Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Why, #2

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 16, 2014

Maestro

"He can edit it or reshape it or redirect it … "

We were talking last week about the purpose of this blog, both from my point of view in writing it and from the POV of those who read it. What are we doing here? What is this collective enterprise about?

I cited a phrase from Pericles’ Funeral Oration in which he praised his fellow citizens of Athens, describing each as:

… the rightful lord and owner of his own person.

In other words, individual autonomy. Pericles was talking about the ideal of the citizen in the political sense, as opposed to less independent forms of individual identity—the slave, the subject, the tribesman, etc. Pericles defined the citizen as one who was capable of reason, discernment, and discriminating intelligence on his own (again, for argument’s sake, let’s set aside the masculine pronoun and pretend that Pericles meant women as well, though of course in that era this was not yet true), free of external pressure or compulsion of all kinds.

In this blog our preoccupation (we might say our obsession) is parallel to, but not identical with, Pericles’ conception. Our aspiration, too, is the acquisition of those virtues and habits of mind that lead each of us to become “the rightful lord and owner of our own person.”

But this blog is called Writing Wednesdays. It’s about writing. It’s about the internal and external challenges faced by the artist and the entrepreneur, that is, the individual on his or her own pursuing a creative calling.

When we speak in this space of the autonomous individual, we’re talking about the individual as an artist (or the individual pursuing an ideal or enterprise in the manner of an artist, under which heading I include the mother, the philanthropist, the warrior, the athlete, the adventurer, the mystic, the priest, and more.)

To Pericles’ definition then, we’re adding a creative dimension. We’re speaking of the autonomous individual as artist.

This is where it starts to get deep.

Because the artist, at least in my experience, is not autonomous. She is not manipulating a machine or commanding a system, nor is she operating exclusively within the material dimension. She is not pulling levers and making things happen in the manner of, say, the engineer or the mechanic.

By the nature of the creative process itself, she is working with forces that are beyond her control …

She’s working with the Mystery.

Ideas come to the artist from a source she cannot name or define, let alone control. Inspiration appears out of nowhere. Next an organizing principle kicks in. How? From where? The artist doesn’t know. She can invoke this mystery; she can analyze it after the fact; she edit it or reshape it or redirect it.

But she can’t control its genesis. She can’t summon it at will, nor can she manipulate it by force, appeal, or propitiation.

The artist has learned this truth: there is another dimension of reality, or, if you prefer, a different sphere of consciousness. Jung would call it the Unconscious, or possibly the Shadow. I call it the Muse. You might call it Potentiality. Whatever name we give it, that dimension is higher and wiser than the material dimension. We can’t see it. We can’t measure it. We can’t explain it. But we work with it every day. It’s as miraculous as a sunrise and as common as dirt.

This dimension, too, is what our blog is about. It’s the subject that many of these posts investigate—and the subject that readers’ Comments address and amplify and respond to (or reject.)

One of the reasons I’m drawn to the ancient Greeks is I love the idea of divinities with human faces. Where do ideas come from? Why not say “the Muse?” This way of thinking is congenial to me. I’m not saying it’s “real.” It just helps me personally to think of the mystery in those terms.

When the young Xenophon was debating joining Prince Cyrus’ expedition into the Persian hinterland, Socrates told him, “Ask the god.” Meaning the oracle of Apollo at Delphi.

I like that too. “The god” to me is that unseen dimension. It’s that mysterious sphere—the right brain, the unconscious, the Quantum Soup—where ideas come from.

Is this “religious?” Is it “spiritual?” For me it’s consummately practical. My philosophy comes from the artist’s workshop. I go in there each morning and my job is to come out with something that I didn’t have before I went in. How do I do that? I don’t even know, except that whatever I come out with is coming from some part of me (or some other dimension of existence) that I can’t see or touch or control.

So I’ve become “spiritual” on that subject. When I read Pericles’ conception of a citizen as one who is sovereign over his own person, I take that to mean his, the citizen’s, possession of qualities essential not just to being or becoming a worthy political entity, i.e. a functioning member of a democracy, but an aesthetic one—an artist.

Which brings us back to the concept of Resistance.

There is genius in the human heart. But there is also darkness. In Hebrew, from Genesis, the yetzer hara—a “turning toward evil.”

To reach the genius, we enter the darkness. And there is no way to enter except alone.

Thus we as artists prize and seek to acquire the virtues of self-sovereignty, of courage, self-discipline, self-belief, patience, faith in the forces of creativity. We teach ourselves to see with clear eyes, to identify the subtle and insidious forces of self-sabotage and to confront and overcome them. We train ourselves to recognize our own fear and arrogance and pettiness and narcissism, so we will not be seduced or deceived or intimidated by them.

What is our goal? Why are we doing this?

I come back to Pericles. He believed (and this was an article of faith in ancient Athens, as it is in many ways in the contemporary West) that each individual citizen, pursuing the calling of her own heart in the proper civic spirit, will produce works and insights that will redound not only to her own individual benefit but to the good of society as a whole.

Speaking for myself on a slightly deeper level, I can amplify this answer out of a negative. I pursue a calling as an artist because not to do so makes me unhappy to the point of despair and even insanity, while to do so has given meaning to my life and brought self-respect and peace of mind.

This blog, then, seems to me to be about two subjects:

First, the artist’s self-sovereignty. Like the warrior, like the single Mom, like the martial artist, like the saint, and like the free citizen of ancient Athens, the artist operates on her own. To be called the “rightful lord and owner of her own person” she must achieve mastery over her instrument, i.e. her gifts, her fears, her egotism, her self-doubt—all the whacky emotions of her unruly heart.

Second (and seemingly opposite, or at least paradoxical), the artist’s capacity for self-surrender. Anyone who tells you they do it alone is lying. The left brain works with the right. We are masters and servants simultaneously.

More on this next week.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

24 Responses to “Why, #2”

  1. Dennis
    July 16, 2014 at 5:56 am

    This week I was reading an article about a brilliant brain surgeon. Dr. Mash told about the brain and the mysteries of it. He is convinced that it’s chemical and electrical. I disagree. God is left more and more out of the equation these days as science keeps talking about the brain. My best things in life I got from God. Our brain (as I see it unscientifically) works as a receiver. Of course – if I put a screw in my brains the signals stop, but that’s the same for a radio transmitter. We have to stop that voice that is not us, and stay tuned to higher frequenties. Steve – I know some people don’t like the G-word, but I hope you will keep talking about the mystery. Don’t you think it’s funny that if we talk about ourselves and point at our brains… as if it’s an alien object?!

  2. July 16, 2014 at 6:55 am

    A very insightful post Steve, thank you. As Anais Nin said ‘we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience.’
    I’ve been reading old Zen Koans recently and was reminded that life is art. Even the simplest, and ordinary is filled with beauty if you see correctly. The writer’s and artist’s job is to translate.

  3. Mary Doyle
    July 16, 2014 at 6:55 am

    Personifying both Resistance and The Muse offered me an “aha!” understanding about how this creative process (or struggle, depending on which day you ask) works, and has helped me to recognize both, to keep fighting the former because it never, never stops coming, and to show up to welcome the latter because, thankfully, She never stops either. You remind me (and many others based on comments posted here each week) of these basic truths and that’s why I keep showing up. I count myself as one of the more thick-headed of your readers because I need to be reminded again and again. Thanks for showing up for us!

  4. July 16, 2014 at 6:55 am

    I love the last part, about us being masters and slaves at the same time. The way I look at it, we all have to be slaves to something, either a slave to our self-discipline(wake up every morning to battle resistance fueled by only our own will) or we must be a slave to others (bosses,tyrants, parents, etc). It’s completely up to us which option we go with, but failing to choose either one leads us to destruction.

    The artist chooses to be a slave to herself. THAT’S why we write.

  5. July 16, 2014 at 7:10 am

    I’m hoping that this battle that I do with resistance gets easier. I wrote my book, hired an editor, hired the cover done professionally, and then had it formatted. Getting it copyrighted on the easy government side took me two hours with sweat pouring and hands shaking. Luckily I knew that I was dealing with resistance. My chant to myself was “you only hit resistance when you’re on the path to success. ”

    Finally I downloaded to smash words only to discover there were ready four books of my same title. For me, this is where resistance gets tough. Do I plow forward or do I change my cover and my title? Which is resistance and which is the path? Yes of course this is my first book..

    Reading this blog helps me to understand I’m not crazy. It gives me the courage to just keep stepping in the direction of my artistry. When the going gets rough I push myself even more.

    Today I face Amazon, getting a Facebook page up and marketing. Giora in Solitary helps me gain a perspective. My resistance is just uncomfortable it’s not life-threatening.

    • July 16, 2014 at 12:29 pm

      Red, don’t stop and don’t slow down. Resistance is always strongest as you approach the finish line. And remember, Book #1 is just the start …

  6. July 16, 2014 at 7:13 am

    Great post here, Steve, and I agree with many of your points. I guess it doesn’t matter what you call it; “God”, “Muse”, “Mystery”, whatever. What’s important is to recognize its value to us as creatives and let it guide us down the path that is for us alone. What I find amazing is how many (new) writers say they need to write “when inspiration strikes”. They don’t get it. Inspiration strikes when you sit down to the business of writing! It’s that simple, and that hard.

  7. July 16, 2014 at 7:22 am

    I’m less than 3 weeks from my race. For the past 4 years, I’ve felt this horrible, nearly unbearable amount of stress, drama, problems and fear that it will fail. It hurts. A lot.

    Last year as I was driving North on I-5 to address one of the hundreds of details that was falling apart, I realized that I was willing and capable of carrying this stress. Why should I? I hate it. My guts are tight, I cannot sleep very well, and my own level of physical fitness drops the last few weeks (which has always ensured a poor showing at my own event…).

    Why then? Does anyone care? Why?

    I had this small insight. I realized that since I was capable and willing–then it was my duty. If I chose not to do it, to shrug this responsibility that I alone had conceived of–then I would steal the joy from the 300+ participants that have decided to join me racing up and down the stairs.

    I owed it to others. It is not my choice–really, it is not my choice. The Muse gave me the idea one day after tackling the stairs alone–feeling that duality of ‘master of the universe’ and total equanimity–connected to all and everything. I was a peace–and I knew this was how mankind was supposed to feel at his best.

    My answer was, “I want to race this ‘f-bombing’ bowl’. That was Nelson speak for ‘we should all feel this’.

    I came home to tell Kelly, “Kelly–this race is one small way in which I serve. It sucks a lot, and both of us bear unusual stress and suffering–but we are able to bring just a small bit of light for a few hours on a Sunday morning in August. It is my moral obligation.”

    What I have come to believe is that we all must become slaves to something higher–to ‘light up the darkness’ as Bob Marley said.

    Again, I am less than three weeks away–and the pain seems a bit more bearable this year. This is the labor that I am built to endure. It is my small ‘Bic Lighter’.

    This blog, led by Steve & his crew, augmented by the others–is one of the few places I can replace the butane.

    I wish you all well.
    bsn

    • July 16, 2014 at 12:32 pm

      You’ve got plenty of butane, Brian, or you wouldn’t have written such a great Comment. Good luck in three weeks. Godspeed!

  8. David
    July 16, 2014 at 7:30 am

    I’ve dedicated this summer to writing my first work. However, in pushing and striving forward, I find myself working if not drudging more in the raw effort of expanding my creativity and imagination, my overall ability to create, far more so than actually producing a finished product. I find myself going insane with my lack of ability: always capable, never able. So I’m intrigued by the right brain or unconscious concept of creative inspiration. By all means, I desire to cultivate my mind to become more able to produce art. Though, I too often feel like I’m attempting to create ex nihilo. I would love to go in deep on subjects of inspiration and cultivation of creativity.

  9. Jean-François Laliberté
    July 16, 2014 at 8:00 am

    Very interesting !

    I really appreciate where this is going.

  10. Barry
    July 16, 2014 at 8:12 am

    Thank you for the purposeful reach into the unknowable. Into the subtle, unseen interdependencies and interconnected energies/forces/source/sphere of consciousness — the muse — that different creative calling’s tap into. My faith in, and knowing of, these creative organizing forces have been strengthened in significant part because of the tools presented here. Tools to help me combat my own internal darkness and self sabotage, and Resistance…as well as maps that point the way to finding the light again.

    From my perspective, the artists capacity for self-surrender and self-sovereignty are neither opposites nor are they paradoxical. They are not “either/or” they are both/and”. They are the right and left hand. The artists capacity for self-surrender and self-sovereignty are interdependent.

    This blog is a Godsend. Thank you.

  11. Kent Faver
    July 16, 2014 at 8:13 am

    Great stuff! I think it’s spiritual, practical and artistic, all in one. Tara Sophia Mohr talks about her creative brain and her business manager brain. She needs to remember which job to relinquish to/from whom.

    At the end of the day, things get screwed up in the unknown, or the unknowing process.

  12. Sharon
    July 16, 2014 at 8:22 am

    It’s always luxurious to be reminded we’re all alone in it together. “God alone” knows, ha ha. And I love soup. Thanks for a bowl.

  13. Arthur
    July 16, 2014 at 8:36 am

    Steven,

    I wonder whether you realize how in discovering yourself – and in broadening your readers’ perspectives regarding their own person – (and ultimately all of this is about “know thyself”) you are discovering God. Find the nearest Chabad House and beg them to learn with you the seminal works of your religion. Talk about transformational.

  14. Charmion
    July 16, 2014 at 8:58 am

    One more name for “the mystery” is the Holy Spirit.

  15. July 16, 2014 at 9:04 am

    This pursuit of the Muse is something the Romantics, in particular, felt keenly attuned to. Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth – my introduction, poetically.

    Interestingly, the term “yetzer” in Hebrew (as in yetzer hare) is translated as inclination – a state of being, a nature within the soul, as much as (more than?) than action, consciously chosen or not. It’s also related to the verb “to form” – which of course accords rather well with your concept of Resistance, becoming the artist, etc. The struggle with and against “formation” or the process of forming.

    Why? Because there’s a bond and community among artists (Band of Brothers and Sisters), a camaraderie of being in the trenches. And, despite all the blogs about how-to write, that bond finds very little expression, that shared struggle very little validation. But here, in your posts and the dialogue that follows, the conversation, the deep conversation, has a forum and an audience.

    So, as always, thanks.

  16. Kate
    July 16, 2014 at 10:04 am

    “to the point of … even insanity” indeed, Steven.
    Again, a thousand and more thanks to you for these truly sacred offerings.

  17. July 16, 2014 at 11:19 am

    I see I am not alone in my appreciation and understanding of today’s blog and most especially the statement, “……because NOT to do so makes me unhappy, etc.” Wow! Your words – the ‘hammer’, my reaction – the nail head! Thank you, Steven.

  18. July 16, 2014 at 12:33 pm

    Beautifully put, Steve. Thank you.

  19. July 17, 2014 at 12:24 am

    Because not to do so makes me unhappy. So true. These writings have come to mean so much to me lately, as I struggle to do a body of work…….of meaning. I will go forth with new vigour.

  20. Bill Closs
    July 18, 2014 at 8:52 am

    Steve:

    Once again, this blog is the gift that keeps on giving. I have forwarded same to my family and friends, saying “Another nugget from Pressfield. I feel that he is encouraging all,of us to work hard and to listen for the Muse (or that still, small voice) that offers inspiration and guidance.”

    Of course you realize that you are becoming a Muse for others. For my part, I have started working on the Bob Birrer biography, the story of a Montana boy who became a cowboy, who served with the First of the First during WW II at Cape Glouster, Peleliu and Okinawa and returned to Montana to resume the cowboy life.I am amateur, not a pro….yet.

    Thanks for your generosity,
    Bill

    • Deb
      July 19, 2014 at 5:12 am

      Oh, the First of the First. It was my great privilege to help one of these fine Marines navigate the last few years of his life. Semper fi!

  21. July 22, 2014 at 1:47 pm

    I am really enjoying these thoughts of yours but am wondering why you are saying that we have to go through through the darkness to reach the genius? Maybe we have to face with darkness and except it to show up but shouldn’t we rather just look it in the face and then purposefully turn away from it? Shouldn’t we choose every day to turn away from the yetzer ra and towards the light and creavity?