Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Amnesiac’s Story

By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 24, 2010

[The blog is on vacation this week. Happy Thanksgiving to all! Here’s one of my fave posts from a little while ago:]

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.

Bourne Identiry

Matt Damon and Franka Potente from "The Bourne Identity"

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?

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?

"The Hangover"

"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 animals in the wild 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

12 Responses to “The Amnesiac’s Story”

  1. November 24, 2010 at 5:46 am

    God, that’s beautiful.

    • November 25, 2010 at 5:01 am

      I was just thinking the same thing…

  2. November 24, 2010 at 6:24 am

    Steven,

    I first heard of you last month from Seth Godin’s blog – he recommended “The War of Art.” I read it and loved it.

    Then I read “Gates of Fire” and will finish “Virtues of War” today.

    Amazing work. Keep’em coming, please.

    Happy Thanksgiving.

    Randall H. Miller

  3. November 24, 2010 at 7:15 am

    “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.”

    Yes. That’s it exactly. Thanks for sharing this post again. I always come away from your blog uplifted.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. November 24, 2010 at 7:20 am

    Steven, I love this entry. It is a wonderful arena to explore. I especially love when you write;

    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?

    You have the gift of words, my friend. I am GRATEFUL that you share them. We are blessed.

    Have a BEAUTIFUL THANKSGIVING!!

    I posted it on Facebook! Your posts always get LOTS of comments!!

    Hugs! Jen

  5. November 24, 2010 at 8:04 am

    “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.”

    This rings so true – BUT – I also have the niggling feeling that resistance latchs onto a phrase like that as an excuse to inaction and complacency.

    Mightn’t resistance use that angle when we’re chewing on taking action on our growth and we hear ourselves saying “Oh, that’s just not me”?

    Sometimes it’s blatant – I’m no BASE jumper or lute player, but where’s the balance point when I’m convincing myself that I should get off my duff and finally learn photoshop…but “That’s not me”…I’m not a ‘computer guy’…

    See?

    • Andy
      December 1, 2010 at 10:41 am

      I always think of Resistance’s primary goal as inaction. It’s means of attack are always geared toward getting our ass to sit back down on the couch and turn on the TV, instead of work.

      To me, this philosophy is one of action, the key phrase being “find out who we already are and become it.” Finding and becoming are both active processes – only by doing things are we able to find out who we are supposed to become.

      So you may not know if you’re a BASE jumper, but if you tell yourself ‘That’s not me’ without ever doing it, that’s Resistance. But if you overcome the fear and apprehension and get off your ass and do it, then decide it isn’t you, I don’t think that’s Resistance. As The War of Art says, Resistance comes second – after the initial idea. We get the initial idea for a reason, and while acting on it may not result in finding out who we are to become, we’ve still beat Resistance by following through.

  6. November 24, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    God, I hope people appreciate you. The things you inspire take time, and patience, and looking inside. Tough to get across in a give-it-to-me-now society. But you do it! Somehow,you do it. And it works.

    I have made it a practice to sit and watch animals for the very reason you mention: they’re real. They have to be real. Anything short of authentic will be their destruction. Wish we had it so easy.

  7. richard murphy
    November 25, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    Thank you.
    The Wordsworth poem i had to read several times…fantastic, thank you.

    Authenticity, passion and honest a potent combo!
    All the best

  8. Dan in Philly
    November 29, 2010 at 10:12 am

    I have a different take on why we love amnesiac stories. It allows us to fulfill what may be called the quintessential American fantasy: self-reinvention. You wake up with good looks, in fantastic shape, with loads of money, killer self-preservation skills, and absolutely zero responsibilities. You owe nothing to anyone because you remember nothing, therefore you are totally free to spend your gifts as you see fit. In the process, you invent who you want to be from scratch.

    Who wouldn’t want such power without all the obligations obtaining it entails?

  9. Heather
    November 29, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    Wow. This is one of my favorite posts.

  10. December 11, 2010 at 2:34 am

    My goodness, I get so much out of reading your blogs. Each one is like a fine pearl of wisdom. Why? Because I sense and feel the realness of what your words have to say. They are helpful, encouraging, and truthful in to a point that it’s humbling to read them. Thank you so very much for sharing your talent, vision and understanding with others. We consider reading your blogs a real blessing in our life.
    Gracia and John