By Steven Pressfield
Published: July 27, 2016
Here’s an exercise to drive you crazy:
Ask yourself, “What is the theme of my life?”
I suggest this for two reasons. First, because it’s so hard for us as writers to grasp the idea of “theme.” What the hell is it anyway? How is it different from “subject?” From “concept?” An exercise like this (aside from being fairly mind-bending) is a great way to get a sense of exactly what “theme” means.
My second reason is because I was watching the documentary about Tony Robbins last night, “I Am Not Your Guru.” I only got to watch the first quarter of it, so I may have grokked its message prematurely and incorrectly. But my early assessment is that a lot of what Tony Robbins does in his “Date With Destiny” 6-day events is to force the attendees (often one-on-one and very much in-their-face) to at least consider the question, “What is the theme of your life?”
“Who are you?”
“What is your destiny?”
“Why were you put on Earth?” “Is there something that you, and only you, are equipped to do? What is that—and why the hell aren’t you doing it?”
At this point, lemme let Tony Robbins off the hook and continue only in my own voice, turning to what only I myself believe.
The hardest aspect for most of us to grasp about such questions as “What is the theme of your life?” and “What is your destiny?” is simply the seemingly egomaniacal idea that our lives do have a theme and that we ourselves do have a destiny.
Do you believe that? You? Me? One of seven billion egos/bodies/carbon units on the planet? Us? Isn’t that pretty exalted? Pretty megalomaniacal?
Or let’s put it another way: what is the theme of your life as a writer? The theme in your work?
It’s one of my bedrock beliefs that we discover who we are, not just by our actions (though that’s a big part of it) but, if we’re artists, by the works we produce. What films has Matt Damon made? What poems did Sylvia Plath write? What albums has Beyonce recorded? Is there a theme to the collected works of Bob Dylan?
What about you and me? Have we written (or even partially-written) more than one work? What do these works have in common? Is there a thread running through them?
If a graduate student in Literature were to examine our writings, even our uncompleted works and works in progress, what theme would he or she identify within them?
If you’re a reader of this blog, you know that I believe in previous lives. I believe that you and I did not arrive in this dimension “in utter nakedness,” as Wordsworth once wrote, but as already highly-individuated and evolved souls.
Yes, I believe in destiny.
Destiny = theme.
Do we have a purpose, you and I? Yes. Were we put here for a reason? Yes. What is that reason? That’s our job: to find out. To find out and to act upon that finding-out.
If we’re artists we find out what our destiny/theme is by doing our work, even if we have no idea why we’re doing it, why a specific idea seized us, why we were compelled to write about the stuff we’re compelled to write about. Write it first, then step back and ask, “What the hell was that about?” What does it tell me about my own preoccupations, my passions, my obsessions?
That’s our theme.
That’s our destiny.
If you watch the Tony Robbins documentary, you’ll see that he uses extreme methods of theater, of confrontation, of personal proximity, touch, voice, profanity. Why? I think it’s because most of his event attendees are so young. They haven’t been on the planet long enough, or had enough experiences to provide them with a graspable reflection of who they are, what they want, what their destiny might be. So Tony has to shake them up. He has to rattle their cages, not just to wake them up so that they’re receptive to something, but to seed the belief that they do have a destiny, they do have a theme, their life is about something.
For you and me as artists, time and the work itself will tell us our theme. What do we love? What subjects capture us? And how does our treatment of these subjects change and evolve over time? Do we “solve” one issue and move on to the next? How is Issue #12 related to Issue #1? Did Sarah Vaughn’s last album display an evolution from her first?
What was her theme? What is mine?
What is yours?
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."