Wilderness Produces Art

We were talking last week of the collective wilderness passage of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. But there’s another great collective passage closer to home.

I’m talking about the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the industrial cites of the North between 1915 and 1970, as detailed spectacularly by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson in The Warmth of Other Suns (2010).

Isabel Wilkerson

The children of Israel migrated as one collective mass. The Blacks of the Great Migration came one at a time or one family at a time. A father would make the trek to Chicago or Detroit, find work and send for his brother or uncle or cousin. The wives and children would follow. Or sometimes they went first and alone. In end, six million or more left Georgia and Alabama and the states of the old Confederacy, hoping to make a better life for themselves and their families.

But from their struggle, they made something else.

They made art.

Music first. Jazz, soul, rhythm and blues, rock n’ roll. They made the Motown sound and their kids and grandkids made rap and hip-hop. They made literature. Richard Wright and Langston Hughes and a thousand others. They made dance, they made fashion. They created slang and idioms of speech that reinvented the English language. Food. Style. Sports. Movies. TV. They invented cool.

“I was leaving the South 
to fling myself into the unknown . . .
I was taking a part of the South
to transplant in alien soil,
to see if it could grow differently,
if it could drink of new and cool rains,
bend in strange winds,
respond to the warmth of other suns
and, perhaps, to bloom” 

            Richard Wright, from Black Boy (1945)

This explosion of art came out of the Great Migration’s pain and heartbreak … and their triumph. It had to. Art is an answer—maybe the answer—to the hell of a passage through the wilderness.

Are you on that passage now? Take heart, sister. Hang in, brother. The mud you and I are slogging through today becomes the fertile soil that yields up books and music, poetry and dance and movies and fashion, and forms of expression that nobody has even dreamed of.

Wilderness produces art.


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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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. Rose on June 14, 2023 at 1:49 am

    Yes .Beautifully written

  2. Jeff on June 14, 2023 at 2:02 am

    Thanks for this. I’ve had a lot of luck (blessing) in my surprise writing career—-until now. Now I find myself in the wilderness and I’m not even sure what Promised Land I’m looking for.

  3. Nessa on June 14, 2023 at 3:07 am

    Thank you Steven. This deep desire to express who we are is so precious and sacred.

  4. Marin Saint-James on June 14, 2023 at 3:59 am

    Pithy, moving, beautiful. Thank you. How appropriate in the context to mention Langston Hughes, who wrote so much on the theme of “a dream deferred.” I have on my desktop one such of his verses: “Gather out of star-dust,/Earth-dust,/Cloud-dust,/Storm-dust,/And splinters of hail/One handful of dream-dust,/Not for sale.” We need to be reminded of that in the wilderness.

    • Kathy on June 14, 2023 at 6:46 am


  5. Janice on June 14, 2023 at 4:35 am

    Q: What is it that we yearn for? A: Authentic self expression. Steven brill as always.

  6. Andrew F. Martz on June 14, 2023 at 4:38 am

    The wilderness, an unknown and unfamiliar place, is really a place within ourselves , through which we must traverse, to heal the wounds of imperfect civilizations and the inevitable suffering and traumas experienced in our lives, to get to a place of wisdom, transcendence, forgiveness, and grace . Art is the artifact of this deeply personal journey

    This metaphor of wilderness is not to be confused with the state of wild nature, where the unknown, and unfamiliar, are in fact places of healing and renewal, and personal confrontation

    Thus, the journey to and through the wilderness is both inward, and outward, again, and again,, as a healing and transformative journey.

    Art is a gateway, a rite of passage, and for itself, a destination.

    • Joan Di Stefano on June 15, 2023 at 6:56 am

      Thank you Steve and also to Andrew Martz for putting into words my mental response to this Writing Wednesday .

  7. Yvonne on June 14, 2023 at 5:18 am

    I couldn’t love this more. From the bottom of my heart, thank you, Steve.

  8. Dr. Rah on June 14, 2023 at 5:45 am

    I love this so much! As a black woman, this post made me feel seen. Thank you for the book recommendation. God bless.

  9. Lisa Lanzetta on June 14, 2023 at 6:04 am

    Oh man, this hit HOME today! Thank you for the great cry and showing me once again a whole new perspective. I shall carry on through this wilderness passage. Let creativity lead the way…

  10. Bing on June 14, 2023 at 6:12 am

    I joined the Marine Corp in 1956 from Los Angeles and after boot camp I was transferred to Jacksonville Florida for further training to become a helicopter electrician. I was an eighteen year old middle class white kid. I will never forget the feeling I had seeing for the first time separate drinking fountains for white and black folks. I went numb with confusion. I could not believe what I was seeing. I realize now if you were black it was a reminder that you were less than a human being, you were a nigger. Thats like different drinking fountains if you are German and Russian.
    For weeks now I have been thinking about the drinking fountain experience I had and I also have felt like less than a human being at times with my past alcohol and drug issues. I feel today on a society level something is trying to make us feel less than human. Or as we say around here the R word, resistance can make us feel less than human!
    Thanks Steve for another great post.

    • Susanne Dejanovich on July 13, 2023 at 5:27 pm

      I love these responses. At 80 years of taught fear and serving others; with rejection on every turn. Feeling very hopeless right now.

  11. Jim Collier on June 14, 2023 at 6:18 am

    Excellent post. Very wise. Thank you.

  12. Steve on June 14, 2023 at 6:22 am

    God created black people and black people created style.
    George C Wolfe

  13. Brian Nelson on June 14, 2023 at 6:37 am

    It occurred to me that the Jodi cadences we sang while marching/running in Basic Training were the ‘Army Blues’–even though I had never really listened to that music previously.

    I read the post and earlier responses earlier then went about my chores thinking about what I read.

    Super obvious, but I had this realization. The whole point, of everything, it so be understood. From songs of joy to odes of pain, comedies and tragedies the entire human experience seems to be explaining ourselves to ourselves through different mediums of art. This understanding leads to connection–and so the real point is unity.

    We sure complicate things on the way there.

    • Shawn on August 6, 2023 at 12:20 pm

      HaHaHa. Everyone is so damn serious. Steve is a pleasure to read.

  14. Kate Stanton on June 14, 2023 at 6:41 am

    Beautiful, Mr. Pressfield! I’m currently doing my humanities senior capstone project in interdisciplinary studies focusing on the healing power of music featuring Nina Simone and gender-bending performer Gladys Bentley. To have been around during the Harlem Renaissance must have been inspiring!

  15. Jackie on June 14, 2023 at 6:47 am

    My grandfather, Valentine, was part of the great Eastern European migration (Dad’s side). Family stories indicate that Valentine had a tough life in Poland (persecution of some sort, he slept in a barn with animals, but not much more was known). He was said to be a stowaway on a ship at age seventeen and was only allowed entry when a ciotka, an auntie, not by blood, but a woman from his village, vouched for him. He toiled in the mines like many immigrants at the time.
    On my mother’s side, my great-grandfather, Michael, also an immigrant, toiled in the mines. Both men suffered physical injuries during strikes and attempts to unionize the mines due to horrid conditions.
    My grandfather, Andrew, my mom’s dad, died in a mine cave at age forty-four.
    The hardships these men and their families faced may have seemed insurmountable to poor, uneducated, inarticulate people, but they fought anyway.
    Wilderness produces art.
    You bet, and for many generations. My dad was a skilled carpenter and wood carver. He produced many beautiful works of art. One sister is a master photographer, and another sister is a fiber artist. My brother is a skilled word worker with a day job. I paint and write. The fight for a voice and passage from the wilderness was felt for generations.

  16. Kathy on June 14, 2023 at 6:53 am

    Thank you, Steven.

  17. Kathy on June 14, 2023 at 8:22 am

    I was thinking about the Trail of Tears (1837 to 1839), too. What was recorded, remembered. What a horrific history brought on by the white man, to people of color. I’ve read that the indigenous people were more mistreated than blacks, if that’s even possible. Yet, indigenous people created things with their hand and voice and dance, from what they had. So industrious.

    My husband and I lived in Hawaii for 12 years. While there I learned to respect the Hawaiian’s ingenuity. I learned to make baskets and jewelry out of plants. I felt their culture and learned to respect it. People do what they can with whatever is available.. They carve in caves! They cannot help but express themselves. We are creative beings and the best expression we have in adversity or good times, is to sing, dance, make things out of mud.

    Since my husband passed in 2022, people have told me to express myself with my art. I try and can’t…Yet. Reading what you wrote though, Steven, I am obligated to. If people experiencing such tragedies as people of color have, I have no excuse.,”The War of Art”, beacons me to try harder. Thank you.

  18. Tolis on June 14, 2023 at 10:49 am

    Thank you for the beautiful post dear Steve.

    As you probably already know I am there, on that far away land. The dynamics created here are immense. They are full of Sun and Earth and emotional and a bit logical creatures. But the dynamics seem to be a sword with two edges: Resistance they may be called, for they opened the bag of winds of King Aeolus and while I was seeing the Land of the Free, the winds threw me back to the black sea where I came from of at least 8 months of journey in space and time. I was already seeing back then the smoke from our Houses by the seashore. Power they may also be called; for they opened the eyes of so many sleeping dragons inside.

    I was an hour ago with that little man of 2,5 years old and he was playing with that girl about 5 years old with the dark skin and the green shiny and wonderful eyes, and the air of freedom and fantasy and improvisation in her gaze, whom the little man would chase after all the time at that playground and she would always take care of him. I would keep a distance and watch them play like Sarah in her vision in Terminator 2 when she would stand outside the wire mesh of the random playground watching the children play freely. I felt the energy of the beautiful moment between the two and listened to two famous songs that I felt I wanted to, “Lord of the Rings” by Blind Guardian and “Tears of the Dragon” by Bruce Dickinson.

    This is art. This is all art

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  22. Edyta Rosinska on June 15, 2023 at 3:17 am

    Thank you! The mud touched me. We are easy to forget that everyday mud matters a lot and for generations.

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