What Works and What Doesn’t
I wrote in last week’s post that I would have to kill myself if I couldn’t write. That wasn’t hyperbole.
Here in no particular order are the activities and aspirations that don’t work for me (and I’ve tried them all extensively, as I imagine you have too if you’ve logged onto this blog.)
Money doesn’t work.
Family life, domestic bliss, service to country, dedication to a cause however selfless or noble.
None of these works for me.
Identity association of all kinds (religious, political, cultural, national) is meaningless to me. Sex provides no lasting relief. Nor do the ready forms of self-administered distraction—drugs and alcohol, travel, life on the web.
Fashion and style don’t work, though I agree they’re pretty cool. Reading used to help and still does on occasion. Art indeed, but only up to a point.
It doesn’t work for me to teach or to labor selflessly for others. I can’t be a farmer or drive a truck. I’ve tried. My friend Jeff jokingly claims that his goal is world domination. That wouldn’t work for me either.
I can’t find peace of mind as a warrior or an athlete or by leading an organization. Fame means nothing. Attention and praise are nice but hollow.
“Winning Wimbledon,” as Chris Evert once said, “lasts about an hour.”
Meditation and spiritual practice, however much I admire the path and those who follow it, don’t work for me.
The only thing that allows me to sit quietly in the evening is the completion of a worthy day’s work. What work? The labor of entering my imagination and trying to come back with something that is worthy both of my own time and effort and of the time and effort of my brothers and sisters to read it or watch it or listen to it.
That’s my drug. That’s what keeps me sane.
I’m not saying this way of life is wholesome or balanced. It’s not. It’s certainly not “normal.” By no means would I recommend it as a course to emulate.
Nor did I choose this path for myself, either consciously or deliberately. I came to it at the end of a long dark tunnel and then only as the last recourse, the thing I’d been avoiding all my life.
When I see people, friends even, destroy their lives with pills or booze or domestic violence or any of the thousand ways a person can face-plant himself or herself into non-existence, I feel nothing but compassion. I understand how hard the road is, and how lightless. I’m a whisker away from hitting that ditch myself.
The Muse saved me. I offer thanks the goddess every day for beating the hell out of me until I finally heeded and took up her cause.
No one will ever say it better than Henry Miller did in Tropic of Capricorn:
I reached out for something to attach myself to—and I found nothing. But in reaching out, in the effort to grasp, to attach myself, left high and dry as I was, I nevertheless found something I had not looked for—myself. I found that what I had desired all my life was not to live—if what others are doing is called living—but to express myself. I realized that I had never had the least interest in living, but only in this which I am doing now, something which is parallel to life, of it at the same time, and beyond it. What is true interests me scarcely at all, nor even what is real; only that interests me which I imagine to be, that which I had stifled every day in order to live.
[Nor did I choose this path for myself, either consciously or deliberately. I came to it at the end of a long dark tunnel and then only as the last recourse, the thing I’d been avoiding all my life.]
I spent decades questioning the meaning of life and looking for a purpose that gave meaning to my existence. Until one day it happened, the purpose came to meet me. When I looked at it, I had the impression that it was with me my whole life. I already knew it, all the time it was in front of me, under my nose. Why could not I see it before? Why is it only now, well past the age of forty, that I can clearly see it?
It is no wonder that many thinkers questioned free will. To what extent do we have control over our lives, do we really have free will?
There are more mysteries between heaven and earth than we can imagine and many questions can not be answered in this lifetime. Stephen Hawking concluded a book by saying “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?”
Even with all evolution of science, until now we can only understand how some things work in Nature, but we are still far from knowing why they work. So instead of theorizing and weaving explanations that can not be experienced in this plane we must concentrate on what is within the reach of the human understanding. I chose to follow my life purpose by doing my job, just like you. Thank you Steven!
I can echo these sentiments fully and Paulinho Uda has expressed my own position perfectly. It took me decades to realise that what I was seeking to do with my life is what I had been drawn to as a child but had then ignored to supposedly ‘get on with my life’. If I didn’t have my painting and my writing, and a love of nature, life simply wouldn’t be worth living – too banal by far. I’ve been through that dark tunnel, I’ve had the self doubt, the intense self criticism and feeling like a failure because I didn’t have a ‘proper job’ to become successful at. I’ve done the comparing myself to others and always falling short. My partner has also been my saving, and me for him – that counts for so much! So him and my creative life keep me going, and I feel a great sense of liberation now, not perfect by any means, but the closest I expect to get…a much happier person who enjoys helping others. I plan a memoir on this topic, as my midlife crisis was all about my creative life and the lessons I had to learn!
I loved what both of you said, that all your Life you searched for your “purpose” and meaning. I think all of us searching for that. But is it really searching or more creating?
What I mean by that is, that we have most of the time a sense of what we like or who we would like to become. And then work from this point closer to the core of our purpose.
Is there anything which helped you Paulinho & Lynne to discover your purpose? Or better to realize that it was there all the time?
Would love to her your thoughts.
“That wasn’t hyperbole.” I love the directness in your blogs about the internal lives of artists. As we’d say on the range, “Target. Target. Target. Cease fire.” You nailed that one.
Walking it in. In that vein, you ever hear this statistician/nerd joke, Brian?
Three statisticians are deer hunting from a ground blind. They see a nice buck within range. The first statistician stands up and takes a shot. Missed! Ten feet to the left.
The second statistician stands up to take her shot. No joy. Ten feet to the right.
The third statistician stands up, looks downrange, and declares, “I GOT HIM!”
Brian, unless that’s a big range with big ordnance launching a good distance, I thought it was “Front Sight. Front Sight. Front Sight.” 🙂
You’re pretty close actually–that was what we’d say in tank gunnery. I love the direct language of the Army–it may be why Steve’s writing resonates so clearly and deeply with me.
Makes sense. I’m enjoying my writing journey immensely as I focus, focus, focus.
Joan Ramirez, author
“The labor of entering my imagination and trying to come back with something that is worthy both of my own time and effort and of the time and effort of my brothers and sisters to read it or watch it or listen to it.” Such great words, Steve. THANK YOU!!
For me, doing the work and what it takes sharing “what has worked for me” means I DID SOMETHING. FIRST I needed to FIND myself and in DOING SO, I will continue TO DO SOMETHING. Sure there are days “the mind” wants to play a different course; I SAY OK – but you are not going to win “the bet.”
The TURN KEY and I didn’t even know the AMAZING GRACE at the time, was the very first poem I wrote 30 years ago. “I know I am 51 but I feel like I am 5. Last feels first. Young feels old. So it is true, I was 51 when I was 5.”
I’ve done a fair amount of reading about the concept of happiness or, as the researchers increasingly call it, “subjective well-being.” One of the variables it’s consistently correlated with is living a life “on purpose.” I equate the contentment you describe to subjective well-being – it’s within reach for each one of us, every day. Just. Do. The. Work. Thanks for another great post!
Well said, Steven. Thank you. I think so often of what you say about the personal history we acquire before we take the artist journey. The one only we know that we draw on the rest of our life.
Today’s post also resonates with a song lyric from “Particle and Wave” off Rosanne Cash’s new album, She Remembers Everything:
We owe everything
To this rainbow of suffering
Thank you. What you wrote is what I would have written had I listened to my Muse this morning. Yup. It’s my drug.
Thank you for sharing your personal story. Now we know why you pray to the Muse every morning!
I would love to read more about how and when you started to realize or, at least suspected, that the conventional lifestyle was not going to cut it for you. There is a lot of discussion about addiction and depression in our society nowadays and your insights may offer some new insights and help others explore a new way forward, sooner than later.
Thank you for sharing your writing journey with us. Grateful to the Muse, of course!
“The Muse saved me. I offer thanks the goddess every day for beating the hell out of me until I finally heeded and took up her cause.“
The shiny thing that grabbed my eye up there was: “Winning the big whatever lasts about an hour.”
Along with four words that Sorkin put in Jed Bartlet’s mouth time and again in “The West Wing”:
“Mrs. Landingham! What’s next?”
Regarding Mr Miller’s passage- “I found that what I had desired all my life was not to live…—but to express myself” and your reference to the goddess beating the hell out you… I infer a deeper definition of “express.” The feeling you both convey is the definition of expression that implies “squeezing out by force” (like we would express the juice from an orange or the oil from an olive) rather than a mere conveyance of thought. I hope that is a more accurate description. Either way, that’s the definition I assign it…and your words move me to action. I’ve resisted expressing myself for too long. Thanks.
You certainly live what you have written above.
A few years ago you were on the radio with Hugh Hewitt and I called in. You had just written “The Lion’s Gate” and were discussing it. I can’t recall what you stated, but since I know Hugh I figured if he saw me on the board he’d give me a moment to speak with you.
I felt compelled by the discussion to ask if you would have written “The Lion’s Gate” even if you knew few, if any, people would read it. You replied that you would as you had to know about that event. The Muse had struck you, I imagine, to go in that direction and you have learned not to “resist” the Muse.
Thank you, and the Muse, for that book and especially along with your books on getting off one’s ass as well as “Gates of Fire” and “Killing Rommel”. I’d appreciate if the Muse gave you a little kick in the direction to write some additional historical fiction novels. “Smothering Stalin”, Mutilating Mao”, “Hanging Hitler”, and “Trephining Terrorists” all come to mind 🙂
I resonate with Daniel’s comment also, I have resisted expressing myself for too long. Your posts are very encouraging, I feel a part of the community of souls reaching to expand and I am ready to express myself, Thank you.
Powerful and moving.
Thank you, Mr. Pressfield.
Thank you, Steve.
I remember the day I found your book The War of Art on the shelf of my favorite independent book store–now no longer there–It’s now a wine tasting boutique on Ojai Avenue.
After I read that book everything made sense.
Throwing my life into a selfless cause, where meaning was for a time, suddenly felt meaningless. It finally fizzled out. And for others who have contributed greatly in the endeavor to raise consciousness and to find some inner discipline, I give great thanks. I did what I could. But I was always considered to be not quite a part of things.
I do find art to be a great wonder. I seem to be one of a rare breed who is equally at home in the non-verbal world, including dance, as the verbal one.
When I write, I am coming home to myself in a way that leaves a mark on my soul. And, at the same time, presses me to keep working and refining the fire.
You live in the fire. That is the point.