Why I Don’t Speak
Each day I get one or two invitations to speak at events or conferences. People have read The War of Art, and the concepts of Resistance and “turning pro” have struck a chord. They’d like to hear more; they’d like to see who I am in-person.
Maybe they’re seeking “inspiration” or “motivation” for their group or association. All the invitations are proffered out of respect and in the most generous and elevated spirit. They’re well-intentioned; the groups themselves sound interesting and fun; and I certainly appreciate the thought behind all of them. Some even come with offers of significant remuneration. But I say no every time.
If I wrote a book on the subject of self-sabotage, shouldn’t I be open, even eager, to speak about it? What’s the difference? Speaking and writing are the same thing, aren’t they?
No, they’re not.
There’s a type of communion that happens between a writer and a reader within the pages of a book that cannot be replicated in a public setting—at least not a large-scale one. In fact, the large-scale setting by its very nature corrupts and deforms the meaning of the material.
I wrote The War of Art in book form for two reasons:
1. So I wouldn’t have to talk about it, and
2. Because book format was, in my view, the only appropriate way to deliver this material to the individual who might profit by being exposed to it.
Writer-to-reader is private and intimate. It’s soul-to-soul. If I’m sitting on an airplane reading War and Peace, I’m in Russia, I’m with Natasha and Pierre, I’m with Tolstoy. As I read, I may start to cry. I might read a passage that changes my life. The passenger next to me reading Zen and the Art of Archery is in another universe as well. I can’t enter his sphere and he can’t enter mine. We’re sitting side by side but each of us is immersed in a private and intimate communion with other thoughts and other beings.
The material in The War of Art is serious stuff. In the pages of that book I’m confessing some of the darkest hours and most shameful failures of my life. But more than that, I’m holding these moments up to the reader, who no doubt has experienced the same in her own life, as a means of confronting her and making her face her own shit. I don’t know how to do that in a public setting, and I wouldn’t want to try. It’s too private. It’s too personal.
The War of Art says to the reader, “Is this you? Do you recognize yourself in these pages? Because if you do, the train you’re on is heading over a cliff and you’d better either jump off or get that locomotive to stop.”
I don’t know how to say that to a roomful of people I don’t know, most of whom have not read the book, have no clue who I am, and are just in the hall because their boss told them to be. This is not to say that there haven’t been occasions when things worked out. I spoke to a class of actors once, where everyone was on the same page and the evening came together beautifully. But nine times out of ten the experience is excruciating. And the worst part is that nobody profits. I waste my time. Nobody gets the message. Ships pass in the night and no one’s life is affected in the slightest.
In the privacy between the covers of a book, on the other hand, I can address the reader in a voice that’s absolutely brutal without being unkind. Only the reader herself knows what she has just read. She can accept it or reject it. No one sees her discomfort (if indeed that’s what she feels.) The moment is hers alone. Not even I know what she’s thinking. What I do know is that, if at any moment the material is failing to connect with the reader or she concludes that it is without worth to her, she is free to chuck the damn book into the trash. I like that. I like knowing I’m not imposing my ideas and I’m not stealing anyone’s time.
When I speak, I don’t know that. The audience is trapped, and so am I. Their role is to receive and mine is to give. I have to entertain. I hate that. That’s not what this is about at all.
I also hate repeating myself. The subject of self-sabotage is too personal, and it’s too important. It’s life and death. I can’t deliver thirty-five minutes one afternoon in Boston and do it all over again the next day in New York. It’s depressing. It’s preposterous.
Then there’s the whole category of “motivation” or “motivational speaking.” Who was that character that Chris Farley played on SNL? I can’t be that. I don’t even want to think about it.
Are there any conditions under which I could speak on this subject in person? To two or three people. Maybe. And I wouldn’t even want to do that. I’ve done it with friends, staying up till two in the morning, and it never works even then.
A book is the only way. I’ve had letter after letter in which readers have told me they had The War of Art on their bedside table for months (usually recommended by a friend) without picking it up. Then finally they did. They were ready to hear what the book has to say.
That’s the only way it works.
Not on a schedule. Not as a planned event. And not in public.
Then there’s the final and ultimate reason why I don’t do speaking engagements (and why I do as few interviews as possible.)
I’m a writer.
I’m not a speaker.
Speaking is not my calling. It’s not my thing. I can do it, yeah, and sometimes even pull it off fairly well. But my heart is never in it. I’m not having fun. And when the event ends, even if there’s applause or heartfelt appreciation, I still can’t wait to get out of there.
I’m a writer. Speaking, for me, is a form of Resistance.
When I was lost and floundering in my own life, I experienced moments when wisdom was passed to me by others. Some were moments that changed my life. But those moments were always private and personal, often experienced in extreme circumstances, and almost always one-on-one.
No few of these moments came from books. Thank you, Henry Miller. Thank you, Walker Percy. Thank you, whoever wrote the King James Version. In the secret communion between writer and reader, soul-altering material was gifted to me, and I accepted it with gratitude. No one knew. Not even the writer. But he or she had imparted something seminal, and it changed me and saved me.
I got it from a real person or I got it from a book. I didn’t get it from somebody speaking. I’m sorry. I know people mean well and they’re trying to put together events that will aid and inspire members of their club or group or association.
But I can’t be the one to do the talking. Not on this subject. It’s too close to the bone, too intimate, too personal and too important. It ain’t me. I can’t do it.
speaking is also a kind of art and resistance tries to stop us from doing it, even using very strong arguments like these. or maybe i just missed a point.
…so very well said. I mean, er, um, written. Well written. I for one and endlessly appreciative of your decision to continue to share your wisdom. And while I enjoy listening, I prefer reading.
I think it all comes down to the fact that mr Pressfield is a writer, not a speaker, as he very well explained. Someone else might be a speaker, not a writer, and that be his art. J. Krishnamurti has been a speaker for almost a century, and has talked publicly on such matters. I’m glad I read The War of Art, and not have someone describe it to me, as much as I am glad I listened to Krishnamurti’s talks and not have them presented in a written philosophical structure. One has to know his art so that it may express the inexpressible.
what a wonderful confession. I too was pondering and reflecting on if it is worth to go out and speak about one’s art to strangers. After 3 years of putting my skin out there, I can tell that I totally agree with you. Most of the people don’t give a damn, you care, you sweat, you have wet eyes, you share your story, your pain, joys and yet no one can connect to it. At least not in the room full of delegates, who are there at you keynote speech, waiting for it to be over, so they can hit buffet.
Yes, sometimes you touch one or two people from the crowd with your talk, but again – is it worth it? All the travels, all the preparation? Hours spent on making slides, rehearsing, learning about your audience etc etc.
Thank you for this sincere post, Steven. It certainly moved my soul and made me reconsider what really really gets me into to the zone.
Hi Steven, the bravery of being as you wrote The War of Art is more brave than all the soldiers going to a real physical war. They are ready to die for their cause. You, on the other hand, explained how you “died” and how you resurrected at different times.
Thank you for being so brave because if you are thankful to Henry Miller and Walker Percy, I am thankful to you in the same manner.
One of the things I learned in your book, I’m not sure if it’s explicitly there, is that you have to be true to yourself – no matter what it takes. This is what you are doing in this post, by saying no to public speaking. I admire for that.
Keep on being true to your calling.
I think there are different ways of learning ideas, with reading and experiencing talks being two of them. I love ted.com because I love the way people share ideas through speaking. I loved watching Steve Jobs’ keynotes just to watch a master presenter. For me at least, one is not better than the other (reading versus listening); they’re just different. One advantage of a talk is that it happens in community, and therefore a good talk can be a unique, powerful emotional experience–a bit like the difference between reading a novel and going to a play. People who speak, however, should, I think, approach speaking with the care of a writer. Just showing up and talking is like publishing a first draft. But a well-crafted presentation, for me, can be a great learning experience.
As I understand, a message in a bottle heading to the
Smart to know one’s strengths and have the courage to say gracefully say no.
And frankly, after listening to ‘gifted’ speakers ranging from Tony Robbins to Jimmy Swaggert, I’m leary of the validity of any messages pushed in that medium.
Amen Steven. Please keep honoring your truth and doing what you do best–we need it.
Just had to say, I was listening to itunes on random while reading, and That’s Entertainment by The Jam came on. So fitting.
I agree, because I’ve even tried to verbally communicate some of the elements of War of Art to writer friends. Doesn’t work. Read the book, damnit.
There’s a lot of motivational happy talk on the Internet. I felt some of the interviews you were doing on the Web also glossed over the most poignant parts of War of Art and your life story. A sink full of dirty dishes, driving the cab. A Duke grad isn’t supposed to be living like that. The unspoken message of the book was more powerful than the happy talk demanded by the motivational crowd.
There can be a middle ground. I can watch speeches on TED.com, and it’s different than sitting in the audience. Watching a speech online is more like reading a book. It’s an intimate, one-on-one kind of thing.
Great thing I caught you with Seth Godin a while back as it was not you as a solo speaker, but still very very worthwhile and enjoyed it very much. http://themikejohnson.com/2010/02/22/seth-godin-and-steven-pressfield-at-borders-bookstore-nyc/
The older I get, the less I enjoy talking and the more I enjoy reading. This may be because I communicate verbally all day long at work and just want silence when I get home. I love words trapped on paper and to me, no speaker in the world can compete with that.
Well, I respect your decision and understand your reasons, but I still hope you come to the Texas Book Festival sometime! Your books have been a source both of pleasure and of education for me and I’d love to shake your paw.
Beautifully said and deeply appreciated. I think in future I’m just going to hand a copy of The War of Art to anybody I come across who is mired in Resistance and doesn’t realize it.
It’s not even the same if you stand up in front of a crowd and read what you’ve written. When I hear someone reading out loud, it doesn’t come close to engaging me as well as an open book in my hands. Silent reading allows me to stop and ponder a passage, I can go back and reread something or skip ahead, and I think that even the tactile experience of holding a book does something for me. (Something I think we’re losing with e-readers, by the way, but that’s another topic.) It’s why I’ve never been much for audio books.
Thanks for posting this. I’ve never particularly liked public speaking either.
Right. I don’t want to sell anybody. I want to think about things and write about them to frame the reality for myself. It is nice, very nice when someone else connects, but that has to be their own discovery.
Steven, I admire your honesty and your strong ability to be true to yourself and your calling.
I am a speaker more than a writer & that works for me, but I read your blog because you seem to engage with the gritty stuff of life, the ground-rock,and leave the froth & bubble and I like that! So thanks 🙂
Steven, this is my favorite piece you’ve written since I started following you about three weeks ago. It struck me on different levels. I was again reminded how powerfully and simply you write, getting to the point(s)without clutter. I believe every word you wrote and that it came from the heart as well as the mind. I also believe you are shrewd enough to know that this blog was a very smart way to sell more copies of The War of Art. I think I’ll get a copy now! On the other hand, your piece reminded me just how much I love to speak to audiences and the bigger the better. I guess I’ve been lucky–have spoken in Asia, Europe, Africa and throughout the USA–but audience have always been taken for such a ride you can hear their muffled screams as well as their private pins drop. My talk is always the same, how I ran away from home thumbing from Alabama to NYC when I was only 17, staying on the road for a whole decade and thumbing enough miles to circle the globe five times, ending up as a waiter in New Orleans at the age of almost 40 and feeling I had accomplished nothing of true worth in my life, then walking the 900 mile route of my ancestors along the Cherokee Trail of Tears to write Walking the Trail that was won at auction by Delacorte Press that nominated it for a Pulitzer Prize. When I walked that Trail, we didn’t even have the Internet and now Walking the Trail came out on Kindle last week. What a curious world we live in.
I have your book on audio, and I have listened to it more than once and occasionally listen to different parts when I am in need of a ‘pep talk’. War for Art spoke to me on every level possible and it remains a source of strength and inspiration. thanks.
One may choose to write because one best expresses oneself in that medium. Or, one may choose to write because one has a message one wishes to impart. And the two acts of course are not necessarily connected.
Likewise, those with a verbal fluency may choose to become actors, lawyers, or some other kind of performance artist (ie., comedians, motivational speakers, or simply blarney bullshooters).
But rarely do these two possible gifts (ie., writing and speaking) collide either.
Today the field is flooded with self-styled experts, who may choose to write books or blogs because they have a message they wish to impart. Yet, for me, the art of fiction and the art of good writing has less to do with expertise, and much more to do with what is referred to as a well-crafted gift … just as the best speakers and actors can transform their material into something sublime that distinguishes us from them.
Understanding both one’s gifts and one’s limitations is indeed a rare gift.
Thank you for sharing that Steven. Speaking always seems to be as much about the person as it is about the words that come out of the speaker’s mouth. The audience is watching and making their opinions about what is said filtered through what they see. Writing cuts out the middle man, so to speak, and the words are left to to speak for themselves. And with great writers, words have a lot to convey.
I understand. I’m glad I don’t feel the same way.
Even in a room full of people, I never talk to a room full of people (or sing, as the case may be.)
One pair of eyes or ears. I can tell who’s listening. And I know, from the lightning, they’re getting it.
Having sat through presentations by writers, or business folks, or artists, who were not speakers, but didn’t realize it (or were convinced against their better judgment) I applaud your good judgment.
Steven, I love this post.
Some folks think of artists as “wrongly” isolating themselves when they stay in studio to work instead of attending 1001 social events.
Trying to explain The War of Art to others goes nowhere, as you and others have said. They have to read it.
I send you my heartfelt thanks.
In my own experience the best fusion of speaking and writing is the Irish story teller. The stories are first told, then written. They are both intimate and public, alllowing the individual listener to craft their own special relationship with the speaker. and the most beautiful part…..there is no Q and A!
I liked reading this ~ it has helped me understand why I feel I have been dragging my heels forever on leading workshops and groups. When I do I am just not jumping for joy. Ask me to write about something and a whole day can and has passed by without me putting the pen down. That gives me a buzz. So thank you ~ this is food for thought. I guess the bottom line is square pegs in round holes ~ sometimes they do fit but not snugly or well. It’s whatever rocks your boat, makes you feel alive and whooping, doing what you love is what you’ll do best. Better get my pen out again!
Thank you for writing this. It resonates with me as a book lover and a writer. I sometimes feel like I should work on my public speaking skills, but I feel, as you so eloquently put it, that I am primarily and first & foremost a writer.
As the former mayor of Carmel-By-The-Sea told us many years ago, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Speaking and writing may cover the same topics, but they aren’t the same thing – and just because you write doesn’t mean you’re destined for speaking.
I come from a Broadway family. I was the guy who ran *away* from the circus and did the corporate thing prior to writing my first book. But I happen to like speaking. I’m comfortable there. So for me, because of my comfort, the setting works. I hope I reach people when I talk, but that’s really up to them.
It’s a bit of a shame, really, because I’d love to hear you deliver “The Belly of the Beast” live – it’s a great presentation. Thanks for writing it!
Great post…honest…which I respect. I really appreciated the following: “In the secret communion between writer and reader, soul-altering material was gifted to me, and I accepted it with gratitude. No one knew. Not even the writer. But he or she had imparted something seminal, and it changed me and saved me.”
I enjoy your work Steven.
Keep being who you are 🙂
I couldn’t agree more. What I like about your book is that I can make notes, underline important lines, bend pages…my copy of you book is full of notes, scribbles….you could do none of it if you listened to a person.
Plus people don’t like brutal honesty in their face.
I wonder if there’s a substantive difference between authors who write and authors like Winston Churchill who can only write through dictation?
Churchill “wrote” 43 books in 70+ volumes, plus numerous newspaper articles in his youth. Almost all of this was via dictation, hearing how the words sounded, mediated with secretarial feedback. He won a Nobel for literature.
Solzhenitsyn wrote some thirty volumes, largely in secret, sometimes in prison or a labor camp, committing passages to memory before burning them. He accepted very little input from others and even used archaic words and expressions most fellow Russians no longer knew or use. Solzhenitsyn too won a Nobel.
Then there’s Cicero, regarded as Rome’s greatest orator and, in his lifetime, writer.
having written and spoken i can relate. know thyself and that you do! or use a teleprompter like the pols do! ha ha ha.
Well crap — there goes my chance of ever convincing you to come speak to my writers at the New School. Thanks a lot Steve!
But in all seriousness, I understand what you’re saying and why you say it. People really only hear something and take it to heart when they’re ready and not before. Often writers in classes are ready, but there’s still no guarantee — as you note, you can’t always schedule these things.
However, I do want to say that as someone lucky enough to have heard you speak in private about the things you write so well about, let me tell you that without a doubt it works and has had an impact on me!
And on a somewhat separate track but still in terms of speaking to people about — both Hil and I agree that we’d pay to hear you talk about/teach Greek history. You brought it to such vivid life!
Matt Foley, he’s 35 years old, divorced and lives in a van down by the river.
I like this post a lot. It’s powerful. Writing and speaking can both be powerful, but I like that you feel strongly about this and do what you feel is the best, the most authentic, the most effective in this situation. Seems as though so many people do things because they think they have to. It’s refreshing to hear from a well known writer that you can take a different path.
When it comes to important topics where people are more inclined to reject yours before understanding well and diverting the topic to complete different angle, when a topic is complex and can steam up disagreements it’s best to write!
Thank you for the great article. I Googled the title because that’s what I usually do now a days: prefer not to speak on certain matter but rather write them down. I’m so happy to have stumbled upon your website. I’m going to give War of Art a nice read after my finals.
@Vaughn: I just listened to That’s Entertainment and it’s really good (going straight to my iPod)! The Jam need to be more popular than they are.
I think Speaking about resistance can actually dilute the inner power needed to tackle it. Thanks for saying no and for another Eye Opener Steven.
This essay by Paul Graham on Writing and Speaking is an excellent companion read to this post. He talks about how writing and speaking differs in terms of a medium for the transmission of ideas and why writing is a far superior form: http://www.paulgraham.com/speak.html
Great! I just stumbled on this piece posted about a decade ago and it resonates with my situation. I am naturally an introvert and, once in a while, I honor invitations for speaking engagement.
I am also a survivor of narcissistic abuse. So, I just published a book titled ‘ How To Manage a Bad -Tempered Spouse : Psychological and Biblical Perspective’.
This is a book to help someone who may be in a situation that I tag ‘the hardest time of my life’. It’s not a message for everyone but everyone can have it to help people in such situations. So, I have offer to speak publicly on this and I have been thinking on how to let the person know reasons I don’t want to attempt such.