The Artist’s Journey, #11
Welcome to the continuation of our serialization of The Artist’s Journey. To revisit any of the previous chapters, click on these links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8. Part 9. Part 10.
47. EACH TRIP FROM LEVEL #1 TO LEVEL #2 IS A HERO’S JOURNEY
We said a few chapters ago that the artist’s skill is to shuttle from the material sphere to the sphere of potentiality and back again.
Each one of those trips is a hero’s journey.
Jay-Z in his studio may complete ten thousand hero’s journeys a day.
You do it too.
Ordinary world to Call to Refusal of Call to Threshold to Extraordinary World and back again.
Watch yourself today as you bang out your five hundred words. You’ll see the hero’s journey over and over.
48.THE HERO’S JOURNEY IS REHEARSAL FOR THE ARTIST’S JOURNEY
Our real-life hero’s journey—the passage we’ve undergone in the material universe that has carried us to our “return home”—is practice for the next stage in our maturation, the artist’s journey.
Write your first novel. Produce your first movie. Yeah, it’s true that you’ve never done it before. But you’ve had practice. You’ve already endured all the trials and passed through all the stages.
You did it on your hero’s journey.
You crossed the threshold, you encountered allies and enemies, you entered the inmost cave, you’ve died and been reborn. And you’ve made your return safely to the place from which you set forth.
The stages of the artist’s journey are the same stages you’ve rehearsed (even though you had no idea that that was what you were doing) on your hero’s journey.
What, then, are the stages of the artist’s journey?
What is their nature?
How are they different from the stages of the hero’s journey?
B O O K F I V E
S T A G E S O F T H E A R T I S T’ S J O U R N E Y
49. THE MYSTICAL AND THE MATTER OF FACT
The artist’s journey is enacted on two opposite but linked planes: the mystical and the matter of fact.
(Or, if you prefer, left brain/right brain, Dionysian/Apollonian.)
The artist’s journey is an alchemical admixture of the airy-fairy and the workshop-practical. On the one hand we’re teaching ourselves to surrender to the moment, to inspiration, to intuition, to imagination. On the other, a huge part of our day is about discovering and mastering the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of how to reproduce in the real world the stuff we have encountered in the sphere of the imagination.
Monet spent years figuring out how to affix blobs of paint to canvas in such a way as to produce the illusion of sunlight reflecting off the surface of water. This was blue-collar labor. Trial and error. Seen from the outside, it was the most tedious, excruciating activity imaginable.
Yet at the same time the process was absolutely mystical. What went on in Monet’s mind as he wrestled month after month, year after year with a problem that had bewitched and confounded painters for centuries?
Monet, like every artist, was working simultaneously on both planes.
On the Dionysian he could see in his mind’s eye exactly how sunlight bounced off the curvilinear perimeter of a lily pad. On the Apollonian he was thinking, “If I apply a double-thick blob of gentian violet with a medium pallet knife and twist it left-handed so that the weightiest section of the blob accretes on the right side, then studio daylight reflecting off that, in juxtaposition to the 40/60 mixture of puce and fuchsia of the adjacent blob, should create the exact illusion I’m seeking.”
Like an alchemist laboring to turn lead into gold, the artist operates simultaneously on the planes of the ethereal and the elemental.
50. THE MATTER OF FACT PLANE OF THE ARTIST’S JOURNEY
In the sphere we call the artist’s journey, we “get down to business.” Crazy-time is over. We have wasted enough years avoiding our calling.
Our aim now is to discover our gift, our voice, our subject. We know now that we have one—and we are driven passionately to identify it and to bring it forth in the real world with optimum wallop.
Here’s Rosanne Cash in her extraordinary memoir Composed.
From that moment I changed the way I approached songwriting, I changed how I sang, I changed my work ethic, and I changed my life. The strong desire to become a better songwriter dovetailed perfectly with my budding friendship with John Stewart, who had written “Runaway Train” for [my album] King’s Record Shop. John encouraged me to expand the subject matter in my songs, as well as my choice of language and my mind. I played new songs for him and if he thought it was too “perfect,” which was anathema to him, he would say, over and over, “but where the MADNESS, Rose?” I started looking for the madness. I sought out Marge Rivingston in New York to work on my voice and I started training, as if I were a runner, in both technique and stamina. Oddly, it turned out that Marge also worked with Linda [Ronstadt], which I didn’t know when I sought her out. I started paying attention to everything, both in the studio and out. If I found myself drifting off into daydreams—an old, entrenched habit—I pulled myself awake and back into the present moment. Instead of toying with ideas, I examined them, and I tested the authenticity of my instincts musically. I stretched my attention span consciously. I read books on writing by Natalie Goldberg and Carolyn Heilbrun and began to self-edit and refine more, and went deeper into every process involved with writing and musicianship. I realized I had earlier been working only within my known range—never pushing far outside the comfort zone to take any real risks … I started painting, so I could learn about the absence of words and sound, and why I needed them. I took painting lessons from Sharon Orr, who had a series of classes at a studio called Art and Soul.
I remained completely humbled by the dream [that had been the epiphanal moment at the end of my hero’s journey], and it stayed with me through every waking hour of completing King’s Record Shop… I vowed the next record would reflect my new commitment. Rodney [Crowell, my then-husband] was at the top of his game as a record producer, but I had come to feel curiously like a neophyte in the studio after the dream. Everything seemed new, frightening, and tremendously exciting.
Here’s James Rhodes, the English concert pianist:
Admittedly I went a little extreme—no income for five years, six hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental hospital, most of my dignity and about 35 lbs in weight. And the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not perhaps the Disney ending I’d envisaged as I lay in bed aged 10 listening to Horowitz devouring Rachmaninoff at Carnegie Hall.
My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure (playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices, my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching), and perhaps most crushingly, the realisation that I will never, ever give the perfect recital. It can only ever, with luck, hard work and a hefty dose of self-forgiveness, be “good enough.”
On the matter-of-fact plane we set ourselves the task, not just of learning our craft, but also of mastering those professional capacities that are even more basic. In the succeeding chapters we’ll attempt an index of these fundamental skills.
What an amazing series this is! Keep it coming, and thanks.
This series describes my ongoing work to become a martial artist as well as describing the process of creative artists. I was brought up in a family that eschewed the physical aspect of life, so I came late to martial arts, with no background and no talent—except one: the ability to keep showing up. So now after ten years I have earned a brown belt and am very grateful for this series, as it continues to reassure me that, after all, this too is a hero’s journey, even as I struggle on with each technique, one class at a time. Thank you, Steve Pressfield (and Company). Very much appreciated.
Thank you for this piece!
“The artist’s journey is an alchemical admixture of the airy-fairy and the workshop-practical. On the one hand we’re teaching ourselves to surrender to the moment, to inspiration, to intuition, to imagination. On the other, a huge part of our day is about discovering and mastering the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of how to reproduce in the real world the stuff we have encountered in the sphere of the imagination.” Do they actually happen simultaneously or do we switch from one to the other without even realizing? Thank you.
I dig this idea of the intersection (or the membrane) between realms, being able to “operate simultaneously on the planes of the ethereal and the elemental,” and recognizing each for what they are. I was thinking about that Zen aphorism that goes something like, “See the moon, not the finger pointing at the moon.” I went looking, to clarify my understanding before making a comment here. I came across this short clip (Bruce Lee, 2 min) from “Enter the Dragon,” which hits on a couple beats being discussed here. Also funny, and also touches on Caron’s comment.
That was great.
“Stretches of nervous boredom”. That’s a sermon.
Looking forward to the index of these skills!
Do you have a mantra for OLD writers?
Why did Gates of Fire sell 1M copies?
Hey, Joe … keep up the great Comments. And thanks for the Bruce Lee clip!
Tina, there’s a story about when Paramahansa Yogananda got asked once how old he was. He laughed and said, “You are asking the age of my house. My age is infinite.” In other words, it’s the same mantra for writers old and young. Besides, you are NOT old. I can tell from your comment.
Another test reply
Wednesdays and Fridays have become my favorite days of the week because of this blog. Keeps me going. Been listening to Jordan Peterson podcast lately, and his book “12 Rules for Life”–so many terrific parallels. Sun is out in Tacoma!
Thank you! This blog post is the answer I was looking for today after journalling about the struggle to maintain a business upholstering furniture which is going through a rough patch and the inspirations of my painting life. The travelling between the two was doing my head in. As was the finding the time to do the workshop toiling of completing…ok, just starting my paintings) Its about balance. I love this series so very much and have both of your books The war of Art and Turning Pro. Thanks again!
It is interesting how many people (most) on a creative journey seem to comment on how it obliterated a marriage or other personal relationship……”it’s a fine life, if you don’t weaken” – Sillitoe
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”- Jordon B. Peterson “Maps of Meaning”
I have read The War of Art and Turning Pro and loved them both! Your words have enlightened me, and helped to keep me motivated to keep writing music… and currently, in the middle of the next phase of actually recording an album of those songs! Dream come true…Looking forward to your next book so I can keep having those aha moments to keep motivating me for the next song, and the next! Thank you Steve for sharing how to slay resistance! It still sneaks in there but now I know what it is…
Thank God I finally found your book, War of Art. In spite of huge resistance, the impossible dream in my life was accomplished through the use of success team techniques. Yet dogging and limiting me has been this resistance – calamities of equipment failure, personal injury, ridiculous relationship difficulties, injury and sickness around me. All of this seemingly appearing just after organizing an ambitious but doable business plan and setting forward with optimism and enthusiasm …. BAM. Yet, through the use of positive attitude, affirmations and visualization I managed to turn lemons into lemonade and furthered my progress. All of this was tiresome and in certain areas I have experienced nearly 0 forward progress. Now it seems as if the only obstacle is … resistance. Knowledge, experience and skill are all there after all of this accomplishment and, after some bizarre experiences with loss and advances in physical reconstruction, certain paths are smooth and friction free. Other, very important areas, are full of rocks, pools of quicksand and thorns and often the path vanishes altogether. It’s as if there is a psychological wall impeding thought and action in certain specific areas. Well, The War of Art is my companion and I look forward to reading and profiting from Turning Pro. It would be a great relief to satisfy this constant, needling call to attend to, develop and realize accomplishment in these areas. Scale the wall, brave the phantoms and seize the prize.
Loving this series! Thank you so much!
And just FYI, re: “medium pallet knife” – pallets are for cargo. You want a PALETTE knife. 😉
REAlly love this series. So helpful and affirming. It’s a strange life this artist’s life. I finally got a publisher for a book I started writing 10 years ago-got the contract today. You’d think I would be over the moon–and in some sense I am. But there is this other strange feature sort of like ambivalence, mildly verging on depression. Like: So Fucking What?I’m not sure what to do with it. But it helps to read about all the other weird things artists go through.