Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Crazier The Better

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.”

J.K. Rowling. She found a bunch of rooms!

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.

Who knew?

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.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

18 Responses to “The Crazier The Better”

  1. Sandra Parrotto
    September 15, 2010 at 3:09 am

    When I see that you have added a post, I race to see what you’ve written. And this didn’t disappoint. You speak straight into my heart about being free to express all, even the dark or seemingly unacceptable parts. I wish you’d teach a writing course online for those of us that find you so inspiring. Your insight into being human and what gets in our way is extraordinary. Thank you, I’ll feel a little freer today…

  2. September 15, 2010 at 5:32 am

    You really rivet me in my chair with posts like this one, Mr. Pressfield.

    Yesterday evening I had an encounter that’s serendipitously and directly related to what you’re saying here. I work as a lab instructor in a college writing center, and I had a conversation not long before closing last night with a young man who’s just a few years out of high school and has now come to college to receive training in physical therapy. We fell into a conversation after he finished the writing work he was doing, and he told me that he has been working in a physical therapy ward for the past couple of years at a hospital, and now needs and wants the formal credential.

    The striking thing, both to me and to him, is that, as he described it, only a few years ago, when he was a late teen, he couldn’t have imagined himself doing this work. He has a few relatives who work in the medical field, so he was around it a lot as a youngster. And, as he told me, the whole idea of it literally repelled him. He would see and hear about the work that his relatives did, and would be bowled over by a feeling of antipathy bordering on revulsion. No way was that for him.

    But somehow that’s all changed now. He’s presently amazed to find that physical therapy has somehow opened up for him as a bona fide calling. He’s deeply passionate about it, and has found to his astonishment that he has a strong gift (his very word) for working specifically with elderly people. He has an innate ability to communicate and connect with them that’s just wonderful, and this makes him increasingly excellent at what he does.

    I could sense his enthusiasm as he was telling me this. It really caught my attention and stayed on my mind all night. Then I woke up this morning and found you saying this:

    “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.”

    Of course my interest also has no small amount to do with the fact that I’m a horror writer, so I frequently share your friend Paul’s surprise at the deep darkness that spontaneously emerges as I go about my work, just as I share and intensely concur with your counsel that this is much to be honored and energetically pursued if that’s the way it all wants to come (which, for me, it almost invariably does).

    The Jackson Brown line is right on: I, we, don’t know what we really mean or think until we write it down. I remember Stephen King sharing a similar thought two or three times. More words to live by. (I find quite a few of those here at your blog, and also in The War of Art).

  3. September 15, 2010 at 7:35 am

    Outstanding. You have two things going on in this post.

    The first is the fear bit: The fear of going too far, of getting it wrong, of turning off readers (and editors), of perhaps writing something that no one will want to read (or worse, publish). To me, aside from personal conviction, that one comes down to having an editor who believes in you and your work. While one editor might steer you towards a safer, more “commercial” course, another might encourage you to keep exploring. Think of all the incredible books that – right now, this very instant – are in the process of being self-published by talented but frustrated authors whose manuscripts were rejected by every publisher in the country. Imagine if Tides of War had been your first novel. As good as it was, it would have never been published had you not written ‘Gates of Fire’ first. I am reading ‘Let me in,’ right now. It’s pretty dark. The central characters: A predatory undead child, a murderous pedophile, and a bullied teenager fantasizing about becoming a serial killer. Not exactly a show for the Family Channel. It is dark, unapologetic, and takes readers to places most writers wouldn’t dare. (And it’s my first non-Steven Pressfield read in 3 months, so that should tell you something. I agonized over what book to read after Gates, Virtues, Afghan Campaign, Amazons, and Tides. It wasn’t easy.)

    The second is the inspiration bit. Opening yourself to dreams, to thoughts, to those secret places inside you that beg to be explored and brought to life. I occasionally have those “house” dreams. In those dreams, I rarely find myself climbing to the rooftop. The house either leads to the outside world, where it ceases to exist, or it draws me deeper into its belly where a door I never knew was there begs to be opened. My house is built on top of an intricate subterranean cave system. There are entire ecosystems there. Populations, even. I have stumbled onto half-buried statues of forgotten gods, then rounded a corner to find hundreds of people feast in the shade of trees so large, their canopy would cover a full city block. (I visit that one regularly.) Those are interesting, but they aren’t where the stories live. In my house, many of the stories lurk. They stalk. They try to corner me in the dark.

    To the question “I’ve got so many ideas, […] How do you know which idea to pick?” you suggest going with the scarier one. Not necessarily scary as in… the story is actually scary, but the story that you feel the least ‘at ease’ writing? The one that challenges you the most? The one that makes you commit more of yourself?

    • September 16, 2010 at 3:14 pm

      Olivier, I love what you say about going into subterranean passages beneath your “house.” That’s it for me too, though I never realized it till you remarked on it. And yeah, it’s not the “scary” idea in the sense of the idea itself being scary … it’s that it stretches you and makes you go down to that subterranean grotto. Do you agree?

  4. September 15, 2010 at 7:47 am

    A key location in the mystery novel I am now writing, NAKED FRAME, is a topless bar. I would never go into a topless bar. But it’s just the kind of business my antagonist would own. It says a lot about who he is.

    My main character, Rebecca Ranghorn, would never go into a topless bar either. But she is forced to do so as part of her clue collection activities. And things really get uncomfortable when she goes “undercover” as a topless waitress.

    I’m bracing myself for indignant questions from friends and family about me frequenting topless bars. I have no reason to think they’ll understand or believe me when I tell them the topless bar is an imaginary room in my house. 😉

    • September 15, 2010 at 9:20 am

      Hey Robert,
      I’ve resisting the impulse to have a topless bar scene in my mystery for years now – I haven’t nee able to get past the “what would people think” or worse, “what would I think of myself”. But now I’m thinking that it’s indulging an adolescent fantasy or exploring a room, I should just go there, physically and writingly, and see where it takes me.

      Stephen – great post as always

      • September 15, 2010 at 10:17 am

        Yeah, Michael, but I’m not sure I would want to see the movie version of my novel. 😉 Although, some tasteful shots from the angle of bare backs might allow the film to get a PG-13 rating. But it would be very tricky.

        One of my suspense novels, Hideaway Hospital Murders, turned into a romantic suspense novel. I didn’t plan it that way. It was another room in my house that I didn’t know about.

        But it has worked out very well for me, since Hideaway Hospital Murders has been on Amazon’s Top-100 Romantic Suspense list for several weeks.

        • September 15, 2010 at 3:54 pm

          You wouldn’t want to see the movie version of your novel? That’s interesting. How about an HBO miniseries? Same thing? I am curious because… I see my stories visually as I write them. I run through them as if they were on set. Where the characters are, how the room looks, what kind of light, what is on tables and shelves, etc. Though much would be lost to a screen adaptation, I could easily see just about every thing I write adapted to the screen.

          • September 16, 2010 at 7:03 am

            Olivier – That’s exactly how I write. It’s kind of strange to me since I’ve never been drawn to writing actual screenplays, preferring the old-fashioned idea of hunkering down with a paper book. Still, whenever I write fiction, I see it on the screen – the setting, the shots, the camera angles, close-ups, pans, the whole thing. I hear the sound effects and even the background music. Then I just have to add in the senses of smell, touch, and taste & I’m there. :)

          • January 5, 2011 at 8:55 am

            That’s how I write as well – I can see it as a movie – though it’s multi-sensory

  5. September 16, 2010 at 7:06 am

    Steven,
    Wonderful post and so personally relevant for me right now. I’m in the very beginning stages of a young adult fantasy series & I’ve been struggling with some plot and character ideas that are dark. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there. The other night, I had some terrifying nightmares that were related to my story. I woke up in the cliche cold sweat and everything. But I started to realize that this stuff is in me. It always has been. Though I detest horror movies (can’t watch them, don’t like them), I’ve always had very vivid nightmares. So, I guess I’m not all “sweetness and light,” but that’s ok. Darkness has a role to play as well & we all work with what we’ve got, right? (And, when I say “work” … I mean Work.)
    So glad to have read your post at this moment. It’s really helped to give me some clarity and a much-needed kick in the ass.
    😉

  6. September 16, 2010 at 7:37 am

    I am working on a series of digital collages called The Rooms of Our Minds. I too have those house dreams about rooms I did not know existed, and my series is as much about that as the elusive nature of memory. I considered this a dark and personal work, and probably not a salable series, but I am rethinking that. Thanks for the push!

  7. September 16, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    As always, very thought provoking…

  8. Sandra Parrotto
    September 17, 2010 at 7:05 am

    Have been contemplating this entry, the thougthtful comments which followed, and my unsettled response. I am not a writer but feel so strongly that darker stories must be written. Darkness of the self and in others is the least understood aspect of our society and so everpresent. We live in a time when being a good person, presenting the “I have it all together” image and following the righteous path has many of us turn away from the truth of what it is to be human. We are dark, we do have stuff going on that we’d prefer never see the light of day and when a writer gives that aspect a voice – the secret self acknowledges it even if it doesn’t get spoken about to others. Those house dreams and the lurking characters that live within them, or a topless bar that seems too risky, are all realities of our human experience. (Have been in one of those bars and it’s quite fascinating) How are we to expand our understanding and empathy for others if someone (like a writer) isn’t brave enough to face it from within? My caves have decayed bones in them, ponds that have grotesque faces writhing in pain and I can smell the mold on the walls in the back room that got flooded in my latest dream – when others write what is their story to write, they are willing to be vulnerable and that inspires me to be vulnerable by sharing this with those I am in relationship with -in life. Having a writer place those kinds of “I’m not sure I should have written this” ideas in a form that a person can try it on and not claim it as themselves, they have transformed this person in a small way. You know the, “My friend threw the baseball in the window, what should she do?” way to disassociate as a coping mechanism –

    Writers who takes risks with their own darkness call those who read them to take those same risks.

  9. September 17, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    I’m on #50 of a 100-day painting commitment – 100 paintings in 100 days to help people become more aware of the dreadful mess we’re making with plastic drinking water bottles – – and hit a wall a couple days ago – now I see what I have to do – go for the images and styles that scare me the most. thanks for the perfect article at the perfect time!

  10. January 5, 2011 at 9:02 am

    Would like to recommend one of my mentors to your friend, Paul. Rob Roberge writes very dark stuff – MORE THAN THEY COULD CHEW and his current, a collection of short stories, WORKING BACKWARDS FROM THE WORST MOMENT OF MY LIFE. Steve Almond called him the modern master of the-down-and-out-that-just-got-worse.

  11. alexandra
    January 11, 2011 at 4:23 am

    How wonderful to read this. Since I am working on a book series all by myself (I used to write with someone else), I have a recurring dream about ‘my house’:

    First it was dark and leaky and spooky, but I always had the feeling it would be better with some work.

    After that I dreamt about my house being unfinished: without walls, sometimes just pillars.

    Nowadays I dream about a beautiful house – my house – it is big and beautiful, with winding stairs, a fireplace and many many rooms, and I keep discovering more rooms, thinking: ‘is this all mine? that is amazing!’ Despite the beauty and the awe, I also feel uncomfortable in this house because I cannot believe this beautiful house is mine.

    Somehow I grew up believing that I didn’t deserve anything – no succes – no money – no love. This kept me from writing my own stuff and trusting my own voice for a long time. It scares me so much to write what I want and I think that is why I feel uncomfortable in my house – but I am sure I will soon be having dreams about this house and feeling at home there. I am certain, because I keep writing, even though sometimes I am so scared that my hands are shaking when I type.

    thanks for writing this!

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