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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Why, #3

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…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
32 Comments

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Why, #2

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 16, 2014

Maestro

"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…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
24 Comments

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Why, #1

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 9, 2014

Why am I writing this blog? Why are you reading it? It’s not a bad idea to pause once in a while and ask questions like these.

The Acropolis at Athens, seen from Mt. Lykabettos

The blog started about five years ago. It has evolved through a number of iterations. I’ve written in this space about what interests me, but I’ve also taken cues from comments and responses from readers and tried to dig deeper into issues that seemed to strike a chord.

What are we talking about on this blog? What’s our theme? What are we trying to get at, you and I?

I’m going to take the next few Wednesdays and attempt to answer that, at least from my own perspective.

What comes to mind at once is a thought from what to me is one of the seminal passages in the literature of Western civilization—Pericles’ Funeral Oration from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (translation below by Rex Warner).

Once each year at Athens in the ancient days, the citizenry gathered, outdoors “in the most beautiful quarter outside the city walls,” to honor the fallen in battle from the previous twelve months. A citizen “chosen for his intellectual gifts and for his general reputation” delivered an address. This particular year, 431 BCE, that man was Pericles.

Pericles took the occasion—a critical one for the city because it was in the second year of a great and fateful war—to speak not just to honor the dead but to address the subject of Athens herself.

What made the city so great and powerful?

Why was Athens pre-eminent in all the world?

What were her beliefs and principles? What type of person was the typical Athenian?

Here is perhaps the most famous (and, to me, most significant) passage from Pericles’ oration:

Taking everything together then, I declare that our city is an education to Greece, and I declare that in my opinion each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and to do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility.

The rightful lord and owner of his own person. I don’t know if that thought had ever been uttered in any place other than Athens and the other Hellenic democracies. I’m not sure if any prior civilization had even deemed it an ideal worthy of aspiration. Earlier cultures had prized honor, strength, courage, piety, and other virtues. But individual autonomy? Wow, what a wild idea!

(more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
27 Comments
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