Write Your White Whale
The #1 question that writers ask: “I’ve got a million ideas. How do I know which one to write?”
Answer: Write your White Whale.
Which idea, of all those swimming inside your brain, are you compelled to pursue the way Ahab was driven to hunt Moby Dick?
Here’s how you know: you’re scared to death of it.
That’s good. You should be scared. Mediocre ideas never elevate your heart rate. The great ones make you break out in a sweat.
The final image of Moby Dick is one of the greatest ever, not just as the climax to a saga, an adventure, a tragedy but as a metaphor for the artist’s calling (I count ever sentient human in this category) and his endlessly-repeated, never-expiring struggle. Do you remember the scene?
[Actually this is from the movie—screenplay by John Huston and Ray Bradbury—which in my opinion went Melville one better.]
Ahab has chased Moby Dick across all the oceans of the globe. At last he has closed with the leviathan, sunk his harpoon into the great beast. But in the clash of whale and whaling boat, Ahab has been caught in the harpoon lines and pulled over the side …
He is lashed now, bodily, to the White Whale—so entangled in the ropes that he cannot get free. Ahab can see Moby Dick’s eye, and the whale can see him. Clearly the monster recognizes his tormenter; in moments he will sound, dragging Ahab hundreds of feet down into the ocean’s depths.
Ahab knows this. He knows his obsessive pursuit has led ineluctably to his own extinction. But that doesn’t stop him. Clutching the harpoon in both hands, he plunges its steel lancehead again and again into the flesh of this creature he hates but can never kill.
Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but
unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with
thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s
sake I spit my last breath at thee!
That’s the writer’s life in a nutshell. But I would invert Melville’s concept. I don’t think you hate the whale. I think you love it.
The whale is your unwritten book, your unsung song, your calling as an artist. You die grappling with this thing, lashed to it, battling it even as it takes you under. (In Charles Bukowski’s phrase, “Find what you love and let it kill you.”)
But your death is not a mortal death. You die instead the artist’s death, which leads to resurrection in a higher, nobler form and recruits you to the next hunt, the next chase, the next Thing You Love.
Is there a White Whale out there for you? There is or you wouldn’t be human. And you know what it is, don’t you? You know by the terror that wells in your bowels just to think about it.
You’ll know your White Whale by these qualities:
1. Confronting it will seem beyond your resources.
2. Your pursuit of it will bear into waters where no one before you has sailed.
3. To hunt this beast will require everything you’ve got.
4. The chase and clash may kill you.
You may have started, like me, as a junior Mad Man, scripting jingles for canine kibble. There’s nothing wrong with that. You may have prostituted your talent, sold out to the Man. I have, a thousand times.
It doesn’t matter. I forgive you and I forgive myself. Each incarnation is an apprenticeship, if you live it that way.
But one day your heart and mine must say to themselves, “It’s time.”
The ocean is a symbol of the unconscious. Have you ever stood on the shore and looked out over the surface of the sea? Its depths are unfathomable to us. All we know is that they are without limit—and that within them swim monsters and prodigies and marvels of beauty and power and mystery.
My whale is out there, and so is yours.
“Each incarnation is an apprenticeship, if you live it that way.” Perfect. Thanks again, Steve! Time to go whale hunting…
And sometimes, if you haven’t found the courage to come to the realization yourself, you’re lucky enough to stumble across a book titled The War of Art (or more likely the Muse put it squarely in your path), the content therein helping you recognize that “it’s time.”
Thanks for that, and thanks for this Steve…
Bingo… Life’s too short not to make a dent.
I’m saving the 4 points as a reference guide to visit before any new project, apps or anything.
This resonated so powerfully with me that tears overflowed by the time I finished it.
I needed this today. My God, how I needed it.
Thank you, Steven. I have to go tackle my whale now.
I’m right there with you. I value the pragmatic and practical advice I get here, but this — this is what keeps me coming back: reading my soul’s secrets in Steve or Shawn or Callie’s words.
This forces me to admit that I’m hunting minnows. Catching ’em, too. Bit still, minnows.
I need to venture forth for whale.
So on target again [for me] with “the words”. (Thank you, Steve) Least now I don’t have to feel “so guilty” being a pain in the butt with what I do and have done continuing the Journey, “hunting the beast” with everything I have got. Yes, I live that way in that “each incarnation is an apprenticeship.” Not having the aspirations of being an author of a book or a screen writer for a movie; I simply “write” My White Whale using e-mail addresses and Facebook. 🙂
I am a huge fan of your work and this is arguably one of the best of your many fabulous blog posts. Thank you, Steven.
Also, a big shout-out to Kerouac, whose birthday it is today.
Love it. Reminds me of the Walker Percy quote about “the search” — “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”
Reminds me of Heinlein’s advice on finding out if you’re a real writer. Paraphrased, it was something like “Try to stop writing. If you can’t, you’re a writer.”
I’ve got a few White Whales, some of which I can’t even see, some of which I know precisely but just keep telling myself I’m too lazy to slay them. You’re absolutely right, though…there’s a Great Work that I keep thinking about, a Pat Conroy-style magnum opus that I dream about…but I’ll be damned if I’m brave enough to actually look it in the eye.
Especially since there’s so many other tasks, easier projects, and kibbles for the Man to create. Thanks, as always, for the kick in the ass, Steve.
What comes to mind in the reading this post is … relief and I will reread this post until it sticks inside of me. Secondly, Joseph Campbell’s Belly of the Whale chapter in “Hero With A Thousand Faces” … and that for me what you are writing about is definitely part of an archetypal, heroic journey. Thank you.
I think my white whale is my ego – it continues to win these skirmishes, and keeps me writing canine kibble. Onward and upward!
What if you’re not scared to death of it? What if what you feel are butterflies inside, but not wasps?
The only thing that scares me about the next chapter of my career is this post!
Just last night my husband and I were comparing notes on how inevitable that chapter feels. For once there’s no second-guessing.
It isn’t that we know how to pull it off. We don’t. And we’re old enough to know for sure that’s what makes it fun.
But there’s something I have to offer the world, I think, that the world needs help with — and I have something new to add to the conversation. I also feel up to the task for maybe the first time in my life.
Now I’m just a tiny bit worried it’s — as you might put it, Steve — still another shadow career.
Just wait, Sweetie-pie.
And in the meantime go for it, this “merely” butterflies project. It will turn in wasps aplenty.
Notice you said you aren’t scared. Then by the end you were doubting your calling. Go for it!
I love that answer!
If you aint scared
It aint courage
(1st world war fighter ace)
I found myself nose to screen holding my breath until the last line of this post. Beautiful. Brilliant. Spot-on. Thank you.
Lovely stuff Steve! Your writing keeps speaking from the heart to ours.
If anyone wants to continue the “Watery Greats” metaphor, Check out David Lynch’s book Catching The Big Fish.
this is so delightful. Thanks so much for your generosity of spirit with this blog.
I quote you all the time, esp. to myself when I’m wrestling my artistic demons -Martin Luther rolling over the church floor fighting the Devil comes to mind. Now I can be Ahab instead, not that he’s a better model for sanity. At least he went down fighting.
My friends think I have a brain-crush on you. If so, it’s my first celebrity crush since Jacques Cousteau.
I’m wondering if not tackling the big one – the white whale, the white elephant, the White House – is something beginners do, sensing that their skills aren’t up to the task.
I’m too old to waffle around, so I just grit my teeth and tackle the big one. It goes up, a scene at a time, every Tuesday on my blog.
In my defense, there is a completed mystery novel, a half of its sequel, a complete full-length play, and a bunch of short stories (one published) in the work before the WIP (and they all took too long). And the requisite million words and 10K hours.
Just plugging along here, having a ball.
Thank you for this. Nothing but gratitude for the journey!
Steven, thank you for this. I’ve just made the scary decision to move away from commercial writing to creative writing, to give time and care to the work that means the most to me: poetry.
Damn you Pressfield, to call me out like that. To chase the beast which sends a chill down my spine and makes my mouth sweat at just at the thought of the quest.
Steven I have to say this is my absolute favourite of you blog posts to date. Thank you so much…just what I needed to hear today.
Again, Mr. Pressfield, again. You floor me every week with words of wisdom I can’t find anywhere else. How do you know me so well? You’ve pulled my thoughts straight out of my head and wrote them here for all eyes to see. I know my Whale all too well, and he knows me.
If all artistic creations where approached which this kind of anxious state of mind there would a lot less “art” created in the world. Which may be a good thing given how much bad “art” there is out there.
I don’t believe for a minute that Melville created such a brilliant work as MD, by sitting down each time to write another chapter while in a state of abject terror, worried about whether or not he was up to the task of writing something great, like Moby Dick.
Said in another way, I don’t think Melville worried that his writing might not compare favorably against the greats, like say, …. Shakespeare. I believe he was more worried about whether his writings would sell, than about how “creative” or brilliant they were. And for that reason he wanted his work to be “good”.
The brilliance of the book is there because Melville had a perceptual capacity about life that was fathoms deeper than most humans were capable of and still are, even after having read MD. Those preceptions, plus a talent, or capability to formulate, and express his perceptions using the written word are what made the book.
The result was amazing because of those two things: the dept of his perception (creativity as a part of that) and his language facility. He just wrote and wrote about what he saw and thought, felt and believed. Major stuff, indeed. But I don’t think he accomplished it by sitting there thinking ” Is my book going to be great or just good ? Or, ” Now is the time in my life for me to write my Magnum Opus, but will I be able to do it?”
Many of the thoughts, concepts and constructs in Moby Dick were probably troubling to Melville and he was simply compelled to get them out of his head and on to the page to exorcise the “spirits” so – to – speak.
Also I don’t see Ahab as a incarnation of Melville himself. In modern parlance, Ahab would be in need of a psychiatrist due to the unreality of his quest and his actions. On the other hand, Melville the writer was too “in-touch” with himself to have been able to create such a cogent and beautiful work of art lasting so many pages !
Keats, too, would be proud.