“I Can’t Squeeze My Theme In!”


A couple of friends have written in:

Will Smith and Matt Damon in the movie of "The Legend of Bagger Vance"

Will Smith and Matt Damon in the movie of “The Legend of Bagger Vance”

“I know what my theme is, but I can’t figure out how to get it into my story.”

“How do I know which theme to pick?”

These are critical questions to answer because they both demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of what theme is and how it arises.

1) We don’t have to insert theme into our story. It’s in there already, whether we realize it or not.

2) We don’t pick your theme. Our theme picks us.

What do I mean by this? I mean a story—a novel, a play, a movie, a work of narrative nonfiction—is like a dream. Its source is our unconscious, our Muse. And just as in a dream, the totality arises organically and coheres naturally. The dream/story means something already. All we have to do as writers is figure it out.

(In many ways, this is the vital service our editors perform for us. Shawn has done it for me half a dozen times. He sees the theme that I’m blind to. He explains it to me. He tells me what I’ve already done but can’t see for myself.)

In other words, our theme is already there in the work. It’s built-in. Factory-installed.

Here’s a personal example:

The theme (or one of the themes) of The Legend of Bagger Vance is “the Authentic Swing.” Meaning a parallel and metaphor for the idea of the Authentic Self.

You and I are born not as blank slates but with a fully formed self, personality, and destiny. Our job in this life is to find that self and become it, to live it out.

That’s the theme of Bagger Vance. But I had no idea as I started the book—and even halfway through it—that this was the case. All I knew was that I was following my instincts. Characters arose, scenes appeared, a story began to take shape.

The theme was in there already.

One day as I was writing a scene, the phrase “the Authentic Swing” popped out. I knew at once that I had hit paydirt. “Ah,” I thought “this is what the story is about!”

A few weeks back we did a post titled “Analyze your story like a dream.” The idea was that Theme appears spontaneously in a story we write (as long as we’re truly following our instincts), just as meaning is embedded in a dream.

If you think about it, this is pretty amazing. We find ourselves “seized by” a story. We are compelled to write it. Why? Because on some soul-level known to our unconscious but not to us, the issue of this story is important to our evolution. Just as a dream will warn us of impending danger or encourage us or inspire us, so the novel/play/movie we find ourselves inspired to bring forth is also trying to speak to us.

What is it trying to tell us?

Its theme.

Its meaning.

Its significance.

Why is theme so hard to identify sometimes? Because every cell in our bodies (i.e., Resistance) has been laboring flat-out to keep us from seeing it. Why? Because when we see it, we will advance. Our consciousness will open. We will move one step closer to self-realization, to self-actualization.

This is why writing (or the pursuit of any art) is, to me, a spiritual enterprise. It’s an endeavor of the soul. The stories we write, if we’re working truly, are messages in a bottle from our Self to our self, from our Unconscious/Divine Ground/Muse to our struggling, fallible, everyday selves.

What is your story about?

Roll up your sleeves and do the work. Dig deep. Bust your brain. Figure it out.

I can declare with absolute honesty that every book I’ve written has unpeeled and revealed to me an aspect of my self that I had been unconscious of before I started writing the book. The philosophy behind the idea of the Authentic Swing: I had no idea I knew that, no idea I believed that. Yet I did. Completely. It is now the absolute bedrock of my view of life and death. Everything I do and believe is based on that.

I would never have known it if I hadn’t found it in my own story.

The artist’s journey is not so much about self-expression as it is about self-discovery.

That’s what theme is all about, from the writer’s point of view. It arises spontaneously in her work. It’s 100% true to her soul’s odyssey.

Another question that crops up regularly in correspondence is this: “What if I never find a publisher? What if I write book after book and no one ever even knows they’re out there? What’s the point?”

One answer (it’s a hardcore answer, I admit) is that on the deepest level it doesn’t matter if you and I ever crack Amazon’s Top 100 or hit the New York Times bestseller list. The works we produce are valid in their own right. They are telegrams to ourselves from our immortal, infallible, divinely-inspired souls.

The message is our story’s theme. We don’t have to insert it. We don’t have to invent it. It’s embedded in the work already. All we have to do is dig for it and figure it out.










Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

do the work book banner 1


A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.



Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.



Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"



  1. Erika Viktor on April 27, 2016 at 5:05 am

    I need my own personal Shawn to help me find my themes sometimes. Can you bottle that?

    My issue has always been that I have too many themes. I start out with what I want to say but the story takes over and becomes what I need to say. Cutting out what I wanted to say is very painful.

    In regards to the publication question, I am certain you receive a great number of anxious writer emails per week. They want you to dip into their future and find the “magic answer” for them. I know I’ve demanded the same from friends and family and writers and agents. I’ve learned that, despite our illusions to the contrary, no human being can predict the future and when we ask them to, all we get is a description of a perceived past and we can do that ourselves.

    That’s why I have to laugh at books with titles like “Ten Days To An Instant Bestseller!” Its so strange that the book doesn’t become an instant bestseller to prove its own point.

    • Sonja on April 27, 2016 at 5:52 am

      I agree…I’ve also seen those “instant bestseller” gimmicks and I have to chuckle to myself. Personally, I think it’s just another form of Resistance, disguised as a shiny, new toy.

  2. Sonja on April 27, 2016 at 5:48 am

    Man, I needed this today.

    “…not so much about self-expression as it is about self-discovery.”

    This is so wise, kind and illuminating. I have many frustrating days, sometimes I think why am I torturing myself, I could just exist without this aggravation…but then the itch starts again and I realize my soul has other plans. I can’t sleep, I’m bothered and I have to invest the time, energy and money sometimes to advance myself as a writer. The writing will not leave me alone, so onward I trudge trying to learn more about the craft, get my words in for the day and as always and simultaneously battle that insidious beast Resistance to fit it all in amidst all the other demands. Some days are better than others.

    Thank you for this. You are a gift. You’re much appreciated out here in the wilderness.

    • Mary Doyle on April 27, 2016 at 6:41 am

      What Sonja said…thanks so much for this!

  3. Dana on April 27, 2016 at 6:31 am

    So why the heck does ‘every cell in our body’ labor to keep us from self-actualization? From advancing. Are we cellularly self-destructive? Of course, I’ve experienced this, but I wonder what, exactly, it is that’s fighting me? It seems like we would be designed organically to support, nurture, and promote the Authentic Self. Doesn’t it? Help me out on this.

    • Erik Dolson on April 27, 2016 at 7:26 am

      Dana, that’s the key metaphysical question.

      Perhaps we evolved to need certain blindnesses, self protective illusions. Perhaps those keep us “sane”, or keep order in our tribe. Self actualization may conflict with these inherited beliefs, or might be terrifying to the extent it disrupts patterns we have come to depend on for our daily functioning.

      In other words, we may not know ourselves very well at all, and the tools we’ve been given for that knowing may not be up to the task, except through art.

      Just thinking out loud.

      • Dana on April 29, 2016 at 7:03 am

        Thanks for your thoughts, Erik. It remains a mystery to me why, in contrast to every physiological process which supports and preserves the wellbeing of the person, Resistance stands against it. Does it suggest an ‘other’ essential; enemy of the self?

    • Debbie L Kasman on April 27, 2016 at 11:57 am

      I agree with Erik. Ken Wilber, who is considered the “Einstein of consciousness,” would say we consciously engage in the process of self-actualization when we feel a growing dissatisfaction with our old ways of being and an underlying frustration with the day-in-day-out grind of “ordinary” life. He says one big obstacle we have is we don’t know what our “potentials” are, and as long as they remain hidden from us we can’t fully actualize them. Also, in order to self-actualize, we have to step onto a pathway of practice, growth and change and most people don’t want to invest time into doing this. It’s a lot of work and it isn’t easy.

      • Dana on April 29, 2016 at 7:08 am

        Thanks for adding to the conversation. When do the ways we’ve learned become ‘our old ways’ of being? Do you think there is a natural inclination to slip into the ruts of the ordinary – to conserve resources maybe? If humans are optimized for self-actualization, why is that path such a difficult choice?

        • Jon on April 29, 2016 at 12:29 pm

          I think I got this one. We don’t self actualize, or we fight it because we are conditioned. We follow because that is our evolutionary DNA. We aren’t royalty (well I’m certainly not). We are the prisoners, not the guards. We have to abide by laws and protocol. Who do we think we are to actualize? Did we get permission to think?

          Self-Actualization is, of course, a Maslovian coin. Do we really know if there is such a thing and is Maslov our inner voice? There was a time when it was acceptable to incarcerate and lobotomize people for being gay. Perhaps one day we’ll realize pursuit of self-actualization is similarly pseudo-medicinal. Such concepts have never persisted as truths. They are theory.

          On the contrary we must do what we love to live life fully. But to label it as some sociologist’s thesis is to diminish it’s importance as some kind of mental condition. And that brings us back to conditioning, if I may be redundant. 2¢

  4. Jack Molan on April 27, 2016 at 6:37 am

    Exceptional insights Steve, thank you. The mechanics of our hearts/minds/souls being expressed in writing is a fascinating discipline. Of all the factors that have to come together, so many are in our background or sub-conscious. Writing in spiritual if we are to do it well. It is what we are given. Our talents and our stories are gifts to be shared.
    A comedian Michael Jr. http://michaeljr.com talks about similar depths of soul in comedy. His life turned around when he went from trying to “get” a laugh, to “giving” the people a reason to laugh. Huge difference.
    Steven your giving me insights that I already posses, as a human. but do not consider when attempting to write, I am very appreciative. Thanks!

  5. Mia Sherwood Landau on April 27, 2016 at 6:48 am

    Students of Jewish mysticism are very familiar with the concept of Resistance, although it’s usually called by its Hebrew name. This post is not only brilliant in its clarity, but perhaps more so in its subtlety. Our soul’s purpose, whether we are writers or not, is a shining jewel at our core, awaiting discovery and revelation. All of us have it!

    “The artist’s journey is not so much about self-expression as it is about self-discovery.” Oh, so true, and so timely for many of us today, Steven, as we discover ourselves as writers, too. Thanks so much for another keeper post!

    • Dora Sislian Themelis on April 27, 2016 at 8:32 am

      That quote is also very true for artists/painters like myself, and Resistance causes my undoing every, single day. After I read your comment I now need to know the Hebrew word for Resistance that you mentioned or I’ll be stuck on that. Thank you!

      • Steven Pressfield on April 27, 2016 at 12:34 pm

        Dora, it’s the “yetzer hara.”

        • Dora Sislian Themelis on April 28, 2016 at 7:28 am

          Thank you, Steve, for answering this and many other questions I have about art and work. You made my day!

  6. gwen abitz on April 27, 2016 at 6:51 am

    Even though The Legend of Bagger Vance may appear as a book or movie for people who are into Golf. NOT S0…Just a suggestion – If one hasn’t – watch the movie NO – first read the book then watch the movie. Eye Opener to what a screen writer can do “the story” based on a book by an author.

  7. helg on April 27, 2016 at 7:52 am

    Thank you for sharing the gift received with another inspiring post, Msgr Steven… the villager’s of Scotch Grove, and all who listen to the quiet voice within us, gain strength and resolve from your writings to join in the song~
    May the peace that surpasses all human understanding, be with you, your family, and those all around you.
    Thoughts, intentions, meditations, & prayers are sent to you and your current project.
    we love you…

  8. Christine on April 27, 2016 at 8:06 am

    Is writing selfish? How can I justify spending time on my art when I have a family to take care of? These are questions that have stalled me. Thank you Steve for answering these questions in this post. Writing is no more selfish than praying. It is us trying to communicate with the Divine. Self-actualization is humanity’s actualization. It’s not “my art”. It’s Art.

    • Stacy on April 27, 2016 at 11:14 am

      I have the same issue, Christine. I sometimes feel an overwhelming sense of guilt for pursuing it.

      • Elaine J on November 10, 2018 at 3:34 pm

        Me, too, Stacy and Christine. Even though my family are very supportive, there are times when I do feel guilty for absenting myself for hours at a time to write/blog/etc. Since we’re not a religious family, the analogy to prayer won’t make it any easier!

  9. Michael Beverly on April 27, 2016 at 8:21 am

    My personal thought is that everyone tries too hard….

    Yikes….I just inadvertently wrote the theme to the series I’m working on. And I didn’t even mean to do that, I only realized it as I typed the words.

    Odd, that.

    Well, to quote my own mentor character:

    “You seek and do not find. You don’t seek, you find.”

    Ha ha,,,,,life replicates art.

    Side Bar: Cracking the Amazon genre & sub-genre bestseller lists isn’t impossible, I’ve been studying this quite a bit for about a year, i.e. how to get readers and grow as a writer at the same time. I shared some thoughts with Shawn about this and hope to see the Black Irish team do some digging into how to help newbies get a following (i.e. readers).

    It’s left-brained stuff, thus sometimes hard to see the forest because all the trees are in the way.

    It’s also a war of attrition and patience, so most people surrender.

    Oddly what defeats most of us is the micro.

    Does it really matter if you’ve written:

    People that quit can’t win.

    As opposed to:

    People who quit can’t win?

    Yeah, it matters…but not nearly as much as Resistance would have you believe because, bottom line, I see books in the top seller lists all the time, everyday, constantly, in which it’s obvious the author has never heard of The Story Grid or a foolscap and gives a shit about theme, plot points, turns, values, and on top of that they they use “there” instead of “their” and “try and” instead of “try to” and on and on.

    I’m sure they cry all the way to the bank.

    Love you guys. Really, I mean that with all my heart. Every day I tell myself I will succeed because you all believe I will.

    Less trying and more doing. That’s my theme for today.

    P.S. I’m not advocating sloppiness, in case anyone inferred that, I’m advocating not allowing the micro to win the battle over the macro.

  10. Janet Fox on April 27, 2016 at 8:33 am

    I’ve been following this series from the start, and I love it. It’s given me much to think about as I wander through my next novel. Thanks.

  11. Michael Beverly on April 27, 2016 at 8:41 am

    Fyi: Hugh Howey just posted about turning down seven figure publishing deals on Kboards:


    The reason I mention this: If you’re still thinking you need a publisher (what I heard in Steve’s post about people writing to him about “finding an agent” and so forth) you need to understand your motivations.

    As long as you’re clear what your motivations are, yeah, knock yourself out.

    But don’t think you’re following the best career path lest you end up like the iron smith laughing at Henry Ford or the type setters union ensuring members that rumors of their impending doom are grossly over estimated.

    • Ralph Lawrence on April 27, 2016 at 9:10 am

      I appreciate every word in your posts seem to be as valuable to you as your writing. When I was on Wall Street, I bought Bagger the book, unaware of its lessons. I passed it around several times. There were 80 traders in the office. The company bought 50 copies at B&N on Trinity Place not for the characters but the themes of personal self, identity, true worth and adversity… all themes on Wall Street.
      Love your Wednesdays..

  12. Mary Van Everbroeck on April 27, 2016 at 3:28 pm

    You express your message very well. As a newcomer to the marvelous world of writing I am appreciative and eager to learn from the knowledge and wisdom you share.

  13. Mike B on April 27, 2016 at 7:39 pm

    You are advocating for the creative process what John Muir advocated for exploring the mountains and the trees.

    “Who has not felt the urge to throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence?” – John Muir

  14. Jon on April 29, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    My wife tells me I can’t see ghosts like she does because I can’t let go and just relax. Apparently she experiences dead relatives alternately consoling or annoying her. She watches a lot of ghost realty TV too.

    Then there’s the thing about finding when you don’t seek, and not finding when you do. Let it go. Use the force.

    Ten there’s the thing about, you don’t find your passion, it finds you; you don’t place your theme, it’s already there. But you can’t see it because you won’t let go. That’s how we met. Neither of us looking.

    I’m convinced our frustration is due to our rat raced societal structure that imposes routine on our lives. What if we didn’t all follow a circadian rhythm? What if we didn’t all go to work at dawn and return hone at dusk? What if we dared to sleep-in everyday? What if we refused to be pawns to the evil of money? Yeah, I know the conditioned answer is that without these things we would die or become homeless. Not true. But it’s hard isn’t it? To ignore our environment and peers? No it’s not. Ignorance is easy. Just be selective about it.

    And a few days after this post Shawn writes Designated Driver to impress upon us how important this Theme post is. Yes it is. It makes me think. Actually. How daring. It’s like the time I grabbed a rope, hung from a tree by a river bank, and swung right out and dropped into the water. The kids with me were shocked. I was always the reserved one. I didn’t even know I could swim. That’s one way to learn.

  15. Fran Wallis on March 27, 2021 at 2:50 pm

    I liken this to the Latin of the verb educate… means to draw out what is already there.

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