The Wilderness Passage is Not Optional

You can catch the ride early or catch it late. But, like it or not, you were born with your ticket. Sooner or later, the conductor will call, “All Aboard!” and the train—with you on it—will pull out of the station.

William Holden and the train from “The Wild Bunch”

The weird thing about a Wilderness Passage is we can try to duck it … and even succeed—except what happens is the very act of dodging becomes its own Wilderness Passage and, despite all our efforts, our destiny has caught up with us and we have to face it.

I have a friend who’s an entertainment lawyer in Hollywood. The law is his shadow career and he knows it. He should be writing or producing movies … or books … or working in some whole new medium of expression. But he’s not. He keeps putting that day off. 

It won’t surprise you, I’m sure, when I report that my friend’s formerly social drinking has taken a more dangerous turn. He’s also dressing differently. I don’t know what to call his new style but it’s definitely not “L.A. Law.”

In other words, my friend is slip-sliding from one wilderness (for him)—the law—into another of self-destruction (or, perhaps more positively, self-redefinition.)

What is he seeking? Like me, I suspect, he is unconsciously navigating toward an All is Lost Moment—some horrible crash-and-burn calamity whose ultimate outcome will be, I hope, his making the decision to commit to whatever his heart is really calling him to.

This is a long way of saying that the Wilderness Passage is not optional.

We may think we can duck and dodge it, and we may actually succeed for years. But sooner or later, our unlived life will catch up to us.

P.S. The story of my own passage through the wilderness—GOVT CHEESE: A Memoir—was just published a few days ago (in hardback, eBook, and audiobook), 12/30 to be exact. Signed first editions can still be ordered at www.stevenpressfield.com.

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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.

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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?"

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39 Comments

  1. Edgar van Asselt on January 11, 2023 at 2:08 am

    hi steve,

    yes i agree when we try to deny the fact that we’re denying our call, resistance will find something to help us with that. whether it’d be booze or something else, there’s always an excuse not to dedicate yourself to the call. and after that, find ways to numb yourself by whatever means possible. I think one of the solutions is simply to acknowledge that putting your stuff out and following your call means you must expose yourself. And that act easily invokes fears and insecurities. If we can accept more and more they’re part of the process of being an artist and doesn’t mean we’re doing something wrong or ‘not up for it’, it becomes easier to do the work anyway. Doing the working in that way becomes the antidote for our insecurities cause we have nothing to hide for ourselves..

    anyway, just my morning ramble 🙂

    keep up the good work and thanks so much for your support.

    • Brian Nelson on January 11, 2023 at 6:25 am

      Edgar,
      Well said.
      Your post brought “The Man in the Arena” by TR and ‘naked before the Gods’ to mind. Exposed. Vulnerable. Silhouetted. Something I’ve never thought about until I began to respond is that when one is silhouetted he/she is also a model for others.

      Steve’s candor in sharing his own journey, from War of Art to GOVT CHEESE has been inspiring to tens of thousands. It is counter-intuitive and certainly against everything our safety-loving ego wants, but it is where our strength is truly found. (OK, that is a bit of me whistling in the dark, but I do think it is true…)
      bsn

      • Edgar van Asselt on January 18, 2023 at 3:00 am

        hi Brian,

        Thanks for the idea! I didn’t know the Man in the Arena, but it sure captures the essence of what i’m saying. Silhouetted you mean: if you stand in the light, people will also see your shadow? I’m curious what you mean.

        I haven’t read Steve’s new book yet, i’m just too immersed in promotion my own album. Doing it with a parquet on my head 🙂 But yeah, i mean it is all about going in uncharged territory, and just kind of thrusting your gut there’s something out there. But also knowing there’s no guarantee for a specific result or succes….so it takes guts, yeah.

    • Marlon Martinez on January 11, 2023 at 7:31 am

      Edgar,

      Very well put. Confronting those fears and insecurities that arise when we follow our call is something that I wish I had done more of when I was in my 20s. For much of my life I didn’t know that the discomfort was normal. And we do pay a price when we don’t follow our call anyway. I learned from experience that the initial comfort of putting off “doing the work” costs me further future discomfort.

      • Edgar van Asselt on January 18, 2023 at 2:51 am

        Hey Marlon,
        Well man, i’m well in my fifties so it’s not you’re the only one who’s felt this way. I mean it’s also, we’re for the most part completely untaught about this whole thing and learn to thrust on external factors. And sometimes…it just takes a lot of time to really get to the bottom of where you wanna be. That’s another thing. And yeah…we all have to meet our discomfort too, and that’s another thing like the whole of humanity is trying to escape its discomfort. Actually we built whole industries around it 🙂 So you know, you found out and…if you acted upon it, than you’re doing the work. so just keep going…

  2. Pete Harrison on January 11, 2023 at 3:24 am

    Hi Steve,
    As always brilliant!
    Love the book – all your books!
    I have read my kindle edition and listened to the audible version of Govt Cheese, this is where my vocabulary collapses… Except to say to others do yourself a huge favour and get the audio version as well, listen to Steve’s voice tell his story so you really know first voice, unadulterated what he is describing, experiencing, deeply…you get to hear his heart tearing and know the place, the pain and journey as if you were riding jockey beside him in a truck cabin or in van with a cat from ‘the call’ to ‘the return’.
    Then read the book, and ‘arrive at where it began and know the place for the first time’.
    It’s one hell of a ride!
    Steve, a huge thank you, but even that attempt to express my respect and gratitude is far too blunt a knife to cut your hardy ‘cheese’.
    Regards
    Pete

    • Brian Nelson on January 11, 2023 at 6:27 am

      Pete,
      I agree 100%. I’ve listened to all the books that Steve has narrated, so much that I think I actually hear him in my head when I read Writing Wednesdays. I also understand the difficulty in expressing the gratitude I feel for his efforts. My hunch is that producing our own art is the best way to say thank you.
      bsn

      • sdc on January 13, 2023 at 2:39 pm

        bsn
        I always enjoy your insight

  3. Brad Graft on January 11, 2023 at 5:45 am

    Great take, Pete. No “collapse in vocabulary.”

    I also read “Govt Cheese.” Steve’s sobering tales in his “wilderness” are well-told. Hats off to him.

    But add the nonverbals gathered by Steve actually telling the story, via audiobook– his tone, inflections and audible pain of recounting these events– and the “reader’s” understanding can’t help but be heightened.

  4. Kate Stanton on January 11, 2023 at 6:02 am

    “But sooner or later, our unlived life will catch up to us.” Ouch. Truth bomb!
    Humans make things incredibly difficult for ourselves, don’t we? If we’d just stop, shut out the noise, and listen long enough to know “it” has been there all along. FEAR is powerful. It feeds on all your past wounds. I read today’s blog and thought to myself: it all boils down to taking personal responsibility. No one else can do it for you. Find help. Gather tools and mindsets. Build skills. Most importantly, do the work. Why is this so hard to do? Seems easier to type it. The “crash-and-burn calamity” may end up being the worst/best thing that’s ever happened in the hero’s journey. Things to soak in for the week…to ponder…
    Thank you, Steve!

  5. George Carpenter IV on January 11, 2023 at 6:50 am

    It’s never too late.

  6. Maureen Anderson on January 11, 2023 at 7:37 am

    And the way back isn’t a straight line! This is a great reminder…

    https://stevenpressfield.com/2010/09/the-all-is-lost-moment/

  7. Cheryl on January 11, 2023 at 8:23 am

    You speak right to me, I am always in the moment when reading your posts, the shadow life is very powerful, years go by and it is so painful, time has come time is now..

  8. Jackie on January 11, 2023 at 9:36 am

    Steve says,”But sooner or later, our unlived life will catch up to us.”
    Thinking outloud here. Many cultures believe in reincarnation. What if we have to keep coming back and back and back until we finally do what we were supposed to do on the first go around? That thought makes me want to sit my ass down and work until I get it right this time. Wishing everyone a productive week.

  9. Angela Meer on January 11, 2023 at 10:07 am

    Jung would call this the descent. It is the age old story of Jonah and the Whale, fleeing from the call of God to prophecy hope for Ninevah, he runs the opposite direction until shipwrecked and swallowed by a whale that takes him three days backwards until he is vomited up on the shore of Ninevah.
    We will always be subject to the call.

  10. Joe Jansen on January 11, 2023 at 12:33 pm

    Love seeing how Writing Wednesdays raises so many different kinds of response from each of us.

    I’m not sure where I heard it, but this idea that the daemon as this expression of our inner genius (inner knowing/highest self) can turn into a demon when ignored or devalued. “If you don’t write the novel that has been gifted you from this other dimension, if you fail in your role as midwife, I will make you miserable. Daemon become demon. Funny, thinking about it in the other direction, my understanding of the guidance offered when encountering a scary or even demonic figure when in the midst of a mystical (psychedelic) experience is this: Don’t run away. Approach it with curiosity. “What are you here to show me, to teach me?” Invariably, the demonic figures are said to change so something more approachable and less threatening.

    • Brian Nelson on January 11, 2023 at 4:14 pm

      Joe,
      I couldn’t agree with you more. I think of it as potential, agnostic potential. It must turn into something. That’s something can be a novel, a business, a painting, a charity.
      Or it will turn into cancer, drug addiction, alcoholism, narcissism, diabetes certainly anger, envy, bitterness.

      I’m pretty sure we wear it in our bodies for all to see as well.
      Well said my friend. Happy New Year.
      bsn

    • Lin Keeling on January 11, 2023 at 9:38 pm

      I attended a Zoom session this week with a tapestry weaver about the challenges of the design process. She described what you’re talking about Joe as, Move Toward the Monster, the monster being the thing that scares you.

  11. Stacey on January 11, 2023 at 2:30 pm

    Agree. I’ve come through the wilderness, and find myself burning to recapture the knowing of my calling as a young child. She knew, she knew it all. She knew she was an artist and that that would be her sustenance above all. Men, children, domesticity, mediocrity.
    But she went along the path of ‘should’ and failed dramatically at trying to be like seemingly everyone with their sensible jobs, families, mortgage.
    The subconscious undertow of the calling made for a halfhearted life. So now it’s time for reclamation. What’s in you will never leave you, it will pull at you until you either self destruct or let it through.

  12. Doug Setter on January 11, 2023 at 4:29 pm

    I dodged what I really wanted for decades. Finally, business failure put me on a path of doing things that I had pondered since a kid, including writing books. Around that time, I ran full marathons and won a kickboxing championship (age 40). Now writing is beckoning me again.

    Thank you, Steve.

    • Nom de Plume on January 11, 2023 at 7:37 pm

      Congrats! When you are on the right path, all sorts of good things happen.

  13. Renita on January 11, 2023 at 4:45 pm

    Being disorganized has been my avoidance tactic. So my 2023 is not to waste time looking for stuff. I can be using that time more creatively.

  14. mike henderson on January 11, 2023 at 8:24 pm

    M1…what a wonderful surprise !!!.When you told me the book you were working on was called ‘ Govt Cheese”.. I though that was a different “genre” for you…writing about Govt Waste.So to now know it is a memoir has really thrilled me…what I considered my favorite book and told Kitty was it was as close as we would get beyond your humility and rigid Discipline and stoicism..Now this,,Cant Wait..Ordered the signed copy but getting it on audible tonight. I have been doing a lot of reading of late on the Greeks views of “The Fates”.I never talk about it, but it haunts me daily on why I am still here and Billy Torpie and so many other platoon leaders are not !!..More than just a little pressure to do the best with the gifts I have,,,and you my man are certainly a big one..as Mick would say Cheers LT

    • mike henderson on January 11, 2023 at 8:45 pm

      M 1…what a wonderful surprise !!!! When you told me a number of months ago that the book you were working on was to be called “Govt Cheese”..my first thought was that was sort of a different “genre” for you.Somehow we got interrupted at that point and I was not able to delve into ‘why that subject’,and then I thought you know along with Diana the book world 100 times better than I do..so just wait and see.
      A MEMOIR. fantastic..and it sounds like it goes well beyond your stoical disciplined humble wall, which will be fascinating. When people ask me which of your books is my favorite, I tell them ” An American Jew” because we get more YOU, and not Alexander,or Leonadis,or Erwin. Of late I have been reading a lot on the Greek’s views of “The Fates” I never talk about it, but it haunts me daily on why I am here and so many great platoon leaders like Billy are not. More than a little pressure to do the best I can for the world with the gifts I have…and you my main man ,Marine One, are certainly a great gift…as Mick would close..Cheers LT

  15. Adam Lee Rosenfeld on January 12, 2023 at 12:14 am

    This is exactly what I’m dealing with right now. Thanks for the message.

  16. Lucy Weir on January 12, 2023 at 3:50 am

    I’d love to see Steve comment on these comments. I’ve only read War of Art, and found it profound and influential, and interesting that the Bhagavad Gita was such an influence. There’s a strong spiritual thread running through all Steve’s work, and the idea of the creative force working through some of us (potentially all of us?) is a good metaphor, though I would call this alignment to the spirit, in the atheist sense of “that’s the spirit”, as in “that’s the attitude!”. Got down and depressed when I didn’t write yesterday because we went to see friends of my man’s and spent so long chatting with them that by the time we got home it was survival mode all the way, washing, cooking, cleaning. This is far more common in women’s lives, of course. No real external drama, just the drudge, leaching away at us. I’ll keep fighting.

    • Lin Keeling on January 12, 2023 at 11:11 am

      You are not alone, Lucy! There is a women’s dimension to the creative struggle in particular, and life in general, which we as a society have yet to solve. All I can say, as I work in these trenches with you, is Hang In There!! Your creative life is important to you as a person and should be attended to as best you can given your energy and circumstances. Don’t give up on yourself or it.

  17. Anne Pellicciotto on January 12, 2023 at 9:28 am

    This post was meant for me today. On this very day my body battles with an upper respitory infection – my eyes, my lungs, my sight and breathing are effected. Symbols. Why cant I breath or see through puss encrusted eyes? Why is scoliosis spine pain debilitating this body that has always served me? What the hell is going on?

    I have recently recommitted to finishing my #metoo coming of age memoir in the works for 25 years. Yup. I have been in the wilderness that long. Now I am serious. I am on my third rewrite and it is going well. I am at the desk everyday. I have invested in story structure books and taken myself back to school so that my memoir isnt a random bunch of memories but a compelling and gripping whole. I have become what Steve calls a professional.

    So why have these debilitating illnesses hit, preventing me to showup at the desk? HAH! Is this Resistance?

    Oh yes it is. For one thing, this book is filled with well protected family and societal secrets. Who doent want those divulged? Could it be me? Funny how I recently started to get a bit distracted with a sideline project, related to my coaching business. But I am not meant to be coaching others right now. Thats wilderness. I am meant to only coach myself. I am not meant to get sucked into drama with my old and demanding house. Thats wilderness.

    I have got to remain laser focused on my creative dream. To complete, to birth this book and welcome my voice into the world.

    The illness? A test. A reminder about what matters. A sacred pause where I have to get so quiet in my body and mind to heal myself that I cannot help but hear that voice that whispers her screams to be heard.

    I am on antibiotics now, I am expelling all the pentup pflegm, and I am strengthening my body to come back – out of the wilderness and to the desk.

    I am on notice with you, fellow explorers.

    • Lin Keeling on January 12, 2023 at 11:18 am

      “The illness? A test. A reminder about what matters. A sacred pause where I have to get so quiet in my body and mind to heal myself that I cannot help but hear that voice that whispers her screams to be heard.” Illness can definitely serve us in this way, Anne! I have to remind myself of that all the time!

      I have lived with chronic health issues all my life and looking back, the times that I had the most growth were when I allowed myself to accept the bad days when I had to rest, couldn’t work, as a time of reflection on who I am and what I need to do. Then I am better, I can go back to the work not bemoaning the time I’ve ‘lost’ but renewed and better focused on what I need to do next. I know it sounds weird, but illness can be a gift and a valuable part of the wilderness journey.

      • Anne Pellicciotto on January 12, 2023 at 5:30 pm

        Lin, it does not sound weird at all. I have already found that…the gift. Focus and commitment. Here is to our projects and our healing.

  18. P. Paullette MacDougal on January 12, 2023 at 1:40 pm

    I cannot wait for my autographed copy of GOVT CHEESE to arrive. What happened, Steve, did you run out of ink? Maybe it will be in today’s mail. I hope so. My head needs straightening out so I can get back to work.

  19. Julie Pickerill on January 13, 2023 at 6:18 am

    Beautiful words. They could be the start of a interesting book.
    Thank you,

  20. Ankur on January 16, 2023 at 6:38 pm

    Steven, I get what you’re saying and I suppose lot of it springs from the Gita-finding your true calling. Yr ‘svadharma’.
    But here is a caveat: even those who find their true calling are in time sad, broken, unsatisfied.

    Bukowski wrote fabulous poetry, but chased wine and whores all thru his life. He admitted on life being pure misery all the time.
    Or take the Beatles who created divine music. But they kept at the drugs. Later they chased Indian gurus for a way out. Same with Elvis.
    Many movie stars are busy pursuing their art but are hopelessly addicted to wine and drugs. Or broken relationships. They speak of nonstop dissatisfaction.Mick jagger even sang ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’.
    Even most sport stars are depressed. I remember reading about Ryan Gill, the iconic Man U player who won the Premier League and Champions league titles. He said in his entire sporting career of 17 yrs, he was rarely happy. Fame tore him apart. And the dopamine hit of winning faded away in a day..
    What’s going on? I think there is another inner journey out there. Even finding your inner calling and working on it may disappoint you in the end because in the end most people still chase fame and validation from the inside.
    Simply because In the end, the world disappoints. In the end, you’ve got to move towards the Divine.
    So even your true calling in the world may be a metaphor, a shadow for the final act in your story.
    That’s at least my take.

  21. Virlana Kardash on January 17, 2023 at 4:16 pm

    Steve, this is so fantastic. That’s it. Never stop, my brother in arms.

  22. the backrooms on January 26, 2023 at 7:28 am

    Are you out of ink, Steve? It could arrive in today’s mail. That’s what I’m hoping for, anyway. I have to get my thoughts in order before I can get back to work.

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