Steven Pressfield Online

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.”


More >>

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
10 Comments

WAR STORIES

War Stories

Over thirty-plus years of reading and researching, I've compiled a wild and crazy library in my head. In this series, I want to share some of it--the arcane, the obscure, the occult. It'll be eclectic. The posts will bounce all over the place. I plan to feature stuff from Hemingway to Homer, from von Manstein to Moshe Dayan. Posts will come from movies and plays, myths and legends, from journalism and personal correspondence and combat reports. Not all of it will be "war stuff." But it will all deal with issues of honor and virtue and courage in the face of adversity. A lot of it will be real literature. All of it, I hope, will be inspiring.

I also want to invite everyone to chip in with their own stories. Write me at steve {at} stevenpressfield {dot} com. Suggest passages—1000 words or less—from favorite books. Or send in something you've written yourself. Tell us about a patrol in Kunar province, or a letter your Dad sent to you from Pleiku in 1969. If it's great, we'll run it.

RSS SUBSCRIBE to "War Stories."

DO THE WORK WEDNESDAYS

Do The Work Wednesdays

For a few weeks during April and May of 2011, I took a break from "Writing Wednesdays" and wrote "Do The Work Wednesdays" to accompany the launch of Do The Work.

THE WARRIOR ETHOS

What It Takes

"The Spartans do not ask how many are the enemy, but where are they?"
Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartans

These posts are intended for our men and women in uniform, but I hope that artists, entrepreneurs and other warriors in other walks of life will find them useful as well. The series examines the evolution of the warrior code of honor and "mental toughness." It goes back to the ancient Spartans and Athenians, to Caesar's Romans, Alexander's Macedonians and the Persians of Cyrus the Great (not excluding the Garden of Eden and the primitive hunting band). Sources include Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, Xenophon, Vegetius, Arrian and Curtius--and on down to Gen. George Patton, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, and Israeli Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan.

RSS SUBSCRIBE to "The Warrior Ethos."

WHAT IT TAKES

What It Takes

"What It Takes" is a journal of the campaign to make The Profession a New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller. You'll be in on the meetings, the marketing and publicity, what works and doesn't work—everything. Expect a play-by-play as the campaign unfolds.

RSS SUBSCRIBE to "What It Takes."

WRITING WEDNESDAYS

Writing Wednesdays

I wrote The War of Art primarily for writers (its original title was The Writer's Life), but since it was published in 2002, I've received hundreds of e-mails from business entrepreneurs, actors, dancers, painters, photographers, filmmakers, military service members and others, telling me how the book seemed to have been written specifically for them—and how much it has helped their creative and entrepreneurial endeavors. Sometimes the e-mails are short, a sentence or two of thanks. Other times they've been sagas, life-stories packed with more drama and heartbreak than a soap opera. I know exactly what these correspondents are talking about. Resistance kicks everybody's ass—and the desperate desire to defeat it is equally as universal. Writing Wednesdays is an ongoing, blog-version of The War of Art. It's the chapters I would have written if I'd kept on writing the book. Then there's the added dimension of the comments from readers. I always scroll down and take a look. Some of the insights are better than the post itself. "Why didn't I think of that?"

RSS SUBSCRIBE to "Writing Wednesdays."

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

The Creative Process

I always want to know more about the people behind the work I admire. How do they do it? What does the process feel like from inside their heads? Wouldn't it have been amazing to sit with Hemingway, the way he sat with Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein and others, to discuss writing? The Creative Process is a Q&A with a wide range of creative people—from writers to business entrepreneurs and beyond—probing how they do that thing they do.

RSS SUBSCRIBE to "The Creative Process."
Sign up for first look access.

Enter your email to get free access to every new thing I do.

No spam, I promise!

Gates of Fire
The War of Art
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
Video Blog