Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Something Unique To Say

By Steven Pressfield | Published: August 29, 2012

If you’re a writer or artist or entrepreneur and you sometimes think to yourself, “I have nothing unique to say,” you’re wrong and I’ll tell you why.

Browne

Jackson Browne has said that he writes his lyrics to find out what he thinks

First, that voice in your head is 100-proof Resistance. It’s bullshit. I get a lot of e-mails from the trenches and, trust me, Resistance is spamming you with the same boilerplate it uses on everyone, including me.

So that’s Reason #1 not to listen to that voice.

Reason #2 is a lot deeper and more subtle.

When we think to ourselves, “I have nothing unique to say,” we are thinking with our surface mind.

The surface mind is an idiot. It knows nothing.

The surface mind is our everyday brain, the one we use for crossing the street, making out grocery lists, and applying to the Kennedy School at Harvard. The surface mind knows only three things:

What has already happened.

What it believes can happen.

What it fears will happen.

No wonder it tells us, “Hey, stupid! What makes you think you have something original to say?”

The trick is that you and I don’t write or paint or shoot film with our surface mind.

I’ve quoted Jackson Browne on this subject before. He says he writes the lyrics of a song to find out what he thinks.

What he means by that is that when he sits down to compose, he doesn’t know yet what he thinks. It is in the process that what he thinks is revealed.

The process doesn’t happen in the surface mind. It takes place in the Deep Mind.

In our surface minds, you and I may indeed have nothing original to say. But we can’t say that about our Deep Mind.

Where do ideas come from? I don’t know. Nobody knows. But come, they do. Over and over.

Is the Deep Mind collective? Is it something quasi-Jungian that we all share?

I don’t think so.

I say that because ideas that I have somehow seem to be “mine.” They bear the stamp of my unique consciousness. And I’ve seen this, again and again, in friends and colleagues. Their crazy ideas are very much “theirs.”

So the Deep Mind, in my experience, is very personal. It’s yours alone.

One of the most profound differences between an amateur and a pro is that the pro trusts that Deep Mind. He believes in the Muse. Like Jackson Browne sitting down to write a song, the pro (because he possesses, oddly enough, “beginner’s mind”) launches himself onto the blank sheet of foolscap, believing that he will find something. He doesn’t know what. He’s waiting to see. But he is certain that something will come.

That something invariably is unique, and is interesting, and is original.

The great fun of writing or painting or shooting film or starting a business is in this process of discovery. These surprises that pop out of nowhere and that we gleefully take credit for, even though in our hearts we know we didn’t create them, we just stumbled onto them.

It may help, the next time you hear that voice in your head that says you have nothing original to say, to remember that that voice is not coming from the part of your self that you write from, or paint from, or shoot film from.

That voice is coming from the shallow end of the pool.

Stay in the deep end.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

31 Responses to “Something Unique To Say”

  1. August 29, 2012 at 4:31 am

    Another valuable description of how Resistance tries to kill our dreams. I will print this and re-read it whenever I feel blocked or hear that surface voice in my head.

    “The Muse always delivers.”

  2. August 29, 2012 at 4:35 am

    This is a perfect article…it came exactly at the right tome, because it confirms what I’ve been reading in Mark Levy’s book “Accidental Genius.” Levy’s book is all about free-writing as a brainstorming tool. Essentially, thinking on paper. I’ve been using it myself in the past couple of weeks…just sitting down to write without really knowing what I’m going to write about, and I’ve come up with some pretty good stuff (if I say so myself)!

    • September 14, 2012 at 6:13 am

      Me too Fernando – that books goes hand in glove with these thoughts.

  3. August 29, 2012 at 4:45 am

    Thank you, Steve. I got three rejections in the span of fifteen minutes on Monday, and I was seriously doubting my own artistic abilities. I suppose I’ll just keep moving forward.

  4. August 29, 2012 at 4:59 am

    “Stay in the deep end” – love that idea. I tend to look at the surface mind (the shallow end voice) as simply providing a narrative for what’s happening in your life. It doesn’t care about meaning, it only cares about going over the detail and minutia, over and over.

    Listen to it and that’s all you get.

    Gah, can’t imagine much worse.

  5. August 29, 2012 at 6:09 am

    Oh, wow. “Stay in the deep end” is about as good as any advice I’ve heard for writing – and for life. Thank you. I adore Jackson Browne and I think I have a new understanding of why, reading this here. Thank you! xox

  6. August 29, 2012 at 7:13 am

    Wow, amazing. You did it again. I kinda makes me wonder though. Did you know exactly what you were going to write before you sat down to write this article, or did you discover it once you started writing? ;)

    Either way, thanks!

    • August 29, 2012 at 11:58 am

      A little bit of both, Robert. Definitely discovery though!

  7. August 29, 2012 at 7:41 am

    This is a hard thing to grasp. I write comedy sketches and am always amazed that the perfect idea I had in my head changed completely by the time I’m finished with the sketch. At the end I usually forget what the original idea was, or I remember it and it seems so elementary, that I wonder what I ever saw in it.

    This reminds me of your “What’s In The Box?” exercise. Trust that the elementary idea is just the kick in the butt.

    • August 29, 2012 at 11:59 am

      I was thinking of that too. “There is always something in the box.”

  8. August 29, 2012 at 8:22 am

    This resonates in precise step with Incognito, David Eagleman’s book about current brain science, which I just started reading again yesterday. Serendipitous, that. Fascinating stuff. Thanks for posting.

  9. August 29, 2012 at 11:14 am

    This is a terrific model to explain why, when I bash that Resistance fellow to the ground, sit down at the keyboard, and start creating, it isn’t long before I’m usually having a blast as I discover all the neat stuff my muse has to say.

  10. August 29, 2012 at 11:39 am

    S.J. your comment made me think “oh, the ‘deeper mind’ the Muse.”

    Steven, thank you for what you speak to in us.

    • September 3, 2012 at 3:26 pm

      Steven, we think alike. I was just finishing up a chapter of my forthcoming book, “Winning at Life” about writing for creativity with specific tips for how to overcome the outer mind’s editing function, the destroyer of creativity when I read this posting of yours.

      I just posted my piece on my blog, http://mycoachjason.com/blog/?p=66

      Any and all feedback are gleefully accepted!

      Jason Wittman

  11. August 29, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    Reading this I realized for the very first time that I do this with my songwriting. I strum or hammer or noodle and chords spark a melody and then it goes out and finds some words for me, and by and large, they’re the right words, just need a little polish.

    I need to find the chords for my mysteries so I can trust the words they bring.

  12. SJB
    August 29, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    “Stay in the deep end.” It’s an inspirational title.

  13. August 29, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    I’ve been struggling with writing a sequel to a pulp-flavored novel I published last year. I think all of my problems with the follow-up have stemmed from what you’re talking about here–listening to my surface mind tell me that the first book’s fun factor was a fluke, and this time out, I’m sure to flub it… and why am I writing a sequel to a book that only a handful of people have bought anyway? On and on and on and on…

    Thanks for the insight, Steven! I needed it!

  14. August 29, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  15. August 30, 2012 at 6:51 am

    I’ve noticed that my creativity and the flow of unique ideas tends to ‘wake up’ like crazy when traveling, likely due to pulling out of the daily grind – it frees the mind. So began bringing along a journal whenever traveling to capture these ideas,but even better is to learn to give the mind little vacations daily.

  16. Basilis
    August 30, 2012 at 6:59 am

    We have to stay in the deep end of the trenches…

  17. August 30, 2012 at 7:54 am

    Great description of the two minds! I feel pretty lost if I spend much time in the surface mind. And I too think of the saying that there’s “always something in the box” to help myself go back to the deep end. Thank you Steven.

  18. Harlan Gleeson
    August 30, 2012 at 9:06 am

    wonderful as usual.
    thanks again bro.
    K I S S (Keep It Simple Stupid!)

  19. August 30, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    The cool thing is that it takes ‘letting go’ for the ‘deep mind’ to surface. And the beauty of being an artist is that the letting go often happens, for me, when I am being active. Moving. Running. Skiing. Walking my dog. A toggle gets switched and I’m more mind than me. And if I go with the flow it seems that neuronal pathways that are otherwise strangers ‘friend’ each other, create new connections between the stuff that is floating around in there, even creates new ones. The FB of the mind. It happens at split speed. Given a little bit of roaming range, roam it does. So we are not stuck behind a desk or a computer or a blank slate. My best ‘aha’ moments happen without me at the controls. I can barely write fast enough to get them down. Not only can you trust it but these are privileged peeks into possibility. And that it happens like this feels like play and reminds me to be light, to let go and live. To take these insights and begin to write, is a portal back to that ‘flow’ and hours of good stuff ensues.

  20. August 31, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    I just got a chance to read this – busy with the aftermath of Isaac. How strangely we name these hurricanes. Seven years after Katrina, it’s a deja vu all over again. I still don’t have electricity (maybe tonight, G-d Willing), and have been “borrowing power.” The wind and still, hot air and neighborhood beers and long periods of quiet have sent me often into the “deep mind,” which has told me, “I’m busy, come back later when the surface is ok. You’ve got to cross the road (get power, keep family safe) right now. But we’ve got lots to discuss because I, the Deep Mind, am working overtime.” There’s a tremendous trust element in what you describe, Steven – trusting ourselves on the deepest level. And your description reminds me not only of how poems compose themselves in me, but how Paul McCartney described his song-writing process – go in to the studio, sit down with guitar or piano, and come out 3 or 4 hours later with a song – at least, the basics. Then revise, perfect, rehearse, repeat.

    thanks. Always look forward to the posts.

  21. September 1, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    Hm. That’s an important distinction to make. We’re all full of competing voices, but when do we ever sit down to source them all? I certainly haven’t. I trust each voice more or less based on my mood at the time, how easily convinced I am by them, how strong their arguments. All arbitrary judgements.

    I just the other day came across this line from Ezra Pound: “Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work.”

    The principle is just as applicable to our choir of voices. In fact it might just be my new criteria for sorting their hierarchy. What has my nagging surface mind voice ever accomplished? Nothing. It’s only talked me out of valid endeavours. Which of my voices has accumulated the most merit badges? That’s the one I’ll trust.

    If I judge the validity of other peoples’ opinions by their achievements, if more generally I judge their words by their deeds, why don’t I judge myself the same way?

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  23. September 3, 2012 at 10:48 am

    This is so on target! The deep mind is the empty, open mind and everything arises from there.

  24. September 4, 2012 at 7:52 am

    Weird, I always thought that ideas from me were not really from me at all. Each work I do, poems, paintings, sculptures, I look at later and feel positive I cannot do it again. I think to myself that it is all just a fluke. To think that I do my work, to find out what I think, is a remarkable thought and one that explains a lot, or nothing at all, lol. I am half way through The War of Art, new to the concepts, and finding my way past resistance, realizing that I will never get past it, but traveling on regardless.

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