Steve's All Is Lost Moment, 1974

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Working on Two Tracks

By Steven Pressfield
Published: March 22, 2017

 

When we finish any work of art or commerce and expose it to judgment in the real world, three things can happen:

  1. Everybody loves it.
  2. Everybody hates it.
  3. Nobody notices that it even exists.

    The value of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" went from zero in 1889 to $39.9 million in 1987, the equivalent of $74M today.

    The value of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” went from zero in 1889 to $39.9 million in 1987, the equivalent of $74M today.

[Continuing our exploration of the Professional Mindset, let me repurpose this post that first ran about four years ago.]

All three present you and me as writers and artists with major emotional challenges, and all three drive deep into the most profound questions of life and work.

It will not surprise you, I suspect, if I say that all three responses are impostors. None of them is real, and none should be taken to heart by a writer or artist working from the Professional Mindset.

When we labor in any field that combines art and commerce, we’re working on two tracks.

Track One, the Muse Track, represents our work in its most authentic, true-to-itself and true-to-our-own-heart expression.

Track Two, the Commercial Track, represents the response our work gets in the marketplace. In other words, points 1-2-3 above.

Track Two counts for putting bread on the table and getting our kids through college.

Track One counts for our artistic soul.

The problem with Track Two is it also represents the siren song of riches and fame, or at least applause and recognition in the real world.

Two weeks ago my friend Paul finished writing a TV pilot. It was the first time he had completed a project from FADE IN to THE END. He turned it in to a friend who is a serious producer and who was anxious to see it. Almost immediately Paul’s spirits went over a cliff.

He became depressed, anxious, irritable. He couldn’t sleep. He stopped working. He was waiting to hear his producer friend’s response.

In other words, Paul let himself get sucked over onto Track Number Two, the Commercial Track.

Hollywood (or any big-buzz field like music, publishing, games, software) is a Rorschach test for the soul.

Can we keep our focus where it should be? Can we find our real self and stand up for it? The dream of success/glamour/megabucks is like dark matter. It exerts a gravitational pull that’s so strong it can haul even the best us down into a black hole.

What’s the antidote?

The antidote is remaining grounded on Track Number One. There’s nothing wrong with success. I hold no beef with cashing a check or getting a parking place with your name on it. But don’t confuse Track #1 with Track #2.

While Paul was pacing his living room wondering if he could really kill himself by leaping out a second-story window, the real truth of his situation was this:

He had completed his first serious full-length piece of work.

He had shipped.

He had delivered.

His creative momentum was high.

The Muse was with him.

On Track #1, Paul was rolling!

My advice to Paul (which he did not heed, by the way) was to start another project immediately. In fact Paul was already working on Project #2. But he had stopped.

Why is it so important to keep working?

Because when we finish a project and wait around breathlessly to learn the world’s response to it, we have planted our butts squarely on Track #2. Track #2 means evaluating our work and defining our artistic selves by the opinion of others. (What Shawn calls 3PV, Third Party Validation.)

Nothing good ever came from 3PV. Even success can be bad, viewed through the prism of 3PV. How many people have won Oscars in one year, only to vanish into rehab the next? And failure? Ask Van Gogh how that worked out for him.

And yet: how was Vincent doing on Track #1? He was red-hot. True, a century ahead of his time, but still smokin’ hot.

The ideal position for an artist of authenticity is when Track #1 and Track #2 coincide. When he is working his real stuff—and that stuff finds a welcome in the wider world.

When an artist’s voice is true enough to his own heart and authentic enough to his own vision, Track #1 pulls Track #2 over to it. Bruce Springsteen. Bob Dylan. Hunter S. Thompson.

But we lose our way when we overvalue Track #2 at the expense of Track #1. “Sunflowers” was just as great in 1889, when Van Gogh couldn’t give it away, as it was in 1987 when it sold for $39.9 million.

Whatever Track #2 fate awaits Paul’s pilot, he knocked it out of the park on Track #1.


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ADDITIONAL READING » CLASSICAL GREECE

Additional Reading: Classical Greece

Ambition to Rule, The

by Forde, Steven

Brilliant scholarly dissertation on the mind-set of Alcibiades and the politics of imperialism in ancient Athens. You’ve gotta be a real aficionado to find this book (try your local college library) and get through it. But it will reward the serious reader. I borrowed all kinds of goodies from Forde for Tides of War.

Athenian Trireme, The

by Morrison, Coates, and Rankov

Triremes were the famous ancient warships with three banks of oars. The problem: no one of the past 1500 years knew how the old guys did it. All design and engineering has been lost. The authors of this book play detective, scouring ancient texts, coins, carvings, and using their own imaginations. They figure it out, then build a trireme of their own. It works! Fascinating.

Education of Cyrus (aka the Cyropaedia), The

by Xenophon (Loeb Library, two volumes, translated by Walter Miller)

Though this book purports to narrate the upbringing and conquests of the great Persian king, in truth the society Xenophon describes is that of Sparta (no outsider knew it better than he), complete with “peers,” good manners at the dinner table, and why a true warrior never urinates on campaign (he should have eliminated excess water entirely by sweating).

Histories, The

by Herodotus (translated by Aubrey de Selincourt)

This is the book “The English Patient” was carrying. Funny, personal, and very entertaining, this book recounts the history of the clashes between Greeks and Persians, out of which arose the modern world. The battle of Thermopylae is in here—and Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea—plus dozens of zany, fascinating flashes into ancient life.

History of the Peloponnesian War

by Thucydides (translated by Rex Warner)

Tough sledding because of the dense but absolutely brilliant prose. May be the greatest book on war and human nature ever written. Timeless.

Indispensable Spartan Website, The

by Houston, Paul

My friend Paul Houston, in England, put together Sparta World, a work-in-progress website for Spartaphiles and aficionados of all things Spartans. The site is interesting in and of itself (and constantly evolving) and also a great jumping-off point and clearinghouse for re-enactor groups, hoplite fighters, artists, writers, and all other contemporary upholders of the Lakedaemonian tradition and ethos—and just for the fun of it. Paul invites all interested groups and individuals to contact him, link to the site, and network with their “peers.”

Landmark Thucydides, The

by Thucydides (edited by Robert B. Strassler)

A different but also excellent translation—but this one comes with maps, dozens and dozens, down to postage-stamp sizes, on almost every page. They help.

Last Days of Socrates, The

by Plato (translated by Hugh Tredennick)

Okay, okay . . . Two works by Plato . . . Translated by Hugh Tredennick, The Last Days compiles four dialogues into an organic whole narrating the trial, conviction, and death by hemlock of Socrates. Deep stuff on the subject of dying.

On Sparta

by Plutarch (translated by Richard J.A. Talbert)

The best one-book introduction to Sparta and Spartan thought. Several of Plutarch’s Lives of famous Spartans, plus Sayings of the Spartans and Sayings of the Spartan Women. Start here.

Persian Expedition, The

by Xenophon (translated by Rex Warner)

Ten thousand Greek mercenaries follow Cyrus the Younger’s three months’ march into the wilds of Persia, then lose the battle they came to fight. Xenophon was there as a young officer. His tale of the Greeks’ long and harrowing retreat against the hordes determined to obliterate them is justifiably immortal. Hollywood’s The Warriors, about a street gang from Brooklyn, was cleverly knocked off from this.

Plutarch’s Lives

by Plutarch

Easiest to read of all “the sources.” Short bios, packed with anecdotes and wisdom, of every great man of the Classical era. Plutarch wrote them in pairs, juxtaposing Caesar to Alexander, Alcibiades to Coriolanus, that sort of thing. My faves: Lycurgus, Solon, Themistocles, Alcibiades, Alexander.

Rise and Fall of Athens, The

by Plutarch

This Penquin paperback assembles the lives of all the major players in Athens’ rise and fall—Theseus, Solon, Themistocles, Cimon, Pericles, Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lysander. A brilliant editorial concept, The Last Days can be pretty scary when you read-in the parallels to the contemporary United States.

Spartan Army, The

by Lazenby, J.F.

Another hard-to-track-down work (try the Reference Librarian) that may lack the readable touch, but is crammed with great esoteric stuff like what the Spartans called a platoon leader [an enomotarch.] Only for true Sparta fanatics.

Spartans, The

by Cartledge, Paul

Chairman of the Classics faculty at Cambridge, Cartledge is the expert, from whom I have also borrowed major tonnage. Here he’s not writing an exhaustive, all-inclusive tome, but hitting the high spots with great depth, if you know what I mean.

Symposium, The

by Plato (translated by Walter Hamilton)

Hard to pick only one work from this great writer, thinker, and wrestler (Plato was his nickname, meaning “broad-shouldered”) and protégé of Socrates, but this is it. A night of gentlemen’s conversation, drunk and sober, at Athens in its glory days, highlighted by soliloquies “in praise of Love” by Aristophanes, Alcibiades, Agathon, and Socrates. Truman Capote wishes he threw a party like this.

Trials from Classical Athens

by Carey, Christopher

Still extant are the actual lawyer’s arguments from a number of famous ancient cases. Trust me, Johnny Cochrane had nothing on these slick Athenian legal eagles.

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