The Artist’s Journey, #14

Continuing this serialization of The Artist’s Journey. For the past few weeks we’ve been talking about the professional skills the writer, the painter, the actor, the filmmaker develop on her journey. Pretty soon we’ll be getting into my favorite part, the deep stuff, the crazy stuff, the stuff you can’t prove but that you know is true. If you’ve missed any of the prior posts in this series, catch up here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11Part 12. Part 13.



Before, she would have been seduced by that rave in The New York Times. It would’ve gone to her head. She would have become insufferable.

The ordeal of her real-life hero’s journey, however, has taught her humility. “Yeah yeah,” she thinks as she assesses the critic’s over-the-moon adulation. “And what’ll you write next time?”

She accepts the plaudits with gratitude, then goes back to work.


I interviewed a test pilot once. He told me that over the course of his career he had put more than two hundred and fifty airplanes into deliberate tailspins to test the crafts’ physical limits.

“Of course you are scared,” he said. “But you understand what causes a tailspin. And you know how to pull out of it.”

The artist learns that panic strikes at that point in a project when a creative breakthrough is imminent. Panic is Resistance pulling out the stops to keep us from ascending to the next level.

The artist, like the test pilot, learns to stay cool and keep flying the plane.


In Eugen Herrigel’s 1953 classic, Zen in the Art of Archery, the author, a deeply serious student of Zen Buddhism, travels to Japan and enrolls in an academy of archery.

In this school the physical act of drawing the bow and loosing the arrow (as also in other schools with meditation, martial arts, the study of calligraphy or flower arrangement or mastery of the tea ceremony) is not undertaken for its own sake but as a portal to insight, to enlightenment.

For Herrigel, the process came down to one challenge: the simple act of releasing the bowstring.

Herrigel could not get it right.

He would draw the bow with the fingers of his right hand (in Japan this act is performed with the thumb and forefinger) pulling the string back to its full stretch. Then he would release the string, shooting the arrow toward the target.

Hundreds, thousands of times Herrigel attempted to do this, but always his instructor found fault with his technique.

“The bowstring,” declared Herrigel’s teacher, “must release itself without your will or consciousness. You are thinking too much. You are trying too hard.”

Herrigel was instructed to hold the stretch until the string escaped from his fingers by itself, so that the release came to him as a surprise.

The setting for the student of an unsolvable riddle, a koan, is at the heart of the teaching of Zen.

The idea is to exhaust the aspirant’s will, to extinguish his ego, to break down his stubborn, prideful mind and his compulsion to control the event. The moment of breakdown is the moment of breakthrough.

But how do you do it?

How do you try and not-try?

How do you do and not-do?

How do you find your subject?

How do you find your voice?

How do you find your point of view?


The artist can feel it when she’s working beyond her limits. Her blood thrills. She loves it.

This is the rush of working in the arts. It’s why she came to this dance.

We can sense it, you and I, when we’re playing it safe. And we know, too, when we’ve stepped out beyond the light of the campfire.

Out there is where all good things happen.


Elite warriors are trained to “run toward the sound of the guns.”

The artist lives by that principle too.

What project terrifies her most? What work is she certain she can never pull off? What role will push her past her limits, take her into places she has never gone? What journey will carry her off the map entirely?

The artist hears the guns. She feels the battle lines inside her and she senses which quarter of the field terrifies her most.

She goes there.

She runs there.


Every work resists you. It wrestles against you like an alligator. It kicks and bucks you like a bronc.

The artist learns to “sit chilly,” as the renowned equestrienne Sue Sally Hale used to say.

He answers the bell every round. He refuses to go down. He will keep the pressure on week after week, month after month, year after year.

He knows the oak will fall.

The enemy will tire.

The gator will roll over and quit.


The struggle between the artist and her work is a duel to the death.

One of them is going to surrender.

One of them will go belly up.



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. Mary Doyle on May 16, 2018 at 7:27 am

    There is a lot to digest here – “run toward the sound of guns” will stay with me – as always, thanks for this provocative series!

  2. Daniel Karan on May 16, 2018 at 7:30 am

    The artist knows how to kill. Beautiful.

    No way am I going belly up.

    Thanks for being you Steven.

  3. Gwen Abitz on May 16, 2018 at 7:39 am

    LOVE IT. I have ZEN IN THE ART OF ARCHERY. I read it in the early 1990’s. Inside of the front cover I had written
    P. 47 – lead in. P. 77 end. Must sit Lotus. Needless to say I will read it again in 2018 to learn what I meant and must have known then.

  4. Barbara Moi on May 16, 2018 at 7:50 am

    Wow! Thanks, Steve.

  5. Randy Gage on May 16, 2018 at 8:03 am

    This is going to be your bets yet!

  6. Bill on May 16, 2018 at 8:08 am

    I saw a TV commercial for the US MARINE CORPS and the theme was a Marine runs to the sound of the guns as others are running away. when I saw the above quote this immediately popped into mind as did my fathers admonition to not join the Marine Corps during Viet Nam for this very reason. And yes this quote will stay with me also. This is good stimulating stuff but of course you already know that. Thank you.

  7. Bing on May 16, 2018 at 8:41 am

    I love these kind of messages. They are the real deal.
    Thanks Steve.

  8. Kathleen on May 16, 2018 at 8:44 am

    Killer post, really got my blood moving! The reminder of “Zen and the Art of Archery”, takes me back to when I first read it and the consciousness it brought. Powerful stuff. I too will be reading it again.

    Thanks Steven

  9. Joe Jansen on May 16, 2018 at 10:43 am

    Thinking of words, either from this column or from one of the books, about a hawk circling, looking for a mouse. “He needs a kill. So do I.”

  10. Jeff Korhan on May 16, 2018 at 11:07 am

    The moment of breakdown is the moment of breakthrough.

    • Kim on June 8, 2018 at 7:54 am


  11. Julie Murphy on May 16, 2018 at 11:10 am

    Great aeronautical analogy, Steve. Reminds me how graveyard spirals happen when we can’t see the horizon, don’t realize our wings aren’t level, don’t trust our instruments, and don’t know we’re disoriented.

    Thanks again for keep us sharp.

  12. Maria Xenidou on May 16, 2018 at 4:44 pm

    I guess I knew it all along that the moment that I would say that “you are writing this book just for me, exactly when I need it” would eventually arrive. I cannot wait to get it in my hands.

    PS. Your dear friend Seth likes to refer to panic as “the tension” – but you probably already know that!

  13. Andy on May 17, 2018 at 5:28 pm

    “THE ARTIST LEARNS HOW TO KILL”: This reminds me of professional comics artist Becky Cloonan ( Here are some quotes from her blog from about ten years ago that I wrote down as examples of “pro” self-talk:

    “I’ve been killing comics all week!”
    “I’m on the warpath!”
    “Now I’m so pumped with pure comic fury that I’m gonna draw until I pass out.”
    “I finished an issue this week! Sweet victory!”
    “I return to my desk feeling refreshed and ready to draw the hell out of any page that dares cross my path.”
    “I sat back and weighed it in my hand thinking, ‘Damn, I drew all that!’ Totally blew my mind!”

    She’s a killer. That’s what a killer sounds like. That’s the sound of killing it.

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    I support your enthusiasm, because convenience and progressiveness make it possible to use qualitative developments. I always pay attention to these criteria when choosing resources, that’s why I use nurse writing services Everything is done to the highest standards and taking into account my requirements.

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    Demonstrate your skills of extreme drive and win Drift Hunters race on the tracks of this dynamic game.

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