By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 27, 2016
A couple of friends have written in:
“I know what my theme is, but I can’t figure out how to get it into my story.” (more…)
A couple of friends have written in:
“I know what my theme is, but I can’t figure out how to get it into my story.” (more…)
Picking up where we left off last week …
I’m starting a new fiction project, very heavy with Resistance, self-doubt, doubts about the viability of the project, etc. I decided to keep a dream diary. Last week I posted the first two dreams. Here are the next two.
This first one comes about a week into the work (3/28/16). Self-confidence in very short supply. I’m committed, but still feeling extremely tentative …
I was a pilot. I had somehow gotten the training and become qualified. I was traveling via ship and train to Antarctica with my friend David and one other guy that I didn’t know; they were both pilots too. We were going to join some kind of military force in operations somewhere around the South Pole. The planes we would be flying were WWI-era biplanes (though these didn’t appear in the dream.)
The landscape was gorgeous as we traveled south toward Patagonia, like I imagine Alaska looks: spectacular mountains, bays, valleys, all wild and unpopulated. But through the whole trip, I kept worrying, “We’ll have to fly over hundreds of miles of open water, water so cold that you’re dead in ninety seconds if you hit the drink–and those old-time biplanes are just fabric and balsa wood, with only one engine. How reliable can they be?”
We reached our destination—the last place on dry land. David and I and the other guy were driving, each in his own little car, south toward the jumping-off point. We came to a checkpoint, manned by a single Aussie female. David drove up. The female guard challenged David aggressively, asking him what we thought we were doing. He answered by singing, “We’re off to see the Wizard … “
I take this dream to be a spot-on depiction of my state of mind starting this new book. I feel exactly like a newly-minted, zero-experience Sopwith Camel jockey about to take off in a rickety crate to fly over hundreds of miles of sub-zero ocean into the polar unknown.
Somehow the dream encouraged me. I thought, “Yeah, that’s the situation. That’s exactly how I feel.” It is what it is. Let’s get on with it.
Two nights later, still very shaky, I had this dream:
It was the aftermath of the Civil War, the immediate days after Lee’s surrender. I was a rebel. A bunch of us—ragged and starving, but still carrying our muskets (with bayonets)—were straggling on foot toward home, apparently back to South Carolina or Georgia, wherever our little farms were. Parties of Yankees kept passing on the roads, celebrating their victory, not just soldiers but civilians in carriages, dressed up in their finery, just driving like a parade. Union troops in large numbers were closing in everywhere as well.
Some sort of very serious announcement was being made by the Yankees to us, not by loudspeaker since that hadn’t been invented but the equivalent. Something like, “You Johnny Rebs have ceased to be granted the status of soldiers and now will be treated as traitors. You no longer possess any civil rights and are not protected under the laws of the United States.” More announcements followed. Each one was more grave than the one before, letting us know that we were even more screwed than we thought we were. It was as if the stakes kept getting raised and then raised more after that. A few of our guys had gotten shot by the advancing Union troops. It was clear that the rest of us were in for a long, hard haul just trying to get home, hundreds of miles overland on foot, through the woods, hiding out.
At one point someone of our party, possibly even me, gestured with his bayonet close-up toward a carriage of Yankee civilians, revelers, well-dressed, men and women, who were passing and abusing us verbally. This soldier (like I said, maybe it was even me) pointed his rifle at the Yankees, with that long steel bayonet aimed right at them. He said, “We may have lost the war, but we’re still men, we’re still armed and still capable of taking a life. So shut your mouth.”
Again, I take this dream to be about the new book. Its message to me seems to be, “No matter what anyone else says, or how dire realistically the situation is, you’ve still got your skills and your will. You’re still viable. Don’t lose faith. Keep heading home.”
I had a third dream, a week later, that continued this theme of marching home, heading south. In this dream I was just myself, wading through a swamp thick with alligators and praying that I didn’t run into one. At dream’s end I spotted a cabin up ahead with a chance to get a meal and a short rest.
Here’s my takeaway from these five dreams, which came over the first three weeks of starting a new and, to me, extremely daunting project:
As writers, artists and entrepreneurs we all look for “creative capital,” i.e. something we can “take to the bank” and call upon in moments of self-doubt, isolation, hesitation, and fear.
What works? Is it prior success? Can we call on that? Is it past praise from book reviews, editors, agents, from the writers’ group we meet with every week? Is it the love of our spouses or lovers who believe in us? Is it our number of “likes” or “followers?” In our darkest hours, what resource can we call upon that will actually help us?
To me, it’s dreams like these. Or other visions and insights. (See the chapter titled LARGO, pages 128-9 in The War of Art.)
Dreams like these are God’s currency, solid gold, legal tender in any country. They’re absolutely free and absolutely self-contained, springing forth from our unconscious to support us and encourage us. When we speak of “the Muse” or “the Quantum Soup” or “the Divine Ground,” this is what we’re talking about. Dreams like these are worth a million bucks.
I can tell you that, based on these five dreams (though any one of them by itself would suffice) I will bust my butt for the next two years writing this book I’m talking about. Yeah, I’ve laid the idea on Shawn for real-world feedback and gotten his blessing. That definitely helps. And a couple of other trusted friends have stamped it with their approval too.
But the dreams are the money shot.
This, as I said, is the artist’s inner world. It’s the artist’s interior life.
[Back next week to continue our posts on Theme—though I’ll continue to keep my dream diary and report in from time to time as this adventure progresses.]
I’m gonna take a break this week from our series on Theme (we’ll be back) to address an issue that’s happening with me right now.
I’m just starting a new fiction project that’s overwhelming me with Resistance, and my dreams have been really interesting. I’d like to share a few of them—and the whole interactive process between waking, working life and nocturnal who-knows-what—over the next couple of weeks.
Maybe this will ring a bell with your own psychic adventures.
Here’s the backstory:
About two months ago I had an idea for a story. Immediately I was swamped with Resistance.
Was the idea any good? Could I pull it off? Did I want to? Would anybody be interested? Was it a movie or a book? How would I tell the story?
Maybe I should just forget it. The idea is not very “me.” I’ve never done anything like it before. I don’t know how to attack it, I don’t know how to position it, I don’t know how to promote it …
I decided to shelve it.
Then I had this dream.
I was playing golf with my old friend Phil. We were on the first tee of some course I had never played before. Two other guys were paired with us. The course was crowded. A bunch of foursomes were lining up behind us, ready for their turn.
I reached for my golf bag. Only it wasn’t my golf bag. It was some terrible, ratty bag about eighty years old. The clubs were antiques—scruffy, beat-up old sticks with wooden shafts warped with age and cracking with mildew. Then I zipped open the pocket that held the golf balls. OMG, all I had was the scroungiest collection of dimple-free, waterlogged, dead-ass balls that looked like they wouldn’t fly ten yards. Arrrgggh!
Meanwhile Phll was teeing off; our other two guys were getting ready. Somebody said to me, “There’s a decent ball out there.” He was pointing about two hundred yards away, down a side patch of grass. I took off on a run, picked up the ball and raced back to the tee. By now the other two guys had hit their drives; Phil was 150 yards away, striding down the fairway. The next foursome was already teeing their balls. I was out of breath, sweating, totally discombobulated.
WTF, there’s no point in even swinging. I picked up my ball and ratty old bag and gave up.
Now I may not be the greatest interpreter of dreams, but this one’s message seemed pretty unmistakable.
The first tee is the start of a project.
It’s an unknown golf course, i.e. totally new.
I’m unprepared. I’m rushing. I’m freaking out. I’m letting intangibles completely throw me off my stride.
I’m quitting before I begin.
In other words, the dream was simply depicting my state of mind in regard to this new project. I could see it now, and I didn’t like what I saw.
I changed my mind. I decided I would do the project.
I started the next day.
I got in about two hours (pretty much my max for the inception of a long-term work).
The day went pretty well. I was just trying to get my thoughts down on paper—what the story was about, who the characters were, Act One, Act Two, Act Three, how would it end. Just a toehold.
That night I had this dream.
I was in a foreign country, in a rental car, heading somewhere on a freeway that was not too crowded. I found myself behind a couple of cars driving ridiculously slowly. I began cursing them. What’s wrong with these foreign drivers? Then the cars turned off. I kept going.
The freeway got worse and worse in terms of road condition. Suddenly the pavement ended entirely. I was driving over a bed of gravel and rocks. Then the road became a dirt track. Suddenly the surface dropped down a slope and an actual stream cut across. I was cursing out loud, “This is like a freakin’ Third World country.” I decided to keep going. What else could I do? I drove deliberately down over the road edge toward the stream, aiming for a sort of natural causeway so I could drive over. The causeway ran out and suddenly I was in the water …
[Side note: water is a recurring image in dreams for me. It always means creativity, the flow of ideas. The greater the volume of water in a dream and the faster that water is flowing, the more creative power is moving through me.]
Somehow my rental car vanished and I was floating in the air, still going forward along the channel of the now-long-gone freeway.The channel still existed but it had become a river.
I found I could move forward if I “swam” through the air. I was maybe fifteen, twenty feet above the surface of the river, which was crystal-clear and about 100 feet wide, passing through shaded, canopied jungle. Not dense, there was plenty of soft sunlight. It was gorgeous, like Gabriel Marquez’ magical realism. It even felt South American.
I was propelling myself forward by drifting to the bluffs at the side of the river (kind of like retaining walls beside a freeway) and pushing off with my hands. Suddenly the river turned left. A breeze hit me, pushing me back. I was struggling against the wind. But when I got around the corner slightly, the wind changed and was now at my back. I looked ahead to the right and I could see the ocean. The sky was bright through the jungled canopy. I could see part of a beach, like a fishing village in South or Central America.
Suddenly ahead, between the river and the ocean, I saw a spectacular domed cathedral rising in the sunlight beyond the jungle. Spanish-looking. Absolutely gorgeous. I thought, Wow, what the hell have I stumbled onto here? Then I looked downriver. About a mile ahead, out in the clear on the right-hand bank, I saw a city. A beautiful city with South American style architecture.
I was close alongshore now, still flying. I passed slowly, just above a couple of local fishermen mending their nets. One told me, “It’s better to go all the way down to the city traveling along the river, rather than cutting inland, and land at the city so that you’re coming in off the river. More impressive. Good karma.”
I liked that. I decided that was just what I would do.
What could this dream mean? I take the universe depicted to refer to the work now, the new project I’ve just started. I’m in some “new world,” like the kind discovered by Cortez or Balboa, of which I’ve been very dubious and in fact didn’t even know or believe that it existed. Could I survive there? Yes! There’s plenty of water (creativity), a whole brilliant new species of architecture, and a spectacular new city to explore. And the water is pellucid-clear, straight out of Eden.
In other words the dream is saying that this new work will be, at least for me (if not necessarily for anyone else), a totally-novel, consciousness-expanding adventure and experience.
This dream is one of the greatest I’ve ever had. It’s almost a Big Dream in the Jungian sense of once-in-a-decade, life-changing, epochal communiqués from the Unconscious.
I put aside all doubts about the new project.
I decided to go for it.
I was all in.
I’ll continue this exploration next week with the succeeding couple of dreams (and maybe the week after) to track the progress of this crazy thing. But the bottom line for me is the amazing dynamic architecture of the psyche.
It’s a battle.
On one shoulder we’ve got Resistance, diabolical as hell and absolutely out to destroy us, mind and soul.
On the other shoulder we have our brilliant sage/Merlin/Harry Potter/whatever, our benevolent Unconscious, sending us a Netflix movie tailored specifically for us and exotically beautiful, insightful, loaded with significance and meaning and wisdom.
And we’re there in the middle.
This is the artist’s inner world.
This is the artist’s life.