Which “I” am I?

When we call ourselves “I,” which “I” do we mean?

There’s the first”I”—our ego, our conscious self, our reasoning intellect. That’s the “I” that writes a grocery list, identifies itself to the census, raises a family, subscribes to the daily paper.

Nicolas Cage as Charlie Kaufman in “Adaptation” confronting the Fifth “I”

But if we go to yoga class or sit down to meditate, we come immediately upon a second “I.” This “I” watches us as we enter Downward Dog or endeavor to calm the mindless chatter inside our skulls. This “I” is a witness. It’s somewhere “behind” or “above” the first “I.”

 There’s a third “I” that can witness us witnesses ourselves.

Not to mention a fourth “I” that stands in for us in our dreams.

Which one are we?

There’s a fifth “I” as well. That’s the one that writes our books, paints our paintings, starts our start-ups.

The fifth “I” operates independently of the first four.

That’s the “I” I’m interested in.

People ask me sometimes, “Don’t you get lonely, just being in a room by yourself all day?”

No.

I’m not lonely because I’m with this other “me,” who is me and not-me at the same time and whom I have spent my entire life trying to find, to prove myself worthy of, and to labor in collaboration with.

DO THE WORK

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.

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THE AUTHENTIC SWING

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.

The-Authentic-Swing

NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

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.

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TURNING PRO

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?"

Turning-Pro

44 Comments

  1. Jonathan on June 10, 2020 at 4:04 am

    It’s true – this fractured sense of self. “I” (whichever one it is at that point), often feel this when I go back and edit something I’ve written. Sit there reading the good and bad like, “who actually wrote this stuff?”
    it was one of the Me’s…
    Love it Steve! Thanks

    • Fred Chopin on June 10, 2020 at 9:38 am

      My dream self seems Freer than my waking self. It flows unhindered in the sense of not having my history of trauma / post-traumatic stress / flashbacks in / intrusive thoughts / triggers… This dream self is taking a vacation from all that!

      • Chrissy on June 10, 2020 at 4:51 pm

        I love that comment. Such intimate and honest truth. So relatable.

    • Ben May on June 10, 2020 at 1:21 pm

      I love this Steve. I’m lots of people: my inner child: Benji, who I take care of or Mickey Marcus, who I feel I know as well as myself. Or other characters.

  2. Mary Doyle on June 10, 2020 at 5:46 am

    Brilliant! I predict this will resonate with everyone who stops by here on Wednesdays for a dose of artistic wisdom. Thanks, Steve!

  3. Peter Brockwell on June 10, 2020 at 6:18 am

    Steve, I also really like your concept of the CEO-self and the Employee-writer-self, which you elaborated on in one of the JABS. And how about Elizabeth Gilbert’s idea about her present self doing the work and the research to help out her future self, who will then be grateful to her past self?

  4. Joe Jansen on June 10, 2020 at 6:20 am

    I was doing a guided meditation this morning (from Sam Harris’s “Waking Up” app). In this one, Sam was offering an exercise: Open your eyes. Focus on an object in the room. Be aware of the object (in my case, a tomahawk on my bookshelf) and be aware of the subject (ie, your mind and your attention that is focusing on the object).

    Now, quickly… “look for what is looking. Turn attention upon itself, and then rest, wide open. It’s possible to glimpse in that first moment of looking for yourself that there isn’t anything to find. There’s a shift there, where the object you’re looking at suddenly no longer seems to be ‘over there,’ outside of you. Rather, there’s a single condition. Just this openness of consciousness.”

    All these layers of “I” that you describe… my “I” that watches me doing Downward Dog is often questioning whether these yoga pants make my ass look fat. You’re right that the first “I” is the ego — and whether through deep meditation or entheogenic journey or immersing your consciousness in the world of your story, the quest seems to be “transcending the ego.”

    I don’t know… maybe the Muse is “us.” And we just have to get out of the way.

    • Marie on June 10, 2020 at 8:14 am

      As always, love writing Wednesday.

      And Joe Jansen, thank you for this: “I don’t know… maybe the Muse is ‘us.’ And we just have to get out of the way.”

      • Joe on June 10, 2020 at 8:32 am

        Marie, Writing Wednesdays is always my first stop mid-week, too.

        I clicked through to your site. I like your music: https://youtu.be/rIgX1a1A9V8

        • Bob Zaslow on June 10, 2020 at 9:04 am

          What an amazing post, Steven! A one-page autobiography pared down to its essence. Concluding with such a satisfying resolution. Namely, that you have finally found home, that ‘I’
          “whom I have spent my entire life trying to find, to prove myself worthy of…”
          And so that ‘trying’ is over. And You are what’s revealed, there all the time.
          Thank you for sharing this character arc of your life. You’ve freed me up to also stop trying to find what is already there!

    • Gigi Blackshear on June 10, 2020 at 8:46 am

      @Joe Jansen, thank you for the first “I” Downward Dog comment. I literally burst out laughing recognizing that I am not the only one with a very critical first “I”. I agree, all of the “I’s” together is us and we must do just that, get out of the way and let her fly!!

      Steven, once again, bravo my friend, for a succinct, well thought out column. I feel myself growing.

      • Joe on June 10, 2020 at 11:49 am

        Gigi… hope you didn’t spill your coffee. 😉

    • Suzanne on June 10, 2020 at 9:30 am

      I too, meditate with Sam Harris every morning. It is true in this case that the sense of an I separate and apart from another person, place or thing, has become quite faint. Lately, I’m finding myself immersed in what appears to be other than me. It’s a very exciting adventure. The most wonderful part of this discovery has been the silencing of the inner critic and the wonder that exists in the present moment without that voice in my head constantly censoring it’s ‘dream’.

      • Joe on June 10, 2020 at 11:48 am

        Suzanne… The Waking Up app is good, right? The 50-lesson introductory meditations are good learning. His talks on theory provide a good way to get one’s mind around what can be ineffable. In a funny little coincidence, today’s Daily Meditation was covering the same ground that lesson #39 covered — attempting to turn awareness (“I #1”) around to be aware of the observer (“I #2”).

    • Linda Kriss on June 11, 2020 at 1:16 pm

      Thanks for mentioning the Sam Harris app. I just downloaded it.

  5. Anastasia Kingsley on June 10, 2020 at 8:13 am

    All I can say is “aj ji ji” or “I, I, I”. Now I know why I love meditation so much, when I get to play with my third “I”. I’m taking the Copy Cure, listening to podcasts and interviews of well-known authors, and starting to investigate this fifth “I”. Aj, karumba!

  6. Brad Graft on June 10, 2020 at 8:21 am

    HA! Thanks for serious chuckle, here Joe– “my “I” that watches me doing Downward Dog is often questioning whether these yoga pants make my ass look fat.”

    And Steve– thanks for reinforcing these great lessons. Semper Fi.

  7. York on June 10, 2020 at 8:24 am

    The timing of this is perfect!

    Whether you’re a drunk or stone cold sober I think the artist’s life is a tumultuous one wrought with mental ups and downs (not to mention the physical ones).

    I’m not gonna lie. Today was a downer. Sitting at the desk staring at my screen, sometimes you can’t help but feel inadequate. I’m listening to Stephen King’s “On Writing” and when he gets to the section on dialog and gets on about bad writing I feel an invisible finger point to me.

    I’m getting better but I’m still not there yet.

    But there is an “I” that’s deeper than the “I” that’s not there yet. And that “I” has the story.

    The real work is getting to that “I”

    Thanks for this.

    York

    • Fred Chopin on June 10, 2020 at 9:56 am

      yes getting to that ‘I’ you’re talking about is the real Soul breaking soul sussing work. the stage I think of one needs to get to get through as best one can / depression grief and loss / next stage / acceptance MHO.

  8. Kenneth N Proudfoot on June 10, 2020 at 8:26 am

    My experience sitting alone in my room with the computer waiting mirrors that which you call the fifth “I” (the “muse”?); it enters my conscious mind soon after I begin the writing for the day. I have had no idea what I was going to write except to keep moving forward on my current project (a musical). Suddenly, and not from planning or thinking, I am flooded with a combination of related ideas, characters, conversations, and actions that arrive to insert themselves into the day’s writing. I often cannot type as fast as the words come, particularly if characters are talking to each other. I am simply a bystander, a reporter, a witness to what emerges. The people are real. Their voices in my head are unique. They have personalities. I am getting to know them.
    Steven, thank you for helping me to finally recognize something inside me that was obviously there all along. I didn’t know what it was or what to do with it when it occasionally surfaced. I probably repressed it, not believing. My sessions, no more than four hours each morning are magical and leave me excited to start again tomorrow.

  9. Sharon Small on June 10, 2020 at 8:29 am

    Pronounscapes are fascinating. Love the distinctions that you have noticed about your “I’s”.

    A great exercise is to listen as you speak and notice your use of I, me, myself, part(s) of me, ect and begin to ask yourself (lol) What kind of I is that I?

    When I need to sit down to write and I don’t .. what kind of I is that I?
    When I feel really good about the work I have done, what kind of I is that I

    When it is me trying to make myself do something I don’t feel like (now that’s very interesting) – are these the same, different? What kind of ..is each one? Where are they (where do you experience them in your psyche, body)

    Worthy of reflection and a great way to begin to gain greater congruency between what you say you want to do, be, and how it is now for you.

    And as Steve mentions, develop and labor for collaboration.

    YOu may also find this kind of musing is great for character development and distinction in your writing as well. Complex characters have many facets of themselves as well.

    Most of all – have fun, notice what happens as you begin to notice each of your personal I’s and me’s and myself’s

  10. Chuck DeBettignies on June 10, 2020 at 8:32 am

    “Don’t you get lonely, just being in a room by yourself all day?”
    Heck it’s crowded.
    There’s five of us here . . . and I need to get some work done!

  11. Tom M. Saunders on June 10, 2020 at 8:32 am

    Jill Bolte Taylor, as a neuroanatomist, has been studying the brain as related to stroke behavior for many years, yet did not know what was happening in the middle of experiencing a stroke herself. This 18 minute Ted Talk,, “My Stroke of Insight,” is one that is life changing. As a scientist, Jill defines beautifully everything that Steve just wrote while handling a human brain with spinal cord attached.
    Thank you, Steve, for another brilliant piece.
    Tom
    https://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_my_stroke_of_insight

    PS Is “The Six Day War” close to being a movie? That is your best work ever!!

    • Brian Nelson on June 10, 2020 at 4:45 pm

      Tom,
      I agree that it should be a movie. Pretty darn hard to determine the best work though…

      Funny. I was on this podcast/video interview last week. It was via Zoom. I had to show up 15 min early to the ‘green room’. As it worked out, I was able to watch his interview with the woman just before me. Turns out she mentions she was an NCO in the Israeli Army. After her interview, we were able to chat. I was like, “You were an NCO in the Israeli Army!?!?! Have you read “The Lion’s Gate”? She’s familiar with Steven Pressfield, but hadn’t read that book. I Amazoned it to her the same day.
      bsn

    • Steven Pressfield on June 11, 2020 at 7:58 am

      Alas, no, re “The Lion’s Gate,” Jill. A tough one to make … but thanks for asking!

  12. Ms. Moretti on June 10, 2020 at 8:49 am

    Wow – “to labor in collaboration with.”
    This is my struggle, and I tell myself that time on the “elevated” plain is different, which I use as an excuse to procrastinate.
    Thank you for your words today, and thanks to all the others who responded.

  13. Paul E Garrett on June 10, 2020 at 9:10 am

    “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes),” Walt Whitman

  14. Jurgen+Strack on June 10, 2020 at 9:10 am

    So I think the message is “get over yourself to get to your fifth I” 🙂

    That movie could have been called ‘Me, Myself and Five I’s’

    Jurgen

  15. Liam Carnahan on June 10, 2020 at 9:14 am

    Gorgeously put. I’m new to freelancing, and have been trying to put my finger on why I feel less alone working by myself than I did working in an office. It’s because I can be real with the fifth “I”. We’re a team, and we know each other very well. Unlike when you’re in a room full of colleagues you didn’t choose, who behave in ways that confuse, frustrate, or infuriate you. Sure, you meet the good egg every now and then, but for the most part… I’ll take my own company. Thanks for helping me put all this into perspective.

    • Sam+Luna on June 10, 2020 at 9:50 am

      Well put Liam …. was going to comment with something very similar but you articulated it perfectly.

      Steven — great post, Coach!

  16. Nickolas Lane Sherman on June 10, 2020 at 10:12 am

    “People ask me sometimes, “Don’t you get lonely, just being in a room by yourself all day?”
    No.

    I’m an introvert. So I naturally recharge being alone. But what you’re putting into words here goes beyond that. The feeling that you can interact with your characters, stories in a real and emmersive way is proof of artistry touching on something beyond us.

    That’s the feeling I’m obsessed with.

    Steve was the first one to put that into words for me.

    • Yvonne on June 10, 2020 at 11:58 am

      I’m never alone when I’m writing…my characters are with me, and it’s time I enjoy greatly. It’s never lonely for me when I’m writing in a room alone, but I’m surprised by the number of people that can’t understand how it’s not lonely to be alone.

  17. Steve Koehler on June 10, 2020 at 10:58 am

    I think I get it. (Then again, which “I” gets it?) Are there infinite “I”‘s?

  18. Judy on June 10, 2020 at 12:58 pm

    “People ask me sometimes, “Don’t you get lonely, just being in a room by yourself all day?”
    My answer is hell no…with all these I’s how could I.
    Never a dull moment here

  19. Lisa Caine (Sydney, Australia) on June 10, 2020 at 3:03 pm

    I’ve been away from your Wednesday offerings for too long. It’s good to be back. Love your work Steve. Seems you are always on the page that’s most relevant and connected with your readership… evidenced by how you seem to resonate so easily with what’s going on with us. Appreciate your work. Thank you.

  20. Morgenholz on June 10, 2020 at 3:36 pm

    Bravo. It’s not a war, or childbirth, it is a much more personally intentional and inwardly-driven struggle. There is no blood, but there is a constant existential struggle between this particular “I,” desperate to be known, and Resistance incessantly persuading the other myriad “I” to keep him from interrupting our pleasantly numb cruise through life. These metaphorical forces are in fact the reality of it.

  21. Marina Goritskaia on June 10, 2020 at 3:59 pm

    When faced by some problem, I often say “if I were me, I’d do this”. But if seriously – you’ve said that the managing ego produces Resistance, therefore it’s “evil” (or I misunderstood), but then how come you require it? Maybe it becomes evil when you try to make it do what it’s not meant for, as it is a function for a certain purpose, actually like a CEO and employee. I’d better not raise a (hypothetical) family with the same “I” that reads the paper, as it requires different language.

  22. Brian Nelson on June 10, 2020 at 4:39 pm

    Dear Steve/Community,
    I may be an outlier here–but my first ‘I’ has a dozen or so replicants as well. There is the energized ‘I’, the tired ‘I’, the angry ‘I’, the compassionate ‘I’ along with a number of even darker characters–the second ‘I’ helps me identify the multitude of incestuously fighting ‘I’s who keep me from even beginning to work–to get to the 5th ‘I’.

    As an extrovert, the fifth ‘I’ is frequently found in connection with others. There is a freedom, almost a genius –maybe better to say an elevation–that happens when truly connecting with another.

    Joe–I love the Waking Up app–but I do find those meditations some of the most difficult for me. I stopped this morning’s (I think we did an eye open meditation yesterday as well) version because I didn’t want to one of those meditations, and did one of his Metta’s. A buddy of mine (former Marine MARSOC guy) is Persian. He shared with me about doing the 5 Islamic prayers–but using the time for meditation/prayer/deep breathing. I am considering making 5 appts a day with myself as well to get in a few more meditation reps. I love the way I feel after the Metta meditations–literally practicing loving kindness. I just figured out how to ‘measure’ my meditations with my Oura ring, and want to do a little case study on my HRV after certain meditations. My suspicion is the Metta meditations will have the most impact to increase my HRV.

    I love Writing Wednesday’s. Steve’s Daimon sets the stage, and he sparks this rewarding feedback from everyone. It fills my cup every Wednesday.
    bsn

    • Joe on June 10, 2020 at 7:25 pm

      Brian,
      Oo-rah.
      Joe

  23. Makowski on June 11, 2020 at 3:15 am

    That is always my question when I hear someone talking to themselves.
    I ask, “When you are talking to yourself, who is talking, and who are you talking to?
    That would add up to 2 people. Are you two?” No one can ever really answer me, and most people
    would like to punch me for the annoying question.
    It’s like when you say, “I am going to work out.” But then you don’t work out. Who told who to
    work out, and then who did not work out? It’s a very deep question.
    I wonder if those who do not even have any consciousness of these other “I’s” are more controlled by them?
    Like standing on an iceberg and feeling they are in complete control.
    Then I imagine some people are so integrated in all their “I’s”, they must be incredibly powerful!

    Anyway, I’m still wondering about the FIRST 2 “I’s” and now Steve has come up with even 3 more!
    Could we get a little more insight on this? If you say there is a 5th “I”, how do we get there?
    What’s the way in?

  24. JAR on June 11, 2020 at 6:47 pm

    This post made me go back and revive a note I took on my diary in May 2018 which I named “A World of Strangers”.
    Now I have a glimpse on how to deal with some of the I’s that lie within my Self.
    I decided to bring it here so you know what I mean.

    A WORLD OF STRANGERS

    Then, I begged to have no pain.
    All of a sudden I had no gain.
    The taste of meals,
    The breeze on my face,
    The necking of your hands,
    The touch of your lips,
    It was dark and cold.
    It was all gone.

    I could not stand living that way.
    I was to shoot myself but that was in vain.
    Soon, an inner force came to light.
    I was then introduced to a world of strangers.
    Foreigners that came with me from the begining.
    I had to interact with those, my friends.
    I had to learn from those, my teachers.

    There was Bob, for instance, quite and still.
    He was the oldest among them. Watching over them all while they all play.
    Vincente, a lazy ass. He could berely move.
    Daniel, such a dreamer, spaced-out in fantasy.

    Luis, a short-tempered one.
    One would easily get mad on him for the sake of his rudeness.
    Jason, a constant observer, detective-like.
    He would not rest till he had found out a meaning to any and every movement detected.

    Pedro, such a pervert. Jason was aware of him.
    Jason would even close his eyes not to allow him glance at a girl’s.

    Jane, the only famale character I could see at that point, was a diplomat born.
    A balancing point among those clumsy buddies. She loves arts and nature.

    Episodes from an underground city under construction.

    Thanks, Steve.

  25. David Gerstel on June 11, 2020 at 10:23 pm

    I am glad for you that you have readers and that your readers are so taken with your idea.
    What comes to mind for me is that “I” looks an awful lot like “1” (that’s the numeral for one) and there is the just one you, one me, and one of everybody else and that within any “I” or “1” all the surges and urges you describe are working in ways we do not understand at all and that I doubt can be understood by an evidence free parceling of them into five parts .
    But what the heck, if it’s working for you, no harm done.
    I write, too, a lot, alone, and its not lonely except when I am missing companionship.

  26. Melissa on June 15, 2020 at 5:02 pm

    Thank you.

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