Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

How We Get Better, Part Two

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 11, 2012

On the artist’s journey, we don’t get better by increments, we get better by fits and starts.

Khumbu

Everest's Khumbu Icefall. As Alexander Pope once said, "Alps on Alps Arise!"

The trajectory is not a smoothly-ascending curve, but a herky-jerky spasm-fest marked by seeming dead-ends, plateaus, dark nights of the soul, intervals of boredom and stasis, not to mention bouts of terror, despair and self-doubt, which are followed, if we’re lucky, by quantum leaps to the next level.

In other words, we advance by breakthroughs.

In last week’s post I talked about my friend Paul, who overnight leap-frogged two or three levels in his writing. What I didn’t say was that that leap was preceded by months and years of toil that had built up to an explosive bursting point.

Have you ever read Laurens van der Post, the South African writer? Among his books are two of my all-time faves, The Lost World of the Kalahari and The Seed and the Sower, which was made into the movie Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, starring David Bowie.

One of Mr. Van der Post’s theories is that every true change we experience in our lives is accompanied by a fever. A literal fever. Temperature over a hundred.

Van der Post’s idea is that something in us needs to be transformed at the cellular level if we are to permanently evolve aesthetically, emotionally, morally or spiritually.

I believe it.

My own theory is that we progress as artists by mini-“hero’s journeys,” one after the other. Each graduation takes us to the next level, where we find ourselves enrolled again as freshmen—and we start the process all over again.

Like climbing Mt. Everest, we claw ourselves up a brutal vertical ascent, only to realize that we stand at the threshold of a plateau of ice that we must now traverse, one harrowing crevasse at a time, to get to the next ascent.

When we improve as artists, what is happening is less a process of adding layers of skill or technical expertise (though certainly that is happening, and it’s very important) but more an evolution that is characterized by the shedding of false self-conceptions and the jettisoning of self-limiting ideas.

We are finding our voice.

We’re becoming who we really are.

What happened with Paul was that he hit the wall, fell into a bout of fever, his head exploded—and when he sat down again, he started writing for the first time in his real voice.

It’s really hard to write (or paint or dance or shoot film) in your true voice. It takes tremendous courage. That’s why most of us only get there, if we do at all, after an ordeal that pushes us to our limits until, in despair, we give up on the self we have been clinging to so desperately. When we let go of that false self (which is constituted of others’ expectations of us and our own conventional expectations), a breakthrough happens. The fever breaks, and we wake up new.

The catch is that this new self has not achieved nirvana. We’re just one level higher, faced now with the challenges of this new plane.

That’s how the game works, at least in my experience.

We get better one hero’s journey at a time, one breakthrough at a time, one fever at a time.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

34 Responses to “How We Get Better, Part Two”

  1. yvon
    July 11, 2012 at 2:58 am

    great read !
    thanks.

  2. Robertdee
    July 11, 2012 at 4:10 am

    Again, exactly what I needed to hear. Thanks Steve.

  3. skip
    July 11, 2012 at 4:44 am

    just Excellent!…thnx.

  4. July 11, 2012 at 6:03 am

    Steve,

    The part about the fever is SO true! Until this day, I always thought that was just particular to me. Actually mine is like a case of the flu without the body aches. I get wozzy in the head and am in and out of it for a few days. I can always feel it coming. Every major shift in my life has been proceeded by “the sickness” as I’ve come to call it. I’ve been feeling it coming on lately. I’m bracing myself.

    Thanks for the reminder that my break down is actually a set up for my break through.

  5. July 11, 2012 at 6:51 am

    Call it intuition, but I think that one day when these heady days of neuroscience have faded man will begin to comprehend that not all emotional/personal growth occurs in the firing and changes of neurons but that we absorb and radiate from others and our environment as we are ready to do so. And that given just a crack in a heaved open door, required ‘nutrients’ will flood in. Growth in everything occurs like this – what looks to be regulated season by season, age by age consistent growth is, if you look closely at growing children and plants, a calm (even barren) season followed by a bursting forth of growth. It is built into the nature of things this drinking from both the dregs at the bottom and the bubbles on top. Would that we have the wisdom, the perseverance and the gratitude for the larger symmetry within that chaos.

  6. Murray
    July 11, 2012 at 7:12 am

    It’s very strange to me how I happen upon these espresso shots of truth right at the exact moment I need them! Thank you, sir.

  7. July 11, 2012 at 7:21 am

    Wow. Every “Writing Wednesdays” installment is exceptional. This one is among the best ever. It should be a chapter in “Turning Pro,” “The War of Art,” “Do The Work,” or even “The Warrior Ethos.”

    Somewhere, Joseph Campbell is proud that you have further illustrated how the Hero’s Journey impacts our lives.

  8. Wiz
    July 11, 2012 at 7:33 am

    Steven,
    Just picked up Tides Of War again to read the section where you introduce Gylippus. I found myself reading the rest of the book for the second time. I always enjoy Telemon’s quotes. You really did a great job of story telling within the historical context of the Sicily invasion. Not only did I read my marked passages of Telemon’s speaches but that of Lysander when comparing Sparta and Athens. Thanks!

    • July 11, 2012 at 10:45 am

      Thanks, Wiz. I confess some of those parts are my secret favorites too. And that Telamon is my secret alter ego. Thanks for the Comment!

  9. July 11, 2012 at 9:43 am

    Thank you for another awesome post.
    Makes me wonder about my writing style. I am writing a personal development book. People who have read some of what I write accuse me that it is too poetic/verse in style.
    I try and adapt my writing, but eventually that is how I think and that is how I write.
    That confuses me a lot.

    • July 11, 2012 at 10:47 am

      Brahm, one should never give advice from afar, I know. But if your style is coming out “poetic/verse,” go with it. (But of course take this with a big grain of salt. Do what YOU think, not what anybody else tells you.)

      • July 12, 2012 at 1:14 pm

        Thank you Steven, much appreciated.

  10. Harlan Gleeson
    July 11, 2012 at 10:16 am

    good good, steve. Thanks bro.

  11. July 11, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    Steven, what you are saying about shedding the false self is hitting me in the gut. I am listening to you reading “Turning Pro” and this is everywhere, false pursuits, identities, distractions … everything that is in the way. I’m feeling a bit weak in the knees, a bit sick to the stomach, but happy. Got up today. Did my work.

  12. July 11, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    I have been physically ill, mysteriously ill, for two months.

    I have also made core shifts in my art.

    Now you tell me.

  13. July 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    Nice to see someone writing about this. I’ve experienced the ‘fever’ as very intense anxiety attacks. It’s terrifying. Deep down you know it’s time to either push yourself forward or spend the rest of your life pretending to be satisfied with less than your best. Let’s hope posts like this keep people from giving up when they hit the wall, mistaking the fever for a sign that it’s time to quit. Thank you!

  14. Sonja
    July 11, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    I pretty much have a stomach ache every day.

  15. July 11, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    I’ve just finished reading “The War of Art” and “Turning Pro” in two days. They woke me up from a long slumber with Resistance biting at my heels day and night. Here you talk about fever — I’ve discovered that chronic illness is also Resistance and I’m thoroughly convinced that resisting the resistance and getting down to work (at last) will bring an end to that illness. I do write, but I don’t seem to get that much resistance regarding my writing. It’s probably because it’s my “shadow” career. I’m a musician/composer, and this is where it really likes to sink its fangs in.

  16. Randy
    July 11, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    So to paraphrase…we are all just Super Mario trying to get to the next level? Works for me.

  17. Cathy in NZ
    July 11, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    I have just reached a hard place a few weeks ago and it has tipped me off into an old world that can be explored, expanded and challenged. This means after reading this passage, I’m on track :-) thanks

  18. John Thomas
    July 11, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    It’s that point of frustration, of really giving up, when the breakthrough so often happens.

    Of course, now I’m flashing back to Napoleon Hill (every adversity has the seed of an equal or greater benefit, and his book “Outwitting The Devil”) and also Candace Pert’s “Your Body Is Your Subconscious Mind.” The fever could be literal.

  19. July 11, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    I love these How We Get Better posts. Just as inspiring as War of Art and Turning Pro. Thank you for the wonderful content each week.

  20. Basilis
    July 12, 2012 at 6:05 am

    I couldn’t agree more about your thoughts.

  21. July 12, 2012 at 7:09 am

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ant_and_the_Grasshopper

    Maybe we should be more sympathetic for the Grasshopper in Aesop’s Grasshopper and Ant fable.

    I suspect the Grasshopper was suffering from a bad case of Resistance. Lennon may have been the Walrus, but I’m definitely the Grasshopper and Winter is my later years peering in the Ant’s window as he bathes in the warmth of having done his calling. I can’t answer the call if I’m not home. Cell phones don’t fix that metaphor.

    Just read Turning Pro. Can’t argue with much. Just wish reading it was the same as doing it…

  22. July 13, 2012 at 2:56 am

    I get frustrated when things don’t progress in the perfect line that I have drawn in my mind.

    I need to remember that nothing works out exactly as planned and you make progress just when you think it’s over and your going to quit.

  23. July 13, 2012 at 5:12 am

    Steven, you have again planted a flag atop Writers’ Mountain. Surely most writers aspire to reach its peak.

  24. July 13, 2012 at 8:07 am

    Pardon me if I quote one of my favorite passages, from Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism.”

    A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing;
    Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
    There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
    And drinking largely sobers us again.
    Fir’d at first Sight with what the Muse imparts,
    In fearless Youth we tempt the Heights of Arts,
    While from the bounded Level of our Mind,
    Short Views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
    But more advanc’d, behold with strange Surprize
    New, distant Scenes of endless Science rise!
    So pleas’d at first, the towring Alps we try,
    Mount o’er the Vales, and seem to tread the Sky;
    Th’ Eternal Snows appear already past,
    And the first Clouds and Mountains seem the last:
    But those attain’d, we tremble to survey
    The growing Labours of the lengthen’d Way,
    Th’ increasing Prospect tires our wandering Eyes,
    Hills peep o’er Hills, and Alps on Alps arise!

  25. July 15, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    This is fantastic, thank you. I always experience a literal, visceral heating of the upper chest and the feeling of fire running down my arms when I’m having a creative breakthrough or facing down some inner-critic demon.

    It used to frighten me, but I have learned to trust the process, hang in there and scream through it.

    Good to know I’m not alone with the creative fever.

  26. July 16, 2012 at 8:08 am

    Steve,

    Thanks for this! Just reading the post on the following Monday from publication, and it’s exactly what I needed to hear on a Monday morning.

    Also, I have always loved Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence and never knew that it was based off of a book. I’ll have to put The Seed and the Sower on my list.

  27. Jen Young
    July 17, 2012 at 11:59 am

    When we improve as artists, what is happening is less a process of adding layers of skill or technical expertise (though certainly that is happening, and it’s very important) but more an evolution that is characterized by the shedding of false self-conceptions and the jettisoning of self-limiting ideas.

    Makes me think about the marble that Michelangelo sculpted from. From what I remember from school, he could see what needed to be stripped away from a block of marble to reveal his sculptures.

    My imagination wanders: How did the rock feel? To be cut apart from what it had known for eons? What about each precise blow of the chisel? To have what you thought was you stripped away so violently and suddenly. Did the rock recognize the masterpiece it had become?

  28. Grant
    August 7, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    Do you think van der Post was talking about a deeper unrest within, as we are now so estranged from our soul – that that is the cellular level transformation that we need – a home, a place a connection to our soul which we are now so far from? Like Jung famously said (and van der Post knew him so well) ““People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls.” Another incredibly insightful thinker, but from a biological perspective (and who also was so inspired by van der Post) is Jeremy Griffith. He often quotes both van der Post and Jung and discusses the human condition “Carl Jung was forever saying that ‘wholeness for humans depends on the ability to own their own shadow’ because he recognised that only finding understanding of our dark side could end our underlying insecurity about our fundamental goodness and worth as humans and, in so doing, make us ‘whole’. The pre-eminent philosopher Sir Laurens van der Post was making the same point as Jung when he said, ‘True love is love of the difficult and unlovable’”. You can read more at World Transformation Movement as I have a feeling you too may be blown away by the insights. (Interestingly too, a Patron of the movement is Tim Macartney-Snape who was the first man to climb Mt. Everest from Sea Level – another coincidence, with your reference to Everest)!.
    Thanky ou for a wonderful post – and for stirring all these old feelings within me!

  29. September 5, 2012 at 3:17 am

    Steven Hi,

    I once upon a time did the 12 weeks self-help course “The Artists Way” by Julia Cameron. I don;t remember on what page etc but remember she also talked about this. She called it i think “A little cryer!”. Where our bodies express outwardly the inner energy which is not flowing.. so getting ill is somehow important for our bodies to express. This i have experienced also at stages of great trauma in my own life path. But not actually in my own work much. But that may be because as you write in your book of resistance.

  30. Dave B
    October 3, 2012 at 6:39 am

    AMAZING post Steve! Thank you!

  31. February 28, 2013 at 9:53 am

    Dov Gordon brought me here. Many thanks for sharing.