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.