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.
“It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord … but you gotta serve somebody.”
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.
By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 19, 2016
I declared in the second Why I Write post that I would have to kill myself if I couldn’t write. That wasn’t hyperbole.
Here in no particular order are the activities and aspirations that don’t work for me (and I’ve tried them all extensively, as I imagine you may have too if you’re reading this blog):
Money doesn’t work. Success. Family life, domestic bliss, service to country, dedication to a cause however selfless or noble. None of these works for me.
Identity-association of every kind (religious, political, cultural, national) is meaningless to me. Sex provides no lasting relief. Nor do the ready forms of self-distraction—drugs and alcohol, travel, life on the web. Style doesn’t work, though I agree it’s pretty cool. Reading used to help and still does on occasion. Art indeed, but only up to a point.
It doesn’t work for me to teach or to labor selflessly for others. I can’t be a farmer or drive a truck. I’ve tried. My friend Jeff jokingly claims that his goal is world domination. That wouldn’t work for me either. I can’t find peace of mind as a warrior or an athlete or by leading an organization. Fame means nothing. Attention and praise are nice but hollow. “Wimbledon,” as Chris Evert once said, “lasts about an hour.”
Meditation and spiritual practice, however much I admire the path and those who follow it, don’t work for me.
The only thing that allows me to sit quietly in the evening is the completion of a worthy day’s work. What work? The labor of entering my imagination and trying to come back out with something that is worthy both of my own time and effort and of the time and effort of my brothers and sisters to read it or watch it or listen to it.
That’s my drug. That’s what keeps me sane.
I’m not saying this way of life is wholesome or balanced. It isn’t. It’s certainly not “normal.” By no means would I recommend it as a course to emulate.
Nor did I choose this path for myself, either consciously or deliberately. I came to it at the end of a long dark tunnel and then only as the last recourse, the thing I’d been avoiding all my life.
When I see people, friends even, destroy their lives with pills or booze or domestic violence or any of the thousand ways a person can face-plant himself or herself into non-existence, I feel nothing but compassion. I understand how hard the road is, and how lightless. I’m a whisker away from hitting that ditch myself.
The Muse saved me. I offer thanks to the goddess every day for beating the hell out of me until I finally heeded and took up her cause.
No one will ever say it better than Henry Miller did in Tropic of Capricorn.
I reached out for something to attach myself to—and I found nothing. But in reaching out, in the effort to grasp, to attach myself, left high and dry as I was, I nevertheless found something I had not looked for—myself. I found that what I had desired all my life was not to live—if what others are doing is called living—but to express myself. I realized that I had never had the least interest in living, but only in this which I am doing now, something which is parallel to life, of it at the same time, and beyond it. What is true interests me scarcely at all, nor even what is real; only that interests me which I imagine to be, that which I had stifled every day in order to live.
By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 12, 2016
Jerry Garcia. “Dude, ‘as if’ works!”
The hippie version of behavioral therapy (I remember it well) was “acting as if.”
Are you scared? Are you anxious? Act as if you’re not.
Shawn has a principle for Black Irish Books: publish as if. In other words, bring out a book/promote it etc. as if we were Knopf, as if we were Random House.
What about writing as if?
(Remember, the theme of this series is “Why I Write.” It’s my own admittedly personal, idiosyncratic, possibly demented view of why I do what I do.)
I definitely write as if.
I write as if I’m being published by Penguin Random House/Simon&Schuster/Hachette/HarperCollins.
I write as if my stuff is gonna be reviewed by the NY Times, the New Yorker, the Times of London.
I write as if the Nobel Prize committee will check every comma.
I write as if Steven Spielberg will be personally eyeballing an advance reading copy.
I write as if people will be reading my work five hundred years from now (assuming of course that planet Earth is still habitable by humans at that time.)
More critical than all the above, I write as if the Muse herself will be going over my stuff. I don’t want her saying, “I gave you this?”
But let’s take this line of thinking to a deeper level.
You and I as writers must write as if we were highly paid, even though we may not be.
We must write as if we were top-shelf literary professionals, even though we may not (yet) be.
We must write as if we were being held to the highest standards of truth, of vision, of scale, of imagination, even though we may not be.
We must write as if our works mattered, even though they may not.
As if they will make a difference, even though they may not.
As if our lives and sanity depend on it. Because, believe me, they do.
To say that we write (or live) “as if” is another way of saying we have turned pro.
We are operating as professionals.
We are in this for keeps.
We are in it for the long haul.
We are committed.
We are warriors.
We are for real.
Therefore … take no thought how or what ye shall speak; for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak.
There is great wisdom in acting as if and writing as if.
Is life without meaning? Are you and I marooned on an atom of dust hurtling in the dark through a pointless cosmos?
But we can’t act as if we believed that.
Art Carney and Lily Tomlin in “The Late Show”
We must act as if there were meaning, as if our lives and actions did have significance, as if love is real and death is an illusion, as if the future will be better than the past, whatever that means.
One of Seth Godin’s great contributions is the idea of “picking yourself.” Don’t sit on a stool at Schwab’s like Lana Turner waiting for someone else to pick you to be the next star.
Act as if you were a pro, a fastball hitter, the real thing,
And there’s additional magic to the practice of acting as if and writing as if. In some crazy way, acting and writing as if makes our beliefs about ourselves come true.
What we had only projected takes on its own reality. That’s a law.
“You’re an actress,” Art Carney tells Lily Tomlin at a scary moment in Robert Benton’s great private eye flick The Late Show. “Act brave.”