Killer Scenes and Self-Doubt
We’ve been talking for the past few weeks about Killer Scenes—and how a writer can start with a single scene, or even a couple of lines of text, and build out from that the entire global work.
Specifically I’ve been talking about my own book, The Virtues of War, and how it evolved from two sentences that “came to me” and that I knew instinctively were the first sentences of a book.
I have always been a soldier. I have known no other life.
Let’s get metaphysical today. Let’s go beyond the tactical applications (how to extrapolate an entire book from two lines of text) and get into the deeper soul-implications of this phenomenon.
Why did those lines pop into my head?
Where did they come from?
Did someone or something “send” them? Why?
Was it random? Was it significant?
What does it all mean?
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m a believer in the Muse (or the Unconscious, the Quantum Soup, the Field of Potentiality). In Jewish mysticism, this mysterious source is called the neshama. The soul.
I believe those two sentences came from the neshama, from the Muse. I can’t prove it of course. I may be completely crazy. But not only do I believe those sentences came from the Muse (or the Unconscious or whatever) but I believe they came for a purpose. A positive, creative purpose. Like a dream that arrives to counsel or sustain us, to guide us on our journey.
Why those two sentences? I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think they came as a means of addressing a certain fault or shortcoming in my personality.
I’m talking about self-doubt.
I’ve been plagued by this monster for decades. Even though at the time those two sentences came to me I had already experienced a fair amount of real-world success, I still had very little confidence in my ability as a writer and even less of a sense of destiny or certainty about the course of my life.
I have always been a soldier. I have known no other life.
This was Alexander’s voice. Alexander the Great. If I were going to write this book, I would have to speak in that voice.
This, I believe, was the goddess’s plan.
It was therapy.
It was practice.
Why Alexander? Because, as much as or more than any individual who ever lived, Alexander embodied self-certainty. Even as a boy, he knew. He knew his calling. He knew his destiny. He was a king and the son of a king. He would vanquish the Persian empire. He would conquer the world.
Before Alexander was six years old, he knew what he had to do and he had bought into it with every cell and sinew. His mother, Olympias, prepared him. His father, Philip of Macedon, prepared him. His tutor, Aristotle (yes, that Aristotle), prepared him.
Alexander’s boyhood friends—fellows students of Aristotle—would grow to be his generals. They were as committed as he was, to the same destiny, and they were as certain of it as he.
In other words, Alexander was a dude who didn’t know the meaning of self-doubt.
Here then was the assignment my Muse was tasking me with:
To spend the next two-plus years, seven days a week, inside the head of this historical individual. If I were going to pull this enterprise off, I would have to dismiss all fear, set aside all hesitancy and self-doubt. I would have to jump off the cliff and do it. There was no other way.
This, to me, is the writer’s life. It’s the writer’s evolution. Others may evolve through action. Some may evolve through faith or love. The artist evolves through her works.
The soul tasks her and she obeys.
That’s the artist’s life.
Think about Philip Roth, proceeding from Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint through The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound, book after book, to The Counterlife, Sabbath’s Theater, and The Human Stain.
How about Bob Dylan? The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited. Blonde on Blonde. What a saga from these and so many others through Nashville Skyline, Blood on the Tracks, Time Out of Mind, to the current Shadows in the Night.
I can’t say, I don’t know either of these gentlemen, but I’ll bet the ranch that each work, in sequence, explored and scoured out another heretofore undiscovered quadrant of their psyches.
And it worked. For me it worked. Virtues of War did help me get over self-doubt. And that’s not all. Consider the real-world produce of that enterprise:
In Virtues of War was a chapter called Badlands. It was about Alexander’s campaign in Afghanistan in the 330’s BCE. I realized, writing it, that that chapter deserved its own volume. So I wrote a second book called The Afghan Campaign.
By this time, the U.S. was involved militarily in Afghanistan. Our troops were in action and things were not going so well. I had some things I wanted to say on this subject so I made a series of five short videos called “It’s the Tribes, Stupid.” To expose these to the public, I posted them on a website and gave it that name.
“People will never find them in that form,” Callie Oettinger told me. “You have to do a blog, with regular posts, so that people will come back.”
That’s how this blog got started.
For months it was about nothing but Afghanistan. Then people who had read The War of Art began finding it and writing in. They didn’t want to hear about Afghanistan; they were more interested in writing and in my thoughts on Resistance.
“Why don’t you do a post once a week about writing?” Callie suggested. “Call it Writing Wednesdays.”
So I did. Within a year, the Afghanistan elements had fallen away. Shawn and I started Black Irish Books. He and Callie began writing on the site. And this community of readers has evolved.
All that came from two sentences that popped into my head ten years ago.
Is there a moral?
When the Muse/Unconscious/neshama speaks, pay attention. And do what it tells you to.
Steve, This is probably the most important single post I will ever read in my entire life, because I’ve recently had a similar experience. An amazingly courageous and persistent woman tapped me on the shoulder and told me to write about her. Like you, I am plagued by self-doubt, and she herself battled debilitating fears. But she got the job done, and now it’s my job to tell her story.
I don’t want to reveal this woman’s name here, but like you I’m going to have to spend the next two-plus years, seven days a week, inside the head of this remarkable historical individual.
And if I’m going to pull this enterprise off, I will have to dismiss all fear, set aside all hesitancy and self-doubt. I will have to jump off the cliff and do it. There is no other way.
You better believe I am paying attention! Somehow I couldn’t do it just for myself, but I MUST do it for her.
Thank you for making something I somehow already knew crystal clear to me. The Muse/Unconscious/neshama has spoken, and I’m going to do what it tells me to.
Wonderful post, Steve. We all thank Callie, too, for her great advice to you.
You convinced me a long time ago that the Muse exists, and that She will be generous to those who show up and listen. I’d not considered before though that her gifts are not arbitrary, but are purposeful to what we most need. Reading the evolution and personal transformation that began with those two lines is truly inspiring. Thanks for sharing this with us – I trust that I’m not the only reader here who takes much-needed courage from the lessons you’ve already learned.
Thank you for this inspiring post. It comes at precisely the right moment. But isn’t that the point?
The War of Art changed my life. I owe so much to you and that book. Seriously. One documentary. One completed feature film. Another feature film in pre production. And now, a novel that I’m 400+ pages knee deep up to my ears into at the moment.
I believe the characters “speak” to us. My doc is about an historical figure and I swear hand to heart she was “with” me during the creative process.
Hi! What is the name of your documentary. I have a passion for film especially documentaries.
This was a super excellent post. I can attest to the fact that this phenomenon is totally true. The book I’m writing now explores the concept of being who you are versus being who you think other people want you to be and I had a trajectory for my main character and at some point I realized that her struggles were my struggles. She has to choose between a world of lighthearted childlike play and grown-up ambition. I have been struggling with that. I have felt compelled to be sober and mature by those around me. But it just isn’t my personality. I want to be childlike and goofy. When I realized that my main characters struggles were mine I knew exactly which path I had to take. It’s funny that our art describes our values sometimes without us even knowing it.
Incidentally, I don’t feel like you can do this on purpose. I don’t feel like you can start writing something that immediately has to do with something bothering you. It’s almost like the muse picks for you do you have to go along for the ride and the lesson. And it makes it that much more meaningful.
Erika – I have had a similar experience with the screen play I am working on. Along about page 40, I began to see elements of my life that were intertwined with my characters.
This was not intentional, and I was disappointed at first, but then I just let it go.
It seems that the part of me that I hide from others is the rough side; the side that thinks “What the fuck?” is the exact right language for certain circumstances.
The other weird thing that keeps happening while I write is I become so emotional that I cry. Of course, I hold back, because what would other people at the coffee shop think if I just started balling while working on my computer.
So I guess I am hiding that side of me, too.
Thanks for your thoughts.
Thank you so much for this post, just at the right time. Thank you.
Steve & Callie,
This blog has become part of my weekly diet. It is interesting to see behind the curtain. I was just writing in my journal this morning that there is a difference between how the world sees us, and how we see ourselves. A friend of mine asked me yesterday, “Brian, when are you going to write a book?”
Innocent question, but it has hit me pretty hard. Does he think I actually have something to say? Does he want to read my thoughts on paper? Do others feel the same way? Don’t they know how crazy I am in my head?!?! Would ‘they’ scoff? Do I actually have anything worth writing? Will the Muse touch me too?
Your honesty with “War of Art”, “Turning Pro”, “Do the Work”, and this blog give my insecurities company. I do not mean that there is safety in numbers, but if Steven Pressfield is/has been uncertain…then I’m not alone. If he can press through the doubt, then I can too.
I leave the Army in exactly 6 months. It is like graduating from high school all over again. The future is wide open, and this community that started from those two lines has helped me tap down the uncertainty to a manageable excitement.
Thank you. More than you could probably understand.
Thank you, Muse!
OMG is all I can say..
I have always know the muse exists and have struggled with her all my life. Mostly I have just plain refused to do what she wanted to, I believe, my own detriment. Now I am attempting to surrender myself to her and we will see how that works out. But my present judgment, probably flawed and biased, is that she has kept much that I wanted from me because I would not do her will. But I am constantly surprised at what she offers me. The story is hers, not mine.
Steven, this post raises a very interesting subject, which is art as therapy for the artist. My question is, what makes art transcend the personal and connect with other people? I think that not all personal art does this.
I would love to hear what you have to say on this topic.
Thank you for this post Steven. Brought tears to my eyes. As usual – you have a knack of getting right down to it – mixing up rational, spiritual, emotional and in the end somehow making your message very personal, intimate on a level nobody else does. I had great many teachers in my early life. In the last few years – you have become my sensei. Gratitude.
Thanks, Steve, for this — and another reason to love Callie!
Struck a chord!!!
Many writers nay say the muse and chalk up success to working everyday. But I agree, both diligence in the work and the muse are required to make stirring stories.
Wise words, “When the Muse/Unconscious/neshama speaks, pay attention.” Thanks for the insight.
Love this post. Every word of it.
Wow — many thanks and blessings to you all — Magnificent reminder, at a precise time.
“When the Muse/Unconscious/neshama speaks, pay attention. And do what it tells you to.” Message received. Back to work.
Good stuff! Thanks for putting into words, what I had a sneaking suspicion was going on…
Thanks for listening to Callie. 🙂
Steve, you’ve hit it out of the ballpark with this one. OMG. Your books and this blog have always gotten me back on track. The truth in this post has done it with a smack on the side of the head that has brought tears to my eyes. Thank you. And my thanks to Callie too….
Spot on. Thank you!
in regard to “jumping off the cliff”–fly or die, i always say. (hopefully, all those lemmings in the famous disney footage were not failed writers.)also, i feel awkward saying this, and i’m only saying it because it’s not really me saying it–i feel that the quote should be “i have always been a soldier, i know no other life”. third sentence is for mr. pressfield, only, please delete from posted post. thank you.
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