The Artist’s Journey With Steven Pressfield

The creative experience is a roller-coaster – and we all experience the highs and lows of the journey over time. You are not alone, wherever you are on the path, even though it might feel like it sometimes.

The artist's journeyIn today's show, I talk to Steven Pressfield about The Artist's Journey.

In the introduction, I talk about KDP Print adding Expanded Distribution and Large Print and muse on when the end of Createspace will come. Plus, BookFunnel's new print giveaway codes which are really useful for live events and conventions. I also talk about what Google Duplex might mean for AI translation and audiobook narration.

I give an update on my writing fun with Valley of Dry Bones – and how I found an awesome story link between New Orleans and Louisiana voodoo, the Spanish Inquisition and West Africa. Fun times! Plus, my dark fantasy novel, Map of Shadows, is included in a limited-time bundle along with some other amazing books. If you'd like to binge read this summer, check out: www.storybundle.com/fantasy

ingramsparkToday's show is sponsored by IngramSpark, who I use to print and distribute my print-on-demand books to 39,000 retailers including independent bookstores, schools and universities, libraries and more. It's your content – do more with it through IngramSpark.com.

Steven PressfieldSteven Pressfield is the author of non-fiction works including The War of Art and Turning Pro, and novels around the classical wars of ancient Greece and modern warfare like Gates of Fire.

His latest book is The Artist's Journey: The Wake of the Hero's Journey and the Lifelong Pursuit of Meaning.

You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.

Show Notes

  • On writing from the inside out rather than productivity hacking
  • the artists journey steven pressfieldHow an artist’s subject remains the same over a lifetime, even though the work evolves
  • On writing from a deeply primal source.
  • How Steve gets out of his own way in order to write.
  • On the importance of creative habits and rituals.
  • How to discover our inner genius or destiny
  • Being true to what inspires us and therefore being a force for unity and empathy
  • Having patience as an artist
  • Learning from every writing experience

You can find Steven at StevenPressfield.com and on Twitter @SPressfield

Transcript of Interview with Steven Pressfield

Joanna: Hi everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com and today I'm back with Steven Pressfield. Hi Steve.

Steven: Hi Joanna. It's great to be with you today.

Joanna: Thank you so much. And just a little introduction for anyone who doesn't know Steve.

Steve is the author of non-fiction works including “The War of Art” and “Turning Pro,” which everyone should read, and novels around the classical wars of ancient Greece and modern warfare like “Gates of Fire.” And his latest book is “The Artist's Journey: The Wake of the Hero's Journey and the Lifelong Pursuit of Meaning,” which is just fantastic.

Steve, I've read all your non-fiction books, I'm such a fan. And this one feels like the most spiritual of the books.

Why now in this time when it feels like most non-fiction is all about productivity hacking and yet you've gone deep.

Steven: You sent me that question ahead of time, Joanna. I wanted to ask you what exactly is productivity hacking?

Joanna: If you tweak, if you time this, and if you eat this, and if you do this you'll get an extra 1% brain power.

Steven: Oh, I see.

Joanna: It's all about the things you can do to make yourself better and quicker. So it's all about quick stuff.

Whereas, what I got a sense with your book, that it's much deeper. So why now? Why this deeper book?

Steven: I'm a believer in following the news, as we'll talk about in this interview, which is something unconscious that prompts you from within. I'm definitely a believer in writing from the inside out.

In other words, what is coming up from your own heart, or coming up from that source in you rather than trying to suss out the market-place. You know, trying to look for, “What could I sell? What could I get over?”

Which is why I hate that whole hacking mentality, which to me is not really writing. It's not really being a writer, it's something else.

My whole way of looking at writing is that it's a lifetime pursuit. Whether you're making money or not. As Elizabeth Gilbert said, that promise that she made to herself when she started writing, that she said to her writing “I will never ask you to support me, I will support you.”

That's a real lifetime commitment of a real writer.

So I don't know, this book just sort of came out of me. I actually wrote it a couple of years ago and it's been kind of sitting around. I re-energized it, or re-tweaked it. But it is spiritual, it is really about that writing from the inside out.

Joanna: I've picked some quotes from the book that touched me. The first one is, and you just mentioned here, “The artist's work evolves over her lifetime. Her subject remains the same.” And that's fascinating to me.

What do you mean by subject and how does that relate to an author's voice? What stays the same and what develops?

Steven: That's a great question. Like I said to you before, I don't know if I can answer it.

But if you think about the works of, say, Phillip Roth, if you could put all of his books up together or the albums of Bruce Springsteen, or the albums of Joni Mitchell, and you looked at them all together.

Let's say just start with Phillip Roth. He definitely has a subject. It runs through all the books. He might define it a little differently than I would. But I would say it was like “What it means to be a male Jew in America in the 20th and 21st century. How does that fit in?”

Every book, from “Portnoy's Complaint,” “Goodbye, Columbus” all the way up to “The Dying Animal” and his last few books, were on that subject.

He changed the way he attacked that subject. In “Portnoy's Complaint,” he did the zany, crazy almost stand-up comic thing. And by the end of his life he was doing very, very serious, totally scholarly examinations of the same subject.

And if you look at the albums of Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan or something like that, they're basically on the same subject, they just sort of attack it from a different dimension.

My theory on this is that the artist doesn't really have a choice here if they're following their muse. It's not like Phillip Roth could have said, “I'm going to write about feminists or whatever.” It wasn't really burning in his guts to get it out. So I think our subject sort of chooses us in a way.

And I think that “The Artist's Journey,” the title of the book, is really about that odyssey that we go through. That internal odyssey that we go to after we've committed to being a writer.

After we've committed, we've had that turning pro moment, that come to Jesus moment when we sort of stop messing around and wasting our life. And from that point on, we kind of dedicate ourselves to finding our voice and that sort of thing. And also finding our subject.

And so I think at that point, whether we start asking ourselves or not, or whether it just evolves, the question, what foremost question in our mind is, “What is my subject? What was I put on this earth to write about?”

And I think when you see somebody like Phillip Roth or Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, you can say of them, they found their subject. They really hit it and they were on it right from the start.

Joanna: What's your subject then?

Steven: Good question, Joanna.

Joanna: You have war and conflict in so many of your books. Whether it's external conflict, with the Israel war, you've got your ancient wars, you've got the war of art.

Is war your subject?

Steven: I think it is. But not so much in the sense of soldiers fighting on a battlefield as it is for me the internal war of the artist against his or her own self sabotage and his or her own fear.

I was at the gym the other day and a friend of mine said to me, “Life is a battle”. And he was just talking about the gym but I think it is a battle.

I can certainly see that many other people live their lives in different ways. A mother might feel that life is about bringing forth new life and nurturing new life. Or someone also might say life is about love and etc., etc. Many ways you can look at it.

But for me it is a battle. When I get up every morning, I feel that dragon in there in my head, and I know that if I don't slay it that day, I'm not going to be very happy that night.

It's too bad we couldn't have Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain here right now to talk about that subject. But I think you're right, that is my subject.

And whether I'm writing about writing or ancient warfare or whatever, it does seem to be about conflict and the inner battle against one's own fear and hesitation and all those temptations to be less than you can be. Give less than you can give.

Joanna: You write both fiction and non-fiction. Whenever I read your stuff, I struggle because you have this idea of a shadow career. I write books for authors, you write books for authors, and not that I would put myself next to you.

Steven: I don't put myself next to you, Joanna. It's an honor to be here with you.

Joanna: Oh, you're so sweet. But whenever I write a non-fiction book, I feel like in a way I'm helping my audience and I'm trying to share some of my experience and what I go through.

But when I write fiction, I feel like it's in some ways selfish, but it's more respecting of the muse.

How does your subject go through both your fiction and your non-fiction and how do you balance those two?

Steven: That's a really great question. And as I was reading it when you sent it to me I thought, “I don't know how I'm going to answer that.”

Certainly I wrote fiction for a long time before I wrote “The War of Art.” That was, I don't know what, my seventh or eighth book or something like that, which was the first non-fiction book I'd done.

And that I only did because I just wanted to get it off my chest. Because people kept asking me those questions and I thought, “Let me just write a book, and then I can put the book in their hands.”

And then after that I thought, “Well, you know, I've got to follow it up, there's more to it than that.” And so it's just sort of evolved on its own.

But I do think I go to a different place in fiction. I'm sure you do too, in my head. I don't know if it's a different muse. But it's a different something.

I would say non-fiction is almost like writing an op-ed piece, or writing an essay where you're really not creating characters, you're not creating a world. You're not inventing a narrative. You're speaking in your own voice, sort of as if someone says to you, “Joanna, I'm stuck on this thing. Please help me. What should I do?”

And so you answer out of your own Joanna knowledge. I don't know if it really is a muse. I guess it is, because it all comes from there. But you're sort of answering, I think, out of your real experiences in this real world.

Whereas for me, fiction, you're digging deep into areas you don't even know where it's coming from. I feel like that about my fiction, that I don't know where the characters are coming from, I don't know what's going to come out of their mouths.

And so that's a sort of deeper surrender to that sort of improv-ish, what's gonna happen next when you open the box.

Joanna: I feel the same way. I almost feel like it's a different mindset. And that's why I like using two different names because I feel like by scheduling my J.F. Penn time I could almost go into that.

Let's just talk about going deeper. You say “The artist is being driven from a far deeper and more primal source than the conscious intellect.”

How do we tap into the “primal source?” How do we go down a level when we're so concerned with daily stuff going on?

Steven: That's another great question. Of course everybody does it in a different way. It's like, how do you dream or how do you have an intuition?

I live in Los Angeles. And they did a story in the L.A. Times a few years ago about where they asked screen writers where they worked; in an office or whatever. And they asked five of them.

Three of them said they worked in their cars. And one of them said he or she worked in a car while it was moving. In other words, everybody gets at it in a different way.

To me, it sort of starts with the idea for whatever the book is. That's really the muse speaking to you, I think. I'm always on the look out for a new idea.

And I'm always asking myself, “What's percolating under there?” And I also find a lot of times an idea will come to me, say in January. And I'll make a note in my head, and I'll completely dismiss it. I'll forget it completely.

And then three months later I'll go, “Whatever happened to that idea I had back in January?” And I'll look at it and I'll go, “You know, that's a pretty good idea.” And then I'll start focusing on it.

So let's say you have an idea to do something about Queen Boudicca of early Britannia. Then I think, you begin to surrender to that. You start researching it, and you begin to surrender to that idea. And I think you start outlining it, or blocking it in, in the broadest strokes. And I think that a mystical sort of process happens there. Tell me if the same thing happens with you, Joanna.

As you start to work on something, a gravitational field begins to form around you. And it begins to attract stuff. Ideas. You're in the shower and you'll think, “Ooh, what if Queen Boudicca fell into a pit of snakes when she was three weeks old?” Whatever.

And you go, “Where does that come from?” And pretty soon, you've opened a pipeline to that part of you that's trying to tell that story.

And then it's a process, I think, of getting out of its way and letting it come through. I know that's kind of airy fairy and mystical, but that's certainly the process for me.

And that's why I say, the way I write, I'm not a writer for hire. It's not like somebody calls me and says, “Can you do something about…” I'm a spec writer. I write what comes out of me and just bet on myself that I can sell it.

So I do follow the muse, and I am looking for that. It's the old analogy of it's a radio station, the signal's coming in, and you're trying to tune the dial to hit that radio station and pick up that signal.

Joanna: And you have some rituals, don't you?

Steven: Superstitions, yeah.

Joanna: To call down the muse. Now we've got through knowledge that your rituals won't work for everyone, they won't just automatically mean that muse will arrive.

What do you do to start that process, when you get to your desk or wherever you work?

Steven: Right here, right where I am. Let me answer that by recommending a book to your listeners. If they haven't heard of this book yet, it's by Twyla Tharp, “The Creative Habit.”

Twyla Tharp is a famous choreographer. When she calls the book “The Creative Habit” and her thing is about habit, about the power of habit, which is like ritual.

She talks about how every morning she gets up at the exact same time, 5:30 she's down outside her building in New York City hailing a cab going to the gym. She works out for two hours at the gym, then she comes back to her studio, and then she works for the day.

And I think that it doesn't matter so much what your ritual is, but I do think it helps to have a ritual. What I sort of liken it to is, let's say you have yoga practice, just your own self. And you were fortunate enough that you built a little yoga studio out at your cottage in Devonshire, or whatever it is.

At a certain hour of the day, you would get on your yoga stuff, and you would walk out to the thing and you would make sure that it was clean and well-lighted. And you'd open the door, you'd do a little bow before. You might even say a little prayer to the gods of yoga, or whatever it is that you're trying, and you've set an intention for yourself.

And when you enter that space, you consider that you are entering a sacred space. And then you would begin your yoga. And your practice would be intending to connect with…not just doing the physical part but to connect to a spiritual connection of yourself. And I think that's sort of what writers do or actors do or choreographers do.

And so my ritual's pretty simple. I'm like Twyla Tharp. I go to the gym. I come home, I answer my email, stuff like that, and then I just sit down and just plunge right into it. And when I start making mistakes from fatigue, typos, then I stop. And I don't try any harder.

Let me ask you, Joanna, what's your ritual?

Joanna: I wear noise cancelling headphones and I play rain and thunderstorms. I've been playing the same album for like ten years now.

Steven: Really, no kidding? Why do you do that? What's the point?

Joanna: Well, like you say, it cuts out bad noise, like other noises. And the repetition; it's like you say, the repetition of a sound or something puts you in a place where your brain goes, “Ah. Now I'm doing this. Now I'm writing.”

Steven: Right.

Because the whole point of it, I think, what you do and what I do, is a turning inside. It's an interior thing.

One of the things I say in “The Artist's Journey” is that I used to write at a desk that faced a wall. And people would say to me, “Why don't you turn the desk around and you can look outside, see the scenery.” But I said, “I don't want to see the scenery, because I'm in here.” Just like you with your noise-cancelling headphones.

Joanna: I do a lot of travelling for book research. I love traveling. We were in Madrid last week and it was just amazing. We were in Toledo, old Jewish place, and it was amazing. And people were like, “Oh, you must write so much when you're traveling.” and I'm like, “I can't.” I can't write while I'm traveling. I have to be back in my routine. In my kind of boring repetitive space.

Steven: Yeah.

Joanna: Do you find the same thing?

Steven: Exactly. Every now and then I can write on the road, but it's pretty rare. And when I can, I sort of bring my own little version of my own space to that thing.

I have my little Canon here that I use to fire inspiration into myself. So I take my Canon with me, and I set it up.

But one other thing I do I do want to say, as far as rituals and stuff like that, which is very important for me, is one of my earliest mentors, Paul Rink, gave me a copy of “The Invocation of the Muse” from T.E. Lawrence's translation of “The Odyssey.”

The very start, where Homer says, “Oh, divine poesy. Goddess daughter of Zeus…” etc., etc. And I say that prayer every morning out loud. And so I really am invoking the muse and saying, “Help me. I need help.” And, “Here I am, I'm reporting to duty” that kind of thing.

Joanna: Do you think the muse is a feminine force?

Steven: Yes. Without a doubt. I don't know why I'd say that. There were nine muses, they were nine sisters. The daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, which means “memory.” And so, I guess I agree with them, I think it seems to be a feminine thing to inspire.

Joanna: Another thing that I really loved. “The artist is not expressing himself, he is discovering himself.” And you talk about the daimon, not demon, the daimon, the genius having an aspect of the monstrous, which I really love. Because as part of my writing, I've discovered things that are quite dark and disturbing within myself that sometimes makes me want to self-censor and not put those things in the world.

Steven: Oh, yeah.

Joanna: How do we discover that daimon, that genius? And what if we find stuff that doesn't really fit?

Steven: I think the only answer is to kill yourself, I think. No, I don't really know the answer to that.

But let's go back to the concept of the daimon. Because if your listeners haven't heard of this, it's an interesting thing. Greeks daimon, D-A-I-M-O-N, was for the ancient Greeks a kind of an inherent spirit that we were born with. And the Romans had the same concept, and their word for it was genius.

I'm definitely a believer that we're born as fully-formed individuals. We're not a blank slate. And we've got a destiny, and we have a calling.

I got this from a book called “The Soul's Code” by James Hillman, another book I highly recommend. And he likens it to an acorn, daimon's kind of like an acorn. Even as infants, we've got this destiny inside us just like an acorn contains the entire oak tree already.

I used to work in advertising, as I say in the book. And I would quit, write a novel, it would fail or wouldn't be published. I'd come crawling back to advertising, work again, save money, quit again, etc. etc. I did that three different times.

And every time I would do that, get ready to quit that is, my boss, with good intentions, different bosses, would call me into the office and say to me, “Steve. Why are you throwing your life away? We'll promote you, we'll give you a bonus.” blah, blah, blah.

And each time I thought, “You know, they're right. Why am I going off to write this stupid stuff that nobody wants to read?” etc. etc. But every time, I quit. And every time I did go off and write another book.

And that's the daimon. That is that thing inside me that just, against all logic, compelled me to do that. So I do think that Bruce Springsteen's daimon made him do whatever it was he did. Anybody that we want to look to, and that really had a career.

But the daimon is monstrous. So that's a whole other subject. I don't even want to get into that, Joanna. That's a subject for a whole book.

But I will say one tiny thing. I wrote a book called “Virtues of War” which was about Alexander the Great's career. And I wrote it in the first person, as Alexander. He was somebody who had a daimon that really drove him to conquer the world. And it contained the monstrous and he knew it. And so that's sort of the classic mega-daimon that we could find through history.

Joanna: I've been writing on and off for several years now a book about the shadow side. And I know you know all about Carl Jung. I just find that I think it's a very similar idea, a monstrous daimon, or the collective unconsciousness, the darkness that we write from.

But I think there is some other aspect. I hope you don't mind, but some aspect of the monstrous in your war-like side of writing. And your fiction, some of the topics you pick really are violent, and they are that monstrous side. And yet, you're just such a lovely man, Steve. And so I'm gonna push you on it.

Steven: You just don't know me very well.

Joanna: No, but there is maybe the point. And this is what I partly also want to push you on; do you feel that in yourself?

You have to almost let the monsters out in your writing and then put it back in when you do stuff in your non-fiction.

Steven: I think that's true. I had a dream not long ago. And I know dreams are really boring, but here's the gist of it. I encountered this monster who was like the phantom of the opera. Somebody that lived in the darkness and had a face that was half-covered by a mask.

And everybody in the dream was absolutely terrified of this monster. They kept him in kind of a cage, and machine guns were trained on him constantly.

But at one point in this dream, the monster sang. He just sang like three notes. And even in the dream, those notes were so beautiful that even in the dream, you were mesmerized and surrendered to them. And you thought, “There's no way we could ever kill this thing if it can produce that beauty.”

So that's the weird part of what we call a monster, is also our creative soul, and it's capable of incredible beauty that we can't produce it from any other source, not from any nice-guy source. It's a paradox, a mystery, it's beyond me. But villains are always the most fun characters to write.

Someone said to me, “Could I ever be an actor, or would somebody ever give me a role…” I would say, “I'd love to play like the most dastardly villain. And I want to have some horrible villain speech.” But that's the monster. The monsters can be fun, if we keep them a little bit under control.

Joanna: The balance, I think of Plato's chariot, with the black horse and the white horse, and having to keep them in balance. And if you let one take over, like maybe coming back to Bourdain, you can end up going off the road. But if you let just the white horse go along, you end up going off the road the other way. It's a very difficult balancing act.

But in terms of balancing act, you do have another thing, which I think is interesting. This is not a political show, but you have “The artist is a force for unity.”

I thought that was fascinating because we have so little empathy at the moment it seems, between split political realities. Where people can't seem to imagine the other person's point of view.

How can we use our writing in unity?

Steven: That's a great question, Joanna. I think that we don't need to do this consciously. If we're true to what inspires us, what will come out will be a force for unity.

But here's how I mean that. There was a movie, an Iranian movie called “A Separation.” Did you ever see that a while ago?

Joanna: No.

Steven: Anyway, I think it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film a couple of years ago. And it was about a family in Tehran where the father was coming down with Alzheimer's and how it split the son and his wife.

What was so great about this movie was, here we are in America, we're afraid of Iran, they're gonna bomb us, whatever, right? And they hate us, we're the great Satan.

When you saw this movie and you saw these people, you empathize with them so naturally, there was no way not to. Your heart went out to them, you completely related to their problem.

And this was the artist's gift to us, really. That's what I mean by unity. There's no way, after you see that movie, that you could say, “The Iranian people are enemies of the United States” or whatever. They're just like us, we're just like them.

I think the artist is a force for unity in that a great novel, or even just a halfway decent novel, takes you into the lives of other people and helps you identify with people that you might never meet, never know, across centuries. That's what I think the artist's role is.

We laugh at artists a lot of times and we think, even of ourselves we think, “Why am I wasting my time being an artist. Nobody's buying my books.”

But the artist is a real force for good over the long haul. And he or she is a force for unity. Painter, filmmaker, dancer, you name it. Because the artist's gift is a gift of empathy and to show us something that we can no longer say, “That's not us. That's us too.” That's what I meant by that.

It's not really political. The artist kind of goes beyond the political, it's above the political.

Joanna: I think that that's really the point. It's not like, write some preachy thing that is like, “I'm right” or, “I think this”.

Steven: If it gets preachy, you better stop.

Joanna: Yeah. It's human. And the point, I think, it feels like humans are not binary, most of the time. Everyone's really complicated.

Steven: Yes.

Joanna: Now you mentioned the long haul there. “Turning Pro” which I re-read, I've read so many times. But you have this theme to come back to which is, “The artist learns to commit for a lifetime” and again, “The Artist's Journey.”

And coming back to productivity hacking, there's this myth of the publishing industry that you write a best-seller, you make a million, you can retire. But you talk about it taking 17 years to earn your first penny through writing.

What are your thoughts on patience? How can we be patient when our ambition, or our daimon, wants something and it might take a long time to get that?

Steven: I don't know if this is true for other people, but I have to say for me, I just had no choice. Along those 17 years, like I say, many many cross-roads appeared where I could have said, “All right, let me take this job. Let me just settle for something else.”

But I could never do it, I just didn't have a choice. I was so depressed and so bored doing something other than pursuing what my own daimon was telling me to do.

The productivity hacking concept is seeing writing from the outside in, where you say, “What does the marketplace want? Oh, horror is big this year.”

And of course, this is what movie studio executives do, this is their whole job. And then so you write a horror thing. That's not being a writer; that's not being true to your daimon or your muse.

If you're going from the inside out, you're asking, “What's coming up out of me now? What am I being led towards?”

And if you think of it that way, you have to have patience. And I'll go back to Liz Gilbert and her saying “I'm not going to ask you, my writing, to support me. I'm going to support you.”

I see all your books behind you there. Your body of work. And there's no reason why anybody that's listening to this or watching this right now, why they can't have a body of work exactly as good or more. And you're going to go on and on and on and continue to do more and more and more.

The concept of the artist's journey is that we are artists, and we have this journey inside us. Those books behind you are the fruits of your journey. And so that even, particularly these days where anybody can publish.

That can be one's body of work that you produce over a lifetime. And even if you're a lawyer or a doctor or a mom or whatever, this is what you were put here to do. So that's, for me, what I mean by patience.

You don't have a choice. If you're going to be true to it, once you start down this road, you can't really turn back without really abandoning your own self.

Joanna: I feel like I first put out my first book 10 years ago, and it does just feel like yesterday.

Steven: Joanna, you've probably got 30, 40, 50 years ahead of you.

Joanna: I hope so.

Steven: You're going to need a bigger bookshelf.

Joanna: But it's interesting thinking about who we were and who we've become on this discovery of ourselves. In our emails you mentioned that some of the screenplays you wrote in the early days are not necessarily things that you would associate with yourself anymore.

How do you reconcile that learning and discovery over the journey with your idea that you're born with this acorn.

Steven: Ah, that's another great question. I mean at one point I worked on a porno movie.

Joanna: Awesome.

Steven: Some of those jobs I've done in advertising are unbelievably off-the-mark. But you learn.

I remember when I first got out to Hollywood, the first job I got I was working with an old-time director named Ernie Pintoff, who became sort of a mentor to me. And he just said to me, “Keep working.”

This is actually a mantra for actors as much as for writers. Take the next role, take the next job. You'll learn on everything. And at some point, the daimon will kick in.

I've written so much stuff that was really not me. But it's a learning process. And you really do learn in every job. And then at some point, maybe the muse is circling overhead and looking down and saying, “Nah, she's not ready quite yet. You've got to do a few more of these terrible things.”

And then at some point, maybe the muse says, “Ah. She's ready. She's paid her dues, so now I can start to give her some good stuff.”

Joanna: When you put a book out there you're like, “This is the best I can do.” But it's not the best you can do in 10 years' time, or in 20 years' time.

Steven: Right. Do you look back on your earlier stuff and say, “Oh man, I could have done so much better if I had…”

Joanna: I think what I do is I look at my reviews on Amazon. And if I'm still getting good reviews on the old books, I'm like, “It's fine.”

Steven: Yeah, that's true.

Joanna: But also, don't they say if you're not slightly embarrassed by what you did last year or the year before, you're not moving on?

Steven: Yes. But I'm not embarrassed by any of it. It's all part of the process. It's all part of the learning process.

Joanna: I always like to ask you about marketing because you do everything, and you go from the spiritual to the actual marketing side. And like you say, you worked in advertising. So you're very aware of all the business side.

You've been serializing this book on your blog at stevenpressfield.com. And many authors feel that that is giving the book away for free.

Why serialize the whole book, and why is blogging still important to you?

Steven: Well, you're asking the wrong question in terms of marketing, Joanna. I'm the worst marketer. The only one worse is my partner, Shawn Coyne.

We're terrible. We just don't know what we're doing, we're bumbling around, nothing ever works for us. And I really only put it out on the blog because I think I forgot what else to do. Saw the book and I just thought, “I'll just serialize it.”

I don't believe in hoarding stuff. I think the real problem we all face is that no one knows that our stuff is even there, you know? It's not like, “Ooh, people are stealing our great stuff.” So I'm happy to put something out there.

I don't know if I would serialize a novel because only three people would stay tuned all the way through. But I think a book like “The Artist's Journey” you can serialize. And hopefully people will still want to buy an actual copy when all is said and done.

I'm a terrible marketer, Joanna. I look to you as the guru of how to do this. But it's hard, isn't it? It's hard to get something out there, for all of us.

Joanna: I guess the point is that many authors starting out now would say, “Well why would I bother starting a blog?” And I would say, you know, “Well, Steven Pressfield has a blog so why wouldn't a new author start a blog?”

Do you still think the writing itself can be your marketing out there?

Steven: The writing of the blog, you mean?

Joanna: Yeah, the blog. It's more shareable than the book, isn't it? In that way.

Steven: I hear people say, “I really want to help people. I really want to teach people.” I really don't, that's not my motivation at all. Because I think that the writer who's a born writer, they're going to write anyway. Nothing can stop them. And if they're not, they're going to fade away anyway.

But I do it almost to teach myself and to explore, “What do I think about villains? Why don't I do a series of 12 posts about villains?”

And I do find that it's very helpful. You start to get in there, and you go, “Oh, I never realized that that…” Or you watch a movie and you go, “That was a great speech that Jeremy Irons gave” and “What can we learn from that?”

So I'm really blogging for my own benefit. I hope people profit from it and like it. But I'm really doing it for myself.

I do think that a new or beginning writer should do it. Because it makes you ask yourself, “What do I really think? What do I really know? What do I think about this?”

It's easy, we can come up with an opinion. But then if someone says, “Why do you think that?” A lot of times you don't know. And it's good to ask that question and answer it.

Joanna: And that's probably why I end up writing another non-fiction book. Because I want to know what I think.

Where can people find “The Artist's Journey” and all of your books and everything you do online?

Steven: It's on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or all that stuff, or my little company with my partner Shawn is called Black Irish Books. And if you just google that, Black Irish Books, you can get all of our stuff there.

Joanna: Fantastic.

Steven: And it's not cheaper, but if you want to buy a bundle of e-book, audio book-end, paperback, then it is cheaper.

Joanna: Did you narrate the audio book?

Steven: Yeah, there's an audio book of this.

Joanna: Fantastic. I've got the “Turning Pro” one, and I think that's awesome.

Thanks so much for your time, Steve. That was great.

Steven: Thank you, Joanna. Thanks for the great questions. It's always great to talk to you and hang out with you. It's great.

The Artist’s Journey With Steven Pressfield

The creative experience is a roller-coaster – and we all experience the highs and lows of the journey over time. You are not alone, wherever you are on the path, even though it might feel like it sometimes.

The artist's journeyIn today's show, I talk to Steven Pressfield about The Artist's Journey.

In the introduction, I talk about KDP Print adding Expanded Distribution and Large Print and muse on when the end of Createspace will come. Plus, BookFunnel's new print giveaway codes which are really useful for live events and conventions. I also talk about what Google Duplex might mean for AI translation and audiobook narration.

I give an update on my writing fun with Valley of Dry Bones – and how I found an awesome story link between New Orleans and Louisiana voodoo, the Spanish Inquisition and West Africa. Fun times! Plus, my dark fantasy novel, Map of Shadows, is included in a limited-time bundle along with some other amazing books. If you'd like to binge read this summer, check out: www.storybundle.com/fantasy

ingramsparkToday's show is sponsored by IngramSpark, who I use to print and distribute my print-on-demand books to 39,000 retailers including independent bookstores, schools and universities, libraries and more. It's your content – do more with it through IngramSpark.com.

Steven PressfieldSteven Pressfield is the author of non-fiction works including The War of Art and Turning Pro, and novels around the classical wars of ancient Greece and modern warfare like Gates of Fire.

His latest book is The Artist's Journey: The Wake of the Hero's Journey and the Lifelong Pursuit of Meaning.

You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.

Show Notes

  • On writing from the inside out rather than productivity hacking
  • the artists journey steven pressfieldHow an artist’s subject remains the same over a lifetime, even though the work evolves
  • On writing from a deeply primal source.
  • How Steve gets out of his own way in order to write.
  • On the importance of creative habits and rituals.
  • How to discover our inner genius or destiny
  • Being true to what inspires us and therefore being a force for unity and empathy
  • Having patience as an artist
  • Learning from every writing experience

You can find Steven at StevenPressfield.com and on Twitter @SPressfield

Transcript of Interview with Steven Pressfield

Joanna: Hi everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com and today I'm back with Steven Pressfield. Hi Steve.

Steven: Hi Joanna. It's great to be with you today.

Joanna: Thank you so much. And just a little introduction for anyone who doesn't know Steve.

Steve is the author of non-fiction works including “The War of Art” and “Turning Pro,” which everyone should read, and novels around the classical wars of ancient Greece and modern warfare like “Gates of Fire.” And his latest book is “The Artist's Journey: The Wake of the Hero's Journey and the Lifelong Pursuit of Meaning,” which is just fantastic.

Steve, I've read all your non-fiction books, I'm such a fan. And this one feels like the most spiritual of the books.

Why now in this time when it feels like most non-fiction is all about productivity hacking and yet you've gone deep.

Steven: You sent me that question ahead of time, Joanna. I wanted to ask you what exactly is productivity hacking?

Joanna: If you tweak, if you time this, and if you eat this, and if you do this you'll get an extra 1% brain power.

Steven: Oh, I see.

Joanna: It's all about the things you can do to make yourself better and quicker. So it's all about quick stuff.

Whereas, what I got a sense with your book, that it's much deeper. So why now? Why this deeper book?

Steven: I'm a believer in following the news, as we'll talk about in this interview, which is something unconscious that prompts you from within. I'm definitely a believer in writing from the inside out.

In other words, what is coming up from your own heart, or coming up from that source in you rather than trying to suss out the market-place. You know, trying to look for, “What could I sell? What could I get over?”

Which is why I hate that whole hacking mentality, which to me is not really writing. It's not really being a writer, it's something else.

My whole way of looking at writing is that it's a lifetime pursuit. Whether you're making money or not. As Elizabeth Gilbert said, that promise that she made to herself when she started writing, that she said to her writing “I will never ask you to support me, I will support you.”

That's a real lifetime commitment of a real writer.

So I don't know, this book just sort of came out of me. I actually wrote it a couple of years ago and it's been kind of sitting around. I re-energized it, or re-tweaked it. But it is spiritual, it is really about that writing from the inside out.

Joanna: I've picked some quotes from the book that touched me. The first one is, and you just mentioned here, “The artist's work evolves over her lifetime. Her subject remains the same.” And that's fascinating to me.

What do you mean by subject and how does that relate to an author's voice? What stays the same and what develops?

Steven: That's a great question. Like I said to you before, I don't know if I can answer it.

But if you think about the works of, say, Phillip Roth, if you could put all of his books up together or the albums of Bruce Springsteen, or the albums of Joni Mitchell, and you looked at them all together.

Let's say just start with Phillip Roth. He definitely has a subject. It runs through all the books. He might define it a little differently than I would. But I would say it was like “What it means to be a male Jew in America in the 20th and 21st century. How does that fit in?”

Every book, from “Portnoy's Complaint,” “Goodbye, Columbus” all the way up to “The Dying Animal” and his last few books, were on that subject.

He changed the way he attacked that subject. In “Portnoy's Complaint,” he did the zany, crazy almost stand-up comic thing. And by the end of his life he was doing very, very serious, totally scholarly examinations of the same subject.

And if you look at the albums of Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan or something like that, they're basically on the same subject, they just sort of attack it from a different dimension.

My theory on this is that the artist doesn't really have a choice here if they're following their muse. It's not like Phillip Roth could have said, “I'm going to write about feminists or whatever.” It wasn't really burning in his guts to get it out. So I think our subject sort of chooses us in a way.

And I think that “The Artist's Journey,” the title of the book, is really about that odyssey that we go through. That internal odyssey that we go to after we've committed to being a writer.

After we've committed, we've had that turning pro moment, that come to Jesus moment when we sort of stop messing around and wasting our life. And from that point on, we kind of dedicate ourselves to finding our voice and that sort of thing. And also finding our subject.

And so I think at that point, whether we start asking ourselves or not, or whether it just evolves, the question, what foremost question in our mind is, “What is my subject? What was I put on this earth to write about?”

And I think when you see somebody like Phillip Roth or Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, you can say of them, they found their subject. They really hit it and they were on it right from the start.

Joanna: What's your subject then?

Steven: Good question, Joanna.

Joanna: You have war and conflict in so many of your books. Whether it's external conflict, with the Israel war, you've got your ancient wars, you've got the war of art.

Is war your subject?

Steven: I think it is. But not so much in the sense of soldiers fighting on a battlefield as it is for me the internal war of the artist against his or her own self sabotage and his or her own fear.

I was at the gym the other day and a friend of mine said to me, “Life is a battle”. And he was just talking about the gym but I think it is a battle.

I can certainly see that many other people live their lives in different ways. A mother might feel that life is about bringing forth new life and nurturing new life. Or someone also might say life is about love and etc., etc. Many ways you can look at it.

But for me it is a battle. When I get up every morning, I feel that dragon in there in my head, and I know that if I don't slay it that day, I'm not going to be very happy that night.

It's too bad we couldn't have Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain here right now to talk about that subject. But I think you're right, that is my subject.

And whether I'm writing about writing or ancient warfare or whatever, it does seem to be about conflict and the inner battle against one's own fear and hesitation and all those temptations to be less than you can be. Give less than you can give.

Joanna: You write both fiction and non-fiction. Whenever I read your stuff, I struggle because you have this idea of a shadow career. I write books for authors, you write books for authors, and not that I would put myself next to you.

Steven: I don't put myself next to you, Joanna. It's an honor to be here with you.

Joanna: Oh, you're so sweet. But whenever I write a non-fiction book, I feel like in a way I'm helping my audience and I'm trying to share some of my experience and what I go through.

But when I write fiction, I feel like it's in some ways selfish, but it's more respecting of the muse.

How does your subject go through both your fiction and your non-fiction and how do you balance those two?

Steven: That's a really great question. And as I was reading it when you sent it to me I thought, “I don't know how I'm going to answer that.”

Certainly I wrote fiction for a long time before I wrote “The War of Art.” That was, I don't know what, my seventh or eighth book or something like that, which was the first non-fiction book I'd done.

And that I only did because I just wanted to get it off my chest. Because people kept asking me those questions and I thought, “Let me just write a book, and then I can put the book in their hands.”

And then after that I thought, “Well, you know, I've got to follow it up, there's more to it than that.” And so it's just sort of evolved on its own.

But I do think I go to a different place in fiction. I'm sure you do too, in my head. I don't know if it's a different muse. But it's a different something.

I would say non-fiction is almost like writing an op-ed piece, or writing an essay where you're really not creating characters, you're not creating a world. You're not inventing a narrative. You're speaking in your own voice, sort of as if someone says to you, “Joanna, I'm stuck on this thing. Please help me. What should I do?”

And so you answer out of your own Joanna knowledge. I don't know if it really is a muse. I guess it is, because it all comes from there. But you're sort of answering, I think, out of your real experiences in this real world.

Whereas for me, fiction, you're digging deep into areas you don't even know where it's coming from. I feel like that about my fiction, that I don't know where the characters are coming from, I don't know what's going to come out of their mouths.

And so that's a sort of deeper surrender to that sort of improv-ish, what's gonna happen next when you open the box.

Joanna: I feel the same way. I almost feel like it's a different mindset. And that's why I like using two different names because I feel like by scheduling my J.F. Penn time I could almost go into that.

Let's just talk about going deeper. You say “The artist is being driven from a far deeper and more primal source than the conscious intellect.”

How do we tap into the “primal source?” How do we go down a level when we're so concerned with daily stuff going on?

Steven: That's another great question. Of course everybody does it in a different way. It's like, how do you dream or how do you have an intuition?

I live in Los Angeles. And they did a story in the L.A. Times a few years ago about where they asked screen writers where they worked; in an office or whatever. And they asked five of them.

Three of them said they worked in their cars. And one of them said he or she worked in a car while it was moving. In other words, everybody gets at it in a different way.

To me, it sort of starts with the idea for whatever the book is. That's really the muse speaking to you, I think. I'm always on the look out for a new idea.

And I'm always asking myself, “What's percolating under there?” And I also find a lot of times an idea will come to me, say in January. And I'll make a note in my head, and I'll completely dismiss it. I'll forget it completely.

And then three months later I'll go, “Whatever happened to that idea I had back in January?” And I'll look at it and I'll go, “You know, that's a pretty good idea.” And then I'll start focusing on it.

So let's say you have an idea to do something about Queen Boudicca of early Britannia. Then I think, you begin to surrender to that. You start researching it, and you begin to surrender to that idea. And I think you start outlining it, or blocking it in, in the broadest strokes. And I think that a mystical sort of process happens there. Tell me if the same thing happens with you, Joanna.

As you start to work on something, a gravitational field begins to form around you. And it begins to attract stuff. Ideas. You're in the shower and you'll think, “Ooh, what if Queen Boudicca fell into a pit of snakes when she was three weeks old?” Whatever.

And you go, “Where does that come from?” And pretty soon, you've opened a pipeline to that part of you that's trying to tell that story.

And then it's a process, I think, of getting out of its way and letting it come through. I know that's kind of airy fairy and mystical, but that's certainly the process for me.

And that's why I say, the way I write, I'm not a writer for hire. It's not like somebody calls me and says, “Can you do something about…” I'm a spec writer. I write what comes out of me and just bet on myself that I can sell it.

So I do follow the muse, and I am looking for that. It's the old analogy of it's a radio station, the signal's coming in, and you're trying to tune the dial to hit that radio station and pick up that signal.

Joanna: And you have some rituals, don't you?

Steven: Superstitions, yeah.

Joanna: To call down the muse. Now we've got through knowledge that your rituals won't work for everyone, they won't just automatically mean that muse will arrive.

What do you do to start that process, when you get to your desk or wherever you work?

Steven: Right here, right where I am. Let me answer that by recommending a book to your listeners. If they haven't heard of this book yet, it's by Twyla Tharp, “The Creative Habit.”

Twyla Tharp is a famous choreographer. When she calls the book “The Creative Habit” and her thing is about habit, about the power of habit, which is like ritual.

She talks about how every morning she gets up at the exact same time, 5:30 she's down outside her building in New York City hailing a cab going to the gym. She works out for two hours at the gym, then she comes back to her studio, and then she works for the day.

And I think that it doesn't matter so much what your ritual is, but I do think it helps to have a ritual. What I sort of liken it to is, let's say you have yoga practice, just your own self. And you were fortunate enough that you built a little yoga studio out at your cottage in Devonshire, or whatever it is.

At a certain hour of the day, you would get on your yoga stuff, and you would walk out to the thing and you would make sure that it was clean and well-lighted. And you'd open the door, you'd do a little bow before. You might even say a little prayer to the gods of yoga, or whatever it is that you're trying, and you've set an intention for yourself.

And when you enter that space, you consider that you are entering a sacred space. And then you would begin your yoga. And your practice would be intending to connect with…not just doing the physical part but to connect to a spiritual connection of yourself. And I think that's sort of what writers do or actors do or choreographers do.

And so my ritual's pretty simple. I'm like Twyla Tharp. I go to the gym. I come home, I answer my email, stuff like that, and then I just sit down and just plunge right into it. And when I start making mistakes from fatigue, typos, then I stop. And I don't try any harder.

Let me ask you, Joanna, what's your ritual?

Joanna: I wear noise cancelling headphones and I play rain and thunderstorms. I've been playing the same album for like ten years now.

Steven: Really, no kidding? Why do you do that? What's the point?

Joanna: Well, like you say, it cuts out bad noise, like other noises. And the repetition; it's like you say, the repetition of a sound or something puts you in a place where your brain goes, “Ah. Now I'm doing this. Now I'm writing.”

Steven: Right.

Because the whole point of it, I think, what you do and what I do, is a turning inside. It's an interior thing.

One of the things I say in “The Artist's Journey” is that I used to write at a desk that faced a wall. And people would say to me, “Why don't you turn the desk around and you can look outside, see the scenery.” But I said, “I don't want to see the scenery, because I'm in here.” Just like you with your noise-cancelling headphones.

Joanna: I do a lot of travelling for book research. I love traveling. We were in Madrid last week and it was just amazing. We were in Toledo, old Jewish place, and it was amazing. And people were like, “Oh, you must write so much when you're traveling.” and I'm like, “I can't.” I can't write while I'm traveling. I have to be back in my routine. In my kind of boring repetitive space.

Steven: Yeah.

Joanna: Do you find the same thing?

Steven: Exactly. Every now and then I can write on the road, but it's pretty rare. And when I can, I sort of bring my own little version of my own space to that thing.

I have my little Canon here that I use to fire inspiration into myself. So I take my Canon with me, and I set it up.

But one other thing I do I do want to say, as far as rituals and stuff like that, which is very important for me, is one of my earliest mentors, Paul Rink, gave me a copy of “The Invocation of the Muse” from T.E. Lawrence's translation of “The Odyssey.”

The very start, where Homer says, “Oh, divine poesy. Goddess daughter of Zeus…” etc., etc. And I say that prayer every morning out loud. And so I really am invoking the muse and saying, “Help me. I need help.” And, “Here I am, I'm reporting to duty” that kind of thing.

Joanna: Do you think the muse is a feminine force?

Steven: Yes. Without a doubt. I don't know why I'd say that. There were nine muses, they were nine sisters. The daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, which means “memory.” And so, I guess I agree with them, I think it seems to be a feminine thing to inspire.

Joanna: Another thing that I really loved. “The artist is not expressing himself, he is discovering himself.” And you talk about the daimon, not demon, the daimon, the genius having an aspect of the monstrous, which I really love. Because as part of my writing, I've discovered things that are quite dark and disturbing within myself that sometimes makes me want to self-censor and not put those things in the world.

Steven: Oh, yeah.

Joanna: How do we discover that daimon, that genius? And what if we find stuff that doesn't really fit?

Steven: I think the only answer is to kill yourself, I think. No, I don't really know the answer to that.

But let's go back to the concept of the daimon. Because if your listeners haven't heard of this, it's an interesting thing. Greeks daimon, D-A-I-M-O-N, was for the ancient Greeks a kind of an inherent spirit that we were born with. And the Romans had the same concept, and their word for it was genius.

I'm definitely a believer that we're born as fully-formed individuals. We're not a blank slate. And we've got a destiny, and we have a calling.

I got this from a book called “The Soul's Code” by James Hillman, another book I highly recommend. And he likens it to an acorn, daimon's kind of like an acorn. Even as infants, we've got this destiny inside us just like an acorn contains the entire oak tree already.

I used to work in advertising, as I say in the book. And I would quit, write a novel, it would fail or wouldn't be published. I'd come crawling back to advertising, work again, save money, quit again, etc. etc. I did that three different times.

And every time I would do that, get ready to quit that is, my boss, with good intentions, different bosses, would call me into the office and say to me, “Steve. Why are you throwing your life away? We'll promote you, we'll give you a bonus.” blah, blah, blah.

And each time I thought, “You know, they're right. Why am I going off to write this stupid stuff that nobody wants to read?” etc. etc. But every time, I quit. And every time I did go off and write another book.

And that's the daimon. That is that thing inside me that just, against all logic, compelled me to do that. So I do think that Bruce Springsteen's daimon made him do whatever it was he did. Anybody that we want to look to, and that really had a career.

But the daimon is monstrous. So that's a whole other subject. I don't even want to get into that, Joanna. That's a subject for a whole book.

But I will say one tiny thing. I wrote a book called “Virtues of War” which was about Alexander the Great's career. And I wrote it in the first person, as Alexander. He was somebody who had a daimon that really drove him to conquer the world. And it contained the monstrous and he knew it. And so that's sort of the classic mega-daimon that we could find through history.

Joanna: I've been writing on and off for several years now a book about the shadow side. And I know you know all about Carl Jung. I just find that I think it's a very similar idea, a monstrous daimon, or the collective unconsciousness, the darkness that we write from.

But I think there is some other aspect. I hope you don't mind, but some aspect of the monstrous in your war-like side of writing. And your fiction, some of the topics you pick really are violent, and they are that monstrous side. And yet, you're just such a lovely man, Steve. And so I'm gonna push you on it.

Steven: You just don't know me very well.

Joanna: No, but there is maybe the point. And this is what I partly also want to push you on; do you feel that in yourself?

You have to almost let the monsters out in your writing and then put it back in when you do stuff in your non-fiction.

Steven: I think that's true. I had a dream not long ago. And I know dreams are really boring, but here's the gist of it. I encountered this monster who was like the phantom of the opera. Somebody that lived in the darkness and had a face that was half-covered by a mask.

And everybody in the dream was absolutely terrified of this monster. They kept him in kind of a cage, and machine guns were trained on him constantly.

But at one point in this dream, the monster sang. He just sang like three notes. And even in the dream, those notes were so beautiful that even in the dream, you were mesmerized and surrendered to them. And you thought, “There's no way we could ever kill this thing if it can produce that beauty.”

So that's the weird part of what we call a monster, is also our creative soul, and it's capable of incredible beauty that we can't produce it from any other source, not from any nice-guy source. It's a paradox, a mystery, it's beyond me. But villains are always the most fun characters to write.

Someone said to me, “Could I ever be an actor, or would somebody ever give me a role…” I would say, “I'd love to play like the most dastardly villain. And I want to have some horrible villain speech.” But that's the monster. The monsters can be fun, if we keep them a little bit under control.

Joanna: The balance, I think of Plato's chariot, with the black horse and the white horse, and having to keep them in balance. And if you let one take over, like maybe coming back to Bourdain, you can end up going off the road. But if you let just the white horse go along, you end up going off the road the other way. It's a very difficult balancing act.

But in terms of balancing act, you do have another thing, which I think is interesting. This is not a political show, but you have “The artist is a force for unity.”

I thought that was fascinating because we have so little empathy at the moment it seems, between split political realities. Where people can't seem to imagine the other person's point of view.

How can we use our writing in unity?

Steven: That's a great question, Joanna. I think that we don't need to do this consciously. If we're true to what inspires us, what will come out will be a force for unity.

But here's how I mean that. There was a movie, an Iranian movie called “A Separation.” Did you ever see that a while ago?

Joanna: No.

Steven: Anyway, I think it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film a couple of years ago. And it was about a family in Tehran where the father was coming down with Alzheimer's and how it split the son and his wife.

What was so great about this movie was, here we are in America, we're afraid of Iran, they're gonna bomb us, whatever, right? And they hate us, we're the great Satan.

When you saw this movie and you saw these people, you empathize with them so naturally, there was no way not to. Your heart went out to them, you completely related to their problem.

And this was the artist's gift to us, really. That's what I mean by unity. There's no way, after you see that movie, that you could say, “The Iranian people are enemies of the United States” or whatever. They're just like us, we're just like them.

I think the artist is a force for unity in that a great novel, or even just a halfway decent novel, takes you into the lives of other people and helps you identify with people that you might never meet, never know, across centuries. That's what I think the artist's role is.

We laugh at artists a lot of times and we think, even of ourselves we think, “Why am I wasting my time being an artist. Nobody's buying my books.”

But the artist is a real force for good over the long haul. And he or she is a force for unity. Painter, filmmaker, dancer, you name it. Because the artist's gift is a gift of empathy and to show us something that we can no longer say, “That's not us. That's us too.” That's what I meant by that.

It's not really political. The artist kind of goes beyond the political, it's above the political.

Joanna: I think that that's really the point. It's not like, write some preachy thing that is like, “I'm right” or, “I think this”.

Steven: If it gets preachy, you better stop.

Joanna: Yeah. It's human. And the point, I think, it feels like humans are not binary, most of the time. Everyone's really complicated.

Steven: Yes.

Joanna: Now you mentioned the long haul there. “Turning Pro” which I re-read, I've read so many times. But you have this theme to come back to which is, “The artist learns to commit for a lifetime” and again, “The Artist's Journey.”

And coming back to productivity hacking, there's this myth of the publishing industry that you write a best-seller, you make a million, you can retire. But you talk about it taking 17 years to earn your first penny through writing.

What are your thoughts on patience? How can we be patient when our ambition, or our daimon, wants something and it might take a long time to get that?

Steven: I don't know if this is true for other people, but I have to say for me, I just had no choice. Along those 17 years, like I say, many many cross-roads appeared where I could have said, “All right, let me take this job. Let me just settle for something else.”

But I could never do it, I just didn't have a choice. I was so depressed and so bored doing something other than pursuing what my own daimon was telling me to do.

The productivity hacking concept is seeing writing from the outside in, where you say, “What does the marketplace want? Oh, horror is big this year.”

And of course, this is what movie studio executives do, this is their whole job. And then so you write a horror thing. That's not being a writer; that's not being true to your daimon or your muse.

If you're going from the inside out, you're asking, “What's coming up out of me now? What am I being led towards?”

And if you think of it that way, you have to have patience. And I'll go back to Liz Gilbert and her saying “I'm not going to ask you, my writing, to support me. I'm going to support you.”

I see all your books behind you there. Your body of work. And there's no reason why anybody that's listening to this or watching this right now, why they can't have a body of work exactly as good or more. And you're going to go on and on and on and continue to do more and more and more.

The concept of the artist's journey is that we are artists, and we have this journey inside us. Those books behind you are the fruits of your journey. And so that even, particularly these days where anybody can publish.

That can be one's body of work that you produce over a lifetime. And even if you're a lawyer or a doctor or a mom or whatever, this is what you were put here to do. So that's, for me, what I mean by patience.

You don't have a choice. If you're going to be true to it, once you start down this road, you can't really turn back without really abandoning your own self.

Joanna: I feel like I first put out my first book 10 years ago, and it does just feel like yesterday.

Steven: Joanna, you've probably got 30, 40, 50 years ahead of you.

Joanna: I hope so.

Steven: You're going to need a bigger bookshelf.

Joanna: But it's interesting thinking about who we were and who we've become on this discovery of ourselves. In our emails you mentioned that some of the screenplays you wrote in the early days are not necessarily things that you would associate with yourself anymore.

How do you reconcile that learning and discovery over the journey with your idea that you're born with this acorn.

Steven: Ah, that's another great question. I mean at one point I worked on a porno movie.

Joanna: Awesome.

Steven: Some of those jobs I've done in advertising are unbelievably off-the-mark. But you learn.

I remember when I first got out to Hollywood, the first job I got I was working with an old-time director named Ernie Pintoff, who became sort of a mentor to me. And he just said to me, “Keep working.”

This is actually a mantra for actors as much as for writers. Take the next role, take the next job. You'll learn on everything. And at some point, the daimon will kick in.

I've written so much stuff that was really not me. But it's a learning process. And you really do learn in every job. And then at some point, maybe the muse is circling overhead and looking down and saying, “Nah, she's not ready quite yet. You've got to do a few more of these terrible things.”

And then at some point, maybe the muse says, “Ah. She's ready. She's paid her dues, so now I can start to give her some good stuff.”

Joanna: When you put a book out there you're like, “This is the best I can do.” But it's not the best you can do in 10 years' time, or in 20 years' time.

Steven: Right. Do you look back on your earlier stuff and say, “Oh man, I could have done so much better if I had…”

Joanna: I think what I do is I look at my reviews on Amazon. And if I'm still getting good reviews on the old books, I'm like, “It's fine.”

Steven: Yeah, that's true.

Joanna: But also, don't they say if you're not slightly embarrassed by what you did last year or the year before, you're not moving on?

Steven: Yes. But I'm not embarrassed by any of it. It's all part of the process. It's all part of the learning process.

Joanna: I always like to ask you about marketing because you do everything, and you go from the spiritual to the actual marketing side. And like you say, you worked in advertising. So you're very aware of all the business side.

You've been serializing this book on your blog at stevenpressfield.com. And many authors feel that that is giving the book away for free.

Why serialize the whole book, and why is blogging still important to you?

Steven: Well, you're asking the wrong question in terms of marketing, Joanna. I'm the worst marketer. The only one worse is my partner, Shawn Coyne.

We're terrible. We just don't know what we're doing, we're bumbling around, nothing ever works for us. And I really only put it out on the blog because I think I forgot what else to do. Saw the book and I just thought, “I'll just serialize it.”

I don't believe in hoarding stuff. I think the real problem we all face is that no one knows that our stuff is even there, you know? It's not like, “Ooh, people are stealing our great stuff.” So I'm happy to put something out there.

I don't know if I would serialize a novel because only three people would stay tuned all the way through. But I think a book like “The Artist's Journey” you can serialize. And hopefully people will still want to buy an actual copy when all is said and done.

I'm a terrible marketer, Joanna. I look to you as the guru of how to do this. But it's hard, isn't it? It's hard to get something out there, for all of us.

Joanna: I guess the point is that many authors starting out now would say, “Well why would I bother starting a blog?” And I would say, you know, “Well, Steven Pressfield has a blog so why wouldn't a new author start a blog?”

Do you still think the writing itself can be your marketing out there?

Steven: The writing of the blog, you mean?

Joanna: Yeah, the blog. It's more shareable than the book, isn't it? In that way.

Steven: I hear people say, “I really want to help people. I really want to teach people.” I really don't, that's not my motivation at all. Because I think that the writer who's a born writer, they're going to write anyway. Nothing can stop them. And if they're not, they're going to fade away anyway.

But I do it almost to teach myself and to explore, “What do I think about villains? Why don't I do a series of 12 posts about villains?”

And I do find that it's very helpful. You start to get in there, and you go, “Oh, I never realized that that…” Or you watch a movie and you go, “That was a great speech that Jeremy Irons gave” and “What can we learn from that?”

So I'm really blogging for my own benefit. I hope people profit from it and like it. But I'm really doing it for myself.

I do think that a new or beginning writer should do it. Because it makes you ask yourself, “What do I really think? What do I really know? What do I think about this?”

It's easy, we can come up with an opinion. But then if someone says, “Why do you think that?” A lot of times you don't know. And it's good to ask that question and answer it.

Joanna: And that's probably why I end up writing another non-fiction book. Because I want to know what I think.

Where can people find “The Artist's Journey” and all of your books and everything you do online?

Steven: It's on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or all that stuff, or my little company with my partner Shawn is called Black Irish Books. And if you just google that, Black Irish Books, you can get all of our stuff there.

Joanna: Fantastic.

Steven: And it's not cheaper, but if you want to buy a bundle of e-book, audio book-end, paperback, then it is cheaper.

Joanna: Did you narrate the audio book?

Steven: Yeah, there's an audio book of this.

Joanna: Fantastic. I've got the “Turning Pro” one, and I think that's awesome.

Thanks so much for your time, Steve. That was great.

Steven: Thank you, Joanna. Thanks for the great questions. It's always great to talk to you and hang out with you. It's great.

Writing A Series: 7 Continuation Issues To Avoid

I'm currently writing the 10th book in my ARKANE thriller series, so I am revisiting the little details that make my characters consistent across the books. I have forgotten so much since End of Days!

Here are some of the things to think about for continuation across series. Watch the video below or here on YouTube.

In the video, I go through:

(1) Continuation of character history, physical and personality traits

(2) How much to repeat in case people don't start with the first book

(3) What I remember vs what I actually wrote

(4) A story in itself but also part of a series

(5) Does the protagonist change within the book or over a series of books?

(6) How to cope with timescale over multiple books

(7) Retrofitting cover design and branding

ARKANE Books x 9

You can find my series fiction here: https://jfpenn.com/fiction/

Get your free 7 Steps to Write your Novel cheatsheet at: http://www.thecreativepenn.com/7steps

Writing A Series: 7 Continuation Issues To Avoid

I'm currently writing the 10th book in my ARKANE thriller series, so I am revisiting the little details that make my characters consistent across the books. I have forgotten so much since End of Days!

Here are some of the things to think about for continuation across series. Watch the video below or here on YouTube.

In the video, I go through:

(1) Continuation of character history, physical and personality traits

(2) How much to repeat in case people don't start with the first book

(3) What I remember vs what I actually wrote

(4) A story in itself but also part of a series

(5) Does the protagonist change within the book or over a series of books?

(6) How to cope with timescale over multiple books

(7) Retrofitting cover design and branding

ARKANE Books x 9

You can find my series fiction here: https://jfpenn.com/fiction/

Get your free 7 Steps to Write your Novel cheatsheet at: http://www.thecreativepenn.com/7steps

Writing A Series: 7 Continuation Issues To Avoid

I'm currently writing the 10th book in my ARKANE thriller series, so I am revisiting the little details that make my characters consistent across the books. I have forgotten so much since End of Days!

Here are some of the things to think about for continuation across series. Watch the video below or here on YouTube.

In the video, I go through:

(1) Continuation of character history, physical and personality traits

(2) How much to repeat in case people don't start with the first book

(3) What I remember vs what I actually wrote

(4) A story in itself but also part of a series

(5) Does the protagonist change within the book or over a series of books?

(6) How to cope with timescale over multiple books

(7) Retrofitting cover design and branding

ARKANE Books x 9

You can find my series fiction here: https://jfpenn.com/fiction/

Get your free 7 Steps to Write your Novel cheatsheet at: http://www.thecreativepenn.com/7steps

Writing A Series: 7 Continuation Issues To Avoid

I'm currently writing the 10th book in my ARKANE thriller series, so I am revisiting the little details that make my characters consistent across the books. I have forgotten so much since End of Days!

Here are some of the things to think about for continuation across series. Watch the video below or here on YouTube.

In the video, I go through:

(1) Continuation of character history, physical and personality traits

(2) How much to repeat in case people don't start with the first book

(3) What I remember vs what I actually wrote

(4) A story in itself but also part of a series

(5) Does the protagonist change within the book or over a series of books?

(6) How to cope with timescale over multiple books

(7) Retrofitting cover design and branding

ARKANE Books x 9

You can find my series fiction here: https://jfpenn.com/fiction/

Get your free 7 Steps to Write your Novel cheatsheet at: http://www.thecreativepenn.com/7steps

Writing Fiction: How To Write Evocative Characters Through Action And Strong Language

Characters are not real people – but readers have to experience the slice of life you portray in your book as if they are. So how can you bring your characters alive? 

In this article, Damon Suede outlines how to use character action and strong language to lift your characters off the page.

One of the odd myths of fiction is that characters are just like people, only imaginary… as if Darcy and your mailman differed only in their fame, wealth, and relative eligibility. That’s nonsense, of course.

Characters share some characteristics with people but only enough to help them fulfil their function: to extract satisfying emotion from an audience.

One of the most obvious differences is that characters have to earn belief, while actual people get the benefit of the doubt. If we can see them and talk to them, then we assume they exist.

Characters have to convince an audience to believe. Characters don’t feel. Characters aren’t born. Characters don’t actually disobey their creators, although at times it feels like they do. The feelings are real. The characters are not.

Bringing your fictional characters to life

Characters come to life in stories because:

  • they’re always pursuing their version of happiness
  • taking action for good or ill; and
  • dealing with the fallout in full view of the audience.

Because of the way our brains process language, readers experience those actions just as they would observed actions in their lives, from real people. Because we evolved as pattern-hungry primates, we see a problem, devise a solution and close the cognitive gap. Yay, neuroscience!

  • Millions of people love Lizzie Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, but can you actually tell me the color of her “fine eyes”?
  • What do we know about Ebeneezer Scrooge’s actual business beyond his parsimony?
  • Lady Macbeth doesn’t even get a name, and she’s one of the most famous women in world literature.

None of that is relevant.

What matters is not how characters seem, but what they do.

Audience imagination extrapolates from their actions and fills the significant gaps.

The characters aren’t real, but the emotions are. Our brains grasp that a story is artificial, but the feelings slip past our defences because that’s how we’re wired.

We bond with them, relate to them, empathize with them…or not.

Shoddy characterizations leave us inert and annoyed.

Adjectives vs. Adverbs

clumsy coffeeWhen an author tells us that a heroine is brilliant or clumsy or bowlegged, that she runs quickly, always, or late, we have to swallow their opinions whole, without any means of verification.

Adjectives and adverbs demand belief from readers, even if it isn’t earned. For this reason modifiers are the least and last option for character development.

If we see a noun like duke or merman or assassin, our education and imagination have to extrapolate character based on generic assumptions. Readers who know the word can infer resonance. Nouns can only suggest interpretations which we weigh against other tangible evidence.

But the second we watch a character purloin or shun or inveigle, we know who they are and why it matters because actions speak louder than words.

The real power of any characterization comes from actions, the verbs which reveal what characters make and take and break and fake.

  • Edmond Dantès avenges.
  • Cleopatra seduces.
  • Dracula drains.
  • Katniss Everdeen hunts.
  • Odysseus tricks.
  • Auntie Mame embraces.

Characters are their actions, which means their characterization starts with verbs. Verbs show where modifiers tell and nouns can only suggest.

Verbs will always provide the thrust of a scene or a story with the other parts of speech adding garnish and spice as needed.

Characters are not faces but forces

blue lightningArcs of transformation are caused by high-stakes choices.

So when you’re spinning that yarn, the smartest thing you’d best dig deep into that verbal landscape to unleash the real power of your people.

Verbs make everything happen. Time spent shaping and honing your verbs will have the greatest impact.

Young writers can get seduced by the juicy tangibility of nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, because they are visible, but without verbs they remain paralyzed and inert.

Energy is what makes matter matter. An author has to direct the flow of energy through the story via the characters and their actions. What audiences remember about the journey is the flow of emotions, not the trivia along the way.

In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, saying “Gollum” doesn’t actually bring that character to life or make him memorable. Tolkien uses modifiers like “old,” “hungry,” “mad,” “lean,” “miserable,” “small,” or “pitiable.”

For nouns he gives us “creature,” “villain,” “thing,” and “agony.”

But it’s in the verbs expressing Gollum’s actions Tolkien really gives it to us with both barrels: “slink,” “curse,” “thieve,” “cheat,” “sneak,” “strangle,” “hiss,” “murder,” “shriek.”

Suddenly we know who he is because he shows us, without needing to tell us.

The nouns and adjectives just set up an inert picture; those verbs steer Gollum through the story and shape the story thereby.

When in doubt look to the actions: what your characters make, take, break, and fake to achieve happiness. Once you know what they’re doing, and why it matters the story will write itself. Therein hangs every tale.

Modifiers are inherently passive and parasitic and nouns literally cannot do or make anything on their own.

Verbs are the fire in the wire, the spark in the dark that keeps everything burning. When in doubt, always look to your characters’ verbs and your story will blossom under your hands.

“All fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

EXERCISE: Strong language

How would you describe one of your characters using different parts of speech?

Don’t be afraid to incorporate language that also evokes the world and vibe of their story, context, and genre.

  1. Choose a character from one of your projects, either planned or published and list 5 modifiers intrinsic to them.
  2. Upgrade those modifiers to 5 nouns that convey the descriptive content of those modifiers as concrete people or items.
  3. Upgrade those nouns to 5 verbs that activate the solid clarity of those nouns as dynamic expressions of the character’s behavior during the course of the story. What does this language capture? What does it miss?
  4. Add another 5-10 supplemental verbs that seem especially appropriate and evocative for the character and their scenes.

Push your vocabulary as far as possible, absorbing new terms and tone-appropriate slang to capture the character clearly. Try to capture the fascinating energy that originally drew you to the character.

[Exercise excerpted from Verbalize]

Damon SuedeDamon Suede has earned his crust as a model, a messenger, a promoter, a programmer, a sculptor, a singer, a stripper, a bookkeeper, a bartender, a techie, a teacher, a director… but writing has ever been his bread and butter. Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen almost three decades and just released his first craft book: Verbalize, a practical guide to characterization and story craft. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. Get in touch with him on Twitter, Facebook, or at DamonSuede.com.

[Top crossing photo: Ryogi_Iwata on Unsplash, Coffee photo courtesy Nathan Dumiao and Unsplash. Lightning photo courtesy Leon Contreras and Unsplash. ]

Writing Fiction: How To Write Evocative Characters Through Action And Strong Language

Characters are not real people – but readers have to experience the slice of life you portray in your book as if they are. So how can you bring your characters alive? 

In this article, Damon Suede outlines how to use character action and strong language to lift your characters off the page.

One of the odd myths of fiction is that characters are just like people, only imaginary… as if Darcy and your mailman differed only in their fame, wealth, and relative eligibility. That’s nonsense, of course.

Characters share some characteristics with people but only enough to help them fulfil their function: to extract satisfying emotion from an audience.

One of the most obvious differences is that characters have to earn belief, while actual people get the benefit of the doubt. If we can see them and talk to them, then we assume they exist.

Characters have to convince an audience to believe. Characters don’t feel. Characters aren’t born. Characters don’t actually disobey their creators, although at times it feels like they do. The feelings are real. The characters are not.

Bringing your fictional characters to life

Characters come to life in stories because:

  • they’re always pursuing their version of happiness
  • taking action for good or ill; and
  • dealing with the fallout in full view of the audience.

Because of the way our brains process language, readers experience those actions just as they would observed actions in their lives, from real people. Because we evolved as pattern-hungry primates, we see a problem, devise a solution and close the cognitive gap. Yay, neuroscience!

  • Millions of people love Lizzie Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, but can you actually tell me the color of her “fine eyes”?
  • What do we know about Ebeneezer Scrooge’s actual business beyond his parsimony?
  • Lady Macbeth doesn’t even get a name, and she’s one of the most famous women in world literature.

None of that is relevant.

What matters is not how characters seem, but what they do.

Audience imagination extrapolates from their actions and fills the significant gaps.

The characters aren’t real, but the emotions are. Our brains grasp that a story is artificial, but the feelings slip past our defences because that’s how we’re wired.

We bond with them, relate to them, empathize with them…or not.

Shoddy characterizations leave us inert and annoyed.

Adjectives vs. Adverbs

clumsy coffeeWhen an author tells us that a heroine is brilliant or clumsy or bowlegged, that she runs quickly, always, or late, we have to swallow their opinions whole, without any means of verification.

Adjectives and adverbs demand belief from readers, even if it isn’t earned. For this reason modifiers are the least and last option for character development.

If we see a noun like duke or merman or assassin, our education and imagination have to extrapolate character based on generic assumptions. Readers who know the word can infer resonance. Nouns can only suggest interpretations which we weigh against other tangible evidence.

But the second we watch a character purloin or shun or inveigle, we know who they are and why it matters because actions speak louder than words.

The real power of any characterization comes from actions, the verbs which reveal what characters make and take and break and fake.

  • Edmond Dantès avenges.
  • Cleopatra seduces.
  • Dracula drains.
  • Katniss Everdeen hunts.
  • Odysseus tricks.
  • Auntie Mame embraces.

Characters are their actions, which means their characterization starts with verbs. Verbs show where modifiers tell and nouns can only suggest.

Verbs will always provide the thrust of a scene or a story with the other parts of speech adding garnish and spice as needed.

Characters are not faces but forces

blue lightningArcs of transformation are caused by high-stakes choices.

So when you’re spinning that yarn, the smartest thing you’d best dig deep into that verbal landscape to unleash the real power of your people.

Verbs make everything happen. Time spent shaping and honing your verbs will have the greatest impact.

Young writers can get seduced by the juicy tangibility of nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, because they are visible, but without verbs they remain paralyzed and inert.

Energy is what makes matter matter. An author has to direct the flow of energy through the story via the characters and their actions. What audiences remember about the journey is the flow of emotions, not the trivia along the way.

In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, saying “Gollum” doesn’t actually bring that character to life or make him memorable. Tolkien uses modifiers like “old,” “hungry,” “mad,” “lean,” “miserable,” “small,” or “pitiable.”

For nouns he gives us “creature,” “villain,” “thing,” and “agony.”

But it’s in the verbs expressing Gollum’s actions Tolkien really gives it to us with both barrels: “slink,” “curse,” “thieve,” “cheat,” “sneak,” “strangle,” “hiss,” “murder,” “shriek.”

Suddenly we know who he is because he shows us, without needing to tell us.

The nouns and adjectives just set up an inert picture; those verbs steer Gollum through the story and shape the story thereby.

When in doubt look to the actions: what your characters make, take, break, and fake to achieve happiness. Once you know what they’re doing, and why it matters the story will write itself. Therein hangs every tale.

Modifiers are inherently passive and parasitic and nouns literally cannot do or make anything on their own.

Verbs are the fire in the wire, the spark in the dark that keeps everything burning. When in doubt, always look to your characters’ verbs and your story will blossom under your hands.

“All fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

EXERCISE: Strong language

How would you describe one of your characters using different parts of speech?

Don’t be afraid to incorporate language that also evokes the world and vibe of their story, context, and genre.

  1. Choose a character from one of your projects, either planned or published and list 5 modifiers intrinsic to them.
  2. Upgrade those modifiers to 5 nouns that convey the descriptive content of those modifiers as concrete people or items.
  3. Upgrade those nouns to 5 verbs that activate the solid clarity of those nouns as dynamic expressions of the character’s behavior during the course of the story. What does this language capture? What does it miss?
  4. Add another 5-10 supplemental verbs that seem especially appropriate and evocative for the character and their scenes.

Push your vocabulary as far as possible, absorbing new terms and tone-appropriate slang to capture the character clearly. Try to capture the fascinating energy that originally drew you to the character.

[Exercise excerpted from Verbalize]

Damon SuedeDamon Suede has earned his crust as a model, a messenger, a promoter, a programmer, a sculptor, a singer, a stripper, a bookkeeper, a bartender, a techie, a teacher, a director… but writing has ever been his bread and butter. Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen almost three decades and just released his first craft book: Verbalize, a practical guide to characterization and story craft. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. Get in touch with him on Twitter, Facebook, or at DamonSuede.com.

[Top crossing photo: Ryogi_Iwata on Unsplash, Coffee photo courtesy Nathan Dumiao and Unsplash. Lightning photo courtesy Leon Contreras and Unsplash. ]

Writing Fiction: How To Write Evocative Characters Through Action And Strong Language

Characters are not real people – but readers have to experience the slice of life you portray in your book as if they are. So how can you bring your characters alive? 

In this article, Damon Suede outlines how to use character action and strong language to lift your characters off the page.

One of the odd myths of fiction is that characters are just like people, only imaginary… as if Darcy and your mailman differed only in their fame, wealth, and relative eligibility. That’s nonsense, of course.

Characters share some characteristics with people but only enough to help them fulfil their function: to extract satisfying emotion from an audience.

One of the most obvious differences is that characters have to earn belief, while actual people get the benefit of the doubt. If we can see them and talk to them, then we assume they exist.

Characters have to convince an audience to believe. Characters don’t feel. Characters aren’t born. Characters don’t actually disobey their creators, although at times it feels like they do. The feelings are real. The characters are not.

Bringing your fictional characters to life

Characters come to life in stories because:

  • they’re always pursuing their version of happiness
  • taking action for good or ill; and
  • dealing with the fallout in full view of the audience.

Because of the way our brains process language, readers experience those actions just as they would observed actions in their lives, from real people. Because we evolved as pattern-hungry primates, we see a problem, devise a solution and close the cognitive gap. Yay, neuroscience!

  • Millions of people love Lizzie Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, but can you actually tell me the color of her “fine eyes”?
  • What do we know about Ebeneezer Scrooge’s actual business beyond his parsimony?
  • Lady Macbeth doesn’t even get a name, and she’s one of the most famous women in world literature.

None of that is relevant.

What matters is not how characters seem, but what they do.

Audience imagination extrapolates from their actions and fills the significant gaps.

The characters aren’t real, but the emotions are. Our brains grasp that a story is artificial, but the feelings slip past our defences because that’s how we’re wired.

We bond with them, relate to them, empathize with them…or not.

Shoddy characterizations leave us inert and annoyed.

Adjectives vs. Adverbs

clumsy coffeeWhen an author tells us that a heroine is brilliant or clumsy or bowlegged, that she runs quickly, always, or late, we have to swallow their opinions whole, without any means of verification.

Adjectives and adverbs demand belief from readers, even if it isn’t earned. For this reason modifiers are the least and last option for character development.

If we see a noun like duke or merman or assassin, our education and imagination have to extrapolate character based on generic assumptions. Readers who know the word can infer resonance. Nouns can only suggest interpretations which we weigh against other tangible evidence.

But the second we watch a character purloin or shun or inveigle, we know who they are and why it matters because actions speak louder than words.

The real power of any characterization comes from actions, the verbs which reveal what characters make and take and break and fake.

  • Edmond Dantès avenges.
  • Cleopatra seduces.
  • Dracula drains.
  • Katniss Everdeen hunts.
  • Odysseus tricks.
  • Auntie Mame embraces.

Characters are their actions, which means their characterization starts with verbs. Verbs show where modifiers tell and nouns can only suggest.

Verbs will always provide the thrust of a scene or a story with the other parts of speech adding garnish and spice as needed.

Characters are not faces but forces

blue lightningArcs of transformation are caused by high-stakes choices.

So when you’re spinning that yarn, the smartest thing you’d best dig deep into that verbal landscape to unleash the real power of your people.

Verbs make everything happen. Time spent shaping and honing your verbs will have the greatest impact.

Young writers can get seduced by the juicy tangibility of nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, because they are visible, but without verbs they remain paralyzed and inert.

Energy is what makes matter matter. An author has to direct the flow of energy through the story via the characters and their actions. What audiences remember about the journey is the flow of emotions, not the trivia along the way.

In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, saying “Gollum” doesn’t actually bring that character to life or make him memorable. Tolkien uses modifiers like “old,” “hungry,” “mad,” “lean,” “miserable,” “small,” or “pitiable.”

For nouns he gives us “creature,” “villain,” “thing,” and “agony.”

But it’s in the verbs expressing Gollum’s actions Tolkien really gives it to us with both barrels: “slink,” “curse,” “thieve,” “cheat,” “sneak,” “strangle,” “hiss,” “murder,” “shriek.”

Suddenly we know who he is because he shows us, without needing to tell us.

The nouns and adjectives just set up an inert picture; those verbs steer Gollum through the story and shape the story thereby.

When in doubt look to the actions: what your characters make, take, break, and fake to achieve happiness. Once you know what they’re doing, and why it matters the story will write itself. Therein hangs every tale.

Modifiers are inherently passive and parasitic and nouns literally cannot do or make anything on their own.

Verbs are the fire in the wire, the spark in the dark that keeps everything burning. When in doubt, always look to your characters’ verbs and your story will blossom under your hands.

“All fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

EXERCISE: Strong language

How would you describe one of your characters using different parts of speech?

Don’t be afraid to incorporate language that also evokes the world and vibe of their story, context, and genre.

  1. Choose a character from one of your projects, either planned or published and list 5 modifiers intrinsic to them.
  2. Upgrade those modifiers to 5 nouns that convey the descriptive content of those modifiers as concrete people or items.
  3. Upgrade those nouns to 5 verbs that activate the solid clarity of those nouns as dynamic expressions of the character’s behavior during the course of the story. What does this language capture? What does it miss?
  4. Add another 5-10 supplemental verbs that seem especially appropriate and evocative for the character and their scenes.

Push your vocabulary as far as possible, absorbing new terms and tone-appropriate slang to capture the character clearly. Try to capture the fascinating energy that originally drew you to the character.

[Exercise excerpted from Verbalize]

Damon SuedeDamon Suede has earned his crust as a model, a messenger, a promoter, a programmer, a sculptor, a singer, a stripper, a bookkeeper, a bartender, a techie, a teacher, a director… but writing has ever been his bread and butter. Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen almost three decades and just released his first craft book: Verbalize, a practical guide to characterization and story craft. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. Get in touch with him on Twitter, Facebook, or at DamonSuede.com.

[Top crossing photo: Ryogi_Iwata on Unsplash, Coffee photo courtesy Nathan Dumiao and Unsplash. Lightning photo courtesy Leon Contreras and Unsplash. ]

Writing Fiction: How To Write Evocative Characters Through Action And Strong Language

Characters are not real people – but readers have to experience the slice of life you portray in your book as if they are. So how can you bring your characters alive? 

In this article, Damon Suede outlines how to use character action and strong language to lift your characters off the page.

One of the odd myths of fiction is that characters are just like people, only imaginary… as if Darcy and your mailman differed only in their fame, wealth, and relative eligibility. That’s nonsense, of course.

Characters share some characteristics with people but only enough to help them fulfil their function: to extract satisfying emotion from an audience.

One of the most obvious differences is that characters have to earn belief, while actual people get the benefit of the doubt. If we can see them and talk to them, then we assume they exist.

Characters have to convince an audience to believe. Characters don’t feel. Characters aren’t born. Characters don’t actually disobey their creators, although at times it feels like they do. The feelings are real. The characters are not.

Bringing your fictional characters to life

Characters come to life in stories because:

  • they’re always pursuing their version of happiness
  • taking action for good or ill; and
  • dealing with the fallout in full view of the audience.

Because of the way our brains process language, readers experience those actions just as they would observed actions in their lives, from real people. Because we evolved as pattern-hungry primates, we see a problem, devise a solution and close the cognitive gap. Yay, neuroscience!

  • Millions of people love Lizzie Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, but can you actually tell me the color of her “fine eyes”?
  • What do we know about Ebeneezer Scrooge’s actual business beyond his parsimony?
  • Lady Macbeth doesn’t even get a name, and she’s one of the most famous women in world literature.

None of that is relevant.

What matters is not how characters seem, but what they do.

Audience imagination extrapolates from their actions and fills the significant gaps.

The characters aren’t real, but the emotions are. Our brains grasp that a story is artificial, but the feelings slip past our defences because that’s how we’re wired.

We bond with them, relate to them, empathize with them…or not.

Shoddy characterizations leave us inert and annoyed.

Adjectives vs. Adverbs

clumsy coffeeWhen an author tells us that a heroine is brilliant or clumsy or bowlegged, that she runs quickly, always, or late, we have to swallow their opinions whole, without any means of verification.

Adjectives and adverbs demand belief from readers, even if it isn’t earned. For this reason modifiers are the least and last option for character development.

If we see a noun like duke or merman or assassin, our education and imagination have to extrapolate character based on generic assumptions. Readers who know the word can infer resonance. Nouns can only suggest interpretations which we weigh against other tangible evidence.

But the second we watch a character purloin or shun or inveigle, we know who they are and why it matters because actions speak louder than words.

The real power of any characterization comes from actions, the verbs which reveal what characters make and take and break and fake.

  • Edmond Dantès avenges.
  • Cleopatra seduces.
  • Dracula drains.
  • Katniss Everdeen hunts.
  • Odysseus tricks.
  • Auntie Mame embraces.

Characters are their actions, which means their characterization starts with verbs. Verbs show where modifiers tell and nouns can only suggest.

Verbs will always provide the thrust of a scene or a story with the other parts of speech adding garnish and spice as needed.

Characters are not faces but forces

blue lightningArcs of transformation are caused by high-stakes choices.

So when you’re spinning that yarn, the smartest thing you’d best dig deep into that verbal landscape to unleash the real power of your people.

Verbs make everything happen. Time spent shaping and honing your verbs will have the greatest impact.

Young writers can get seduced by the juicy tangibility of nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, because they are visible, but without verbs they remain paralyzed and inert.

Energy is what makes matter matter. An author has to direct the flow of energy through the story via the characters and their actions. What audiences remember about the journey is the flow of emotions, not the trivia along the way.

In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, saying “Gollum” doesn’t actually bring that character to life or make him memorable. Tolkien uses modifiers like “old,” “hungry,” “mad,” “lean,” “miserable,” “small,” or “pitiable.”

For nouns he gives us “creature,” “villain,” “thing,” and “agony.”

But it’s in the verbs expressing Gollum’s actions Tolkien really gives it to us with both barrels: “slink,” “curse,” “thieve,” “cheat,” “sneak,” “strangle,” “hiss,” “murder,” “shriek.”

Suddenly we know who he is because he shows us, without needing to tell us.

The nouns and adjectives just set up an inert picture; those verbs steer Gollum through the story and shape the story thereby.

When in doubt look to the actions: what your characters make, take, break, and fake to achieve happiness. Once you know what they’re doing, and why it matters the story will write itself. Therein hangs every tale.

Modifiers are inherently passive and parasitic and nouns literally cannot do or make anything on their own.

Verbs are the fire in the wire, the spark in the dark that keeps everything burning. When in doubt, always look to your characters’ verbs and your story will blossom under your hands.

“All fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

EXERCISE: Strong language

How would you describe one of your characters using different parts of speech?

Don’t be afraid to incorporate language that also evokes the world and vibe of their story, context, and genre.

  1. Choose a character from one of your projects, either planned or published and list 5 modifiers intrinsic to them.
  2. Upgrade those modifiers to 5 nouns that convey the descriptive content of those modifiers as concrete people or items.
  3. Upgrade those nouns to 5 verbs that activate the solid clarity of those nouns as dynamic expressions of the character’s behavior during the course of the story. What does this language capture? What does it miss?
  4. Add another 5-10 supplemental verbs that seem especially appropriate and evocative for the character and their scenes.

Push your vocabulary as far as possible, absorbing new terms and tone-appropriate slang to capture the character clearly. Try to capture the fascinating energy that originally drew you to the character.

[Exercise excerpted from Verbalize]

Damon SuedeDamon Suede has earned his crust as a model, a messenger, a promoter, a programmer, a sculptor, a singer, a stripper, a bookkeeper, a bartender, a techie, a teacher, a director… but writing has ever been his bread and butter. Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen almost three decades and just released his first craft book: Verbalize, a practical guide to characterization and story craft. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. Get in touch with him on Twitter, Facebook, or at DamonSuede.com.

[Top crossing photo: Ryogi_Iwata on Unsplash, Coffee photo courtesy Nathan Dumiao and Unsplash. Lightning photo courtesy Leon Contreras and Unsplash. ]