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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Killer Scenes, Part Four

By Steven Pressfield
Published: February 25, 2015

In last week’s post we were examining the idea that from a single modest fragment—a scene, or even a couple of lines of text—we as writers can extrapolate a big bite of the global work. Let’s keep biting.

Jared Leto as Hephaestion in Oliver Stone's "Alexander"

Here, to refresh our memories, are the two lines that popped into my head one day about ten years ago and that I knew at once were the opening sentences of a book (though I had no idea what book, or what that book would be about):

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

Last week we unpacked from these lines our protagonist, our narrator, our point of view, theme, about two hundred pages of text, and our interior villain. Let’s keep going. What else is implied by these two lines?

First, an identifiable emotion. Pride. When our narrator and protagonist Alexander says, “I have always been a soldier,” he is clearly not ashamed of this. He’s not ambivalent. He is proud.

So we know this book is not going to be Dr. Strangelove or Oh, What A Lovely War.” It’s going to be the unapologetic testament of a warrior and a conqueror. He’s going to depict the soldier’s craft as a noble calling, the “profession of arms.” And since we know from history that Alexander indeed conquered the world, we can imagine that he will be writing in praise of material ambition, in praise of military victory, and that he will be citing, as the foundation of these, the virtues of a soldier.

What are the virtues of a soldier?

Courage, patience, self-command, the willing endurance of adversity, love of honor, love of one’s comrades, contempt for death, etc.

I wound up titling this book The Virtues of War. It was divided into nine books. Each one was titled after a specific virtue.

Both these came, again, from those first two sentences.

So now we’ve added our title and our division of structure. There’s more. Let’s go back to the first two sentences.

Alexander in real life was a warrior, a king, and a conqueror. Yet he doesn’t use any of those words in his first two self-descriptive sentences. The word he uses is “soldier.”

What does he mean? Soldier is a humble word. A soldier tramps through the muck, he sleeps in the dirt, he lives in the weather. “Soldier” doesn’t imply anything lofty. A soldier is not necessarily issuing orders; more likely he’s obeying them.

Yet Alexander picked this word to describe himself, and to describe himself with pride.

Clearly the qualities that make a warrior are to him humble, simple, and basic.

When I was ten I begged Telamon [a mercenary and tutor of Alexander] to teach me what it meant to be a soldier. He would not respond in words. Rather he packed Hephaestion [Alexander's boyhood friend] and me three days into the winter mountains. We could not get him to speak. “Is this what being a soldier means, traveling in silence?” At night we nearly froze. “Is this what it means, enduring hardship?”

At the third dusk we chanced upon a pack of wolves chasing a stag onto a frozen lake. Telamon spurred onto the ice at the gallop. In the purple light we watched the pack fan out in its pursuit, turning the prey first one way, then another, always farther from the treeline and the shore. Wolf after wolf made its run at the fast-fatiguing buck. At last one caught him by the hamstring. The stag crashed to the ice; in an instant the pack was on him. Before Hephaestion and I could even draw rein, the wolves had torn his throat out and were already at their feed.

“That,” Telamon declared, “is a soldier.”


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ADDITIONAL READING » FAVORITE FICTION

Favorite Fiction

Favorite Fiction

Moviegoer, The

by Percy, Walker

National Book Award winner 1963. New Orleans stockbroker Binx Bolling (one of the great characters of contemporary fiction) battles Kierkegaardian despair with the help of his cousin Kate, an ultra-dry sense of humor, and a compulsion for going to the movies.

Seed and the Sower, The

by van der Post, Laurens

A close second: World War II classic by the South African master. A tale of two brothers, a Japanese prison camp, and the soul’s triumph over suffering and isolation.

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