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.
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
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."