Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Work Over Your Head

By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 4, 2012

Writers of fiction learn early that they can write characters who are smarter than they are.

Bilbao

Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain

How can that be? It doesn’t seem possible.

The answer lies in the Mystery.

The place that we write from (or paint from or compose from or innovate from) is far deeper than our petty personal ego. That place is beyond intellect. It’s deeper than rational thought.

It’s instinct.

It’s intuition.

It’s imagination.

If you and I cast Meryl Streep as Queen Boudica in our next Hollywood blockbuster, will we have any doubt that she can pull it off (even though she has never heard of, and knows nothing about, Queen Boudica)?

Ms. Streep will go wherever it is that she goes, read whatever books she needs to read, and she’ll come back with Queen Boudica. She will have become Queen Boudica.

You and I can do it too. We can work over our heads. Not only can we, but we must.

I’ve always wanted to ask Frank Gehry what he was thinking when he first came up with the design for the Guggenheim Bilbao. A part of him must have thought, “Frank, this is nuts. Those wavy walls … the design committee will throw you out on your butt!”

It’s good juju to work over your head. The Muse likes it. When we have the courage to work from deep places, the goddess gets her chance to shine. How bored must she get, inspiring architects with ordinary, plumb-and-level walls? What fun for her to nudge Frank Gehry’s pencil and create these whacky, dipsy-doodle walls that nobody ever saw before but that look absolutely fantastic!

When I first had the idea for The Virtues of War—a novel about Alexander the Great—the narration came to me in the first-person. In other words, the story would be told by Alexander in his own voice. I confess I was daunted momentarily. If it were possible for me to be beamed back in time so that I could meet the real Alexander the Great, I’d be so awestruck I’d be lucky to get out a “Dude! Whassup?” How, then, could I dare presume to write a 300-page book as Alexander?

It turned out it wasn’t so hard.

When we work over our head, we have no choice but to trust our instincts. Common sense no longer applies. Conventional wisdom gets us nowhere. We have to wing it. There’s no option but to swing for the seats.

There’s great freedom and power in that choice.

I’m old enough to remember when the Who first wrote “Tommy.” A rock opera? Ten years earlier, these guys where lucky to remember three different chords.

Where does music come from? It’s just as hard, Pete Townsend would tell us, to write a two-minute-ten-second ballad as it is to compose a symphony. Or just as easy.

The way we want to feel when we start a new project is petrified. If we’re not wetting our pants, something is wrong.

The idea should terrify us.

We should be thinking, “Me? Do that? No way!”

The Muse is happy when she sees us trembling. She knows we are opening ourselves to her. We’re giving her permission to do her thing through us.

The best pages I’ve ever written are pages I can’t remember writing.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

21 Responses to “Work Over Your Head”

  1. January 4, 2012 at 4:37 am

    This is great Steven. After three crime thrillers full of knuckles and bullets, my next novel is a supernatural whodunit. Scares the crap out of me, so thanks for the reassurance and thanks always for sharing the truth.

  2. January 4, 2012 at 4:52 am

    Thank you Steven, this one especially resonates for me.

    If the intimidation factor for writers leads to unnecessary limitations as opposed to necessary risk taking.

    Keyword for me = choice.

    Choice vs. acceptance of the way things are.

  3. skip
    January 4, 2012 at 5:16 am

    i really understand your last sentence! xlnt piece!!!…and HNY, Steve! semper fi, my friend.

  4. January 4, 2012 at 5:51 am

    Thanks SP for these posts. They seem to come at just the right time and be about just the right subjects for me. “The Muse is happy when she sees us trembling.” Time for me to re read The War of Art and get writing. R. Leo

  5. Clayton Luz
    January 4, 2012 at 9:04 am

    I’m right with you, Steve. As we well know, our thoughts and desires and intentions permeate the Spheres. It was only until I yielded (quit fighting) and allowed myself to write above my head without censure, that I finally got published. My essay here corroborates your post today, proving that the Muse is available to us all: http://www.glimmertrain.com/b49luz.html

    • January 4, 2012 at 9:54 am

      Clayton: “Sometimes we have to let things we experience age a while in our souls before they ripen into a knowing.” Good line. This speaks to the act of putting ourselves out into the dark and unexplored wilderness, trusting that our instrument will tune in and let us hear the words that come from… who knows where.

  6. January 4, 2012 at 9:59 am

    This isn’t just true for writing – I do a lot of improv, and applying this to my own work: playing characters that terrify me – is a powerful idea. It’s hard, and it might fail, but the idea of accepting that that’s the risk that makes it worth doing in the first place is amazing.

  7. January 4, 2012 at 11:34 am

    Your writing leaves me trebling, excited and terrified.

    Kinda like a first date… makes me want to try a few things.

    Thanks for inspiring Steven.

  8. January 4, 2012 at 11:52 am

    Thanks so much for this. I’ve always felt that if you aren’t at least a little bit scared something is wrong. Whether its my writing, a love affair, my crossfit workout or a new business venture. Magic definitely happens in that space between fear and action.

  9. January 4, 2012 at 11:56 am

    This is so right. You have to inhabit the soul and body of your character to get it right. Imagine me, writing in the voice of Macedonian generals? I didn’t know if I’d nailed it but once I started workshopping “Shadow of the Lion” I knew I did when one of the male members of my critique group who is a movie buff had every character ‘cast’ for the epic movie with stars like Anthony Hopkins etc. My current work in progress is a Celtic novel first person which I started years ago (before Shadow). I was actually channelling this young girl’s voice as she told her story to me. It’s uncanny when I read it back now as I am retyping it ready to finish and edit it. I don’t have any other explanation other than she inhabited my body and it is her voice, not mine. That’s one of the things I love about being a writer!

  10. January 4, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    PS. I just bought DO THE WORK for my Kindle.

  11. Laura
    January 4, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    …and the best piece of art I ever painted I swear wasn’t painted by me, either.

    Hope the New Year has brought a return to health for you, Steven…or at least you’re meandering in that general direction. And thanks for continuing to guide us, your tribe, from lower ground to the higher.

  12. Blue Hansen
    January 4, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    Fear is the signpost I ‘spose… thank you again Mr. Pressfield, always good stuff.

  13. January 4, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    I had an idea today that has me terrified. Which is good. The bad part is when the “Me? No Way” kicks in and my tendency is to believe that voice.

    I think I’ll choose to be terrified until tomorrow and see what happens. :)

  14. January 5, 2012 at 4:40 am

    LOVED. This. Quoted you a bit on the Bookdoctors’ Facebook page. ;D Hope that’s ok.

  15. January 5, 2012 at 4:59 am

    Just as I am trembling with fear and desire to paint larger paintings(I”ve been doing 6 inches x 6 inches, etc) along comes Steven with the exact ideas that I need. Thanks.

  16. January 6, 2012 at 9:12 am

    Thanks for the article. I’m no stranger to going in over my head. When I started writing my novel, which was an epic fantasy with four distinct points of view from creatures I just made up, I had no idea what I was in for. Once I learned to trust my instincts, the story came–eventually.

  17. Sonja Eaton
    January 6, 2012 at 11:41 am

    Writing over my head is so daunting! All the research that is necessary, but at the end I learn so much.

  18. January 8, 2012 at 2:54 am

    Never thought about this, but insightful idea. We are capable of creating characters “better than ourselves”. Maybe there is a parallel in our own lives…

  19. January 15, 2012 at 10:25 am

    Steven, Thanks for continuing to explore and champion the depths of creativity. Your story in inspires, your writing is deeply compelling, and your willingness to share both helps fan my creative fire!

  20. February 1, 2012 at 6:42 am

    This is a wonderful post, and really helps shatter the ‘glass ceiling’ of writing. We are told to write about what we know… And while that is very good advice, it can become somewhat limiting. I wrote a book of 10-11 year olds who are smarter than I was at that age – perhaps that was my first step 😉