Note from the editor: The following is a guest post by Steven Pressfield (@spressfield), the best-selling author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, The Afghan Campaign, and The Lion’s Gate, as well as the cult classics on creativity, The War of Art, Turning Pro, and Do the Work. His Wednesday column on stevenpressfield.com is one of the most popular series about writing on the web. You can also read his profile from Tribe of Mentors by clicking here.
The following is a sampler of chapters from Steve’s new book, The Artist’s Journey (coming out July 11th), and they comprise a mini-version of the full book.
We are all artists—whether we realize it or not, whether we like it or not—and we are all on an “artist’s journey.”
What is the meaning of your life? You can assess it the same way you’d evaluate a writer’s life, or a musician’s or a filmmaker’s—by considering your “body of work.” What “material” have you generated in the past? And, more importantly, what will you bring forth in the future?
The artist’s life is defined by the works he or she produces. The artist has no choice in this. A calling from birth impels him. You have that same calling. Your life is unfolding according to the template of a “hero’s journey” that is unique to you. You can’t escape it. You can’t run away from it.
Whether you’re toiling in a cubicle or wheeling and dealing in high finance, you have an artist’s journey just like the filmmaker or the dancer or the novelist. Will you embrace this adventure consciously and morally, or will you deny it and reject it? Either way, that journey remains alive inside you. It will not sleep and it will not go away. It insists on being lived out.
THE ORDINARY WORLD AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD
The artist has a subject, a voice, a point of view, a medium of expression, and a style.
But where do these come from?
How do we find our own?
In my experience the process is neither rational nor logical. It can’t be commanded. It can’t be rushed. It is not subject to the will or the ego.
We are born, I believe, with everything we are seeking—a subject, a voice, a point of view, a medium of expression, and a style.
But these reside in an area of the psyche outside the range of conventional consciousness.
The artist’s journey is like the hero’s journey in that you and I, the artist-in-embryo, must leave our zone of comfort (the conscious mind) and cross to alien shores (the unconscious) to find and acquire our golden fleece (the knowledge of, and access to, our gift.)
The process, like the hero’s journey, involves time.
It involves suffering.
It involves folly.
Its crisis takes the form of an All Is Lost moment.
Once you have given up the ghost [wrote Henry Miller], everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos.
The ghost that we give up is the ego. The illusion of control.
The “everything” that follows is our artist’s power—our subject, our voice, our point of view, our medium of expression, and our style.
THE SHAPE OF THE ARTIST’S JOURNEY
Consider the course and contour of this artist’s journey:
Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.
The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle
Born to Run
Darkness on the Edge of Town
Born in the U.S.A.
Tunnel of Love
The Ghost of Tom Joad
Working on a Dream
Or this artist’s:
The Great American Novel
My Life as a Man
The Professor of Desire
The Anatomy Lesson
The Human Stain
The Plot Against America
Clearly there is a unity (of theme, of voice, of intention) to each of these writers’ bodies of work.
There’s a progression too, isn’t there? The works, considered in sequence, feel like a journey that is moving in a specific direction.
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
The Times They Are a-Changin’
Highway 61 Revisited
Blonde on Blonde
Bringing It All Back Home
Blood on the Tracks
John Wesley Harding
Slow Train Coming
Time Out of Mind
Shadows in the Night
You too possess an artist’s journey.
Even if you have never yet written a song or completed a short story, that body of work lies dormant inside you.
It is percolating. It is exerting pressure—whether you feel it or not, whether you believe it or not.
Like the hero’s journey, the artist’s journey demands to be lived out. It demands to be expressed.
WHAT IS THE ARTIST’S JOURNEY?
The thesis of this book is that the artist’s journey, which follows the hero’s journey chronologically, comprises the true work, the actual production, of the artist’s life.
From that moment, the hero is no longer a free-range individual.
She has become an artist.
As Rosanne Cash declared in her memoir, Composed:
I had awakened from the morphine sleep of success into the life of an artist.
Everything in her life that is not-artist now falls away.
On the surface her new life may look ordinary, even boring. No more catastrophic romances. No more self-destructive binges. No more squandering or disrespecting her gift, her voice, her talent.
She is on a mission now.
Her life has acquired a purpose.
What is the artist’s life about now?
It’s about following the Muse.
It’s about finding her true voice.
It’s about becoming who she really is.
On her artist’s journey, she will produce the works she was born to bring into being.
She will be on that journey for the rest of her life.
What, then, are the characteristics of the Artist’s Journey?
THE ARTIST’S JOURNEY IS INTERNAL
I used to write at a desk that faced a wall. My friends would ask, “Why don’t you turn the desk around so you have a view outside?”
I don’t care about the view outside.
My focus is interior.
The book or movie I’m writing is playing inside my head.
Dalton Trumbo wrote in the bathtub.
Marcel Proust never got out of bed.
Why should they?
The journey they were on was inside themselves.
THE ARTIST’S JOURNEY IS PERSONAL
The novels of Philip Roth are completely different from those of Jonathan Franzen.
Neither author, gifted as he may be, can do what the other does.
In fact, neither can write anything except what his own gift authorizes, that which is unique to him alone.
THE ARTIST’S JOURNEY IS UNIVERSAL
And yet millions of people can read Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen and be touched and moved and illuminated.
What is personal to the artist is universal to the rest of us.
THE ARTIST’S JOURNEY IS SOLITARY
Yes, artists collaborate. And yeah, there is such a thing as “the writers’ room.”
But the work of the artist takes place not on the page or in conversation or debate, but inside her head.
You, the artist, are alone in that space.
There is no one in there but you.
THE ARTIST’S JOURNEY IS ABOUT SELF-DISCOVERY
I’ve read many times that art is self-expression. I don’t believe it.
I don’t believe the artist knows what he or she wishes to express.
The artist is being driven from a far deeper and more primal source than the conscious intellect. It is not an overstatement, in my view, to declare that the artist has no idea what he’s doing.
As Socrates famously declared in Plato’s Phaedrus:
… if a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman.
The artist is not expressing himself, he is discovering himself.
THE ARTIST’S JOURNEY IS DANGEROUS
The artist, like the mystic and the renunciant, does her work within an altered sphere of consciousness.
Seeking herself, her voice, her source, she enters the dark forest. She is alone. No friend or lover knows where her path has taken her.
Rules are different within this wilderness. Hatters are mad and principles inverted.
The artist has entered this sphere of her own free will. She has deliberately unmoored herself from conventional consciousness. This is her calling. This is what she was born to do.
Will she come out safely?
A BODY OF WORK
This is my nineteenth book.
Looking back, here’s the Big Takeaway:
I never had any idea, before I wrote a book, that I was going to write it. Or, perhaps more accurately, that I was going to write that specific book. The book always came out of nowhere and always took me by surprise.
Let me express this a different way.
No matter what a writer or artist may tell you, they have no clue what they’re doing before they do it—and, for the most part, while they’re doing it.
Or another way:
Everything we produce as artists comes from a source beyond our conscious awareness.
Jackson Browne once said that he writes to find out what he thinks. (Wait, it was Joan Didion who said that … no, Stephen King said it too.)
I do the same, and you do too, whether you realize it or not.
The key pronoun here is you.
Who is this “you?”
The second and third theses of this book are:
“You,” meaning the writer of your books, is not you. Not the “you” you think of as yourself.
This “second you” is smarter than you are. A lot smarter. This second “you” is the real you.
WHERE DO BOOKS/SONGS/MOVIES COME FROM?
My long-held belief is that an artist’s identity is revealed by the work she or he produces.
Writers write to discover themselves. (Again, whether they realize it or not.)
But who is this self they seek to discover?
It is none other than that “second you”—that wiser “you,” that true, pure, waterproof, self-propelled, self-contained “you.”
Every work we produce as artists comes from this second “you.”
This “you” is the real you.
THE WORLD THE ARTIST LIVES IN
Here’s my model of the universe in a nutshell:
The universe exists on at least two levels. (It may exist on an infinite number, but certainly it manifests itself on two.)
The first is the material world, the visible physical sphere in which you and I dwell.
Then there’s the second level. The higher level.
The second level exists “above” the first but permeates the first at all times and in all instances. This second level is the invisible world, the plane of the as-yet-unmanifested, the sphere of pure potentiality.
Upon this level dwells that which will be, but is not yet.
Call this level the Unconscious, the Soul, the Self, the Superconscious.
THE ARTIST’S SKILL
What exactly does an artist do?
The writer, the dancer, the filmmaker … what, precisely, does their work consist of?
They shuttle from Level #1 to Level #2 and back again.
That’s their skill.
Twyla Tharp in her dance studio, Quentin Tarantino at his keyboard, Bob Dylan when he picks up a guitar or sits down at a piano. They perform this simple but miraculous act a thousand, ten thousand times a day.
They enter the Second World and come back to the First with something that had never existed in the First World before.
A machine can’t do that. A supercomputer packed with the most powerful A.I. system can’t do that. A dolphin or a whale, even an elephant or a great ape, no matter how advanced their cerebral capacities may be, can’t do that.
In all of Creation, only two creatures can do that.
And you and I.
THE MATTER OF FACT PLANE OF THE ARTIST’S JOURNEY
In the sphere we call the artist’s journey, we “get down to business.” Crazy-time is over. We have wasted enough years avoiding our calling.
Our aim now is to discover our gift, our voice, our subject. We know now that we have one—and we are driven passionately to identify it and to bring it forth in the real world with optimum wallop.
THE BLANK PAGE
We hear (and we know, ourselves) of the terror that writers experience when confronting the blank page.
Rather than face this, they will delay, dilate, demur, procrastinate, rationalize, cop out, self-justify, self-exonerate, not to mention become drunks and drug addicts, cheat on their spouses, lose themselves on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and in general destroy not only their bodies and minds but their souls as well.
What’s so scary about an 8 1/2 X 11 sheet of uncoated bond?
ENCOUNTER WITH THE UNCONSCIOUS
What’s scary is that, in order to write (or paint or compose or shoot film), we have two choices:
- We can work from our ego-minds, in which case we will burst blood vessels and suffer cerebral hernias, straining only to produce tedious, mediocre, derivative crap.
- We can shift our platform of effort from our conscious mind to our unconscious.
Can you guess which one we’re most terrified of?
THE MISNOMER OF THE UNCONSCIOUS
The Unconscious (to use the term as Freud originally defined it) is unconscious only to us.
We are unconscious of its contents.
But the Unconscious mind is not unconscious to itself or of itself.
The Unconscious is wide awake.
It knows exactly what it’s doing.
(And it’s pretty pissed off at being called “the Unconscious.”
THE AMAZON MIND
In Last of the Amazons, I tried to imagine on the page the ancient race of female warriors.
Here’s a description of the Amazon mode of thinking, offered by one of the characters in the book, a young Athenian who has traveled to the Amazon homeland near the Black Sea and lived for a time among this legendary all-female culture.
The Amazons have no word for “I.” The notion of the autonomous individual has no place in their conception of the universe. Their thinking, if one could call it that, is entirely instinctual and collective. They think like a herd of horses or a flock of swallows, which seem to apprehend and respond with one mind, acting intuitively and instantaneously in the moment.
When an Amazon speaks, she will pause frequently, often for long moments. She is seeking the right word. But she does not consciously search for this, as you or I might, rummaging within the catalog of our mind. Rather she is waiting, as a hunter might at the burrow of her quarry, until the correct word arises of itself as from some primal spring of consciousness. The process, it seems, is more akin to dreaming than to waking awareness.
To our Greek eyes, this habit of pausing and waiting makes the speaker appear dull-witted, even dense, and many among our compatriots have lost patience in the event or, concluding that these horsewomen of the plains are a race of savages, have given up entirely on attempting to communicate with them.
To the Amazons, of course, it is we Hellenes who are the witless ones, whose “civilized” consciousness has lost access to the well of wisdom and sense upon which the plainswoman readily draws, and who as a result are cut off from the immediate apprehension of the moment, immured within our own narrow, fearful, greedy, self-infatuated minds.
The Amazon mind as imagined in this passage is not far off from the artist’s mind when she is at work.
THE ARTIST BELIEVES IN A DIFFERENT REALITY
Did you ever see the Meg Ryan-Nicholas Cage movie, City of Angels?
In City of Angels (screenplay by Dana Stevens), human characters go about their lives, oblivious of the cohort of angels—all handsome, male and female, dressed in stylish, duster-length coats—who attend upon them and are present about them at all times, often standing invisibly directly at their shoulders.
That’s my world.
That’s what I see.
Everything I do is based upon that reality.
THE SURPRISE OF FINDING OUR VOICE
I have a recurring dream.
A good dream.
In the dream I’m in my house (or some place that I recognize as my house even though technically it doesn’t look exactly like my actual house) when I realize that I’m occupying a room that I had never realized was part of the edifice. An additional room. An expanded room.
Sometimes it’s an entire floor. I’ll be standing there, looking at crystal chandeliers and rows of pool tables extending for half a block, with music playing and people partying, and I’ll think to myself, “Wow, I had no idea this part of the house even existed. How could I have missed it all this time?”
That house is my psyche. The new rooms are parts of me I have never, till I dreamt them, been aware of.
We find our voice that same way. Project by project. Subject by subject. Observing in happy amazement as a new “us” pops out each time.
THE HERO’S JOURNEY OF THE HUMAN RACE
If the individual has a hero’s journey, does the race collectively possess one as well?
If it does, what is our “call?”
What “threshold” do we seek to cross?
What “home” will we return to?
What “gift” shall we bring?
Here’s what I think:
I think the race’s journey began in the Garden of Eden (which is of course a myth, but a myth common in one form or another to all humanity.)
Our inciting incident was a crime, the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
Act One ended with the Almighty casting us out of the garden.
We entered the Inverted World then, humankind’s collective Act Two, and we’ve been there ever since, suffering trials, undergoing initiations, encountering creatures of wonder, while our hearts, as Homer wrote of Odysseus through all the seafaring, ached with an agony to redeem [ourselves] and bring [our] company safe home.
Safe home to the Garden, that’s the return we seek. That alone will complete the circle and make mankind whole.
The artist is the herald and the medium of this passage.
THE SOUL’S CODE
Have you read The Soul’s Code by James Hillman? I highly recommend it.
In The Soul’s Code, Mr. Hillman introduces the concept of the daimon. Daimon is a Greek word. The equivalent term in Latin is genius.
Both words refer to an inhering spirit. We are born, each of us, (says James Hillman) with our own individual daimon. The daimon is our guardian. It knows our destiny. It kens our calling.
James Hillman makes an analogy to an acorn. The totality of the full-grown oak is contained—every leaf and every branch—already within the acorn.
THE DAIMON IN ACTION
My friend Hermes Melissanidis won the gold medal at the ‘96 Atlanta Olympics in the floor exercise of men’s gymnastics. Here’s a story of his daimon.
When Hermes was eight, he saw gymnastics for the first time on TV. He knew instantly that this was what he wanted to do. He went to his parents and asked them to arrange for a trainer so he could study gymnastics and compete for Greece on the Olympic team.
Hermes’ family is a family of doctors. His mom is a doctor. His dad is a doctor. They’re all doctors in Hermes’ family. They were horrified when they heard their son’s passionate conviction that he wanted to be a gymnast. “Absolutely not!” The family would never condone Hermes wasting his youth on this preposterous endeavor.
Hermes went on a hunger strike.
For four days he ate nothing.
Finally his distraught parents agreed to discuss the issue. The family and eight-year-old Hermes came to a compromise. Hermes would be allowed to study gymnastics full time. His parents would arrange it and pay for it. But Hermes must promise that he would also become a doctor. He agreed. And in fact he did graduate from medical school along with becoming an Olympic gold medalist. Today he’s an actor, by the way.
Do you see Hermes’ daimon in this story? The daimon knew Hermes’ gymnastic destiny. It seized him. It compelled him to act. Why else would an eight-year-old boy go on a hunger strike? The daimon knew.
We could easily cite a thousand other such stories—Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackson Pollock, Colette, Hemingway, on and on—of individuals whose sense of their own destiny was so strong in them that nothing including their own fear and self-doubt and even their common sense could stop them from living it out.
DO YOU HAVE A DAIMON?
It took me nineteen years to earn my first dollar as a pure creative writer and twenty-eight years to get my first novel published.
I had jobs in advertising. I had work in other fields. I always quit to write. Bosses, with the best of intentions, would call me into their offices and urge me to listen to reason: stay here, you’ve got a future with us, don’t throw your life away on a dream that’s never going to come true.
Every time I would agonize. Am I crazy? How can I go off again to write another novel that nobody will want to read and that no publishing house will want to publish?
But I always left the job. I always went off to write.
That’s the daimon.
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF THE DAIMON
What follows is founded upon no science. I can cite no studies; I have no evidence. These suppositions are purely idiosyncratic, based only on my own experience:
- The daimon is immortal.
I can’t prove it. I just feel it. When you and I shuffle off this mortal coil, our daimons will step down to the shoulder of the highway as lightly as a hitchhiker being left off at the end of a ride. Our daimon will trot off into the underbrush, like the Bengal tiger in Life of Pi, without a backward glance. It will pick up the next iteration of “you” and “me” and move on.
- The daimon is divine.
The daimon arises from and dwells upon a level beyond the material. It is governed not by the laws of the physical plane, but by the precepts of heaven.
- The daimon is inhuman.
Mother Teresa had a daimon. Martin Luther King had one. But so did Hitler. So did Stalin. And so do you.
There’s a reason why daimon looks a lot like demon. The concepts of right and wrong are foreign to the daimon. The daimon operates by higher laws. The daimon is nature. An oak will grow through solid concrete. A butterfly will cross hundreds of miles of open ocean.
- The daimon is monstrous.
The human race lost something, I believe, when it passed from the ancient world to the modern. The ancients understood the monstrous. They were not appalled by it, as we are. The legends of the ancient world are packed with monsters—Medusa, Cerberus, the Minotaur. Even the human characters—Medea, Agamemnon, Ajax, Clytemnestra—often embody the monstrous.
The ancients recognized that nature herself contains the monstrous. The world as the Almighty designed it is populated by monsters.
- The daimon is creative.
The daimon’s role is to carry the new. It is the Big Bang. It bears the future.
- Your daimon is closer to you than anything or anyone in your life.
Your daimon shields you, protects you, counsels you. It kicks your ass. It will drive you crazy if you ignore it, and yet it is inseparable from you. Nothing in your life is as loyal. It will never leave you, never betray you, never abandon you.
No creature of humankind—not your spouse, your mother, your sainted aunt—understands you like your daimon.
You will never understand yourself to the depth that your daimon understands you.
- You are not your daimon.
And yet you are not your daimon, and your daimon is not you. You are the vessel for your daimon. You are the latest edition in a long line. You are the raw material with which the daimon works.
- Ignore the daimon and it will kill you.
Are we nobler than our daimons? Are we “kinder”? “Better”? Perhaps. But our daimon is far more powerful.
- The meaning of your life is contained in your daimon
PUT YOUR ASS WHERE YOUR HEART WANTS TO BE
The great secret that every artist and mystic knows is that the profound can be reached best by concentrating upon the mundane.
Do you want to write? Sit down at the keyboard.
Wanna paint? Stand before an easel.
Wanna dance? Get your butt into the studio.
Want the goddess to show up for you? Show up for her.
WHO YOU ARE IS WHAT YOU WRITE
The artist discovers herself by the work she produces.
Who are you?
Dance and find out.
Sing and find out.
Write and find out.
Writing, like life itself, [Henry Miller again] is a voyage of discovery. The adventure is a metaphysical one: it is a way of approaching life indirectly, of acquiring a total rather than a partial view of the universe. The writer lives between the upper and lower worlds: he takes the path in order eventually to become that path himself …
From the very beginning almost I was deeply aware that there is no goal. I never hope to embrace the whole, but merely to give in each separate fragment, each work, the feeling of the whole as I go on, because I am digging deeper and deeper into life, digging deeper and deeper into past and future. With the endless burrowing a certitude develops which is greater than faith or belief. I become more and more indifferent to my fate, as writer, and more and more certain of my destiny as a man.
There is a dimension of reality above (or below) the material dimension we live in.
If you’re an artist, the search for that dimension is your life.
THE ARTIST’S JOURNEY IS THE HERO’S JOURNEY OF THE HUMAN RACE
You may wonder as you sit in your cubicle designing a gundown scene for Call of Duty Black Ops IV if you’re really advancing the cause of humanity.
Your artist’s journey is unique to you. You alone are on your path. Your job is only to follow it and be true to it.
Who knows what heights it may eventually bear you to?
You’re an artist. Your journey—however humble, however fraught, however beset with thorns and thistles—is part of a noble, cosmic cause. It is not meaningless. It is not in vain.
It is a portion of a grand adventure.
The artist’s journey is the hero’s journey of the human race.
THE GREAT ADVENTURE
What is “the benign, protecting power of destiny,” if indeed there is such a thing?
I think it’s the evolutionary pull of all humankind, which seeks, like the hero, to return to the start of its journey—in other words, the great-circle trajectory of the race arcing home to Eden.
If mankind is indeed on a collective hero’s journey, then Creation itself is on our side.
The Ego is the enemy.
Resistance is the force that it uses against us.
These foes are mighty indeed. But opposed to them always, and equal if not greater, is this great-circle “destiny,” to use Joseph Campbell’s word. That is the wind at our backs.
Therefore be of good cheer, brothers and sisters.
A powerful destiny lies coiled inside you. This force is neither a dumb, robotic tape or some dusty hieroglyph left from millions of years ago, but an active, dynamic, intelligent presence—-endlessly creative, ever-mutating, responsive-in-the-moment—supporting and guiding you as you evolve and advance.
Nor does this force operate only inside your mind. It is not solely cerebral or abstract, nor is it bound by the limits of your consciousness or your physical body.
It operates in real time and in the real world. It is connected to forces unconstrained by time and space, by reason or by nature’s laws. It is capable of summoning allies and assistance and of concentrating them on your behalf and in your cause. These forces are not only of the imagination—ideas, insights, wisdom, breakthroughs in your life and work—but also practical and material apparitions like friends and allies, connections, places to stay, money.
Flesh-and-blood individuals will enter your life at precisely the time and place you need them. These persons will play the role of archetypes—mentors and lovers, boon companions, even animal spirits, tricksters—as will corresponding foes and antagonists, tempters and temptresses, enemies, shape-shifters.
The hero’s journey and the artist’s journey are real. They come with the promise of change, of passion, of fulfillment and of self-actualization, and they come with the curse of Eden—”henceforth shalt thou eat thy bread in the sweat of thy face”—which mandates unrelenting toil and labor. The struggle never ends. It never gets easier.
This is what you were born for.
Nature has built you for this.
The artist is a role ordained by Creation. Even if you know nothing of this mandate, or refuse to believe it, or have forgotten it entirely, even if you flat-out reject it, this living force remains vital and irresistible inside you. You cannot run from it. You cannot stand against it. It is more alive inside you than your own blood and more impossible to resist than the urge to survive or to procreate or to find love.
A great adventure awaits you.
Ready or not, you are called.
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