By Steven Pressfield | Published: March 12, 2014
The #1 question that writers ask: “I’ve got a million ideas. How do I know which one to write?”
Answer: Write your White Whale.
Which idea, of all those swimming inside your brain, are you compelled to pursue the way Ahab was driven to hunt Moby Dick?
Here’s how you know: you’re scared to death of it.
That’s good. You should be scared. Mediocre ideas never elevate your heart rate. The great ones make you break out in a sweat.
The final image of Moby Dick is one of the greatest ever, not just as the climax to a saga, an adventure, a tragedy but as a metaphor for the artist’s calling (I count ever sentient human in this category) and his endlessly-repeated, never-expiring struggle. Do you remember the scene?
[Actually this is from the movie—screenplay by John Huston and Ray Bradbury—which in my opinion went Melville one better.]
Ahab has chased Moby Dick across all the oceans of the globe. At last he has closed with the leviathan, sunk his harpoon into the great beast. But in the clash of whale and whaling boat, Ahab has been caught in the harpoon lines and pulled over the side …
He is lashed now, bodily, to the White Whale—so entangled in the ropes that he cannot get free. Ahab can see Moby Dick’s eye, and the whale can see him. Clearly the monster recognizes his tormenter; in moments he will sound, dragging Ahab hundreds of feet down into the ocean’s depths.
Ahab knows this. He knows his obsessive pursuit has led ineluctably to his own extinction. But that doesn’t stop him. Clutching the harpoon in both hands, he plunges its steel lancehead again and again into the flesh of this creature he hates but can never kill.
Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but
unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with
thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s
sake I spit my last breath at thee!
That’s the writer’s life in a nutshell. But I would invert Melville’s concept. I don’t think you hate the whale. I think you love it.
The whale is your unwritten book, your unsung song, your calling as an artist. You die grappling with this thing, lashed to it, battling it even as it takes you under. (In Charles Bukowski’s phrase, “Find what you love and let it kill you.”)
But your death is not a mortal death. You die instead the artist’s death, which leads to resurrection in a higher, nobler form and recruits you to the next hunt, the next chase, the next Thing You Love.
Is there a White Whale out there for you? There is or you wouldn’t be human. And you know what it is, don’t you? You know by the terror that wells in your bowels just to think about it.
You’ll know your White Whale by these qualities:
1. Confronting it will seem beyond your resources.
2. Your pursuit of it will bear into waters where no one before you has sailed.
3. To hunt this beast will require everything you’ve got.
4. The chase and clash may kill you.
You may have started, like me, as a junior Mad Man, scripting jingles for canine kibble. There’s nothing wrong with that. You may have prostituted your talent, sold out to the Man. I have, a thousand times.
It doesn’t matter. I forgive you and I forgive myself. Each incarnation is an apprenticeship, if you live it that way.
But one day your heart and mine must say to themselves, “It’s time.”
The ocean is a symbol of the unconscious. Have you ever stood on the shore and looked out over the surface of the sea? Its depths are unfathomable to us. All we know is that they are without limit—and that within them swim monsters and prodigies and marvels of beauty and power and mystery.
My whale is out there, and so is yours.