Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

What Works and What Doesn’t

By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 19, 2016

 

I declared in the second Why I Write post that I would have to kill myself if I couldn’t write. That wasn’t hyperbole.

Henry Miller

Henry Miller

Here in no particular order are the activities and aspirations that don’t work for me (and I’ve tried them all extensively, as I imagine you may have too if you’re reading this blog):

Money doesn’t work. Success. Family life, domestic bliss, service to country, dedication to a cause however selfless or noble. None of these works for me.

Identity-association of every kind (religious, political, cultural, national) is meaningless to me. Sex provides no lasting relief. Nor do the ready forms of self-distraction—drugs and alcohol, travel, life on the web. Style doesn’t work, though I agree it’s pretty cool. Reading used to help and still does on occasion. Art indeed, but only up to a point.

It doesn’t work for me to teach or to labor selflessly for others. I can’t be a farmer or drive a truck. I’ve tried. My friend Jeff jokingly claims that his goal is world domination. That wouldn’t work for me either. I can’t find peace of mind as a warrior or an athlete or by leading an organization. Fame means nothing. Attention and praise are nice but hollow. “Wimbledon,” as Chris Evert once said, “lasts about an hour.”

Meditation and spiritual practice, however much I admire the path and those who follow it, don’t work for me.

The only thing that allows me to sit quietly in the evening is the completion of a worthy day’s work. What work? The labor of entering my imagination and trying to come back out with something that is worthy both of my own time and effort and of the time and effort of my brothers and sisters to read it or watch it or listen to it.

That’s my drug. That’s what keeps me sane.

I’m not saying this way of life is wholesome or balanced. It isn’t. It’s certainly not “normal.” By no means would I recommend it as a course to emulate.

Nor did I choose this path for myself, either consciously or deliberately. I came to it at the end of a long dark tunnel and then only as the last recourse, the thing I’d been avoiding all my life.

When I see people, friends even, destroy their lives with pills or booze or domestic violence or any of the thousand ways a person can face-plant himself or herself into non-existence, I feel nothing but compassion. I understand how hard the road is, and how lightless. I’m a whisker away from hitting that ditch myself.

The Muse saved me. I offer thanks to the goddess every day for beating the hell out of me until I finally heeded and took up her cause.

No one will ever say it better than Henry Miller did in Tropic of Capricorn.

I reached out for something to attach myself to—and I found nothing. But in reaching out, in the effort to grasp, to attach myself, left high and dry as I was, I nevertheless found something I had not looked for—myself. I found that what I had desired all my life was not to live—if what others are doing is called living—but to express myself. I realized that I had never had the least interest in living, but only in this which I am doing now, something which is parallel to life, of it at the same time, and beyond it. What is true interests me scarcely at all, nor even what is real; only that interests me which I imagine to be, that which I had stifled every day in order to live.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

47 Responses to “What Works and What Doesn’t”

  1. October 19, 2016 at 6:03 am

    This could have been a missing chapter in The War of Art. If you ever do another edition . . . this would be a great one to add.

    I think for me it’s the same, things work for about a week, then they feel hollow, then I have to face myself again without my shiny new bobble to hide behind.

  2. Tony levelle
    October 19, 2016 at 6:29 am

    Yes. All true.

    • Tony levelle
      October 19, 2016 at 6:32 am

      I have tested all these options and learned same thing. And Miller is one of my favorite authors.

  3. Currer Bell
    October 19, 2016 at 6:37 am

    This was just a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing your work and your thoughts with us!

  4. Susanna
    October 19, 2016 at 6:43 am

    Thank you for this.

  5. October 19, 2016 at 6:50 am

    Appreciate the honesty Steve. What about when your writing isn’t working or you get stuck with a project? How do you handle it then? (Am I safe to assume just keep working and keep grinding?) Thanks!

  6. October 19, 2016 at 6:57 am

    AMEN! I feel exactly the same way and I’m done feeling guilty about it.

  7. October 19, 2016 at 7:05 am

    Bloody marvellous!The whole piece – you + Miller!Thank you!

  8. skip
    October 19, 2016 at 7:28 am

    well steve, keep on trucking because you are helping in many ways your followers probably far more than we all realize.

    semper fi.

  9. Mary Doyle
    October 19, 2016 at 7:40 am

    I agree with Erika – this would be a great addition The War of Art. Beautiful post – thank you!

  10. October 19, 2016 at 7:48 am

    I read every thing you send Steve, I appreciate the work and effort. Thanks so much! Jack

  11. October 19, 2016 at 8:14 am

    Thanks Steve for the insight and the honesty ! Love your work .

  12. Visitor from Elea
    October 19, 2016 at 8:14 am

    Genius. And to think, if you had not blown off that attempted rationalization not to write the War of Art and posts like this one, I would not have had this inspiration. My road from non-existence to self-expression would have been longer, and the turning point less clear. Thanks.

  13. Kent Faver
    October 19, 2016 at 8:33 am

    As I’m reading this last paragraph – I am listening to headline news reporting that Bob Dylan still hasn’t taken the call from the Nobel Committee regarding his prestigious award.

  14. October 19, 2016 at 8:38 am

    Thank you.

  15. Max on the beach
    October 19, 2016 at 8:46 am

    Thank you for this. I spend the first couple of hours of every day thinking about ending it all. Your post this morning touched me.

  16. October 19, 2016 at 9:29 am

    Being beautiful and expressing myself are off my menu. I was taught early those are frivolous and unworthy. Contributing to the world, breaking through to the truth, exceeding my previous consciousness, accurately recording valuable people and places and their interaction, are the forces I waited my whole life to have time to pursue. Now at 78 I do it all day. It scares people. I’m not publishable nor would I accept editing for the sake of sales. Most other people are a waste of time. I would not try to prevent suicide, not even my own, but it would be very inconvenient until I get through with all the stuff fighting to get out of my skull and into words.

    Prairie Mary AKA Mary Scriver

    • Gaelle1947
      October 19, 2016 at 11:16 am

      Hey there Prairie Mary – I’m 69 and definitely a fellow tribe-person. Love what your wrote!

  17. Joseph Clinton
    October 19, 2016 at 9:56 am

    PERFECT!

  18. Bane
    October 19, 2016 at 10:55 am

    …the father of us all.

  19. Sonja
    October 19, 2016 at 11:03 am

    Powerful as usual. Thank you for lighting the way and for putting into words what I’m still working out for myself as I battle Resistance on a daily basis.

  20. Gaelle1947
    October 19, 2016 at 11:11 am

    Triple amen to that! Nice to know I’m not alone in my aloneness. I think it takes getting beat up by life to arrive at this place. Only expression through art matters now, and it’s a very safe and soothing sanctuary. The way I describe this state recently was that I am no longer a participant in life but an observer. My return ticket has long been paid for! I love this quote: “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” (Lily Tomlin) – and speaking of race, isn’t it interesting that we are referred to as the “Human Race” – always running to or running from. So nice to be in the bleachers watching this whole circus going on.

  21. David LaRoche
    October 19, 2016 at 11:25 am

    Writing in itself is not my driver. I must have something to say that has value and is supported by experience and truth. Too many put words on the page that are blather. I’m not saying my writing is superior, only that my motive is not writing but the conveyance of well-considered thought.

  22. David LaRoche
    October 19, 2016 at 11:26 am

    And if nobody wants to read my shit, so be it.

  23. October 19, 2016 at 12:05 pm

    Absolutely! Writing blindsided me after I had two different careers, and suddenly became my life, after years of telling myself “I can’t do that”. I wouldn’t go back, even as difficult as the path is sometimes. The reward of looking deeply into my soul and sharing both the darkness and the light has benefit not just for me, but for the people who read and resonate with the words.

  24. Stacy Chambers
    October 19, 2016 at 12:09 pm

    Beautiful post. Thank you.

  25. October 19, 2016 at 12:09 pm

    Again…bloody marvelous. Words do not do justice to how I feel after reading your words. Plus, I do love reading the comments. Such a lovely place this.

  26. October 19, 2016 at 1:30 pm

    What works for me, what allows me to sit content in the evening is this: following my curiosity. And is it even “my” curiousity? Is curiosity sister to the Muse? Or the Muse by another name? Curiosity fuels my work, my writing, my consulting practice, my life. Without it I drink too much.

    My name is Monique. My parents nicknamed me “Monie” when I was growing up. I hated that nickname, still do, and it took me years to figure out why. It’s because they took the question, the “que,” out of my name. And questions are curiosity in action, I’ve discovered.

    Took me six decades to fully own the essentialness that curiousity holds to and for my wellbeing. Hard won and wonderful. Thanks for this post. Love reading you, as usual.

  27. October 19, 2016 at 1:31 pm

    LOVE IT, RIGHT ON – all the right words with tremendous meaning- for me, to thine own self be true. THANK YOU…

    • October 19, 2016 at 1:42 pm

      REPLY to my own Post. For me, the most meaningful paragraph:

      “Nor did I choose this path for myself, either consciously or deliberately. I came to it at the end of a long dark tunnel and then only as the last recourse, the thing I’d been avoiding all my life.~Steven Pressfield~

      • October 20, 2016 at 1:30 am

        Ditto. This is the one for me too. Thanks for pointing it out.

  28. October 19, 2016 at 4:35 pm

    Lord, that was something! I’d like to write anything worthwhile, but I am underwhelmed by myself vis a vis the incredibly ballsy honesty of that post. I can only register my own reaction while acknowledging the cause with great respect.

  29. October 19, 2016 at 5:15 pm

    Here’s the thing: I’ve been a writer my whole life, since I became conscious, since I discovered Superman (comics and TV) and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and story after story. I remember my real juvenilia – stories I wrote when I was 7-9, and the struggle to find a voice through adolescence into adulthood, working in story and poetry.

    Like you, I become irritable, meandering, annoyed and annoying if I don’t write.

    And yet…

    “Money doesn’t work. Success. Family life, domestic bliss, service to country, dedication to a cause however selfless or noble. None of these works for me.”

    Nope, none of them work for me, either. Of course, I haven’t had much success, commercially, so who knows? Well, I do. It won’t last, and will only urge me on to the next project, with bigger expectations.

    “Identity-association of every kind (religious, political, cultural, national) is meaningless to me.”

    Well, some of those are important to me. Vital. But they don’t replace writing. Nothing does.

    Family is important to me. I’m fortunate in that I have a wife, and children, who support my craziness, respect this inner drive and need from the soul. But, then, I suspect they have it, too. So, I’m not giving up one for the other. They, too, are living with who I am.

    “It doesn’t work for me to teach…” Yeah, well, I’m a teacher, too. I love it – the performance, the ah-ha moments. Teaching has its own high, and for many it’s enough-more than enough. But not for me. If it’s one or the other, there’s really no choice.

    So, Steve, I think I get it. We’re compulsive, competitive, and our souls are a little bit sideways. That’s ok, because that’s how we discover new sources of light. For us, and for everyone else.

    Thanks.

    • Regina
      October 19, 2016 at 8:40 pm

      “New sources of light” and we have to tromp in the mud to get there.

      L’Engle had an office called “the ivory tower”. I chuckle to myself hearing her kids say, “for the love of God, you need to get to the tower Mom!”

      Nope, didn’t happen. Her office was called that and they did urge her to write.

      Steve, this one is dark. Not for War of Art. Only forward. :-)

    • June
      October 20, 2016 at 9:13 am

      David: I was glad to read a response that acknowledged the value of a supportive family and work that doesn’t replace writing but that you enjoy and pays the bills. I’m a poet and lord knows even a Pulitzer Prize is not going to put food on the table. Very few of us will manage to make a living at this and I don’t see that as failure to take my writing seriously enough. I think it is a disservice to the many of us who write that everything must be sacrificed to the Muse or you’re not a real writer. After much searching and several careers I feel fortunate to be in a situation where I work part-time as a property manager and have a family and spouse that totally support my writing. In fact, I know I would not have gotten to the point I am without them. The Buddha always counseled against extreme choices and pointed to the “Middle” way. I suffered in a way very similar to Steven, but value my family above all else. I think each writer finds her own way in the dark and come to their own place with their writing.

  30. Ron H
    October 19, 2016 at 6:40 pm

    Wow, Steve, what a postmodern view of the author’s struggle. Sorry for you. Grow up.

  31. C. Longoria Gonzalez
    October 19, 2016 at 10:30 pm

    Thank you.

  32. Max on the beach
    October 20, 2016 at 12:16 am

    August 14, 1932

    Anais:

    Don’t expect me to be sane anymore. Don’t let’s be sensible. It was a marriage at Louveciennes—you can’t dispute it. I came away with pieces of you sticking to me; I am walking about, swimming, in an ocean of blood, your Andalusian blood, distilled and poisonous. Everything I do and say and think relates back to the marriage. I saw you as the mistress of your home, a Moor with a heavy face, a negress with a white body, eyes all over your skin, woman, woman, woman. I can’t see how I can go on living away from you—these intermissions are death. How did it seem to you when Hugo came back? Was I still there? I can’t picture you moving about with him as you did with me. Legs closed. Frailty. Sweet, treacherous acquiescence. Bird docility. You became a woman with me. I was almost terrified by it. You are not just thirty years old—you are a thousand years old.

    Here I am back and still smouldering with passion, like wine smoking. Not a passion any longer for flesh, but a complete hunger for you, a devouring hunger. I read the paper about suicides and murders and I understand it all thoroughly. I feel murderous, suicidal. I feel somehow that it is a disgrace to do nothing, to just bide one’s time, to take it philosophically, to be sensible. Where has gone the time when men fought, killed, died for a glove, a glance, etc? (A victrola is playing that terrible aria from Madama Butterfly—”Some day he’ll come!”)

    I still hear you singing in the kitchen—a sort of inharmonic, monotonous Cuban wail. I know you’re happy in the kitchen and the meal you’re cooking is the best meal we ever ate together. I know you would scald yourself and not complain. I feel the greatest peace and joy sitting in the dining room listening to you rustling about, your dress like the goddess Indra studded with a thousand eyes.

    Anais, I only thought I loved you before; it was nothing like this certainty that’s in me now. Was all this so wonderful only because it was brief and stolen? Were we acting for each other, to each other? Was I less I, or more I, and you less or more you? Is it madness to believe that this could go on? When and where would the drab moments begin? I study you so much to discover the possible flaws, the weak points, the danger zones. I don’t find them—not any. That means I am in love, blind, blind. To be blind forever! (Now they’re singing “Heaven and Ocean” from La Gioconda.)

    I picture you playing the records over and over—Hugo’s records. “Parlez moi d amour.” The double life, double taste, double joy and misery. How you must be furrowed and ploughed by it. I know all that, but I can’t do anything to prevent it. I wish indeed it were me who had to endure it. I know now your eyes are wide open. Certain things you will never believe anymore, certain gestures you will never repeat, certain sorrows, misgivings, you will never again experience. A kind of white criminal fervor in your tenderness and cruelty. Neither remorse nor vengeance, neither sorrow nor guilt. A living it out, with nothing to save you from the abysm but a high hope, a faith, a joy that you tasted, that you can repeat when you will.

    All morning I was at my notes, ferreting through my life records, wondering where to begin, how to make a start, seeing not just another book before me but a life of books. But I don’t begin. The walls are completely bare—I had taken everything down before going to meet you. It is as though I had made ready to leave for good. The spots on the walls stand out—where our heads rested. While it thunders and lightnings I lie on the bed and go through wild dreams. We’re in Seville and then in Fez and then in Capri and then in Havana. We’re journeying constantly, but there is always a machine and books, and your body is always close to me and the look in your eyes never changes. People are saying we will be miserable, we will regret, but we are happy, we are laughing always, we are singing. We are talking Spanish and French and Arabic and Turkish. We are admitted everywhere and they strew our path with flowers.

    I say this is a wild dream—but it is this dream I want to realize. Life and literature combined, love the dynamo, you with your chameleon’s soul giving me a thousand loves, being anchored always in no matter what storm, home wherever we are. In the mornings, continuing where we left off. Resurrection after resurrection. You asserting yourself, getting the rich varied life you desire; and the more you assert yourself the more you want me, need me. Your voice getting hoarser, deeper, your eyes blacker, your blood thicker, your body fuller. A voluptuous servility and tyrannical necessity. More cruel now than before—consciously, wilfully cruel. The insatiable delight of experience.

    HVM

    • Max on the beach
      October 20, 2016 at 12:17 am

      Since you posted that pic of dear old Henry, I thought I’d share his pain

  33. October 20, 2016 at 1:28 am

    Steven,
    Can’t thank you enough. This is me, both living it and trying to establish its meaning.
    Your job here is more than you think. You are the Wounded Healer, aiding us in embracing our Artist and healing the relationship between our inner and outer images. http://sakki-sakki.com/the-artist-the-79th-discovery/

  34. ZIYAH BLACKSTONE
    October 20, 2016 at 4:51 am

    Thank you for this…the brutal simplistic honesty. I loved it, I feel deeply touched by it, I feel kinship and I completely fucking agree with you, NOTHING else works I too have tried to no avail…and only achieved insanity/incapacitation. They don’t make enough drugs booze or food to put the fire out…it’s who we are. It’s our higher self calling us home…can’t really ignore that surprisingly we try which seems batshit crazy.

    Thank you again…

  35. Kate
    October 20, 2016 at 10:30 am

    “Work is love made visible.”

    – Khalil Gibran

  36. October 20, 2016 at 7:01 pm

    I lived this way and loved it. Until 2 weeks ago when my 4 year old dog died suddenly. Now I learned the hard way that only love is real and mussed my chance appreciating this powerful human emotion to its fullest because I was always writing. When I woke up at 4:30 AM to write daily and my dog came running in tapping me for a treat I was super annoyed. This was MY writing time and she was bothering me. What’s if my whole life was wrong? I think maybe it was.

    • October 21, 2016 at 10:40 am

      Esther, my heart aches for you and your little puppy! May he rest in peace.

      Please don’t blame writing on the time you didn’t get with your puppy. You can have both! I get done half of my writing while walking. I do about 10 miles a day with a tape recorder. I don’t have a dog, but if I did, I can imagine these walks would be a lot of fun for him. I hope you are able to heal from this loss and keep on writing. Resistance will tell you it’s “either/or,” experience will tell you “both.”

    • November 7, 2016 at 11:43 pm

      So sorry to hear of your loss, Esther. I have a 14-year old German Shepard that I love to bits, but it’s becoming clearer and clearer in the past two years that we’re losing him. I can’t imagine how heartbreaking that’s going to be.

      I have also chosen writing over family time. It’s just something I have to live with, because there’s only so much time in a day. There’s no perfect answer to it. I wish you well.

  37. October 21, 2016 at 2:19 pm

    Just read finished reading theWarofArt and came to your “.com” Thanks for explaining why I’ve always known what I write came from elsewhere. Never knew others felt it, too. My head was evidently shoved in a dark place. Said differently, now I know why I’ve gotta. At best I’m a messenger with a spell-checker! Within a story maybe I, too, can advance humanity one millimeter further along on the way back to God. Thanks for the insight. Semper Fi

  38. Joan Simon
    October 28, 2016 at 1:03 pm

    Hello,

    This post was a message from Someone to me- “I love you.” Thanks so much for being the messenger,Steve.