By Steven Pressfield
Published: March 5, 2014
Herewith, ten idiosyncratic observations on the subject of generating ideas.
1. Ideas seem to come by themselves, unbidden.
In certain careers that I’ve spent time in—advertising and the movie business, for example—I’ve labored under conditions where you have to produce on demand. It’s hard. It’s do-able, but it’s never really worked for me. I can’t press. It’s hard for me to grind ‘em out.
2. Ideas seem to come in off-moments.
They appear when the brain is turned off. For me that’s when I’m half asleep, pre-dawn or tossing in the middle of the night; when I’m in the shower or shaving, or driving on the freeway.
3. Ideas don’t arrive with noisy fanfare.
Even the giant ideas, like those for books that will take three years to write, appear as part of a stream of other thoughts, many of which are mundane. The blockbuster idea is just one notion out of 150, or 1050, that you have through the day. “Gee, I need to pick up my dry cleaning.” Then, “Let’s write Moby Dick.”
4. Ideas are coming in all day.
I was on a farm in Idaho once, in a gigantic underground bunker where potatoes were being sorted on an assembly line. Farm kids stood by a conveyor belt, under the lights, while thousands of potatoes tumbled past every hour. That’s what ideas feel like to me. They’re always there. The trick is training yourself to notice.
5. Good ideas have a feel to them.
The kids in Idaho were sorting the potatoes. Their job was to pick out the good ones. It was amazing to watch their hands fly. They kicked the bad ones out and guided the good ones through.
A good idea has a feel to it like a potato. You can tell a winner. A big idea feels meaty and russet. You can sense it.
6. Resistance appears .0001 of a second after a good idea.
Resistance wants you to dismiss that good idea. The voice in your head will say: “That idea? Worthless. I’ve seen that one a million times.”
Suppose you do notice the idea. Resistance will try to make you forget it. “Ooh, you’re right, that is a good one. No need to make a note though. I’m sure you’ll remember it.”
Posted in Writing Wednesdays
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."