By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 30, 2014
One of the outcomes that has always surprised the hell out of me about my own work is that, until I did it, I had no idea I was going to do it. Do you know what I mean? I wrote Book X and looked at it and said, “Where in the world did that come from?”
See you out there among the stars
Then I wrote Book X+1 and said the exact same thing.
We discover who we are by the works we produce.
Did you know who you were when you were twenty? But who-you-were was already there. And a compulsion was on you, even if you barely felt it and could not articulate it, to become that yet-unknown commodity. When you encountered a force in opposition—a boss or a parent, a societal prejudice or expectation, even the snarky voice of Resistance in your own head—you instinctively reacted against it. You took steps to overcome that opposition.
To feel the pull of our calling and to follow it produces what psychologists call individuation. We become ourselves. To follow our Muse is a way of answering the question, “Who am I?”
We answer that question the way that artists have always answered it, by producing works. Consider Meryl Streep’s roles over a lifetime, or Bob Dylan’s albums, or the novels of Philip Roth. Each one of those works, in the moment it was unfolding, was for the artist a step into the unknown. Risk was present. It took courage to go forward. And a happy outcome was far from certain. Did Bob Dylan know when he left Hibbing, Minnesota that he would one day go electric, or pass through a Christian phase, or write a lyric like “I used to care but things have changed?”
But when we regard these artists’ bodies-of-work from the end backwards, when we view them as completed (or partially-completed) entities, they seem inevitable, don’t they? Like an oak arising from an acorn. The ineluctable flowering of an identity that was there from the start but that few, if any, perceived—including the artist himself.
Why do I keep writing this blog?
I’m making the case for this journey of self-discovery. What’s the alternative: to not do it? (Again, I’m aware of how high this stuff sits on the Maslow Pyramid. But I see no reason to apologize.)
Which brings us to the democratic side of this question. Not everyone is Meryl Streep. There’s only one Philip Roth and no duplicate of Bob Dylan.
What about the rest of us?
What if we try all our lives and never produce even a decent demo tape? Are we idiots? Look to your right, look to your left. Those poor strivers are clearly going nowhere. What makes you and I believe we’re any different?
If in this blog I’m encouraging people to pursue their artistic dreams, am I doing more harm than good? Lord knows I get plenty of notes from people who are clearly in greater need of psychiatric intervention than of creative encouragement. (more…)
By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 23, 2014
In many ways this blog is me talking to myself. What makes the thing work, if indeed it does, is that there are a lot of people like me and they are dealing with the same issues I’m dealing with. So talking to myself in this public forum is, in its way, a meditation for those individuals as well.
Polaris, aka the "North Star"
So I don’t ask myself, “What do I imagine others want to read in this space?” I ask, “What do I want? What issues are bothering me? What questions am I exploring?”
Why write a book?
Why make a movie?
For myself, I set aside such answers as “To make money,” “to achieve success,” “to deliver a message,” “to change the world.”
I don’t believe in any of those. In my view they’re either unattainable or, if attained, do not produce happiness or peace of mind.
How about “to have fun?” “To produce beauty?” “To tell the truth?” “To serve the Muse?”
Now, for me at least, we’re getting closer.
I was visiting an old friend last week, a man I’ve known since sixth grade who from modest beginnings has gone on to great worldly success and who has remained a good guy throughout. We had a couple of drinks and we started reflecting on our lives. We were asking each other if we had any regrets about the paths we had chosen. If we had the chance to do it over, would we have followed different courses?
My friend and I both had the same answer. It’s a little tricky to articulate, so bear with me here if I stumble and bumble a bit:
My friend said, “If you took a prototypical middle-class American guy and put him in my shoes as he was graduating from high school, I might say, ‘Yeah, that theoretical fellow might have regrets over the way my/his life worked out.’ He could say, maybe, that I/he should’ve gone to medical school or I/he shouldn’t have gotten in trouble back in a certain decade. And I/he would be right.
“But that kind of thinking doesn’t apply to ‘me.’ Do you understand, Steve? There was a ‘me’ that didn’t have free rein. That ‘me’ had no choice. I was driven to do certain things, to make certain choices. Why? Was my motivation neurotic? Was I driven by unconscious forces? Yes. For sure.
“But above and beyond those influences, my life had a Pole Star. It really did. I couldn’t articulate this concept then and I can’t really do it now, but I felt that star’s pull and I followed it. Polaris, the North Star. Something ‘celestial,’ in the sense that it was fixed from birth, or even before birth.”
“You mean like ‘destiny?’”
“I know it sounds grandiose and narcissistic, even crazy. But yes. Yes.”
I agreed with my friend. I feel the same force in my life.
“I look back and I see moment after moment when I could have gotten off the train. When good sense and every other factor was screaming at me to get off. But I always stayed on.” (more…)
By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 16, 2014
"He can edit it or reshape it or redirect it … "
We were talking last week about the purpose of this blog, both from my point of view in writing it and from the POV of those who read it. What are we doing here? What is this collective enterprise about?
I cited a phrase from Pericles’ Funeral Oration in which he praised his fellow citizens of Athens, describing each as:
… the rightful lord and owner of his own person.
In other words, individual autonomy. Pericles was talking about the ideal of the citizen in the political sense, as opposed to less independent forms of individual identity—the slave, the subject, the tribesman, etc. Pericles defined the citizen as one who was capable of reason, discernment, and discriminating intelligence on his own (again, for argument’s sake, let’s set aside the masculine pronoun and pretend that Pericles meant women as well, though of course in that era this was not yet true), free of external pressure or compulsion of all kinds.
In this blog our preoccupation (we might say our obsession) is parallel to, but not identical with, Pericles’ conception. Our aspiration, too, is the acquisition of those virtues and habits of mind that lead each of us to become “the rightful lord and owner of our own person.”
But this blog is called Writing Wednesdays. It’s about writing. It’s about the internal and external challenges faced by the artist and the entrepreneur, that is, the individual on his or her own pursuing a creative calling.
When we speak in this space of the autonomous individual, we’re talking about the individual as an artist (or the individual pursuing an ideal or enterprise in the manner of an artist, under which heading I include the mother, the philanthropist, the warrior, the athlete, the adventurer, the mystic, the priest, and more.)
To Pericles’ definition then, we’re adding a creative dimension. We’re speaking of the autonomous individual as artist.
This is where it starts to get deep.
Because the artist, at least in my experience, is not autonomous. She is not manipulating a machine or commanding a system, nor is she operating exclusively within the material dimension. She is not pulling levers and making things happen in the manner of, say, the engineer or the mechanic.
By the nature of the creative process itself, she is working with forces that are beyond her control …
She’s working with the Mystery.
Ideas come to the artist from a source she cannot name or define, let alone control. Inspiration appears out of nowhere. Next an organizing principle kicks in. How? From where? The artist doesn’t know. She can invoke this mystery; she can analyze it after the fact; she edit it or reshape it or redirect it.
But she can’t control its genesis. She can’t summon it at will, nor can she manipulate it by force, appeal, or propitiation.
The artist has learned this truth: there is another dimension of reality, or, if you prefer, a different sphere of consciousness. Jung would call it the Unconscious, or possibly the Shadow. I call it the Muse. You might call it Potentiality. Whatever name we give it, that dimension is higher and wiser than the material dimension. We can’t see it. We can’t measure it. We can’t explain it. But we work with it every day. It’s as miraculous as a sunrise and as common as dirt.
This dimension, too, is what our blog is about. It’s the subject that many of these posts investigate—and the subject that readers’ Comments address and amplify and respond to (or reject.)
One of the reasons I’m drawn to the ancient Greeks is I love the idea of divinities with human faces. Where do ideas come from? Why not say “the Muse?” This way of thinking is congenial to me. I’m not saying it’s “real.” It just helps me personally to think of the mystery in those terms.
When the young Xenophon was debating joining Prince Cyrus’ expedition into the Persian hinterland, Socrates told him, “Ask the god.” Meaning the oracle of Apollo at Delphi.
I like that too. “The god” to me is that unseen dimension. It’s that mysterious sphere—the right brain, the unconscious, the Quantum Soup—where ideas come from. (more…)