By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 15, 2010
My friend Paul is writing a cop novel. The characters have seized him; he’s into it totally. “But it’s coming to me very dark,” he says. “I mean twisted, weird-dark. So dark it’s scaring me.”
Paul wants to know if he should throttle back. He’s worried that the book will come out so evil, no one will want to touch it. Answer: no way. The darker the better, if that’s how it’s coming to him.
Why do I say this? Because for writers—particularly ones at the beginning of their careers—Job #1 is testing their limits. Finding out who they are. The conventional and the ordinary are the enemies of all artists, but especially of those discovering their wings.
A house with many rooms
I have a recurring dream. I’m moving through my house and I discover a room I’ve never seen before. Sometimes I’ll find an entire wing. I’ll go downstairs (there’s no downstairs in my real house) and there’ll be vast galleries filled with billiard tables, antique drapery and Louis XIV chandeliers; I’ll discover entire apartments, with kitchens and second stories and garages. I always think, “Wow, I never knew I had all this stuff. I gotta invite my friends over; they can stay in the new apartment.”
I’m convinced that dreams like this are universal. The symbols may vary—maybe it’s not a house, which to me represents “where I live,” my imagination, my Self—but the message is the same for us all:
Parts of us we never knew
We, all of us, contain far more than we think. There are parts of ourselves we’ve never met, that we have no idea even exist.
When I started writing Gates of Fire (which is about the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae), I knew practically nothing about ancient Greece. I have no Greek blood; I had never been to Greece. I had to look Thermopylae up in the dictionary, just to be sure I was spelling it right. Ten years later, I had written five novels set in the ancient world.
Where did this phase of my artistic life come from? I have no idea. I was simply seized by it. I became immersed. Now when I go down to my neighborhood Greek restaurant, Taverna Tony’s, it’s like I was born there.
This period was a room in my house that I never knew existed.
Testing our limits
Jackson Browne says that he writes a song to find out what he thinks about something. He doesn’t know, going in.
If you think you know what you’re good at, you’re wrong. Trust me: you can do stuff you’ve never even dreamed of.
Any time we think we’ve found our limits, we discover we can go past them. There are rooms and more rooms in our house, and more rooms after that.
Young writers and artists say to me from time to time, “Steve, I’ve got so many ideas, I don’t know where to begin. How do you know which idea to pick?”
I can only answer with what works for me. Two tests:
First, which idea scares you the most? Do that one. Fear equates to Resistance; the more Resistance we feel to a potential project, the more important it is to the evolution of our artist’s soul. Pick the one you fear the most.
Second, which idea is the craziest? Which one seems most unlike you. In other words, which one is coming from a room in your house that you didn’t even know existed. Do that one (it’s probably the one you’re most afraid of too.)
Finding our Artistic Selves
The evolving artist’s job is to find out who she is. Like Jackson Browne, she’ll only know for sure when the song/painting/dance has come out of her. She may surprise herself, she may shock herself, she may scandalize herself. She may look at what she’s composed or painted or danced and say, “That came out of me?”
That’s good! That’s what’s supposed to happen!
When we write from parts of ourselves that we don’t know, limits shoot back to infinity. J.K. Rowling. Thomas Harris. My friend Paul. They’re all producing stuff that’s coming from a very deep place.
Back to that idea of yours …
If it’s weird, if it’s crazy, if you look at it and say to yourself, “People are gonna think I’ve lost my mind when they see this” … that’s good. That’s the one. Go for it.
The crazier the better.