Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Free Agent Mindset, Part Two

By Steven Pressfield | Published: May 22, 2013

The artist’s mindset has always been that of the free agent. The painter, writer or filmmaker by definition can only follow her own vision. She has to know (or teach herself) how to be self-defining, self-motivating, self-reinforcing, self-validating.

Solon

Street protests in Athens. Solon would have approved.

And yet artists have always run in schools. Paris in the 20s, Rome in the late 50s and early 60s, New York any time. I wish I had been part of a school. I once went to Paris and did nothing but ride the metro to the places Hemingway had mentioned in his short stories and in A Moveable Feast. I would’ve loved to have hung out with kindred spirits anywhere. It would’ve made me feel less alone.

Here’s what I found out about Hemingway by the way. In the short stories like “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” you felt like he was in some workingman’s café writing fiction with a half-inch stub of a pencil because he couldn’t afford even a crayon. Turns out the Closerie des Lilas and many of the other watering holes he mentioned are high-toned, high-cotton joints. Zinc bars, walnut-paneled walls. I was kinda depressed to discover this. I thought, “Hem was a swell!” I was disappointed.

Bottom line: I never could find a school. I never managed to hang out with anybody. Wherever the school was, I always got there twenty years after it had packed up and split.

But we need schools. We need the tribe. It’s too lonely being a one-man band all the time. Maybe the web is our school today. Maybe it’s Facebook, I don’t know. I’m missing that school too.

But to get a little more serious, the point of this post is that we need both sides of the dime. Each of us as individual writers, artists and entrepreneurs needs to be able to flip the switch and become the Incredible Hulk of self-discipline and self-sustenance. But we gotta be human beings too. The free agent mindset is too hard to sustain. In my own life I’ve probably arced way too far into that end of the pendulum swing. It’s not healthy. It’s not good for you.

But to be too mush-brained and other-directed is bad news too. Even worse news, because then we’re no good to anybody, including ourselves.

I admire the old-school philosophies of guys like Marcus Aurelius and Baltasar Gracian, who were able to be deeply in the real, warm-blooded world but at the same time remained true to their own stars.

The ancient Greeks invented the concept of the citizen. The autonomous individual who was capable of making up his own mind, unswayed by emotion or the mob, but who was also deeply involved in the affairs of his polis, his city. Solon, the great Athenian who saved the democracy when it was teetering on the brink of chaos, enacted the following law:

Any citizen who fails to take sides during a revolution will be fined a thousand drachmas (or some such hefty amount) by whichever side comes out on top, as soon as order is restored.

Solon didn’t want fence-sitters. He believed it was bad for the democracy. Jump in and join the riot. At least you’ll be a citizen. You’ll be making your voice heard.

Before the invention of the citizen, there were tribesmen, there were subjects, there were slaves, there were savages. None of these possessed free will. All were either possessed by others or bound by rigid, unbreakable codes of honor, conquest, or revenge.

You and I are citizens. We’re artist-citizens, who follow our calling, no matter what internal or external forces stand in our way, but at the same time we participate in the life of our times—of our family, our community, our nation, and our world.

We’re free agents but with warm blood.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

22 Responses to “The Free Agent Mindset, Part Two”

  1. May 22, 2013 at 4:30 am

    Favorite line: “Jump in and join the riot.”

  2. Basilis
    May 22, 2013 at 4:51 am

    Sometimes, when I happen to walk near Acropolis, I find myself wondering where is Pericles of our days.
    Perhaps I should wonder first why have we become fence-sitters.
    No doubt, we are responsible for today’s Pericles absence. If we need leaders in Greece (-Europe-World) to be warm blooded but focused to ideas and ideals, we should start by our shelves,our tribes e.t.c. shouldn’t we?

  3. May 22, 2013 at 6:26 am

    It’s an odd balance that you (and the Greeks) are calling for. The pursuit of complete self-actualization – to become the most a person can be – while simultaneously remaining part of the “people.” At some point, those two goals are going to be at odds with one another. Not at all times, but there are times in which you have to break away from the herd and “remain true to your own star.”

    By my reading, you are asking people to become leaders. To strike out boldly towards their own goals, forging their own paths. To take point through uncharted territory. To be a leader, to take point, is to be solitary. To be apart from others. Yes you will remain part of a group – but you will never be of them.

    The most you can hope for is that while you are out forging your own path is that you can find other leaders – people wheeling back and forth across unknown territory – and spend some time with them. Share stories, learn from another for a time. But if you are to remain true to yourself, to continue to be a leader and move forwards to you goal, you’ll eventually have to break away and strike back out on your own.

  4. elizabeth
    May 22, 2013 at 6:54 am

    Want to start a school? I’ll come. Just name the time and place.

    I feel your pain of always being a day late to the party :(

  5. May 22, 2013 at 7:21 am

    I just read A Moveable Feast and, as a writer, loved the community as you point out. Felt there was an inspiration in friends, walks, wine and a place where they could whine. There is something in the power of presence of place and people. Need to go find that in my new community.

  6. Kelly Smith
    May 22, 2013 at 8:40 am

    For me, this blog is the school. I look forward to reading it every week.

  7. gs
    May 22, 2013 at 8:46 am

    1. Taken too far, Solon’s mandate could lead to society ripping itself apart. Though I haven’t read Thucydides since mumble, iirc that’s what Athens did to itself.

    2. After reading War of Art, I formed the habit of checking my brain upon awakening, to see whether the Muse or Resistance deposited anything there. Recently I found the thought that the verge of old age finds me a failure who is on the path to dying alone and destitute. My next thought was Steven’s Resistance is always lying and always full of shit. Maybe Resistance and the Muse made a deposit that night.

    3. IMHO the struggle with Resistance takes priority over civic participation. While I was passing up a lot of good things in life, I inarticulately realized that the confrontation with Resistance was more important, even though I did not know what Resistance is or how to combat it.

    I’d like to do some catching up once I’m reliably doing my work.

    • May 22, 2013 at 3:35 pm

      GS, re #2, I think it’s safe to say that wake-up message was RESISTANCE. (I’ve gotten that same telegram myself.)

  8. May 22, 2013 at 10:12 am

    I believe we all have engraved need to belong, to love and be loved. Anyone denying it is suppressing our natural need to find own family (spouse, tribe of like minded friends, artists etc.)

  9. May 22, 2013 at 11:13 am

    Its funny, but my first thought reading this was surprise. Steven, you write as if you, Shawn, and Callie have your own little community going. More than once I’ve found myself slightly envious at your relationship, especially with Shawn. So from the outside, perhaps every social situation looks appealing. You know, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

    As to the divide between the individual and the group, I think this neatly matches the creative process. Every art form I’ve ever participated in (both professionally and as a hobby) had both an individual aspect and a group one. Many arts, like writing, require both the work of the individual (in this case the author) and the work of a group (the author working along with editors, art directors, publishers, printers and even readers). A successful story is both an individual event, AND a team sport.

    I suspect there is a reason for this. In order to be healthy we need to both be in our own heads, and also in the heads of the people around us. We like to envision ourselves as loners, especially us writers, but when you really look at it, we’re not. We need each other, not only to have an audience, but for ideas and inspiration. Even just because we sometimes need to eat and don’t have time to both cook and write.

    • May 22, 2013 at 3:37 pm

      I agree, T. It’s a bounce-back-and-forth thing, I think, like right-brain/left-brain in work. Act/consider, act/consider.

  10. May 22, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    The Heads that Roll.
    Ever though of a writer as being chosen by a book? And his/her life written by the future intention of that book?

    This post seems to elicit such an idea…the marketplace full of writers offering to help writers (Come buy.. I’ll edit, fix,design, market, above all sell you the loudhailer!) when perhaps it is thought that finds the logos and the life to give it passion, strength and authority? Just wondering?

    • May 22, 2013 at 3:41 pm

      Philippa, I agree completely that a writer is chosen by a book … and a songwriter by a song. Your phrase is right on, I think: ” … his/her life written by the future intention of that book.” In my experience (can’t speak for others), that’s exactly how it works.

  11. May 22, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    We are social creatures, needing others, hating that need sometimes, craving it at others, ignoring it when we need to (if we have the strength), desperately seeking it when we feel lost and cut off.

  12. May 22, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    Favorite line: “We’re artist-citizens”

  13. May 22, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    Steve,
    I need to become the Incredible Hulk of self-discipline. Right now I am closer to Hello Kitty, sitting on a fence. It is time to get off the fence and turn green.
    All the best,
    Pamela

  14. May 23, 2013 at 1:17 am

    Hi Steve (all the way from New Zealand)

    This post smacks of resitance. It feels like you are stuck at a hard part of your new novel, the walls are closing in, the muse has dumped you and somebody turned out the lights (does the weather suck outside?)Seriously … you have to be the most ‘connected’ author I know of … Sounds like you need a holiday. Forget Paris, (Hemingway was a legend … that’s all. Another word for legend is a Myth .. all puff and little substance) Jump on a plane an come to NZ for some time out. Every now and then you gotta leave the tribe behind!!

    Gary

  15. May 23, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    One of the biggest challenges I found about striking out on my own is finding your place. Of course you get to define it, but that is not accomplished alone.

    Writers need a team. And they will be related by blood, whether biological family or related through the work that you share with them.

    Tribes do matter, at least from what I learned in Washington. Sometimes tribes pick (select/capture/etc.) some people, and some people pick their tribes.

    Great post. I am grateful you spend your time building this community. I think we’re all richer for it.

  16. May 25, 2013 at 11:28 am

    I was recommended this web site by way of my cousin. I’m now not certain whether this put up is written by him as no one else recognize such distinctive approximately my trouble. You’re wonderful! Thanks!

  17. May 25, 2013 at 11:25 pm

    Steven, thanks for this heartfelt, rich and resonant piece.
    The artist-citizen ain’t an easy gig.
    But it’s important.
    And I think, in the way of offering hope to your younger readers, it does get, say, simpler with age.
    Beautifully done, Steven.

  18. GB
    May 27, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    Great posting. It made me feel like I need to get that spark back and never give up on my passion. Through life, the challenges will be there, but you’ve got to keep pushing through because there’s so much greater waiting at the end.

  19. October 30, 2013 at 5:48 am

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