Wise Words, A Slap In The Face
A while back I wrote about the challenges of trying to foster a writing career when temperament and circumstance both seem aligned to undo you. Like a lot of people with some dream job they’re trying to will into existence—be it a small business, a career in a fiercely competitive field, or some economic crapshoot like writing or playing music full time—I have thorny ups and downs in regard to how I feel about myself, my work, my progress, and my prospects. Some days, I can embrace my art and the burdens it brings wholeheartedly, reveling in the rather romantic notion that I’m some sort of knight errant of words on a holy quest to write something wonderful that will finally win me a comfortable, welcoming place in a hitherto hostile or indifferent world. Other days, the hostile and indifferent world seems to be winning, and I’m pretty sure that I should go heave myself off a bridge. The day job sucks up too much time (I lament)… the new baby sucks up too much energy… the mailbox and inbox yield nothing but rejection slips… everything I do manage to write is complete garbage… and why isn’t there ever enough money?
You know the drill, I’m sure. We’ve all been there. (If you haven’t been there and you’re not lying, I hate you.)
But often, when I do find strength, or focus, or even just a swift kick in the rear to get me moving again, it comes from one place: best-selling novelist and gunnery sergeant of my muse, Steven Pressfield. Because nary a week goes that I don’t turn, at some point, to this wise and worldly wordsmith’s wisdom for a little pick-me-up or some time-to-get-real motivation, I figure I should take a moment to publicly give credit where credit is due, and turn you all on to a great writer and invaluable mentor.
To be clear, I don’t know the man. I’ve never met him. I just know his words, and those words continue to challenge and inspire me. I first stumbled on his work in 1998, when the Borders I worked in received his just-published novel about the Battle of Thermopylae, Gates of Fire. Historical fiction wasn’t really my bag in those days, but the book called out to me and the read was a rare and delightful one. Therein, Mr. Pressfield managed the nearly-impossible task of making the outcome of a well-known historical event suspenseful, evoking the world of Ancient Sparta with a scholar’s rigor and a poet’s mastery, and—perhaps most important of all—making me feel deeply about the characters I encountered, and believe—without cynicism or reservation—in the ideals they fought and paid the ultimate price for. Entertaining me is not so difficult; impressing me with your research and the ease with which you sow it into a narrative only a little moreso; but getting my stony, cynical, world-weary heart to open like a flower and ache at the employ of words like duty, honor, patriotism, and faith? Let me tell you, friends and neighbors: that’s nothing short of a miracle. Ever since my first reading of Gates of Fire, I’ve never failed to recommend it to anyone and everyone I meet, having leant it out so many times that I’ve lost it and re-purchased it three or four times over.
But there are lots of writers whose work I admire and read that I don’t really think of as ‘mentors.’ Steven Pressfield became my mentor when I discovered his incomparable treatise on creativity, The War of Art. There are a lot of books out there on how to write, how to sell, how to be creative, how to get motivated, ad nauseum. I know, because I’ve read a lot of them. The War of Art is different: in a couple hundred slim pages, with chapters as elegant as cerebral zen gardens and as short as flash fiction, Big Steve lays down some of the most bullshit-free ruminations on creativity, struggle, and fear that I’ve ever read.
“The artist committing himself to his calling,” he writes, “has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.” But (he goes on to say elsewhere), “It’s better to be in the arena, getting stomped by the bull, than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot…”
Put another way: “The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.”
I believe this. I try to live this. Sometimes I fail to. And when I fail to, The War of Art eventually calls out to me from my shelf, and I idly draw it out and let it fall open, and I’m reminded again what matters.
Sitting down every day and trying.
To be in the arena, getting stomped by the bull.
Like any good narrative, The War of Art depicts a conflict between powerful forces: the self-actualizing force of the Pro, and the pernicious, frustrating force of Resistance. Resistance (yes, capital R) is a personified force that lives in all of us and that tries it’s damnedest to keep us from being whoever or whatever it is that we’re supposed to be. It’s the voice that tells us we’re not good enough; the voice that tells us we don’t have to time or the energy; the voice that tells us that whatever nutty thing it is we want to do is… well, it’s just nutty, and we really shouldn’t waste our time doing it. Opposing Resistance is the Pro—our higher self, the guy (or gal) who knows that sales, accolades, and material success do not define the true Artist (or Entrepreneur—as Big Steve often equates the two); that one’s true mettle, one’s true purpose, are defined by what one does and the attitude one takes in the doing.
In short: turning Pro is, ultimately, the only way to combat Resistance. And being a Pro has nothing whatsoever to do with how much money you’re making, or how successful you are by worldly standards; it has to do with how seriously you take your work.
“The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work,” he writes. “The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.”
That’s quite a bucket of cold water—but it strikes me as absolutely, undeniably, indubitably true. I can only do the work, and do it like I mean it. Everything else is out of my hands.
I find that accepting that notion obliterates all my excuses. (Although I’m still quite good at making excuses… just ask my wife.)
So, that said, here’s to Steven Pressfield—the best teacher I ever had that I never met. Every single time I’ve been at a creative or existential crossroads in the past five or six years (and there have been quite a few), Big Steve taps me on the shoulder, offers some wise words, gives me a good slap in the face to punctuate them, then hustles me on my way. My novel Doc Voodoo: Aces & Eights wouldn’t exist without those wise words, or that slap in the face. He’s not flighty or fussy; he’s not bombastic or base; he’s not promising me that if I subscribe to his system or attend his seminar, I’ll get rich, be famous, and drive fast cars. All he promises (because he’s learned by experience) is that the work can be its own reward when we choose to see it as such. And if you start to doubt whether this man has anything to teach you, you need only be reminded that these wise little codices on ‘the work’ are not his primary output: his primary output consists of some of the finest historical fiction written in the last twenty years. He walks the walk.
I believe in saying thank you when someone gives you a gift. This is that thank you.
If you’d like to check out Steve’s weekly insights on writing—on ‘the work’—you can find them here, at his web page.
Glasses hoisted and praises sung, what say you all? Where do you look when you’re down and lost and thirsty for inspiration (especially of the vocational sort)? What mentor, near or far, would you like to pay tribute to? Where do you find inspiration when your chosen calling—be it words, or music, or painting, or business—seems a curse instead of a blessing?