The Artist’s Journey, #7
Continuing our serialization of The Artist’s Journey … to refresh our memory, the primary thesis of this book is that our evolution as writers and artists hits an inflection point on that day when we realize that our Searching Years are over, our questing dues have been paid (in other words, our “hero’s journey” has reached its completion), and we must now advance into a second journey, in which for the first time we with full awareness and seriousness embrace our calling as artists. At that point, we “turn pro” and start asking the questions all artists must ask of themselves on their creative journeys: “Who am I? What is my gift? What work was I put on the planet to do?”
If you’re just plugging into the series for the first time, click on the following links to access the first six parts of the series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.
26. THE ARTIST’S JOURNEY IS ABOUT ACCESSING THE UNCONSCIOUS
You can attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, get a degree in Literature from Harvard, hang on your wall a framed MFA from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. You can serve in the Navy SEALs in Afghanistan, survive heroin addiction in East St. Louis. You can break your back at hard labor, break your heart in love, break your balls in the school of hard knocks.
None of it will do a damn bit of good if you can’t sit down and open the pipeline to your muse.
The artist’s journey is about that.
Nothing else matters.
Nothing else counts.
27. THE ARTIST’S JOURNEY LASTS THE REST OF YOUR LIFE
There is no other journey in this lifetime after the artist’s journey (other than, perhaps, the transition to the next life).
Once you board this train, you’re on it to the end of the line.
B O O K T H R E E
P O R T R A I T O F T H E A R T I S T
28. WHAT IS AN ARTIST?
Before we dig deeper into the nature of the artist’s journey let’s pause for a moment and ask ourselves, “What exactly is an artist?
What qualities can we attribute to this peculiar subspecies of the human race?
29. AN ARTIST HAS A SUBJECT
The Last Waltz
Gangs of New York
The Wolf of Wall Street
Did Martin Scorsese sit down as a young filmmaker and ask himself, “What’s my subject?” I doubt it very much.
But a subject arose just the same. (Actually probably two: Outlaw Life and Love of Cinema, with a couple of outliers thrown in.)
You have a subject too.
You were born with it.
You will discover it on your artist’s journey.
30. WHAT IS “SUBJECT?”
Subject does not mean “the Civil War” or “feminism.”
Consider Bruce Springsteen’s subject. It isn’t just dudes and babes in cars in New Jersey.
It’s thematic. The Boss’s theme, to which he returns over and over, is the worth of passion and the integrity of what we might call “the common man” (and woman).
His subject is red-white-and-blue, fucked-over, fucked-up, but still shining and worthy and unbreakable.
Subject is deeper than topic. It’s not “what it’s about,” it’s what it’s really about.
31. HOW SUBJECT ARISES
It sounds facile to say, “We don’t pick our subject, our subject picks us.” But I’m convinced that that statement is true.
It’s not your subject. It’s your Self’s, your Muse’s, your Superconscious’s.
You were born with that subject but you never knew it.
Have you ever met someone who says, “I have no passion for anything. I wish I could feel it, but I can’t. The only thing I feel is boredom.”
I know this is a lie because I’ve lived it myself for years.
Show me someone who claims he doesn’t give a shit and I’ll show you a born artist who’s scared out of his wits to become that artist.
Our subject is sitting right in front of us but we can’t see it because we’re terrified.
We’re terrified that, if we recognize and acknowledge our subject (which is our calling as an artist), then we’ll have to act on it.
We’ll have to make a decision.
We’ll have to put ourselves on the line.
We’ll have to take a risk.
I can say truthfully of every book I’ve written that, before I saw it as a subject, I had no idea I was even interested in it. In fact I wasn’t interested in it. Or if I was, I dismissed that interest as purely idiosyncratic, a feeling that applied to me only but would never apply to anyone else.
The books picked me, I didn’t pick them.
It’s a mystery, this art racket.
Oh, Steven, I think you are writing this book for my soul, the soul of an artist. There are thousands of books for our intellects, but yours is different. Thank you for exploring your own soul of an artist and sharing it so articulately with ours. We need this book very much!
“Show me someone who claims he doesn’t give a shit and I’ll show you a born artist who’s scared out of his wits to become that artist.” We can always count on you to call bullshit for what it is – thanks for being the honest voice of reason!
Thanks again for the 100th time, Steve! Passed these words of eternal wisdom onto the kids (well, adults now, all 4).
Thanks, as always. – Wednesdays are always better because of your posts. How I appreciate them.
“His subject is red-white-and-blue, fucked-over, fucked-up, but still shining and worthy and unbreakable.” How easily and perfectly you are able to identify Springsteen’s subject! Should it please your Muse, in the next installation, I’d absolutely love to see how one should best go about identifying their “subject”. Although I’m sure most of us can “feel” what our subject is, and even vaguely describe the acute calling and sensations within us, it can be hard to put it into words. As always, brilliant work, Steven, and thank you for sharing!
“The books picked me, I didn’t pick them.” I can totally relate to this. My response this morning is “thank God.” All I need to do is show up and don’t bullshit myself. That is enough work. But it is doable.
A few days ago I wrote a poem about “opening the pipeline to my muse.” I’m hoping it’s okay to share it here:
On Second Thought…
I’d have a flash of insight–
my first thought.
But I’d pull back– my censor said no.
Too impulsive, too passionate.
Run by adrenaline, driven by whim.
Second thought is safer
down to earth
more appealing to more people
more logical, rational, reasonable
left-brained, cogent, sellable, solid.
Like a lump of clay I can mold.
First thought is filter-less, ego-less,
gravity-less, shameless, tameless.
A brainstorm from a muse.
A Eureka moment from the ether.
Muses and ethers are suspect.
More unicorn than understandable.
But…sometimes I trust first thoughts anyway.
To write the way things are:
changing, truthful, painful, free, alive.
And I feel like a writing warrior.
I see colors become more vibrant;
hear sounds become more full.
Inspiration means breathing in God.
Expanding my Self.
Existing in my moment.
Letting words and tears flow.
And drenching in unbridled energy.
On second thought…I’m not inspired.
Nice, Bob Zazlow. Thanks for posting your poem. Please forgive the political incorrectness of the following… it’s particularly refreshing to read the poem because you’re a guy. The guys in my “real” life don’t write poetry. Hope that’s ok to say, too.
Why pay for therapy when you have Steve to call BS for you? I hadn’t looked at it through this lens before, but spot on analysis. An artist afraid to get their ticket punched when the railcar door closes, the whistle blows its steamy goodbye, and the pistons start pumping their way to that horizon called Unknown, Terra Incognita, No Return. Thank you for the hit today!
Subject is what it’s really about.
Yeah, that’s helpful.
Now I’m getting a better feel for what I’ve always thought was connected but couldn’t find the handle.
It’s in there somewhere.
“I have a theory that selfishness and bravery aren’t all that different.”
~ Veronica Roth, Divergent series
These posts are so important to me, Steve. Thanks for telling us the truth and helping us to be braver.
“Show me someone who claims he doesn’t give a shit and I’ll show you a born artist who’s scared out of his wits to become that artist.”
Ouch. The truth hurts. I was that person. I’m lucky I’m kicked myself in the arse and started my journey.
I am just over the moon with this series and can’t wait to read the full book. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Commenting on the comments…
Agree that Wednesdays are better thanks to these posts.
Believe that the way to discover our Subject is in hindsight, after we have done the blue collar work of putting our ass where our heart is, over and over and over, at the keyboard or the canvas or the studio or wherever we make art. We do the work and make the art and then we can separate ourselves from what we have made and see the Subject. It helps if we have several works because either the Subject hits us over the head by repetition or our friends say, “How come everything you write always has to do with X?”
I’ve had a sense for a very long time what my subject is, but only in a vague way, with little focus. This article shone a spotlight right on it…it jumped out clear as can be as I was reading. Wow.
I don’t like this. Didn’t we say something, in the beginning, about how this probably wouldn’t work?
But if you simply must continue (for the lack of anything better to write,)
#28 An artist is a conduit.
Otherwise, You GO, Girl!
P.S. I’m just here because my Resistance is killing me…
Thank you, Steve, again, for your unique voice. You have helped me understand my own struggles as a writer so much, and I am grateful. I am now recovering from a serious illness that nearly went south, and have started the next book (which I told my doctor I had to write, so I had to keep living) even though I didn’t know what it was. I thought it would be nonfiction, but as I worked on it, it nudged me back into fantasy fiction which has always been my genre. Now more than ever, what is sacred and true is what my Muse requires, and through that’s a high bar, I’m doing my best. Looking back over what I’ve written, my subject waves at me. Now it’s waving from in front. Guess that’s progress.
What a gift Mr. Pressfield is to the world. I’ve read every piece of his art and each one is a masterpiece, a gift to humanity. Thank you Mr. Pressfield for continuing to serve, through this forum.
“None of it will do a damn bit of good if you can’t sit down and open the pipeline to your muse.” This is the essence of what Dorothea Brande says in “On Becoming a Writer.” I find it refreshing and reassuring because opening the pipeline to my muse (and helping other do the same) is one of the things I’m truly good at. Who knows why? It’s like the subject seeded in your soul. But when doubts plague me about the quality of my art, I can fall back on this one talent at least.