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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Why I Write, Part One

By Steven Pressfield
Published: September 21, 2016

 

I stumbled onto the website of a novelist I had never heard of. (He’s probably never heard of me either.) What I saw there got me thinking.

What if we worked our whole life and never sold a single painting?

What if we worked our whole life and never sold a single painting?

The site was excellent. It displayed all fourteen of the novelist’s books in “cover flow” format. They looked great. A couple had been published by HarperCollins, several others by Random House. The author was the real deal, a thoroughgoing pro with a body of work produced over decades.

Somehow I found myself thinking, What if this excellent writer had never been published?

Would we still think of him as a success?

(In other words, I started pondering the definition of “success” for a writer.)

Suppose, I said to myself … suppose this writer had written all these novels, had had their covers designed impeccably, had their interiors laid out to the highest professional standards.

Suppose he could never find a publisher.

Suppose he self-published all fourteen of his novels.

Suppose his books had found a readership of several hundred, maybe a thousand or two. But never more.

Suppose he had died with that as the final tally.

Would we say he had “failed?”

Would we declare his writing life a waste?

[I’m assuming, for the sake of this exercise, that our writer had been able somehow to support himself and his family throughout his life or that, if he had been supported by someone else (as van Gogh was looked after by his brother Theo), that that was okay with him and with the person supporting him.]

Then I asked myself, What if that was me?

How would I feel about those fourteen books? Would I consider them an exercise in folly? Vanity? Demented self-indulgence?

Would I say to myself, “What’s wrong with you? Why do you continue this exercise in futility? Wake up! Get a job!”

Could I justify all that effort and somehow convince myself that it was worthy, that it had been an honorable use of my time on Earth?

It won’t surprise you, if you’re at all familiar with my thinking in this area, to hear that I would immediately answer yes.

Yes, I would consider that hypothetical writer a success.

I might even declare him a spectacular success.

No, his writing life was not wasted.

No, he had not squandered his time on the planet.

And yes, I would say the same if that writer were me.

My own real-life career is not that far off from this hypothetical. I wrote for seventeen years before I got my first dollar (a check for $3500 for an option on a screenplay that never came near getting made.) I wrote for twenty-eight years before my first novel was published.

What, then, constitutes success for a writer? Is it money? Sales? Recognition? Is it “expressing herself?” Is it “getting her ideas out there?”

Or is it something else?

I’m going to take the next few weeks’ posts and do a little self-examination on this subject, which I think is especially critical in this era of the web and Amazon and print-on-demand and instant and easy self-publishing, these days when literally a million new books appear each year. How do we, how do you and I navigate these waters, not just financially or professionally but psychologically, emotionally, spiritually?

[Thanks to our friend David Y.B. Kaufmann for suggesting this topic.]

 


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F.A.Q.

F.A.Q.

Will there be a movie of Gates of Fire?

This is the most frequently asked question we get on this site. Steven Pressfield answers:

"Gates has been under option to Universal Studios since it was first published in 1998. The acquiring production company was George Clooney and Robert Lawrence's Maysville Pictures. A number of scripts and revisions have been written for them and Universal since then, all by the top-notch young writer David Self (Thirteen Days, Road to Perdition, the upcoming Submariner.) Michael Mann (Heat, Ali, Collateral) was the director attached, but two summers ago he and the studio parted company over--that fateful phrase--creative differences."

The big news, of course, is the upcoming release of "300" from Warner Bros., adapted from a graphic novel by Frank Miller. The second-most-asked question we get on this site is, "Is there any connection between your book and the '300' movie?" The answer is no; they're completely different projects.

We wish "300" the best of luck. They beat us out of the blocks fair and square. We hope it's a terrific movie!

Do you write on a computer? What is your writing schedule?

I write in a home office on a Dell laptop, with a second laptop that I copy everything to at the end of the day. I also keep disks of everything in the glove compartment of my car, to be sure I don't lose anything. But to be more exact, here's the first chapter from "The War of Art":

1. W H A T I D O
I get up, take a shower, have breakfast. I read the paper, brush my teeth. If I have phone calls to make, I make them. I've got my coffee now. I put on my lucky work boots and stitch up the lucky laces that my niece Meredith gave me. I head back to my office, crank up the computer. My lucky hooded sweatshirt is draped over the chair, with the lucky charm I got from a gypsy in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for onlyeight bucks in francs, and my lucky LARGO name tag that came from a dream I once had. I put it on. On my thesaurus is my lucky cannon that my friend Bob Versandi gave me from Morro Castle, Cuba. I point it toward my chair, so it can fire inspiration into me. I say my prayer, which is the Invocation of the Muse from Homer's Odyssey, translation by T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, that my deal mate Paul Rink gave me and which sits near my shelf with the cuff links that belonged to my father and my lucky acorn from the battlefield at Thermopylae. It's about ten-thirty now. I sit down and plunge in. When I start making typos, I know I'm getting tired. That's four hours or so. I've hit the point of diminishing returns. I wrap for the day. Copy whatever I've done to disk and stash the disk in the glove compartment of my truck in case there's a fire and I have to run for it. I power down. It's three,three-thirty. The office is closed. How many pages have I produced? I don't care. Are they any good? I don't even think about it. All that matters is I've put in my time and hit it with all I've got. All that counts is that, for this day, for this session, I have overcome Resistance.

Are you a classically-trained scholar or professor?

I'm a psych major from Duke; while I was there, I took one course on the Iliad and the Odyssey and got a D. So ... no.

I'm an amateur classicist in the Latin-root sense of "ama-" (love), someone who does it just because he loves it. I'm just like the people who read my books. I love that ancient stuff.

How I got hooked was, I was visiting a friend in Vermont about twenty years ago and we were rained-out for a week, with nothing to do but stay indoors and read. My friend had a book on his shelf called The Life of Greece by Will and Ariel Durant. It was a compendium of Plato, Xenophon, Sophocles, you name it. It grabbed me. I couldn't put it down. Over the next twenty years, I found myself buying various Penguin Classics paperbacks, again just for fun, with no concept that I would ever even talk about them with anyone else (what kind of deranged individual would be interested?) and certainly with no notion of WRITING about them.

When I started on Gates of Fire of course everything changed. I had to turn pro and start seriously researching. I've probably turned myself into an unofficial triple Ph.D. by now, but, to answer the question ... No, I'm not classically trained and not a professor.

What is it about ancient Greece that captures your imagination? Why are you drawn to it?

Real true answer: I don't know. Maybe I lived there in a previous life. I'm not being facetious; I believe in that stuff. One thing that strikes me about writers of historical fiction (and some readers too) is they're not hooked on every historical era or just any historical era. They're intrigued by a very specific time and place. Some people love the Civil War. Ancient Egypt. Patrick O'Brian's Napoleonic Wars. For myself, much as I love all things Greek, I'm not particularly interested in things Roman. Why? Who knows?

If I'm pressed to really think about the question, I would answer that what appeals to me about the ancient world as opposed to the modern is that the ancient world was pre-Christian, pre-Freudian, pre-Marxist, pre-consumerist, pre-reductivist. It was grander, it was nobler, it was simpler. You didn't have the notion of turn-the-other-cheek. You had Oedipus but you didn't have the Oedipus complex. It was political but it was not politically correct. It's refreshing. The first time I read Thucydides I felt like a fresh breeze had blown into the room. At last someone was giving me human nature without the bullshit. I find almost all the works of the ancient age to be like that. From Aeschylus' "Agamemnon":

And even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom, by the awful grace of God.

You ain't gonna find that in any work written in our era. (And that's in translation; imagine how great the original must be.) You won't find it anywhere in the last two thousand years except in Shakespeare, Milton and Dante. Or this from Thucydides:

To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one's unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.
(Translation by Rex Warner)

At least that's how it rings to me. I find the ancient conception of who we are and why we do what we do much closer to reality than any modern interpretation or explanation.

Our age has been denatured. The heroic has been bled out of it. The callings of the past--the profession of arms, the priesthood, the medical and legal professions, politics, the arts, journalism, education, even motherhood and fatherhood--every one has been sullied and degraded by scandal after scandal. We're hard up for heroes these days, and even harder up for conceiving ourselves in that light. That's why I'm drawn to the ancient world. It's truer, in my view, to how we really are. The ancient world has not been reductified and deconstructed as ours has; it has not been robbed of all dignity. They had heroes then. There was such a thing, truly, as the Heroic Age. Men like Achilles and Leonidas really did exist. There was such a thing, truly, as heroic leadership. Alexander the Great did not command via satellite or remote control; he rode into battle at the head of his Companion cavalry; he was the first to strike the foe.

The ancient world may have been as corrupt as our own, in fact it was probably more so, but the corruption (perhaps because of the distance we have from it now) wasn't as horrifying. Yes, entire populations were slaughtered, but the numbers were hundreds or thousands not millions, and those who did it didn't have machine guns or Xyclon-D. The weapons of the ancient world were not capable of mass destruction and they weren't capable of killing at great distances. If a politician wanted to shoot his mouth off about going to war, there was a good chance he'd find himself on the front lines in-person, as the Athenian orator Demosthenes did against Philip at Chaeronea (where he chucked his shield and ran like hell), and when he got there, the fighting was hand-to-hand, not push-button at remote ranges. You had to put your money where your mouth was in the ancient world. People actually lived life; they didn't experience it vicariously via television and video games.

The ancient world was more on a human scale. It was smaller and simpler. It was possible to grasp as a whole, and to learn from. Thucydides, writing of his own World War:

It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same way, be repeated in the future.
(tr. Rex Warner)

People in the ancient world were different from you and me. But not that different. Does the following description, again from Thucydides, of the Athenian "national character" sound like any people we know?

They are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution... they are never at home... for they hope by their absence to extend their acquisitions... their idea of a holiday is to do what the occasion demands, and to them laborious occupation is less of a misfortune than the peace of a quiet life. To describe their character in a word, one might truly say that they were born into the world to take no rest and to give none to others.
(tr. Richard Crawley)

How long does it take you to write a book?

About two years for the historical novels. "Bagger Vance" took four months. "War of Art" came gushing out in two months.

How much research do you do on your novels and how do you do it?

I don't use the Internet. Probably I'm an idiot but I've never been able to figure it out. I go to the library (the Young Research Library at UCLA) and go back in the stacks. I take out five books at a time (the limit) and bring them home and read them. I copy passages over by hand. I read books three, four and five times. If I can, I buy them. The Loeb Library series from Harvard University Press is my bible.

I make files. The book I'm working on now is about Alexander the Great. I have seventy-six files, some one paragraph, some forty pages long. I have files on Macedonian geography, the Macedonian army, Names of Commanders, Wounds Suffered by Alexander, Months of the Year in the Macedonian Calendar, Tribes of Thrace, Royal Roads of the Persian Empire, etc. Sometimes you can lift passages that you've written to yourself for your files and use them in the finished book with a little tinkering.

I love maps. I have a bazillion of them. I make my own.

I travel. I go to the places. It's often disappointing because the landscape has changed so much (since I'm usually researching stuff that's 2500 years old) but you can still get something from it. I like to go to places at night. I believe in ghosts. You can get a feeling from a place. At Delphi I was absolutely convinced that Apollo was still there. Jesus hadn't even made a dent.

I love footnotes. Stuff that you find between the lines is always the most interesting. There are some tremendous scholars out there, and their footnotes are a gold mine.

Bibliographies. I use one book to lead me to another. It works.

I do something I call "parallel research." There's practically nothing on ancient Amazons. But I knew that they were a horse culture (or I was going to depict them that way) so I researched horse cultures. I read everything on the Sioux and the Comanche and the Cheyenne--and as much about the ancient Scythians as I could find.

I believe in stealing. I steal everything I can find. Lawrence Olivier once said,

Mediocre artists borrow.
Great artists steal--and make better.

Of course if you steal, you have to remember to give credit to whom you stole it from.

What is "mastering the material?"

It's the first job for a writer of historical fiction (or non-fiction) or any period piece. He has to get a handle on the era he's going to tackle, the characters, the events, the chronology, the technology, everything that goes into "what it was like back then." Sometimes this can take years. I've been doing research for the book I'm working on now, about Alexander, for a year and a half solid and I'm just now starting to get a sense of it. I've read the same material over and over, treated by various writers, ancient and modern, trying to get my feet to touch bottom. There's no way to avoid it. A writer can't do anything until he knows the material. If you're writing contemporary fiction, you're cool. You already know what a Chevy is and what a cheeseburger is. You know your characters because you're making them up. But in historical fiction, you have to find out how a certain cannon fired, or what a love letter looked like in the court of Louis XIV. And you have to get a sense of the true historical characters. You can't just make them up. You have to be true, within reason, to who they were. But that itself is a monstrous undertaking. Who was Napoleon?. Who was Mata Hari? In the end of course you're gonna make it up, because no one knows. In the end you're gonna project your own prejudices onto the characters and make them your own for your own purposes. But first you have to know, as much as it is possible to know, who they really were.

What is your process for writing historical fiction?

Here's how it goes for me: first something grabs me. A quote. A true historical incident. Something captures my imagination. Usually I don't know why. Sometimes I write the whole book before I figure out why. But that's the toehold, that's the beachhead.

Then I try to "master the material." I assimilate the true historical events, the true historical characters. I go over them and over them and over them until I feel comfortable, like I really know them. By now a sort of rough story is shaping up. I've got a general idea where it starts, what happens in the middle, and how it ends. Now comes the important part: the theme.

What is the story about? What is its subject? In "Tides of War," for example, it took me the whole period of writing it before I realized that the theme was jealousy. The pernicious envy that arises in a democracy when one of its members rises too far above the others--and the way that envy causes the democracy to tear down, with gusto, the leaders it has just set up.

That was what evolved for me out of the material of the Peloponnesian War. Twenty other writers would have evolved twenty different themes. But that was my theme. That was what was interesting to me. I saw how the Athenian democracy repeatedly elevated its most talented politicians and generals--Themistocles, Aristides, Miltiades, Cimon, Pericles, Alcibiades--and then tore them all down (exiling them or condemning them to death, or both), and in the process destroyed itself by stripping itself of its most capable leaders. At the height of the war, when Athens was hanging on by its fingernails and needed every able leader it could find, it became caught up in an irrational frenzy and, contrary to law, tried, convicted and sentenced to death its ten leading generals. Can we see something like that in our own democracy? There seems to be something (I began to grasp as my theme) about a society in which everyone is "created equal" that doesn't like to see one guy become a big shot. There is a dark element, an unconscious perversity in the soul of a democracy, that loves to set heroes up and loves even more to tear them down.

What happens after you have the theme?

Next: character and structure. Both evolve out of the theme. The central character embodies the theme. The protagonist. Around him are constellated supporting characters, each of whom embodies one aspect of the theme. Against him stands an antagonist, who embodies the counter-theme. Here is where the book characters start to diverge from the true historical figures. Now the writer alters them to serve the theme. He takes liberties. That's part of the game. I remind myself, when I get twinges of guilt, that when Shakespeare wrote "Julius Caesar," he was not trying to produce a bio of the big guy. He was writing a play that had a theme and had characters. Hopefully the theme arises organically from the material and is true to it. But if it doesn't, that's okay too.

Robert McKee, the great writing teacher (and a friend of mine) tells a story about meeting Paddy Chayefsky. Paddy Chayefsky told him that as soon as he figures out what the theme of a play he's writing is, he types it out in one short phrase or sentence and tapes it to the front of his typewriter. After that, he said, nothing goes into that play that doesn't arise directly out of that theme.

Historical fiction, as I see it, isn't some kind of fun-park excursion back into a period in the past. It's just like pure fiction; only it uses either true historical characters or fictional historical characters. At its best, the era and the characters work to illuminate not only a theme that's true to their time, but to our contemporary era as well.

Then the past truly does illuminate the present.

Which book of yours is your own favorite?

Oddly enough, the book I like most is the one readers like least--Tides of War. It's by far the most ambitious, the most complex, and the one with the most disturbing theme. The characters are complex and contradictory; their motivations are ambiguous and sometimes obscure. They're not necessarily likeable. The era is one of disillusion and corruption--the Fall of Athens. And it has three of my favorite characters, the soldier-assassin Polemides, the mercenary Telamon, and the brilliant renegade Alcibiades.

It also has some passages that I still love--and you know that very rarely happens with writers. What can I say? Nobody liked it but me.

A lady named Amy Lamphier wrote to me. She said, 'In Gates of Fire your write about people not as most really are but as you wish they would be. People who are courageous, honorable and seductively noble. Conversely, in Tides of War you describe people as most unfortunately are, petty, jealous, fractious and factious, eager to tear down anyone who rises even slightly above."

I learned something about writing for an audience. People like the former kind of stories and don't like the latter. I can understand that. It's a tough world we all live in and inspirational themes give us some sustenance; they help us in our private struggles.

But a writer has to go where the Muse takes him, and he has to address issues that grab him, even if readers ain't gonna like it.

So that's my own favorite: Tides of War.

You are a screenwriter as well as a novelist. Which do you prefer and why?

In movies, the saying goes, the writer is the bottom of the totem pole. In books, the writer IS the totem pole.

That's not to say that screenwriting isn't fun--at least the writing part (as opposed to the revising to satisfy the studio's notes part). Screenwriting is a much more severe discipline. A screenwriter doesn't have the tools that a book writer has. He can't go inside his characters' heads. He can't explain. He can't get off on Dennis Miller-type rants. And he can't rely on the brilliance of the prose. Words count in movies, but movies really aren't about words. They're about pictures. The screenwriter writes in pictures. Or, more exactly, in pictures juxtaposed with words.

Movies are subtext. Meaning it's not what the character says (text), it's what his face and body language communicate as he's saying it (subtext.) The greater the contrast between text and sub-text, the better the writing. There can be no subtext in book writing because we can't see the character's faces. As the detective says, "Sure, I trust ya, doll," we can't see his hand reaching for his .357.

Movies are structure, as William Goldman famously declared. Because they're experienced by the audience in one continuous ninety-minute or two-hour glump, movies have to have a rhythm that builds and backs off, builds and backs off and builds again. Movies mount to a climax. They have to, or we'd fall asleep in our seats. Movies are not like books that you can pick up and put down. They're like prizefights or bouts of sex. They start with a "hook," then they "turn" the hook; they build, they have themes and variations on themes, they twist and turn and then they hit the climax at the very end. The writer's challenge in structuring a movie is not what information to give the audience; it's what information NOT to give them. How long does he withhold Fact A? When does he reveal Twist B? And that's not even talking about character or motive or point of view. It's really hard. Very few can do it, and I don't include myself in their number.

Do you read manuscripts from aspiring writers?

No. Absolutely not. Three reasons. One, I don't have the time. Who does? Two, my lawyer won't let me. (Here's why: suppose I'm working on a new book about Alexander the Great. One day a manuscript shows up in my mailbox. I'm a nice guy, I open it: it's about Alexander. Now the person who sent me the manuscript can sue me for plagiarism. This actually almost happened to me.)

Reason three is that it's harmful to the writer of the manuscript. It's a form of Resistance. To send off a manuscript to an established writer is a form of Resistance. In essence the sender is saying: "I'm an amateur. I have no concept of professionalism. I have no respect for you, Mr. Writer, or your valuable time. I'm selfish. I'm lazy. I surrender my personal power to you, who I don't even know (and in truth don't give a damn about) because I haven't got the guts to pursue this work through legitimate channels."

Think about it. What kind of crappy, selfish stunt is it anyway? Do you really imagine that Stephen King is going to stop what he's doing with his work, his family, his life, and sit down for ten hours to read your stuff? Then what? He's gonna phone you up and say how much he loves it and how he wants to take it to his agent and sponsor it personally and make you famous?

If you want to send a manuscript, send it to an agent. And send a letter first, asking permission. Launch it into the real world of cold-blooded commercial response, not into the fantasyland of wishful thinking, cowardice and surrender to Resistance.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers and novelists?

Three steps.

First, take Robert McKee's three-day course: Story. He gives it in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Dallas, London, everywhere. Check his website, www.mckeestory.com.

Second, read my book, "The War of Art."

Third, sit down and do it and don't quit no matter what.

P.S. If you do Step Three, you can skip One and Two.

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Gates of Fire
The War of Art
The Authentic Swing
The Lion's Gate
Turning Pro
The Profession
The Warrior Ethos
Do The Work
Tides of War
The Afghan Campaign
The Virtues of War
Killing Rommel
Last of the Amazons
The Legend of Bagger Vance
Additional Reading
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