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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Can Writing Be Taught?

By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 23, 2014

There was an article on this subject in the New York Times a few weeks back. The question posed was, as I understand it:

James Rhodes and his teacher

If your son or daughter came to you and declared, “I want to be a writer,” what advice would you give him or her on how to pursue this dream?

Would you suggest an academic program, the Times asked. An MFA in Creative Writing? Or would it be more productive for your aspiring artist to enroll in the College of Hard Knocks, out on the street, gaining experience in the real world?

Questions like these make me want to spit nails.

I didn’t play the piano for 10 years. A decade of slow death by greed working in the City, chasing something that never existed in the first place (security, self-worth, Don Draper,¬†albeit a few inches shorter and a few women fewer). And only when the pain of not doing it got greater than the imagined pain of doing it did I somehow find the balls to pursue what I really wanted and had been obsessed by since the age of seven—to be a concert pianist.

This is Englishman James Rhodes, from his brilliant screed in The Guardian UK [full piece here] of April 26, 2013.

Admittedly I went a little extreme—no income for five years, six hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight. And the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not perhaps the Disney ending I’d envisaged as I lay in bed aged 10 listening to Horowitz devouring Rachmaninov at Carnegie Hall.

My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure (playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices, my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching), and perhaps most crushingly, the realisation that I will never, ever give the perfect recital. It can only ever, with luck, hard work and a hefty dose of self-forgiveness, be “good enough.”

Yes, it’s true that any art has principles and techniques, which must be studied and mastered, as James himself testifies that he did here. But what I love about him is the passion and, even more, the madness (note the “nine months in a mental hospital.”)

You have to be crazy to do what James did, or what anybody does to get to the depths you have to get to.

How did Hemingway end his life? Or Hunter Thompson. Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Philip Seymour Hoffman. And these were geniuses, with deathless works behind them. What wall did they hit? What monster devoured them? Writing, or any art, is not some bloodless craft possessed of an academy that the neophyte can enroll in and trundle, like a sausage, down a processing line to emerge at graduation with a credential. (more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Book I’ve Been Avoiding My Whole Life

By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 9, 2014

I never talk about a book while I’m working on it. It’s bad luck. The Muse doesn’t like it.

"The Lion's Gate," non-fiction coming May 6

That’s why, although I’ve been working for the past three years on a project that’s been all-consuming for me, I haven’t offered a peep on this blog.

But now the book is done. It’s in production; the first finished copies are coming off the presses now. The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War will be published by Penguin/Sentinel on May 6.

Now that the book is finished, I’m gonna become a blabbermouth. I’m going to write about it here on the blog. We’ll start next week. Posts will appear on Mondays and Fridays (Writing Wednesdays will continue uninterrupted each Wednesday, after the initial kick-off post next week.)

The Lion’s Gate is a non-fiction book about the Six Day War of 1967, the war that re-drew the maps of the Middle East and laid the foundation for most of the turmoil that has been roiling that region—and the world—ever since. But it’s a lot more than that for me. I’ll start talking about that next week.

Beyond the subject matter of the book, I’ll get into detail about the writing process. It’s okay to do this, I believe, as a means of helping my fellow-artists-in-the-trenches, of demonstrating for their benefit that I’m just as nutty as they are, and that my way of working is just as crazy as theirs. (more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Living in Beirut

By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 2, 2014

I’m reading a really interesting book by three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas Friedman called From Beirut to Jerusalem. It’s not a recent book; it’s from 1989 (it won the National Book Award that year). It’s about Mr. Friedman’s early years as a correspondent in the Middle East.


Beirut, Lebanon in the 1980s

Beirut in the 80s was the Hobbesian Wild West. There was a war going on with Israel; artillery shells were raining down at all hours. At the same time a Lebanese civil war was raging; local militias, criminal gangs, extremist-religious armies and kidnapping rings ran rife. Death came out of nowhere and at all hours. Entire city blocks would be leveled by truck bombs, for which no group even took the trouble to claim credit. At the morgue (when anyone cared enough to transport bodies to the morgue), corpses were not even afforded the dignity of being identified. It was an era of out-and-out anarchy, where death was frequent, random, and meaningless.

And yet people lived their lives. Kids went to school, businesses found ways to stay open, Tom Friedman pursued his journalistic calling.

Maybe the most popular Beirut mind game … was learning how to view one’s environment selectively.

I learned to be quite good at this myself. Late one afternoon in the summer of 1982, I was typing a story at the Reuters bureau when the crackle of machine-gun fire erupted in the park across the street. Another American reporter, who had just arrived in Beirut, ran to the window [and] became transfixed at the sight … he rushed over to me and said excitedly, “Did you see that? Did you see that guy? He was holding a gun like this right in his gut and shooting someone. Did you see that?”

I just looked up from my typewriter at this fellow and said, “Was he shooting at you? No. Was he shooting at me? No. So leave me alone, would you?”

As I was reading this, I was thinking: this is the artist’s life.

This is my life.

True, bombs aren’t going off on my block. But the world outside my skull is a minefield of chaos that feels, to me, a lot like Beirut in ‘82. Death, real death, happens, and it happens up close and personal. Sudden tragedies strike me and people I love, and there’s nothing I can do about it. And that’s just outside my head. Inside I’m tiptoeing past booby-traps of distraction, dereliction, laziness, arrogance, self-sabotage, not to mention spiritual upheaval and emotional disarray.

I’m living my own little Beirut every day. I’ll bet you are too. (more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
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