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
ADDITIONAL READING » CLASSICAL GREECE
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.