By Steven Pressfield
Published: October 26, 2016
We were talking last week about “what works and what doesn’t,” i.e. what activities produce (for me) peace of mind at the end of the day. I listed a number that didn’t work—money, attention, family life, etc.
Let’s talk today about what does work.
If you asked me at this time of my life to define my identity—after cycling through many, many over the years—I would say I am a servant of the Muse.
That’s what I do.
That’s how I live my life.
[Remember, this post is Why I Write, Part 6.]
Consider this (incomplete and possibly out-of-order) selection from our newest Nobel laureate.
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
The Times They Are a-Changin’
Highway 61 Revisited
Blonde on Blonde
Bringing It All Back Home
Blood on the Tracks
John Wesley Harding
Slow Train Coming
Time Out of Mind
Shadows in the Night
See the Muse in there? Mr. D might not agree with the terminology I’m employing, but he is definitely serving something, isn’t he? Something is leading him and he is following it.
That’s exactly what I do.
An idea seizes me. Gates of Fire. Bagger Vance. The Lion’s Gate. Where is this idea coming from? The unconscious? The soul? The Jungian “Self?”
My answer: the Muse.
I experience this apparition-of-the-idea as an assignment. I’m being tasked by the Muse with a mission.
You are to travel by sea to Antioch. There you will meet a tall man with one eye who will hand you a talisman ….
My instinctive reaction, always, is to reject the idea. “It’s too hard, nobody’s gonna be interested, I’m not the right person, etc.”
This of course is the voice of Resistance.
In a few days (or weeks or months) I recognize this.
I accept my task.
I accede to my mission.
This is how I live my life. From project to project, year by year. As the Plains Indians followed the herds of buffalo and the seasonal grass, I follow the Muse.
Wherever she tells me to go, I go.
Whatever she asks me to do, I do.
I fear the Muse. She has slapped me around a few times over the years. I’ve been scared straight.
She has also cared for me. She has never failed me, never been untrue to me, never led me in any direction except that which was best for me on the deepest possible level.
She has taken me to places I would never have gone without her. She has shown me parts of the world, and parts of myself, that I would never have even dreamt existed.
But let’s take this notion a little deeper.
What I’m really saying is that I believe that life exists on at least two levels. The lower level is the material plane. That’s where you and I live. The higher level is the home of the soul, the neshama, the Muse.
The higher level is a lot smarter than the lower level.
The higher level understands in a far, far deeper way.
It understands who we are.
It understands why we are here.
It understands the past and the future and our roles within both.
My job, as I understand it, is to make myself open to this higher level.
My job is to keep myself alert and receptive.
My job is to be ready, in the fullest professional sense, when the alarm bell goes off and I have to slide down the pole and jump into the fire engine.
Again, I didn’t choose this way of living.
I didn’t seek it out.
I didn’t even know it existed.
I tried everything and nothing else worked. This was the only thing I’ve found that does the job for me.
In other words, I don’t do what I do for money. I don’t do it for ego or attention or because I think it’s cool. I don’t do it because I have a message to deliver or because I want to influence my brothers and sisters in any way (other than to let them know, from my point of view anyway, that they are not alone in their struggle.)
When I say I’m a servant of the Muse I mean that literally.
The goddess has saved my life and given it meaning or, perhaps more accurately, she has allowed me to participate in the meaning she already embodies, whether I understand it or not.
Everything I do in my life is a form of getting ready for the next assignment.
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.