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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Killer Scenes and Self-Doubt

By Steven Pressfield
Published: March 4, 2015

We’ve been talking for the past few weeks about Killer Scenes—and how a writer can start with a single scene, or even a couple of lines of text, and build out from that the entire global work.

Bob Dylan. Still freewheelin'

Specifically I’ve been talking about my own book, The Virtues of War, and how it evolved from two sentences that “came to me” and that I knew instinctively were the first sentences of a book.

I have always been a soldier. I have known no other life.

Let’s get metaphysical today. Let’s go beyond the tactical applications (how to extrapolate an entire book from two lines of text) and get into the deeper soul-implications of this phenomenon.

Why did those lines pop into my head?

Where did they come from?

Did someone or something “send” them? Why?

Was it random? Was it significant?

What does it all mean?

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m a believer in the Muse (or the Unconscious, the Quantum Soup, the Field of Potentiality). In Jewish mysticism, this mysterious source is called the neshama. The soul.

I believe those two sentences came from the neshama, from the Muse. I can’t prove it of course. I may be completely crazy. But not only do I believe those sentences came from the Muse (or the Unconscious or whatever) but I believe they came for a purpose. A positive, creative purpose. Like a dream that arrives to counsel or sustain us, to guide us on our journey.

Why those two sentences? I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think they came as a means of addressing a certain fault or shortcoming in my personality.

I’m talking about self-doubt.

I’ve been plagued by this monster for decades. Even though at the time those two sentences came to me I had already experienced a fair amount of real-world success, I still had very little confidence in my ability as a writer and even less of a sense of destiny or certainty about the course of my life.

I have always been a soldier. I have known no other life.

This was Alexander’s voice. Alexander the Great. If I were going to write this book, I would have to speak in that voice.

This, I believe, was the goddess’s plan.

It was therapy.

It was practice.

Why Alexander? Because, as much as or more than any individual who ever lived, Alexander embodied self-certainty. Even as a boy, he knew. He knew his calling. He knew his destiny. He was a king and the son of a king. He would vanquish the Persian empire. He would conquer the world.

Before Alexander was six years old, he knew what he had to do and he had bought into it with every cell and sinew. His mother, Olympias, prepared him. His father, Philip of Macedon, prepared him. His tutor, Aristotle (yes, that Aristotle), prepared him.

Alexander’s boyhood friends—fellows students of Aristotle—would grow to be his generals. They were as committed as he was, to the same destiny, and they were as certain of it as he.

In other words, Alexander was a dude who didn’t know the meaning of self-doubt.

Here then was the assignment my Muse was tasking me with:

To spend the next two-plus years, seven days a week, inside the head of this historical individual. If I were going to pull this enterprise off, I would have to dismiss all fear, set aside all hesitancy and self-doubt. I would have to jump off the cliff and do it. There was no other way.
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Posted in Writing Wednesdays


From MAC McCallister

Mac McCallister is our "Agora master"—the key writer for the Agora blog. This list reflects works written by Mac, as well as works he recommends to others for reading.


Warfare: Ancient and Modern

I know I've left out some great works on this list in particular. Consider it a work in progress, always being updated. If there's a specific title that you'd suggest adding, let me know.


Alexander the Great

Curious about Alexander? Not sure whether to start with the ancient texts or with modern biographies? My vote is for the old school, then head over to the boatload of excellent and very readable contemporary writings about Alexander.


Classical Greece

Penguin Classics and the Loeb Classical Library (which gives the text in Greek on one page and in English on the facing) are the indispensable sources. Pick any and you can't go wrong. But here are the must-reads.


On Writing

These are just a few of the titles that I've turned to in the past, from authors whose work I admire.


Favorite Fiction

This is the ultimate short list. Hard to decide, but these two are starting points.



The title for this list says it all—golf.


Business and Motivation

Another short list—big on motivation.

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Gates of Fire
The War of Art
Turning Pro
The Profession
The Warrior Ethos
Do The Work
Tides of War
The Afghan Campaign
The Virtues of War
Killing Rommel
Last of the Amazons
The Legend of Bagger Vance
Additional Reading
Video Blog