By Steven Pressfield
Published: April 16, 2014
[This is the first post in a new series about the writing of The Lion's Gate. After today the series will run Mondays and Fridays. "Writing Wednesdays" returns in this space next week.]
I found out I was a Jew when I was thirteen. My Dad told me. I never knew until then. It was kind of a shock.
Two thoughts struck me at once:
1. If my parents have been keeping this knowledge a secret from me and my younger brother all this time, they must really be ashamed of being Jewish.
2. I myself, through thirteen years of regular-kid U.S. life, had acquired a helluva dose of anti-Jewish prejudice. In other words, I was prejudiced against myself.
I remember thinking, “Me Jewish? There must be some mistake.” I peered at my face in the bathroom mirror. Holy cow, I am Jewish! How could I have missed it all these years?
A week of shell shock and denial followed. When I emerged, I made a decision.
I decided I would get with the program.
If I’m a Jew, I’m gonna be a Jew.
I started going to temple. There was none in my hometown so I hitchhiked to the next town. My Mom and Dad refused to drive me.
The weird part was, the real Jews at the temple rejected me. To them I was an outsider. I didn’t belong. I was the new kid from the next town who couldn’t speak Hebrew, had never had a bar mitzvah, didn’t know what Hannukah was and, to boot, had a bad attitude about being Jewish.
After about two months I realized that this new regime wasn’t working. I reverted. I went back to being a regular American.
I know how crazy all this sounds, but, trust me, scenarios like this were not that unusual in the late 50s, the heyday of the Assimilation School of being Jewish in America. Being a Jew was a secret that some parents kept even from their children.
But back to me being a regular American. I still knew I was a Jew. I began casting around for role models. What Jews or Jewish images existed in the culture that I could relate to and be proud of?
Borscht Belt comedians? Molly Goldberg? The Holocaust? I didn’t even want to think about it.
I’m thirteen years old. I want Chuck Yeager. I want Audie Murphy. I want John Wayne.
When I began encountering anti-Semitism in my own life, my confusion deepened further. I just couldn’t get any purchase on the idea of being a Jew.
Then came June 1967.
The Six Day War.
Israel kicks ass on Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.
All of sudden the TV was wall-to-wall with images of Jewish fighter pilots, Jewish paratroopers, Jewish tank commanders. And they were major-league studs. My mind was blown. I thought, Now we’re talking! Finally: some Jews I can relate to.
In January of 1966, when I was on the bus leaving Parris Island as a freshly-minted Marine, I looked back and thought there was at least one good thing about this departure. "No matter what happens to me for the rest of my life, no one can ever send me back to this freakin' place again."
Over forty years later, to my surprise and gratification, I'm far more closely bound to the young men of the Marine Corps and to all other dirt-eating, ground-pounding outfits than I could ever have imagined as I left Parris Island that first time. Gates of Fire is one reason. Dog-eared paperbacks of this tale of the ancient Spartans have circulated throughout platoons of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan since the first days of the invasions. E-mails come in by hundreds. Gates of Fire is on the Commandant of the Marine Corps' Reading list. It is taught at West Point and Annapolis and at the Marine Corps Basic School at Quantico; and Tides of War is on the curriculum of the Naval War College. In 2009, I launched the blog "It's the Tribes, Stupid" (which evolved into "Agora"), to help gain awareness of issues related to tribalism and the tribal mind-set in Afghanistan—with the goal of helping the Marines and soldiers on the ground better understand the different people they were facing in Afghanistan.
My father was in the Navy, and I was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1943. I graduated from Duke University in 1965. Since then, I've worked as an advertising copywriter, schoolteacher, tractor-trailer driver, bartender, oilfield roustabout and attendant in a mental hospital. I've picked fruit in Washington state, written screenplays in Tinseltown, and was homeless, living out of the back of my car with my typewriter. My struggles to earn a living as a writer (it took seventeen years to get the first paycheck) are detailed in The War of Art.
With the publication of The Legend of Bagger Vance in 1995, I became a writer of books once and for all. From there followed the historical novels Gates of Fire, Tides of War, Virtues of War, The Afghan Campaign and Killing Rommel.
My writing philosophy is a kind of warrior code—internal rather than external—in which the enemy is identified as those forms of self-sabotage that I call "Resistance" with a capital R (in The War of Art). The technique for combating these foes can be described as "turning pro."
I believe in previous lives and the Muse—and that books and music exist before they are written and that they are propelled into material being by their own imperative to be born, via the offices of those willing servants of discipline, imagination and inspiration, whom we call artists. My conception of the artist's role is a combination of reverence for the unknowable nature of "where it all comes from" and a no-nonsense, blue-collar demystification of the process by which this mystery is approached. In other words, a paradox.
There's a recurring character in my books, named Telamon, a mercenary of ancient days. Telamon doesn't say much. He rarely gets hurt or wounded. And he never seems to age. His view of the profession of arms is a lot like my conception of art and the artist:
"It is one thing to study war, and another to live the warrior's life."