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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Killer Scenes and Self-Doubt

By Steven Pressfield | Published: March 4, 2015

We’ve been talking for the past few weeks about Killer Scenes—and how a writer can start with a single scene, or even a couple of lines of text, and build out from that the entire global work.

Bob Dylan. Still freewheelin'

Specifically I’ve been talking about my own book, The Virtues of War, and how it evolved from two sentences that “came to me” and that I knew instinctively were the first sentences of a book.

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

Let’s get metaphysical today. Let’s go beyond the tactical applications (how to extrapolate an entire book from two lines of text) and get into the deeper soul-implications of this phenomenon.

Why did those lines pop into my head?

Where did they come from?

Did someone or something “send” them? Why?

Was it random? Was it significant?

What does it all mean?

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m a believer in the Muse (or the Unconscious, the Quantum Soup, the Field of Potentiality). In Jewish mysticism, this mysterious source is called the neshama. The soul.

I believe those two sentences came from the neshama, from the Muse. I can’t prove it of course. I may be completely crazy. But not only do I believe those sentences came from the Muse (or the Unconscious or whatever) but I believe they came for a purpose. A positive, creative purpose. Like a dream that arrives to counsel or sustain us, to guide us on our journey.

Why those two sentences? I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think they came as a means of addressing a certain fault or shortcoming in my personality.

I’m talking about self-doubt.

I’ve been plagued by this monster for decades. Even though at the time those two sentences came to me I had already experienced a fair amount of real-world success, I still had very little confidence in my ability as a writer and even less of a sense of destiny or certainty about the course of my life.

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

This was Alexander’s voice. Alexander the Great. If I were going to write this book, I would have to speak in that voice.

This, I believe, was the goddess’s plan.

It was therapy.

It was practice.

Why Alexander? Because, as much as or more than any individual who ever lived, Alexander embodied self-certainty. Even as a boy, he knew. He knew his calling. He knew his destiny. He was a king and the son of a king. He would vanquish the Persian empire. He would conquer the world.

Before Alexander was six years old, he knew what he had to do and he had bought into it with every cell and sinew. His mother, Olympias, prepared him. His father, Philip of Macedon, prepared him. His tutor, Aristotle (yes, that Aristotle), prepared him.

Alexander’s boyhood friends—fellows students of Aristotle—would grow to be his generals. They were as committed as he was, to the same destiny, and they were as certain of it as he.

In other words, Alexander was a dude who didn’t know the meaning of self-doubt.

Here then was the assignment my Muse was tasking me with:

To spend the next two-plus years, seven days a week, inside the head of this historical individual. If I were going to pull this enterprise off, I would have to dismiss all fear, set aside all hesitancy and self-doubt. I would have to jump off the cliff and do it. There was no other way. (more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

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.”


Posted in Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Killer Scenes, Part Three

By Steven Pressfield | Published: February 18, 2015

I start this post with an apology. In it I’m gonna cite something from my own work. I hate it when writers do that. “Use Tolstoy, man, or Shakespeare! We want something good.”

Colin Farrell as Alexander in Oliver Stone's movie of the same name.

But I gotta do it because in this instance I don’t have to speculate as to what the writer was thinking: I actually know.

The theme of today’s post is a continuation of the previous two: Killer Scenes and how to build them out into the global narrative that they imply. In this case, I’m going to address not a scene, but just two sentences.

The question we’ll be asking is: When we as writers have only one scene, or even just a fragment of a scene, how can we extrapolate from that the entire work? How do we build out the complete book from that single kernel? What mode of thinking do we employ?

First, let’s start with the Muse. I believe categorically that scenes and lines that pop into our heads come from some cosmic source. You may disagree. But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. So when some electrifying scene or fragment suddenly appears in my consciousness, I take it as a penny from heaven, a clue in a mystery, a strand of DNA in a scientific experiment. Embedded in that microcosm is the Global Enchilada.

One day about ten years ago, two sentences popped into my head.

I knew immediately that these were the first two sentences of a book. And I knew I loved the book. But I knew nothing else. I didn’t know who the speaker was, or what the story would be, where it was set, nothing. Here are the two sentences:

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

I let these sit for a couple of weeks. From time to time during the day I’d come back to them, always asking myself, “Who’s the speaker? Who’s saying this? What does it mean? What’s the book that these sentences are the start of?”

I couldn’t get an answer. Either nothing came or what came didn’t ring a bell. Then one day, I can’t remember exactly how, I suddenly knew with certainty: the speaker was Alexander the Great.

I didn’t know anything about Alexander the Great. I had never studied him. He was certainly not a figure I was preoccupied with. Nor did I have any conception of how a story about him would resonate with modern readers, or if they would even care. Would a book about Alexander sell? Would anybody besides me be interested? (more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
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