Ever since reading The War of Art by Steven Pressfield in 2003 I have always been a fan of his work. In his latest book, The Artist’s Journey, he describes the journey, struggles and inner battles that we face in order to bring our art into the world. It was so thought provoking for me that I had to read it twice and I’m probably still only scratching at the surface of how I, and you, can benefit from it.
In this blog I’m going to attempt to describe the five main points that jumped out for me from The Artist’s Journey and how we can use this to aid our mission as artists. I want you to understand why you are an artist (or writer or musician or actor or into crafting or anything else that feeds your soul) and why it is sometimes an heroic journey.
We all have our place in this artist’s world. I want to whet your appetite so that you will read the book yourself and let Steven Pressfield help you to understand your role in this wonderful creative cosmos of ours.
1 – We all go through the hero’s journey
The hero’s journey is described in a seminal book by Joseph Campbell called The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Campbell analysed stories from various religions and cultures and realised that they all broke down to the same basic elements. For precise descriptions of the hero’s journey read his book or The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, but it roughly boils down to the following.
The subject of the story, our hero, is living their life in their normal world. Something happens that means they have to act. They don’t want to but events escalate and a wise person (think Gandalf or Obi Wan Kenobi) encourages them to do something. They cross the threshold into the unknown, not really believing that they can do it, face lots of trial and tribulations and often feel that all is lost. They have a big success but then things go wrong again and now there is one almighty battle for survival for which failure is not an option. They win and return back to their previous world a changed person.
All stories go through these stages whether they involve Luke Skywalker, Bridget Jones or Moses.
In The Artist’s Journey Pressfield says that we as artists have also been through this process before we take up our art. We get knocked around by life, are unfulfilled and know that there is something that our soul wants to say. However, initially we deny this it because it is too scary. Finally life delivers us to a place where we have no choice but start making our art. We are already changed as we reach this point and the making of our art will change us further.
We will have many hero’s journeys and they will continue through to the end of our life. Our artist’s journey will be wrapped around this.
My hero’s journey prior to starting to write was starting out life as a music student, deciding not to be an unemployed flute player, becoming an accountant instead, feeling unfulfilled by that but also enjoying the material trappings that this gave me, feeling more and more bored by the material life I was able to lead, searching, having stress breakdowns, more searching, more living it up in my material world and then finally arriving at writing. Then another journey began as I learned how to combine writing with earning money.
In my personal life my main story was being single throughout most of my twenties and into my thirties, falling for the wrong men, my biological clock ticking ever louder, friends settling down and having babies, I’m still single, Carrie gets Mr Big, Ross finally got Rachel and I’m still single. After huge ups and downs, snot and tears, I eventually understood some deep shit stuff about self-respect. The quality of men I attracted improved and finally as I turned 40 my now husband came into my life and I was ready to be with him.
Those two narratives kept me at the coal-face of my Buddhist practice and led me down a personal development path with a side dollop of therapy. All of that gave me fantastic material for my novel Tales of the Countess.
Your life, however challenged, however imperfect, however you wish it didn’t have to be that way, is perfect for the art that you are destined to create. You wouldn’t be able to create it without the experiences you have had and where you are at right now.
2 – There are two versions of you
Pressfield says there are two versions of you. The first is the you that you think you are, who does your art and participates in your daily life. And then there is the “second you.”
In his words:
Who is this self they seek to discover?
It is none other than the “second you” – that wiser “you”, that true, pure, waterproof, self-propelled, self-contained “you”.
Every work we produce as artists comes from this second “you”.
Our first “you” is nothing but the vehicle that contains (and initially conceals) our real you.
Many of us have felt this prior to beginning our artistic journeys. We feel that there is more to us than what we have currently seen, that we are capable of more, that we are trying to say something different. Initially we don’t know how to get to that second person and we avoid the path that our soul says will lead us there. Eventually we start to discover the way.
Yes, you were right. There is a whole other side to you. There is a bigger, greater you that is desperate to speak and has a magnificent voice.
3 – There are two realms
In Pressfield’s model of the universe there are two realms. The first is the every-day, material world in which we dwell.
exists “above” the first but permeates the latter at all times and in all instances. The second level the invisible world, the plane of the as-yet-unmanifested. The sphere of pure potentiality.
Upon this level dwells that which will be, but is not yet…
Call this level the Unconscious, the Soul , the Self, the Superconscious.
Pressfield talks about how when we create, we shuttle between two worlds; the every-day world and then this amazing, heavenly ether where our creations live. We have to reach in there, take something, see what it is and figure out what we can do with it.
However this is not an easy process. Between this amazing realm of potentiality and our regular self is resistance. Resistance is our own tailor-made gremlin who knows our Achilles heel and manifests a special type of evil to try to prevent us from accessing that heavenly world.
Therefore, in order to reach the realm of possibility when we write, or paint or compose, we have to go through yet another hero’s journey.
Each of those trips is a hero’s journey.
Jay-Z in his studio may complete ten thousand hero’s journeys a day.
You do too.
Ordinary World to The Call to Refusal of Call to Threshold to Extraordinary Word and back again.
Watch yourself today as you bang out your five hundred words. You’ll see the hero’s journey over and over.
I can certainly attest to this in writing this blog. I started out, inspired by the book, with an idea for an article with a title of “Is Art Your Destiny.” As I started writing it I found that I just wanted to talk directly about the book. Then I had the idea of writing this article as a kind of review of the book. Then resistance really set it. I didn’t do it for a week. I had just one spare day earlier this week but it got to nearly midday and I still hadn’t started. I have resisted every step of writing this article but have simultaneously known that I have to grasp the meaning of Pressfield’s book and how it applies to me.
It is normal to have to gird our loins and prepare for battle each time we start to create. It is normal to be scared at the beginning when there is nothing on the page but at the same time have a deep feeling that there is a “something” desperate to manifest.
The fear and resistance will never go away. But we can accept its presence and learn that if we take on the challenge, finding mentors along the way, we can bring something magical from the other world to this world.
4 – We already are our soul’s destiny
Towards the end of the book Pressfield talks about the concept of daimon. I’ll let him explain:
Daimon is a greek word. The equivalent in Latin is genius.
Both words refer to an inhering spirit. We are born, each of us with our own individual daimon. The daimon is our guardian. It knows our destiny. It kens our calling.
… an analogy to an acorn. The totality of the full-grown oak is contained – every leaf and every branch – already in the acorn.
I’ll say that again – the totality of the full-grown oak is contained already in the acorn. You know your destiny and I know mine. However, to see it we must have the courage to persistently engage in the hero’s journey across the threshold of our own resistance.
The daimon is what makes you want to create, however inconvenient or crazy it makes your life.
I regularly curse my creative side. It prevents me from being like ‘normal’ people and having a regular five day a week job. I can only work three days a week because I just HAVE to have time, space and enough rest to create. I’d earn a lot more money in the corporate world if it wasn’t for this inexplicable drive to have to speak my truth, write and publish my novel, and encourage other people to do the same.
I just have to do this. It is like a destiny. If I put it aside life initially gets easier, but I soon get restless again and I know what I have to do.
We each have a mission, something that is uniquely ours to give ourselves and to the world. If we have the courage to do it, however difficult, we will find deep fulfilment and know that we are being our true, best self.
If we ignore it, our daimon will either kill us or, at the very least, make us feel like the walking dead.
5 – Our desire to create is our attempt to return humanity to Eden
The last few pages of the book blew my mind. It made me re-read the book again (I stayed in bed for the whole of New Years Eve reading it!) Then, despite being a Buddhist for over thirty years, it caused me to dig out my bible and read the opening of the book of Genesis.
I’m not sure that I can explain this but I’ll give it a go. (If you are of a religious persuasion, please forgive me). Initially, Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden and all was tickety-boo. They had everything that they needed and it was an idyllic place. Then Eve ate the forbidden fruit, gave some to Adam and it all went tits up.
God got angry with them and said, “You will have to work hard and sweat to make the soil produce anything until you go back to the soil from which you were formed.”
In other words, the blissful life was over and humankind would now have to toil in order to eat and sustain themselves. Life was going to be a stressful challenge to survive.
The artist’s role, whether she understands it or not, is to point the way back to the Garden, to that state of consciousness that the human race had before the Fall. In other words, to direct contact with, and experience of the Divine Ground.
But note the Almighty’s curse, as He kicked the mom and dad of our race out of paradise.
The way back, if indeed it is through art, comes via a ticket paid for in sweat.
Art is work.
From this I understand two things. Firstly, humanity yearns for a better life, for relief from the struggle of daily existence.
Secondly, when we as artists enter the second realm of possibility and of our higher selves, and undergo the battle of our own hero’s journey to do that, we connect not only ourselves with this higher realm but also those who behold and benefit from our art.
I don’t think this role is the preserve of just artists, purveyors of Art with a capital ‘A’. Computer programming also requires you to make effort and dig deep to find a solution. So does dealing with customers at your job or finding a way to design a product so that it solves a problem for the consumer.
We all have a piece of music, a book, a film or a picture that inspires us and lifts us above whatever challenge we are facing. We all have a gadget or a favourite piece of furniture or an ornament that, when we come into contact with it, gives us a little piece of heaven.
The overall takeaway from this book
Imagine a world where everyone on a daily basis embarks on their hero’s journey, overcoming their own resistance to connect as much as possible to the sphere of possibility and potential, and make that manifest in daily life.
I think that we as artists are blessed with our daimon, that thing which drives us to seek more from our lives than just a hum-drum existence.
We have a head start in this battle. We can lead the way.
No, it isn’t easy.
Yes, we have to surmount and face our fears, not once but on a continual basis.
And yes it will involve effort, slog, failure and recovery.
But isn’t it worth it to operate not just from our best self but to encourage humanity to do the same?
I really recommend reading The Artist’s Journey. It will help you understand why you are a creative person and why it is worth summoning up the courage to meet this challenge. For me it has led to a profound self-acceptance that the person I am, and the struggles that I go through in my creative life are totally normal and OK.
Now I’d love to hear from you
What do you make of this week’s blog? What stood out for you? If you’ve already read The Artist’s Journey, what did you learn from it?
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