Many published poets I know admit to trying to emulate what a master of the genre does, which includes learning how to listen to poetry’s sounds and writing from life, and then being patient to allow your own voice to develop.

    I think mentors, if they’re any good, can help us name and be ourselves. Our icons, by virtue of being set off from ourselves, are more our myths and hold us back from seeing who we are.

  6. Adrian O'Flynn
    July 21, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    I think that the unconsciousness of iconization is a massive point.

    There have been a few references to gods and worship in this discussion. Although nobody noticed, in the recent hollywood movie Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, it is openly suggested that many celebrities(and specifically Barack Obama) are demi-gods i.e. children of the gods. Hows that for iconization? Blantly suggesting that the people on TV have powers that we don’t.

    It brings up an interesting point though, are the icons of today’s society fulfilling the roles played by the gods in the world of the Ancient Greeks? It’s a similiar hierarchical structure. We worship them, believe that they are larger and greater than us and they rely on our worship to preserve their immortality!

    I’m really enjoying this discussion, it’s thought provoking i.e. it’s causing me to question how much unconscious iconization I (and others) participate in, whereas most forms of media support it.

    Perhaps the key is to learn to use the stars to navigate your own path, rather than for idle gazing and admiration.

  7. David Allen
    July 21, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    In the spirit of “Seek what they seek, not what they have.” what do you, Steven, seek?

  8. July 22, 2010 at 8:43 am

    I had the same business mentor/coach for 18 years who was instrumental in helping me build my business and shape my thinking. Funny thing is I don’t remember once in that time did she ever tell me what to do. She’d point things out, ask me to consider this or that and give me distinctions to think with .. but never provided me with an “answer”.

    She was very accomplished in her own right, but the conversation was never about her, it always got reflected back to me, gently and sometimes not so gently reminding me I am responsible for how it all turns out.

  9. Scott Michael
    July 22, 2010 at 11:45 am

    Perhaps iconization became more prevalent when our stars stopped merely performing on the stage and began jumping into the crowd (paparazzi reporting their every move and utterance) their personas clumsily surfing on the metaphorical hands of the masses (blogger exclusives getting picked up by major media outlets before they’re properly vetted) creating stories from group intelligence (or lynch mobs, if the glove fits).

    “What would I do?” is great, and reminds me of Neale Donald Walsch’s quote about “having the grandest version of the greatest vision you ever had about yourself.” Namaste.

  10. josh
    July 22, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    i’m sure this has floated around someone’s head since these posts but i’ll be the first to say it. what are the implications when you do not iconize a person but start to iconize certain, traits, behaviors or ideals? many people iconize, drugs, sex, power, and things that are intangible, things that you feel.

    • Mike
      July 27, 2010 at 7:59 am

      That really depends on the ideal or behavior. Is it part of their craft or is it part of their image? Actions speak louder than words. What a politician does speaks more about them than what they say. If you iconize their behavior or what they are doing, aren’t you iconizing them still?

  11. July 23, 2010 at 9:10 am

    “It’s not the failure that’s embarrassing, but the failure to try at all.” But I forget who taught me that; maybe my dad, or my track coach, or a couple of teachers. Or maybe all of them?

  12. July 25, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    Funny, I read this article only after commenting on the earlier one – emulation is another great way to look at the icon vs. the role-model I mentioned there.

    To me, the critical difference is that in emulating, we are *taking action*, doing our work, refining our craft. We have a goal and are experimenting to see if others’ techniques will help get us there.

    Iconization is trapped in the mind, unconscious and passive. It’s stagnant.

    -Nicky

  13. Jen Y
    July 26, 2010 at 6:38 am

    This is a fascinating conversation. The trajectory of my own life drastically changed when I discovered the work of one of the biggest icons of the last half-century, Bruce Lee. I knew immediately that I wanted to do what he did.

    That meant I had to learn martial arts. I set out to find a teacher with Bruce Lee’s view of martial arts. It would be a 13 year search.

    I took class from students of Bruce Lee’s students. I tried schools that professed to teach his form, Jeet Kune Do. I even planned to attend seminars organized by his wife and daughter, but none satisfied me.

    When I found my teacher, I knew it instantly. At the same time, I felt as if I found my family and like I wanted to run away as fast as possible. As it turns out, Chuck, my teacher followed Bruce Lee’s example rather than copying his “techniques” or “concepts.” Chuck studied many forms with many teachers. He has made films as an actor, stuntman, fight choreographer, and director. He has tweaked and experimented forms and combinations.

    Understanding the knowledge and experience that Chuck has, I could easily to turn him into an icon. He resists that by turning his students into teachers. For him, we are all on the playground, learning playground games from each other. He has just been playing a bit longer.

    From my experience, understanding and emulating an icon can be a compass. We look to it for direction when we feel lost. Once we orient ourselves, we must put it away to watch the road in front of us.

  14. July 26, 2010 at 11:16 am

    This is an excellent discussion as I’m almost certain that the process of emulating (from admiration through desire to ultimate application) is entirely self-imagined. And I say this as I have personally found myself influenced by distinct styles of playing and writing only to have others point to apparent influences that I find completely at odds with what I was trying to communicate. It was very humbling – I don’t think I have ever run back to ‘ME’ quite so fast.

  15. Ines
    July 26, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    Who ever has become their “best-self” who has not in turn worshiped him/her-self?

    Yes, we should embrace our unique gifts and use them. However, seeking to become our “best-self” is taking the road toward self-iconization. Rather we must strive for something greater than ourselves for even the “best” human (Jesus of Nazareth excluded) is outrageously short of ultimate Glory. Hmmm, who would that be?

  16. P-dawg
    July 27, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    To further round out this fascinating discussion, we might consider what life is like for an icon, especially one such as Tiger Woods. This guy was raised as a pure icon. I don’t know if anyone, especially himself, knows who he really is. Poor kid was systematically fashioned as a creature of his family’s public-image campaign, which gradually became his own self-image. As we see every day, one’s journey into the wasteland begins when you start believing your own press releases.

    Tiger’s a trained talent in a class all his own. He’s done things with that little golf ball that few, if any, ever have. Mixed in with all that is the arrogant, insensitive, entitled attitude of a primo don whose every thought and move is governed by a serious case of integral self-absorption.

    What must that kind of life be like? Terribly lonely living among idolators and few real friends. Unbelievable pressure to perform. Our icon must continue to make us marvel, to entertain and thrill us by his or her peak performance (or, in the case of Ms Monroe, peak appearance). As this occurs, we slap all kinds of heroic attributes on the image, which our icon must continue to realize to sustain our admiration: Tiger, what we want our kids to be like.

    Should our icons falter–that is, fail to fulfill our expectations and suddenly reveal major flaws–we quickly re-cast them as demons. They have betrayed us. Unsightly aspects of their character are revealed, the mask is shattered. Now our withering disappointment descends on them like hell’s fury. We tell them, in a sense, “Be what we want you to be or we’ll hate you.” The spell is broken and disillusionment rushes into to take its place. Yet should Tiger start winning again, eyes will glaze over and all will be forgiven.

    Imagine what millions of ex-admirers now scorning you must feel like? Being a pure nobody, I can only imagine. But I do know that, on any level, no one wins the expectations game. You can never gain satisfaction and contentment from trying to make others be who you want them to be. Or from yourself trying to be someone else. Reality can be tough, but its the only sure ticket to our weather-beaten but magical Self.

  17. August 12, 2010 at 8:03 am

    Speaking of emulation, my first feature film screenplay was a — believe it or not — a parody of JAWS, but instead of a marauding shark in the ocean we had a murderous, possessed lawn mower terrorizing a country club golf course (luckily no Bobby Short in sight). I know, funky, right?

    But my writing partner and I watched JAWS repeatedly, wrote out a step sheet of each scene, detailed what happened in it and then wrote a beat-for-beat screenplay based on that outline.

    Now, the finished movie may not be a cinematic classic (but I _guarantee_ it is the best possessed-lawn-mower-parody-remake-of-JAWS ever!), but that experience was the BEST screenwriting education I ever had. Even better than three years of NYU Graduate Film school!

    Picasso said, “Good artists borrow; great artist steal.” I think he was being somewhat purposefully provocative — I think a better way to put it is to say budding artists should study and emulate great artists.

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