My Kind of Barbarian

Where do ideas come from? (I don’t mean the shower–or while we’re driving on the Taconic Parkway.) What is the source of creativity? Where did the iPad come from, or the Eiffel Tower, or Nude Descending A Staircase?

Here’s Robert E. Howard, who created the Conan the Barbarian series:

How did this guy pop into Robert E. Howard's head?

While I don’t go as far as to believe that stories are inspired by actually existent spirits or powers (though I am rather opposed to flatly denying anything), I have sometimes wondered if it were possible that unrecognized forces of the past or present—or even the future—work through the thoughts and actions of living men.

This occurred to me, especially, when I was writing the first stories of the Conan series. For months I had been absolutely barren of ideas, completely unable to work up anything salable. Then the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen—or rather, off my typewriter—almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred.  Episode crowded episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them.
For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan. The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of storytelling. When I deliberately tried to write something else, I couldn’t do it. I do not attempt to explain this by esoteric or occult means, but the fact remains. I still write of Conan more powerfully and with more understanding than any of my other characters.

"Conan, what is best in life?

If you’ve read The War of Art, you know that I don’t share Mr. Howard’s reluctance on this subject; I won’t hesitate to explain the phenomenon “by esoteric or occult means.” I just won’t call them esoteric or occult. They are, in my experience, nothing more than how creativity works every day.

We as artists or entrepreneurs work with unseen forces. Ideas are our medium. I’ve often envied lumbermen or miners or farmers. Their products are so–tangible. Alas, we in the creative fields work inside our heads. Songs and stories and software. How do we get this stuff? Where do we go to dig it up? If we were looking for oil or diamonds or russet potatoes, we’d know what to do. But where does Twyla Tharp go for the idea for her next show?

The Muses were nine sisters, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Memory.) Their names were Thalia, Erato, Clio, Euterpe, Calliope, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Melpomene and Urania. Each one was in charge of a different art or science. It was the Muses’ task to inspire artists.

The cliche of the Muse whispering in the poet’s ear may sound far-fetched. But isn’t that exactly the interchange that Robert E. Howard described above? And haven’t we all had that same experience in one form or another?

When the ancient Greeks ran up against a phenomenon they couldn’t understand, they personified it. They gave it a human face and name and they called it a god. Today we may offer a superior smile when we hear this stuff.  But were the Greeks wrong? Homer invoked the Muse. So did Plato and Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Xenophon and Aristophanes.  What have you and I written that rates being inside the same zip code?

The key to the ancients’ explanation of the source of creativity, in my view, is that they placed it on another plane. The realm of the gods. I believe it. Inspiration comes from someplace that you and I can’t buy a ticket to. Call it the Unmanifest, the future, Cosmic Consciousness, Never-Neverland, whatever.

But it’s only the explanation that sounds airy-fairy. The reality is quite down-to- earth. I wrote a post a while ago called What The Muse Wants. What I was trying to do was demystify the process. Not to rob it of wonder (it is a miracle after all, in that it defies all laws of material physics), but to suggest that the answer for us working stiffs may be as simple as aligning ourselves with the principles of the process, the way a sailboat skipper sets himself to work with the winds and tides and currents.

We can’t control the Muse. We can’t command her. But we can serve her, and we can invoke her. The qualities that I call “professionalism”–patience, hard work, perseverance, humility, drive, generosity, ambition, tough-mindedness and so forth–are simply those virtues that seek to please the Muse, to bring her out of her shell and get her to do a little whispering.

I’m trying to serve her. That’s my job. I’m attempting, like Robert E. Howard, to tap into a dimension beyond the material one we’re living in. Because that’s where Conan comes from–and he’s my kind of barbarian.

[Thanks to Scott Locklin for turning me on to the Robert E. Howard quote above.]


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  1. Elina Makri on April 14, 2010 at 4:17 am

    I am so happy to have found a writer who can actually tell about “those weird things”.
    There is some time (maybe years) before actually you have become an artist or an entrepreneur but you think of becoming one and you hear those voices and is so hard to explain to others what you are up to do …
    cheers from Athens

  2. Frank Reade on April 14, 2010 at 5:04 am

    Hey just a heads up — the link to the article “What the Muse Wants” (at the end) currently goes to the admin area of your site.

    • Steven Pressfield on April 14, 2010 at 11:03 am

      Oops, sorry … thanks for letting me know, Frank. I will try (!) to fix it.


  3. John Arends on April 14, 2010 at 6:32 am

    Tip of the cap on the word play on this this one, Mr. Pressfield. From the headline to last line payoff…most excellent stuff. Thank you!

  4. John Galt on April 14, 2010 at 7:32 am

    In case it saves you guys some time:

    What the muse wants

    Cheers –
    John G.

  5. Tassia on April 14, 2010 at 11:11 am

    I heartily agree with your take on the Muse, though I would add that artists honor and invoke Her with diligent work of their own.

    Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, for instance, was inspired by Muybridge’s Nude Descending a Staircase (I’ve seen an image of all the separate photographs of that motion study superimposed on one another and it looks very like the Duchamp work; I have no idea if Duchamp saw that superimposed image) and others.

    Some may say that disparages Duchamp’s talent or genius, but I believe it shows both the artist’s dedication to his art as well as the inspiration of that mysterious creative spirit.

    As a writer, I do believe in the ineffable mystery of creation, but I also believe that I have to do my part as well.

  6. David J. West on April 14, 2010 at 11:44 am

    Great post as always Mr. Pressfield, such savage joy hearing one of my favorite authors thoughts on another of my favorite authors and inspiration for creativity.

  7. Nik Bonopartis on April 14, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    Hey Largo!

    Two or three years ago you sent me a recommended reading list on classical Greece, particularly Sparta. I devoured Plutarch’s profiles and “Sayings” and tracked down as much as I could find on Brasidas, including his excellent speeches on his Attic campaign. Then I moved on to Epaminondas and the post- Spartan-hegemony period. And I even managed to track down an ancient copy of Will Durant’s “The Life of Greece.”

    Awesome stuff, and I sincerely appreciate you pointing me in the right direction.

    I wonder: At what point did you feel you were sufficiently engrossed in the topic to write authoritatively? And was there a point where thorough research started to come dangerously close to Resistance? How do you know when one bleeds into the other?



    • Steven Pressfield on April 16, 2010 at 3:05 pm

      Nik, here’s my answer: I know I’ve done enough research when I’m reading a book for research and I start finding errors. In other words, I know the stuff better than the guy who’s writing the book. It’s funny how that happens. You read the same material over and over, by a bunch of different authors, and then suddenly you realize you know it as well as they do. In a way, writing a historical book is like doing your own little Ph.D. It may be a short-term Ph.D., but it’s real.

      And yeah, research can definitely turn into Resistance. It’s a great excuse not to write. Here’s a post I did a few months ago that’s on this exact subject:

      Glad you followed through on “Sayings” and Brasidas. Great stuff!

  8. W. Ruth Kozak on April 14, 2010 at 10:21 pm

    I truly appreciate these posts and this one really had resonance with the way I feel or have experienced the presence of the Muse. Thanks again for your inspiration!

  9. Geoff Allemand on April 15, 2010 at 12:52 am

    Hello Mr Pressfield. I just received The War of Art in the post yesterday and thoroughly enjoying your thoughts about resistance. I am a teacher (in Australia) of disengaged teenagers who have left school or have been kicked out. They come to my unique class (based on Big Picture principles) because they still want to learn…just don’t like traditional school. Yet, they are plaqued with bad habits and attitudes and excuses etc to start learning. You state in your book, and rightly so, that Education of every kind elicits Resistance….my question to you is, do you have any advice for this teacher as to how best to fight this resistance that many teenagers have to start work on Learning?

  10. Vangile on April 15, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    Wow I really loved this post. I have wrote a blog post a few weeks ago exploring the inner voice and the role it plays in our lives:

  11. Vaughn Roycroft on April 16, 2010 at 7:10 am

    I’m a few days late here, but I have so strongly felt the presence of the Muse in my work, that I have to comment. I wasn’t aware of the phenomena when I first started writing. I was baffled by some characters emerging so fully formed, and others inchoate, and with difficulty. Over time, I even found that the themes and prominent story lines were not what I had originally envisioned in my outline. Then I read ‘The War of Art.’ I wholeheartedly embraced your thesis, and, through diligent labor devoted to Her, I have ‘discovered’ what my work is really about.

    I have you to thank, Steven. I may have allowed resistance to cause me to fight this process, and I know my art would have suffered. I just received the ultimate compliment from one of the pilot readers of my first novel. I’ve known this reader for years, and he told me that he was shocked that none of the charaters were “Anyone we know, and yet you know them so well.”

    Thanks again, to you, and to Her. Vaughn

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