Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Shadow Novels

By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 28, 2011

Some of the most popular posts in this space have been those in the “Artist and Addict” series. One point those posts made was that there’s not that big a difference between an artist and an addict. Many artists are addicts, and vice versa. Many are artists in one breath and addicts in another. They’re in the studio on Monday and in Betty Ford on Friday.

What’s the difference?

The addict is the amateur; the artist is the professional.

Both addict and artist are dealing with the same material, which is the pain of being human and the struggle against the self-sabotage of Resistance. But the addict/amateur and the artist/professional deal with these elements in fundamentally different ways.

(When I say addiction, by the way, I’m not referring only to the conventional vices of alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic abuse and so forth. Web-surfing counts too. So do texting, sexting, twittering, facebooking; not to mention living on your iPad, dancing with the stars, and keeping up with the Kardashians.)

Distractions.

Displacement activities.

When we’re acting as amateurs, we’re running away from our calling—meaning our work, our destiny, the obligation to become our best and truest selves. This is where addiction comes in. Addiction becomes a surrogate for our calling. We enact the addiction instead of embracing the calling. Why? Because to follow a calling requires work. It’s hard. It hurts. It demands entering the pain-zone of effort, risk and exposure.

So we take the amateur route instead. Instead of composing our symphony, we create a “shadow symphony,” of which we ourselves become the orchestra. Our life becomes a shadow drama, a shadow start-up company, a shadow philanthropic venture.

Have you ever been to New Orleans? In Tennessee Williams-esque southern cities (Savannah and Charleston also come to mind), you find “characters.” The colorful old lady with 39 cats, the purple-haired dude who has turned his apartment into a shrine to James Dean. In the South you can get away with stuff like that. It’s kinda cool. The shadow enactment has been elevated to such a rarefied height that it becomes folklore, even (almost) art.

My own life used to be a shadow novel. It had plot, characters, twists and turns, action scenes, sex scenes; it had mood, atmosphere, texture; it was scary, it was weird, it was exciting; the stakes were life-and-death; it was a real rock-em, sock-em saga. I had friends who were living out their own shadow movies, or creating shadow art, or composing shadow rock operas. These were our addictions, and we worked them for all they were worth. There was only one problem: none of us was writing a real novel, or painting a real painting, or composing a real rock opera.

When you turn pro, your life gets very simple.

The zen monk and the samurai swordsman often lead lives so unadorned they’re almost invisible. Musashi Miyamoto’s dojo was smaller than my living room. Externals became superfluous. In the end he didn’t even need a sword.

The amateur is an egotist. He takes the material of his personal pain and uses it to draw attention to himself. He creates a “life,” a “character,” a “personality.” (This is not to say that Lady Gaga is not an artist; she is.)

The artist and the professional, on the other hand, have turned a corner in their minds. They have succeeded in stepping back from themselves. They stand “at one remove.” They have grown so bored with themselves and so sick of their petty bullshit that they can manipulate those elements the way a HazMat technician handles weapons-grade plutonium.

Turning pro is an act of self-abnegation. Not Self with a capital-S. Little-s self. Ego. Shadow. Distraction. Addiction.

When we turn pro, the energy that had gone into the Shadow Novel now goes into the real novel. The shadow symphony becomes a real symphony. Elements trade places. What we had believed was real—“the world,” including its epicenter, ourselves—turns out to be only a shadow. And the calling and purpose that had seemed to others (and to ourselves) to be only a dream becomes, now, the central reality of our lives.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

33 Responses to “Shadow Novels”

  1. September 28, 2011 at 2:22 am

    Wow. This hit me like a brick. I wonder, suddenly, if my work in the volunteer police force (Politihjemmeværnet, in Danish) is a way of creating a ‘character’. I mean – it seems worthwhile, but it sure does take up a lot of time, and it’s become a huge part of my identity. I’ll have to think about that.
    Is there some kind of litmus-test?

  2. September 28, 2011 at 5:37 am

    Thank you for helping me once again correct my drift. Bracing and brisk–just how I need it.

  3. September 28, 2011 at 5:48 am

    excellent post. i wasted some time on the internet…just long enough to find it. and now i am shutting the damn thing off.

  4. September 28, 2011 at 8:31 am

    Just read this great post yesterday by Ryan Holiday on what happens when I get lost fiddling around on the internet instead of getting my job done … on a brighter note it points to what’s possible if I don’t do that!

    http://www.ryanholiday.net/the-temptation/

  5. Andrew
    September 28, 2011 at 8:46 am

    I’m hanging this on my wall: “Stop b**tching about it, your a pro, now get back to work.”

  6. September 28, 2011 at 10:41 am

    Amazing–wisdom and advice that can be applied to any struggle. I can think of at least a dozen people besides myself who need to read this. Thank you.

  7. gs
    September 28, 2011 at 11:23 am

    1. Terrific post, the most useful in weeks. I would welcome more about this topic.

    2. Some of the most popular posts in this space have been those in the “Artist and Addict” series.

    The term ‘artist and addict’ doesn’t appear in the drop-down THE SERIES header. When I googled it, your post of May 18 was the only one to come up.

    Whatever more you write about this topic, I will read very attentively indeed. If the site contains posts thereon I haven’t noticed, maybe I’m not the only reader who would appreciate a directory.

    • September 28, 2011 at 12:50 pm

      gs, we’re actually putting together a book that features some of this. More to come!

  8. Eugenio
    September 28, 2011 at 11:31 am

    this is an eye opener! many thanks!

  9. September 28, 2011 at 11:35 am

    Top notch, Steve! also, ‘frickin too close to home.

    Thank you very much.

    Rod

  10. Tricia A
    September 28, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    Oh.

    Thank you for writing a post that coalesces the cacophony of “advices” into a beautiful simple melody I can hear.

  11. September 28, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    Man, I love this stuff.

    Steve, you have a way of nailing it. Getting right to the nut.

    The ratio of ‘doing it’ to ‘jacking about it’ should be 20 to 1.

  12. September 28, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    wow. this is powerful. perhaps some of the most powerful stuff I’ve read from you, other than The War of Art. I want to print this out and carry it around.

    it was when I read the War of Art that I realized that I was continuing to propagate my eating disorder (which I actually recovered from years ago) because of resistance. that eating disorders in general are a form of resistance, resistance to the amazing people we /could/ be rather than the drama we live our lives to be.

    I’ve found that, though, without the drama in my life, my writing style has changed. no longer (or at least, very infrequently) do I have the emotional juice to write deeply emotive, vulnerable poetry. at the same time, perhaps the clarity I have within my simple life instead enables me to make a /deeper/ impact, beyond emotional poetry, an impact that reaches and affects more…

    • Ruth G
      September 29, 2011 at 12:52 pm

      Sui, on the other hand, your honesty and clarity now means that if the Muse of emotional poetry decides to pay you a surprise visit and give you a huge, flaming present, you’ll be in good shape to produce that deep, passionate work. It’s only one right idea away.

      • October 12, 2011 at 1:35 pm

        thanks for the encouragement Ruth :)

  13. September 28, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    I often tell clients to “put the drama on the page,” quoting Julia Cameron. And it turns out I need the advice myself. To me, its making sure I throw myself into my work so passionately that I exhaust myself. And then I can have my glass of wine or go watch the X Factor or whatever. But only then. And so many of us just numb ourselves down without the throwing words at the page part. Thanks for a great post.

    • October 4, 2011 at 11:55 pm

      I knew Julia Cameron in high school she was my friends mom. Very intense lady who wrote a lot.

  14. September 29, 2011 at 9:01 am

    Thanks Steven, I WAS struggling to launch my next website with my new guided meditation and videos. Getting hung up on egoic perfection and the money. I started reading “The Profession” this week and learned that for a professional warrior, it’s not about the money (even if that is the business end). Back to WORK!

  15. Rav
    September 29, 2011 at 11:25 am

    Ah such a beauty. Thanks for being the Moses and showing us the way. This holds so much meaning to me. I will read this before the start of everyday !!

    Look forward to the book.

  16. byHisgrace
    September 29, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    Ouch…I feel naked…

  17. Ruth G
    September 29, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Ouch. Thanks. This one kicked me out the doorway “Do the Work” got me to approach.

  18. September 29, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    Love your concepts of resistance and going pro. I question everything now that gets in the way of my writing. I ask myself, “Is this just resistance?” Most of the time, the answer is yes.

  19. September 29, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    I’m with you here, Steven.

    Without the regular catharsis of creative release, I get moody, bitchy, and dramatic.

    By contrast, creating something emotionally compelling puts me in a good enough mood that I’m much more forgiving of life’s little slights. I cease to crave Frasier reruns. And best of all, I have no time or desire to brood on my own bullshit.

    Great post.

  20. September 30, 2011 at 7:27 am

    Depends on your addiction. Mine is surfing, and to feed the habbit you go without a lot, but it does leav you zen like. If you want a read (boring if you don’t surf):
    http://jonnygibbings.wordpress.com/surf-words/

    A friend who was an artist booked into a £900 a week rehab. From my personal experience, if you still can afford £900 a week, your addiction ain’t that bad yet!

  21. September 30, 2011 at 8:27 am

    Interesting post! I love your point re the shadow novel and the addict v the artist. So very apt.

    Funny thing though–in a way, I think of myself as a very different kind of addict, as a writer. When I’m into a novel, writing away and really giving myself to the moment, I enter a kind of “zone” where time changes, my surroundings fade away, and there is only the story. Most days, writing is hard, but I find that part of why I persist through it is because I’m chasing the high of finding that “zone”–because there’s nothing else quite like it…

  22. September 30, 2011 at 8:54 am

    Brilliant. My first book came out two weeks ago. My writing teacher came to a signing and asked me what I was ” working on now?” I replied “Well, promoting my book!” He said, “Yes, but what are you working on now?”
    Seems that by going “Pro” in the “real” world, I’d slipped back into amateur status as an artist. And yes my ‘symptoms” have returned, fear, envy, etc. I need to get back to the real work. My next book.

  23. October 1, 2011 at 11:56 am

    Wow. I can really see that thin line between artist and addict. A little frightening actually. But definitely needs more contemplation about what I am doing myself.

  24. October 2, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    I was in Bravo company 1/5 and I brought a copy of Gates of Fire (this was before it was on our reading list) with me overseas. It was a hardcover copy and when I finished it I passed it along to the Marines in my platoon. We would take it to the field and share our assesment of the book and after several months it was pretty beat up. Everyone respected the book so much that they did their best to keep it intact and all of the readers signed their names on the front and back covers, but in the end the pages were filled with muddy and bloody fingerprints. We all agreed that it made it even more special and decided that when we got back we would send it to you so you could add your signature to ours. In transition to the states the book was lost by some miserable boot who will never be forgiven and I never had the chance to send it to you. But I thought you should at least know about it. We all cherished that book and the characters in it, so thanks for writing it.

  25. October 4, 2011 at 12:38 am

    Words to live by. But is blowing off steam with a few glasses of wine after a solid week at the workbench “resistance”? I usually feel better after n raring to get working again.

  26. October 5, 2011 at 7:23 am

    Ouch.

  27. October 13, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    Wonderful article!

    I participated in the 3-day Novel Contest last month and learned a valuable lesson about the pain. I’m capable of much more work than my modest goals.

  28. Adam McGillen
    October 20, 2011 at 3:01 am

    Great stuff here, Steve. Exactly what I needed to hear.

    How do you view blogging in relation to pursuing your purpose? Is it part of the process or another online distraction?

    I’ve begun to write some fiction, but a lot of popular advice talks about the need to build a platform online. This post reminds me of something I read from Berklee – John Mayer spoke to aspiring musicians about the need to focus on creating great music and not on creating great tweets or great blogs.

    http://www.berklee-blogs.com/2011/07/john-mayer-2011-clinic-manage-the-temptation-to-publish-yourself/

  29. November 15, 2011 at 9:00 pm

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