By Steven Pressfield | Published: March 20, 2013
Being a writer is not a natural life. Of course it’s not natural working in a coal mine or a cubicle either.
What is a “natural life” anyway? Is it living in alignment with evolution? Is it the nomadic life, the hunter’s life, the farmer’s life? If we live in the city, have we cut ourselves off from the organic voyages, migrations, and rhythms of the human soul?
The life of the artist is artificial. Art by definition is artificial.
What exactly is the artist’s life? What shape does it take, day-to-day?
What you and I do as artists and entrepreneurs is we impose an order and a structure upon the day. We do this by an act of the will. We don’t let the day take us wherever it wants to. We resist. We refuse to live reactively. We view the vagaries, crises, and emotions that the day presents to us as distractions. We dismiss them.
Does that mean we’re not living naturally? How do you define “natural?” Some might declare that the human being in a natural state will maximize pleasure and minimize pain, respond to emergencies and physical and emotional needs, chase money or love/fame/sex/power, hang with his homies, have fun, get wasted, do what he believes he’s expected to do and seek to be what he believes he’s expected to be. He will live, as George Harrison might have said, “in the material world.”
Is the writer’s or the artist’s life more natural? It’s certainly not “natural” to do what a writer does or to live the way a writer lives. It’s not natural to think the way a writer thinks. It’s not natural to be a surgeon either, or a ballerina or a pianist. To work at the barre? To practice scales?
What you and I do does not come naturally. It’s a cultural response to the experience of life. It’s a response to the human condition.
Here is where the argument takes an interesting and significant turn. What is the human condition? It’s the state of being suspended between two worlds and finding it impossible to fully enter into either. If you’ll forgive me for quoting from Turning Pro:
As mortal flesh, you and I cannot ascend to the upper realm. That sphere belongs to the gods … Our lot, instead, is to dwell here in the lower realm, the sphere of the temporal and the material—the time-bound dimension of instincts and animal passions, of hate and desire, aspiration and fear.
We’re stuck in the lower world but we yearn for the higher. We remember it, though we don’t know from where. We miss it. We feel pulled toward it. We aspire to it.
The artist has a device by which she tries to touch this upper realm. That device is inspiration. Which brings us back to the unnatural natural life of the artist.
By imposing a structure of work and dedication onto the day, the painter and the dancer and the filmmaker may be living an unnatural life in the temporal dimension, but they’re living the most natural life of all in the dimension of the spirit.
You and I impose order onto our days not to make ourselves stiff or rigid or wooden but in order render impotent the pull of the superficial and the random and the current. We fix our attention not on the petty opportunities and emergencies of the day but on our inner Polaris, even if it’s something as humble as a kiosk business we’re trying to launch or a free app we’re aiming to design. We banish distraction so that we can address our call, our Unconscious, the summons of our Muse.
Is that natural?
To me, that’s as natural as it gets.
There’s a chapter in Turning Pro that talks about migrant labor, about following the harvest from season to season.
You and I … migrate too. We follow the Muse instead of the sun. When one crop is picked, we hit the road and move on to the next.
The river of our lives flows on two levels. We can’t ignore the first one, the material dimension. It’s important. It demands, justly, our attention. But our real life, our natural life, is unfolding within a different sphere. That dimension is the one that the artist and the entrepreneur call home, and they will bend the first dimension into any shape they have to, to find their way to the second.