Steve's All Is Lost Moment, 1974

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Working on Two Tracks

By Steven Pressfield
Published: March 22, 2017

 

When we finish any work of art or commerce and expose it to judgment in the real world, three things can happen:

  1. Everybody loves it.
  2. Everybody hates it.
  3. Nobody notices that it even exists.

    The value of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" went from zero in 1889 to $39.9 million in 1987, the equivalent of $74M today.

    The value of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” went from zero in 1889 to $39.9 million in 1987, the equivalent of $74M today.

[Continuing our exploration of the Professional Mindset, let me repurpose this post that first ran about four years ago.]

All three present you and me as writers and artists with major emotional challenges, and all three drive deep into the most profound questions of life and work.

It will not surprise you, I suspect, if I say that all three responses are impostors. None of them is real, and none should be taken to heart by a writer or artist working from the Professional Mindset.

When we labor in any field that combines art and commerce, we’re working on two tracks.

Track One, the Muse Track, represents our work in its most authentic, true-to-itself and true-to-our-own-heart expression.

Track Two, the Commercial Track, represents the response our work gets in the marketplace. In other words, points 1-2-3 above.

Track Two counts for putting bread on the table and getting our kids through college.

Track One counts for our artistic soul.

The problem with Track Two is it also represents the siren song of riches and fame, or at least applause and recognition in the real world.

Two weeks ago my friend Paul finished writing a TV pilot. It was the first time he had completed a project from FADE IN to THE END. He turned it in to a friend who is a serious producer and who was anxious to see it. Almost immediately Paul’s spirits went over a cliff.

He became depressed, anxious, irritable. He couldn’t sleep. He stopped working. He was waiting to hear his producer friend’s response.

In other words, Paul let himself get sucked over onto Track Number Two, the Commercial Track.

Hollywood (or any big-buzz field like music, publishing, games, software) is a Rorschach test for the soul.

Can we keep our focus where it should be? Can we find our real self and stand up for it? The dream of success/glamour/megabucks is like dark matter. It exerts a gravitational pull that’s so strong it can haul even the best us down into a black hole.

What’s the antidote?

The antidote is remaining grounded on Track Number One. There’s nothing wrong with success. I hold no beef with cashing a check or getting a parking place with your name on it. But don’t confuse Track #1 with Track #2.

While Paul was pacing his living room wondering if he could really kill himself by leaping out a second-story window, the real truth of his situation was this:

He had completed his first serious full-length piece of work.

He had shipped.

He had delivered.

His creative momentum was high.

The Muse was with him.

On Track #1, Paul was rolling!

My advice to Paul (which he did not heed, by the way) was to start another project immediately. In fact Paul was already working on Project #2. But he had stopped.

Why is it so important to keep working?

Because when we finish a project and wait around breathlessly to learn the world’s response to it, we have planted our butts squarely on Track #2. Track #2 means evaluating our work and defining our artistic selves by the opinion of others. (What Shawn calls 3PV, Third Party Validation.)

Nothing good ever came from 3PV. Even success can be bad, viewed through the prism of 3PV. How many people have won Oscars in one year, only to vanish into rehab the next? And failure? Ask Van Gogh how that worked out for him.

And yet: how was Vincent doing on Track #1? He was red-hot. True, a century ahead of his time, but still smokin’ hot.

The ideal position for an artist of authenticity is when Track #1 and Track #2 coincide. When he is working his real stuff—and that stuff finds a welcome in the wider world.

When an artist’s voice is true enough to his own heart and authentic enough to his own vision, Track #1 pulls Track #2 over to it. Bruce Springsteen. Bob Dylan. Hunter S. Thompson.

But we lose our way when we overvalue Track #2 at the expense of Track #1. “Sunflowers” was just as great in 1889, when Van Gogh couldn’t give it away, as it was in 1987 when it sold for $39.9 million.

Whatever Track #2 fate awaits Paul’s pilot, he knocked it out of the park on Track #1.


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The Warrior Ethos

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

The Warrior Ethos was written for our men and women in uniform, but its utility, I hope, will not be limited to the sphere of literal armed conflict. We all fight wars--in our work, within our families, and abroad in the wider world. Each of us struggles every day to define and defend our sense of purpose and integrity, to justify our existence on the planet and to understand, if only within our own hearts, who we are and what we believe in.

We are all warriors. Do we fight by a code? If so, what is it? What is the Warrior Ethos? How do we (and how can we) use it and be true to it in our internal and external lives?

From the Introduction by Steven Pressfield.

[The following is from chapter 12 of The Warrior Ethos:]

12. HOW THE SPARTANS BECAME THE SPARTANS

All warrior cultures start with a great man.

In ancient Sparta, that man was Lycurgus. He took the city from a normal society to a warrior culture.

So that no man would have grounds to feel superior to another, Lycurgus divided the country into 9000 equal plots of land. To each family he gave one plot. Further, he decreed that the men no longer be called "citizens," but "peers" or "equals."

So that no man might compete with another or put on airs over wealth, Lycurgus outlawed money. A coin sufficient to purchase a loaf of bread was made of iron, the size of a man's head and weighing over thirty pounds. So ridiculous was such coinage that men no longer coveted wealth but pursued virtue instead.

Lycurgus outlawed all occupations except warrior. He decreed that no name could be inscribed on a tombstone except that of a woman who died in childbirth or a man killed on the battlefield. A Spartan entered the army at eighteen and remained in service till he was sixty; he regarded all other occupations as unfitting for a man.

Once a Spartan was visiting Athens. His Athenian host threw a banquet in his honor. Wishing to show off for his guest, the Athenian indicated several illustrious personages around the table. "That man there is the greatest sculptor in Greece," he declared, "and that gentleman yonder is its finest architect." The Spartan indicated a servant from his own entourage. "Yes," he said, "and that man there makes a very tasty bowl of soup."

The Athenians, of course, were outstanding warriors in their own right. The great playwright Aeschylus, composing his own epitaph, mentioned nothing of his ninety plays or of any other civilian accomplishment.

Here lies Aeschylus the Athenian. Of his courage at the battle of Marathon, the long- haired Persian could speak much.

Lycurgus decreed that no man under thirty could eat dinner at home with his family. Instead, he instituted "common messes" of fourteen or fifteen men who were part of the same platoon or military unit. Above the threshold of each mess was a sign that said:

Out this door, nothing.

The point of the common mess was to bind the men together as friends. "Even horses and dogs who are fed together," observed Xenophon, "form bonds and become attached to one another."

The payoff came, of course, on the battlefield.

Here's how Spartans got married. Lycurgus wanted to encourage passion, because he felt that a child—a boy— conceived in heat would make a better warrior. So a young Spartan husband could not live with his bride (he spent all day training and slept in the common mess). If the young couple were to consummate their love, the husband had to sneak away from his messmates, then slip back before his absence was discovered.

It was not uncommon for a young husband to be married for four or five years and never see his bride in daylight, except during public events and religious festivals.

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