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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

“Find What You Love and Let It Kill You”

By Steven Pressfield
Published: August 26, 2015

This is my favorite of all the posts we’ve ever run on this site. (Mainly because it’s not written by me.) I read it every few months just to psych myself up. It’s an article written by English concert pianist James Rhodes that appeared originally in the Guardian (UK).

Why do I love Mr. Rhodes’ story of his bold move to change his life and become an artist?

1) Because James is a late bloomer. Much as I admire child prodigies, I hate them too because they found their calling so young and with so little agony. I like to see someone suffer before they find their way.

2) James’ saga illustrates the depth of passion that such a journey requires—and the depth of madness. (Note the casual allusion to “nine months in a mental hospital.”)

3) James’ does not romanticize his life as an artist. No, he does not sail through the day whistling and grinning. And yes, the grind is still a grind. But he has gone from working for the Man to being the Man himself.

James Rhodes, my artistic hero

My life as a concert pianist can be frustrating, lonely, demoralising and exhausting. But is it worth it? Yes, without a shadow of a doubt

James Rhodes

Friday 26 April 2013

After the inevitable “How many hours a day do you practice?” and “Show me your hands”, the most common thing people say to me when they hear I’m a pianist is “I used to play the piano as a kid. I really regret giving it up.” I imagine authors have lost count of the number of people who have told them they “always had a book inside them”. We seem to have evolved into a society of mourned and misplaced creativity. A world where people have simply surrendered to (or been beaten into submission by) the sleepwalk of work, domesticity, mortgage repayments, junk food, junk TV, junk everything, angry ex-wives, ADHD kids and the lure of eating chicken from a bucket while emailing clients at 8pm on a weekend.

Do the math. We can function—sometimes quite brilliantly—on six hours’ sleep a night. Eight hours of work was more than good enough for centuries (oh the desperate irony that we actually work longer hours since the invention of the internet and smartphones). Four hours will amply cover picking the kids up, cleaning the flat, eating, washing and the various etceteras. We are left with six hours. 360 minutes to do whatever we want. Is what we want simply to numb out and give Simon Cowell even more money? To scroll through Twitter and Facebook looking for romance, bromance, cats, weather reports, obituaries and gossip? To get nostalgically, painfully drunk in a pub where you can’t even smoke?

What if you could know everything there is to know about playing the piano in under an hour (something the late, great Glenn Gould claimed, correctly I believe, was true)? The basics of how to practise and how to read music, the physical mechanics of finger movement and posture, all the tools necessary to actually play a piece – these can be written down and imparted like a flat-pack furniture how-to-build-it manual; it then is down to you to scream and howl and hammer nails through fingers in the hope of deciphering something unutterably alien until, if you’re very lucky, you end up with something halfway resembling the end product.

What if for a couple of hundred quid you could get an old upright on eBay delivered? And then you were told that with the right teacher and 40 minutes proper practice a day you could learn a piece you’ve always wanted to play within a few short weeks. Is that not worth exploring?

What if rather than a book club you joined a writer’s club? Where every week you had to (really had to) bring three pages of your novel, novella, screenplay and read them aloud?

What if, rather than paying £70 a month for a gym membership that delights in making you feel fat, guilty and a world away from the man your wife married you bought a few blank canvases and some paints and spent time each day painting your version of “I love you” until you realised that any woman worth keeping would jump you then and there just for that, despite your lack of a six-pack?

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.

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.
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The Legend of Bagger Vance

Memorable . . . a page-turner . . . golf played a foot from Alice's looking glass, with mystical realms poised to engulf the reader at every turn . . . Bagger Vance is a success, climbing to an uplifting conclusion on a well-constructed scaffold of suspense.
—Sports Illustrated
Golf and mysticism . . . a dazzler and a thought-provoker.
—The Los Angeles Times
BUY THE BOOK: Hardcover | Paperback

In the Depression year of 1931, on the golf links at Krewe Island off Savannah's windswept shore, two legends of the game, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, meet for a mesmerizing thirty-six-hole showdown. Another golfer will also compete—a troubled local war hero, once a champion, who comes with his mentor and caddie, the mysterious Bagger Vance. Sage and charismatic, it is Vance who will ultimately guide the match, for he holds the secret of the Authentic Swing. And he alone can show his protégé the way back to glory.

[This first passage is from the book's very beginning.]

A NOTE TO THE READER

In May of 1931 an exhibition match was held over 36 holes between the two greatest golfers of their day, Walter Hagen and Robert Tyre "Bobby" Jones, Jr. The match was the second and last between the two immortals (Hagen shelled Jones, 12 and 11 over 72 holes, at the first in Sarasota, Florida in 1926.) This second match was held at what was, at the time, the most costly and ambitious golf layout ever built in America, the Links at Krewe Island, Georgia.

Much has been written about the rather odd events of that long day. We have Grantland Rice's dispatches to the New York Tribune, which were published at that time. The notes and diaries of O.B. Keeler devote several quite absorbing pages to the match. And of course the reports from the dozens of newspapers and sporting journals which covered the event.

One aspect of that day, however, has been largely overlooked, or rather treated as a footnote, an oddity or sideshow. I refer to the inclusion in the competition, at the insistence of the citizens of Savannah, of a local champion, who in fact held his own quite honorably with the two golfing titans.

I was fortunate enough to witness that match, aged ten, from the privileged and intimate vantage of assisting the local champion's caddie. I was present for many of the events leading up to the day, for the match itself, as well as certain previously unrecorded adventures in its aftermath.

For many years, it has been my intention to commit my memory of these events to paper. However, a long and crowded career as a physician, husband, and father of six has prevented me from finding the time I felt the effort deserved.

In candor, another factor has made me reluctant to make public these recollections. That is the rather fantastical aspect of a number of the events of that day. I was afraid that a true accounting would be misinterpreted or, worse, disbelieved. The facts, I feared, would either be discounted as the product of a ten-year-old's overactive imagination or, when perceived as the recollections of a man past seventy, be dismissed as burnished and embellished reminiscences whose truth has been lost over time in the telling and retelling.

The fact is, I have never told this story. Portions I have recounted to my wife in private; fragments have been imparted on specific occasion to my children. But I have never retold the story, to others or even to myself, in its entirety.

Until recently, that is. Attempting to counsel a troubled young friend, for whom I felt the tale might have significance, I passed an entire night, till sunrise, recounting the story verbally. It made such a profound impression on my young friend that I decided at last to try my hand at putting it down in written form.

This volume is that attempt.

I have chosen, for reasons which will become apparent, to tell the tale much as I recounted it that night. It is a story of a type of golfer, and a type of golf, which I fear has long since vanished from the scene. But I intend this record not merely as an exercise in reminiscence or nostalgia. For the events of that day had profound and far-reaching consequences on me and on others who participated, particularly the local champion referred to above.

His name was Rannulph Junah, and Bagger Vance was his caddie.

Hardison L. Greaves, M.D.
Savannah, Georgia
May, 1995

"The Legend of Bagger Vance is such an entertaining book on the surface you hardly realize you are being taught some of life's greatest truths. Pressfield has seamlessly brought together that rare combination of fun and enlightenment in a novel that seems destined to take its place alongside some of the great works in golf literature."
—Links Magazine
"The Legend of Bagger Vance is quite simply the best golf novel I have ever read, but it is so much more than that. We all know that the true game is played against one's inner self. Steven Pressfield has captured the essence of that battle better than any of his predecessors. I was utterly riveted by this work of art, and literally covered with goose bumps for many hours until I had finished it at a single sitting."
—Ben Wright, author of Good Bounces and Bad Lies and The Spirit of Golf
"Truly a delight. Even now when I play in professional tournaments I think of the positive effect Bagger Vance had on everyone associated with him. He will be with me for many years to come."
—Patty Sheehan, Solheim Cup captain and member of LPGA Hall of Fame
"Pure magic! I read it straight through in one sitting. It should be required reading for anyone who loves the game and has a sense of its history and mystery."
—Deane Beman, former Commissioner of the PGA Tour
"The Field of Dreams of golf . . . the only golf novel ever written that earns 'couldn't put it down' accolades. This is a book that will remain with readers for a while, and will certainly emerge every time they step on a golf course."
—Book Page
"Memorable . . . a page-turner . . . golf played a foot from Alice's looking glass, with mystical realms poised to engulf the reader at every turn . . . Bagger Vance is a success, climbing to an uplifting conclusion on a well-constructed scaffold of suspense."
—Sports Illustrated
"Good stuff . . . a philosophical fantasy imagined on a golf course, heavy with fog, storm, fireworks and howling winds of supernatural forces."
—The New York Times Book Review
"Golf and mysticism . . . a dazzler and a thought-provoker."
—The Los Angeles Times
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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
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