One of the outcomes that has always surprised the hell out of me about my own work is that, until I did it, I had no idea I was going to do it. Do you know what I mean? I wrote Book X and looked at it and said, “Where in the world did that come from?”
Then I wrote Book X+1 and said the exact same thing.
We discover who we are by the works we produce.
Did you know who you were when you were twenty? But who-you-were was already there. And a compulsion was on you, even if you barely felt it and could not articulate it, to become that yet-unknown commodity. When you encountered a force in opposition—a boss or a parent, a societal prejudice or expectation, even the snarky voice of Resistance in your own head—you instinctively reacted against it. You took steps to overcome that opposition.
To feel the pull of our calling and to follow it produces what psychologists call individuation. We become ourselves. To follow our Muse is a way of answering the question, “Who am I?”
We answer that question the way that artists have always answered it, by producing works. Consider Meryl Streep’s roles over a lifetime, or Bob Dylan’s albums, or the novels of Philip Roth. Each one of those works, in the moment it was unfolding, was for the artist a step into the unknown. Risk was present. It took courage to go forward. And a happy outcome was far from certain. Did Bob Dylan know when he left Hibbing, Minnesota that he would one day go electric, or pass through a Christian phase, or write a lyric like “I used to care but things have changed?”
But when we regard these artists’ bodies-of-work from the end backwards, when we view them as completed (or partially-completed) entities, they seem inevitable, don’t they? Like an oak arising from an acorn. The ineluctable flowering of an identity that was there from the start but that few, if any, perceived—including the artist himself.
Why do I keep writing this blog?
I’m making the case for this journey of self-discovery. What’s the alternative: to not do it? (Again, I’m aware of how high this stuff sits on the Maslow Pyramid. But I see no reason to apologize.)
Which brings us to the democratic side of this question. Not everyone is Meryl Streep. There’s only one Philip Roth and no duplicate of Bob Dylan.
What about the rest of us?
What if we try all our lives and never produce even a decent demo tape? Are we idiots? Look to your right, look to your left. Those poor strivers are clearly going nowhere. What makes you and I believe we’re any different?
If in this blog I’m encouraging people to pursue their artistic dreams, am I doing more harm than good? Lord knows I get plenty of notes from people who are clearly in greater need of psychiatric intervention than of creative encouragement.
Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.
But I’m an American and I love the little guy. I am the little guy. I was listening to a seminar about Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity and what I took away was this: every point in the universe is just as valid as every other. That’s science, baby. And it’s democratic.
Should the individual, regardless of native talent or character, strive to live out an artistic or entrepreneurial dream?
The answer depends on whether you’re looking from the outside-in or the inside-out. From outside-in, maybe we should say no. Does it help the individual or the planet to have our heart-driven stuff wind up in some editor’s slush pile? Who are we kidding writing Godfather IV? Shouldn’t we be putting our time and energies to better use, for ourselves and our families?
If you look at it from the outside-in, that’s almost certainly the answer you’ve got to come up with.
But what about inside-out? Here’s John Lee Hooker from “Boogie Chillen”:
One night I was layin’ down,
I heard Papa talkin’ to Mama.
I heard Papa say, to let that boy boogie-woogie
‘Cause it’s in him and it’s got to come out
The dream inside us is not outcome-neutral. It is compelled by nature to create. It will create like cancer if we don’t act upon it positively.
The dream doesn’t dissipate if we turn our backs on it it. It inverts. It goes underground. It turns negative and “acts out.” It surfaces as a shadow form of our heart’s desire. And those shadow versions are never pretty.
So from the inside-out, you and I have no choice. We have to try, even if we can only pursue our calling for an hour or day, or by fits and starts, or even if we have to put the dream away for a year or a decade at a time.
You and I are not going to be Philip Roth or Meryl Streep or Bob Dylan. It ain’t gonna happen. But we have destinies just like these stars do, and the internal imperative to live out those callings sits just as strongly upon us.
There’s room on the bookshelf for your book and mine and a few million others. True, our stuff might be parked out in the “long tail,” selling only to our uncle Jack and a few demented fans.
But our little planet, even if it’s only the size of a Volkswagen, has got just as much right to orbit the sun as does Mercury or Saturn.
See you out there among the stars.
A quote from the Dalai Lama that I have pinned to my bulletin board: “The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.”
So, instead of worrying about whether we are the next Bob Dylan, we share our work with those we can. We open doors for them, and show them what is possible.
Steve, you are encouraging us to enliven the planet!
writing is probably the best form of self discovery as we age. it’s what usmc bootcamp was for our bodies and spirit way back when. as i approach 65 now, i thank you steve for continuing to be my inspiration!
Same here Skip.
I agree with Skip – in my sixties now, writing shows me that there is still much to learn about myself, and I’m truly grateful for this blog.
Ditto Mary Doyle 🙂
“The dream doesn’t dissipate if we turn our backs on it it. It inverts. It goes underground. It turns negative and “acts out.” It surfaces as a shadow form of our heart’s desire. And those shadow versions are never pretty.”
I love this.
I’m right in the ‘middle’ of my current work. Grinding it out, full of self-doubt and other B.S. I’m doing the work to nourish the dream–with full sun on it, in broad day, thus no shadow creeper.
Thanks for these contributions. I need them.
Thank you for this inspiring post.
Your empathy for the creatives flows across your networks lighting up all of us nodes along the way.
Loved this part–> “The dream inside us is not outcome-neutral. It is compelled by nature to create. It will create like cancer if we don’t act upon it positively.”
It reminds me that we all have a large power inside us, and it will either destroy or create at any cost. The energy is untameable. It’s our duty to choose its path wisely.
I’m so grateful I found Writing Wednesdays. I read it first thing in the morning and it always sets up my day in the perfect way. Thanks for being the grounded person that you are and standing for the rest of us to keep moving ahead – no matter how scary that risk feels sometimes. Looking forward to seeing you among the stars.
I LOVE this post. Thank you. You have put into words what I have lived and what I believe deeply.
I just found you recently and have one favor to ask – do not stop writing this kind of material It is needed!
I LOVE this post. Thank you. You have put into words what I have live and what I believe deeply.
I just found you recently and have one favor to ask – do not stop writing this kind of material It is needed!
‘We discover who we are by the works we produce.’ This strikes me in a very profound way! As a chair designer I’ve gone from assembling and joining multiple components to my new work which is all one piece, one material, no seams or joints. Now I’ve got to figure out what this means as I’ve been transitioning from an amateur to a professional.
Good stuff Steve…really good stuff…thanks!
Even if our work never gets “published” (in any form), the fact that we released it is important to our own soul and growth. When we choose to share it, other people benefit as well.
I just “got” Einstein’s theory of relativity! Thank you for that, Steve!
I agree with every syllable of this post. My decades-long, intimate relationship with the sublimated ‘shadowside’ of Brian has been filled with false starts, anguish, wrong paths, and pain–both my own, and that I’ve inflicted on others.
I would have never known that by producing a race, would in fact unfold me to myself and others.
I especially love the Title of “Why?” Fidelity is slowly creeping into view. To witness a man/woman suffer, struggle…set their jaw, gut the pain, find their determination…that is the definition of inspiration.
This little event creates a space in which participants can see themselves differently. Strong. Powerful. We exercise the ‘I Don’t Quit’ muscle.
This blog is similar. I love it. I need it. Thank you Steve & crew, and all other ‘sufferers’. You inspire me.
Wow, thanks. I too have decades of living behind me and love the wisdom flowing from those like me–people baffled by the many, many experiences. As one who was born deaf, I kept getting the message that sign language would prevent me from succeeding, and from that low point in my life, I am slowly coming around and believing I have something to say, something someone can put on a shelf. Thanks, Steve, for that wonderfully wise post you wrote today. Stay the course!
Rae, some of the most beautiful painting I have ever seen was done by deaf artists. It sounds like you are a writer. I would think you would have a special sensitivity and perspective to contribute.
Maybe that “need of psychiatric intervention” is in direct relation to the lack of creative encouragement?
Lord knows the world at large rains on artistic dreams. And there is a lot of false, albeit innocent, encouragement from family and friends.
We are often openly supported while secretly they wonder “What the hell is he doing with his life?”
Steve, please keep up this great work. You inspire and help a lot of folks. The world can be dark, and this site is a beacon of light.
Your words are condensed pills of wisdom and encouragement. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and experience.
Yes! So happy to read this!
I cried today. I put together my work, my book. The last few words brought forth so much emotion since I’ve been working on this project for 7 years. Why did I continue this journey for so long? Because I had a story to tell and I would always have wondered what would have been if I didn’t finish. Sure, maybe only Uncle Jack and a few dedicated friends will be interested in my story but I had to write it, for me. To not do so would have been painful, agonizing, and the end of a dream.
I dont know what’s in store down the road for my dream, but I know it feels good to have accomplished my goal.
Thank u for “The War of Art” which was very helpful, and “Writing Wednesday.” God bless.
JoAnn, I salute you. I’ve said this before and it never gets less true: you have done what many people talk about but damn few actually do. Half a warm beer to celebrate! (Have you seen “Das Boot?”)
Thanks for the reply! Saw ‘Das Boot’ a long long time ago. I’ll check it out again. Blessings to you.
I think it is really important to keep “doing the work” separate from what happens to it after it is done (e.g., lying in an editor’s slush pile). We do the work because the work must be done. Even if it never is recognized, it may be that it is being done in order to inspire someone who sees you do it and is encouraged to create themselves — and maybe THEY are the ones who get recognized. Who knows where our influence goes?
Thanks Steve. For all the consistent positivity. I had brain surgery this year and I’m back at my job and struggling, really struggling.BUT I should be struggling with my dreams writing things that I want to write about. Instead of wallowing in my misery I could be writing something. what I have supposed to have been doing, jumping for the new (whatever that means)
So I have to type it a few thousand times…and hey, there’s a lady at work who had two strokes, puts my one stroke to shame, not that we’re racing, but there will always be somebody worse off and I’m here at work feeling sorrry for myslef and I’m really not too bad off. Just needto use spellcheck more and laugh at myself more before I kick the bucket. I gotta get a book written, that’s what I’ve been prepping for all my life. Hopefully the running out of time thing is a fire beneath my behind. To get that novel written.
Thank you. I guess I needed this today. Not sure exactly which part hit me, but I ended up crying while reading this post.
“Lord knows I get plenty of notes from people who are clearly in greater need of psychiatric intervention than of creative encouragement.” That line cracked me up, Steve! So true and thank you for the creative encouragement!!!! 🙂
We can get psychiatric intervention somewhere else — love getting creative encouragement from you! It’s always so smart… & the fact that you are the little guy with lots of books on the shelves is inspiring…. 🙂
P.S. I think this website just might be your true masterpiece.
Thanks you so much for writing “The War of Art”, “Turning Pro” and this blog. Your words have been very inspiring.
I am a visual artist but keep thinkingI I might like to write someday too. I keep a journal and have written in it every day for thirty years or so, but I am much better with a visual vocabulary.
Just sold another copy of my poetry book, I’M ALL INSIDE OUT, POETIC MEMOIRS, to a demented fan who wanted it signed (by me!) I told her she could get it for free in the local library, but she wanted to BUY it! I feel odd taking money for my “baby.”
Mr. Pressfield, if you are the “little guy,” then I’m an embryo.
Loved THE WAR OF ART.(Resistance, thy name be chronic-pain.)Thanks for encouraging me to soldier on.
Finding THE LION’S GATE facinating.
SHINE ON, STEVEN!
This one, just like many others, is a true gem! Thank you!
You rock, Steven! You are definitely doing good! Thanks for being there to help us through the battle. 🙂
God bless, Anne Marie 🙂
Thank you so much for this post! I’m heading back to my day job tomorrow after a brief time away when I thought I wouldn’t be going back at all and have more time to fight resistance. So, I needed this encouragement to help me believe I can persevere even when plans change.
“We discover who we are by the works we produce.” OK, this line needs to be all over Facebook and Twitter and get its own Pinterest graphic. Famous quotes.
I’m reminded of the statement (quote) by Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?”
As a bud springs through the ground, pushing through the dirt to reach for the sun, so the soul pushes through obstacles and resistance to be (realize) itself. That realization can only come from “the works we produce.”
You mentioned that you “get plenty of notes from people who are clearly in greater need of psychiatric intervention than of creative encouragement.” That’s part of the point. Those people do not yet know who they are. They have not self-discovered their path or their artistry. I do not carry a tune well (if at all). I can’t play a musical instrument. I love music, though. I wish I could compose songs, or play the oboe, or be able to analyze a symphonic structure (or even a Beatles’ song) the way I can a poem. There is frustration, but winding through the path is overcoming resistance. Discovering the path is also part of the process.
In other words, you have to write this blog. (If not now, when?) Because this blog synthesizes the other two parts of Hillel’s statement: you must be for yourself, but you (that is, all of us) must also not be for ourselves alone.
Aside from inspiring all of us, and sharing the inner journey against resistance (as we nod our heads to the echoes), I think this blog also educates. The conversations, listening in as the teacher works through an idea, are educational and engaging.
One other ‘connection’ this evokes, related to the compulsive nature of our inner creativity. The suppression turns to anger, which is always a secondary emotion. Anger must change its form – into depression, into satire (yeah), or be transformed, diffused, by allowing the energy that drives to be directed and released properly. It’s actually what anger wants – to become meaningful action.
The Why…It takes courage to follow your dreams and, for some of us, even more so to be yourself during that pursuit.That’s something I found out the hard way chasing my…thing, stand up comedy.
I overcame my fear and shyness to step onstage for the first time and was rewarded with a high that I never felt before. Hearing that laughter from material I wrote made my world make sense. Everything said yes from then on, well for a while anyway.
I started getting paid, quit my day job and travelled the country, living gig to gig doing up to 250 shows a year. Then, about 9 years in, I hit a wall.
This one thing I loved, that motivated me, the only thing I ever got real accolades from, stopped being fun and enjoyable on every level. The writing, performing, the travelling, everything just seemed like a drag and the worst part was I had no idea why!
Not until some close friends saw me perform did the seed of the reason revealed itself to me. They said my show was good but I was much funnier just being me and talking to them.
Got married, had kids, got off the road and took on a soul sucking job for 6 years and counting, doing comedy, when I could, on the side.
Sound like a sad story? It sure felt like it for a while. I’m still at this job BUT that gravitational pull that Steven talks about is real. I’m getting back to stand up but with more focus on just being myself, being in the moment and letting the “natural funny” come out.
I found Turning Pro and in turn this blog while trying to figure things out and 17 years after stepping on that stage I’m finding the high again. Simply amazing. You are point on Steven. Thanks.
Thank you Steven from the bottom of my heart 🙂
Ah, this was a good one Steven. I enjoy all of your blog posts, but this one was really special! 🙂
PS – Why isn’t there a Google+ button!!?