Today Mark talks with Steven Pressfield, (@Spressfield) an acclaimed author of historical fiction and non-fiction. Among numerous other books, Steven wrote The War of Art, The Legend of Bagger Vance, and Gates of Fire, about the Battle of Thermopylae. His most recent book is A Man at Arms, about the Roman empire and the letter to the Corinthians. Steven explains his creative process when writing and how he overcomes any form of Resistance.
- Resistance is the main obstacle to creativity and how it’s a negative force of self-sabotage
- You can overcome Resistance by staring down the wolf—an act of will
- We all have the Hero’s Journey—that eventually leads to our Artist’s Journey
- Steven has his own creative process when starting a novel
Listen to this episode to find out more about how you can tap into your own creative potential.
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Hey folks, welcome back. This is Mark Divine with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Super-stoked to have you join me today. We are going to have an unbelievably cool conversation with my friend and world-class author, Steven Pressfield.
But before we get into that and I introduce Steven, for the few of you who might not know who he is – please rate this podcast. It really, really, really helps other people to find it. People search, and they want to find the highest rated podcast.
So if ours continues to be the highest rated, or one of the highest rated, then more and more people will find it. And that helps others get to listen to people like Steven.
So go to iTunes if you listen to it and just click on five stars, if you would. (laughing) how’s that for a bold ask.
Steven: I like it, I like it…
Mark: Steven Pressfield. Man. So let me give you an intro, and then we’ll just kind of roll into just us chatting. I first met Steve by reading “Gates of Fire.” To this day my favorite book.
And then I was so intrigued – he’ll remember this – but years ago when my business was just navyseals.com and I was doing content I asked him for an interview. And we had a really fun conversation. And that ended up as an audio and actually a kind of a transcribed podcast on navyseal.com. That was years ago.
Mark: Since then – you’ve written about like 10 books since then, probably.
Steven: (laughing) probably, yeah…
Mark: But I love your story. And you’ve really helped a lot of creative people, as well. Steve’s written – like another one of my favorite books, and a lot of authors as well – it’s called “The War of Art.” Really, really good book about overcoming resistance. And how to find your muse as a creator. Doesn’t have to be an author.
So, Steve welcome. I’d love to talk about both things. Like, I want to go back to “Gates of Fire” and talk about that. And I want to talk about writing. And I want to talk about your current book.
But before that just how are you doing? I mean you’ve been busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest, haven’t you? (laughing)
Steven: It’s great to see you again, Mark. It’s great to be on. Thanks for having me on.
Mark: Of course. My pleasure.
Steven: Yeah, my last six months or so, I’ve been just promoting my new book “A Man at Arms.” It’s sort of an out-of-body experience for me…
Mark: I bet…
Steven: Trying to get out of my introvert, normal state of mind and be… you know, like you just asking people to rate the podcast. That’s a hard thing to do… to say to somebody please do this, right?
Because I hate it when people ask me stuff.
Mark: Oh, I know. That was me overcoming my resistance to actually asking people to buy our products. But then the way I did that was to recognize that how can I serve if people aren’t finding out about us?
Steven: Yeah, yeah. It’s a tough leap to make though. But anyway, that’s what I’ve been doing.
Mark: Well I tell you what. Your team – and I’m sure you have a good team behind your back – has done a phenomenal job with this book launch. I mean, I’m taking notes. It’s been really, really cool. And I love… by the way one of the things that Steve did was offered an actual signed page from the original manuscript of “300” – or not “300” but “Gates of Fire.” (laughing) probably not the first person who mixed up the movie with your book…
Steven: Yeah, yeah.
Mark: “Gates of Fire.” As a gift for buying 10 copies of his book. I just got that in the mail and even the presentation of that was just phenomenal, right? The way it was packaged…
Steven: You know, I got that idea from – you know who Ryan Holiday is…
Mark: Ryan’s a friend of mine, for sure…
Steven: Yeah, he’s a great guy. And I was visiting him… I went to visit him in Austin to ask him to kind of help me understand what marketing was all about. You know, marketing yourself, marketing a book.
And I had this original – I still have it – 802-page manuscript of “Gates of Fire.” And my thought was to like give the whole thing away to somebody…
Mark: 801 pages now, because I have one of them…
Steven: Okay, you’re right we replaced that. We copied the page and put it back in.
Mark: Oh you did. Okay.
Steven: But anyway, he said “no, no, no. Don’t do that. Do one page at a time. People will frame it…” he said, “I’d love to have one myself.”
So that was all his idea. And sort of talking about getting into the marketing aspect or the frame of mind… I figured maybe three people would respond. And we’ve had like – I don’t know – maybe 100 people or something. That’s been pretty amazing.
Mark: That is amazing.
Steven: There’s something to be said for asking. I’m trying to teach myself that.
Mark: If you don’t ask, you don’t receive.
Mark: Let’s talk about your journey as an author. Like, I’ve read a little bit about it, but I think it’d be interesting for other people… like, what got you into it? And tell us how you were an instant success. (laughing)
Steven: (laughing) yeah, instant success. 30 years, yeah. Well, I don’t know… it’s a long, long story, Mark.
Mark: Start at the very beginning. I would say “I was born at a very young age.” (laughing)
Steven: I was working as a junior copywriter at an ad agency – a big ad agency in New York. And I had a boss named ed Hannibal, and he quit and wrote a novel. And it was a success. And overnight he was like this famous guy and had a lot of money, and da-da-da…
So I said to myself at age twenty-three…
Mark: (laughing) that looks easy…
Steven: Why don’t I do that? And so 30 years later, I finally got something published. And in between, there was a lot of ups and downs…
Mark: So what did you first try to write? Did you try to write romance novels? Or these military histories?
Steven: I first actually tried to write a book about marine boot camp. Which I had just gotten out of, not very long ago. I was in the reserves, at that point. So, I could still be a civilian.
But I just remember the experience was like anything… like not the same as navy seal training… but it was certainly a mind-blowing experience to me, being a civilian.
So I was trying to write about that.
Mark: And did that ever get published?
Steven: No. That never even came close. In fact, when I got like 99% of the way through it, resistance reared its ugly head and I just choked, you know? I blew everything up. My life, my marriage… everything. Rather than take it across the finish line.
Mark: Interesting. So, let’s go there. What is resistance in your lexicon?
Steven: Resistance with a capital r, if anybody has… my book “the war of art” that you mentioned before, Mark is about that… and resistance with a capital r is what radiates – if you’re a writer – off of this…
Mark: (laughing) it radiates off the keyboard…
Steven: It’s a negative force of self-sabotage, that takes the form of a voice in your head that says to you “you’re a bum, you’re a loser – who are you to try to do this enterprise…?” Whatever it is, any dream you have – a business, a book… anything creative. “who are you to dare to even think about this? You’re too old, you’re too young – you’re too fat, you’re too skinny” – or not enough education, too much education, etc.
Also takes a form of fear, where we’re totally paralyzed with the fear of success, and fear of failure. And so we procrastinate we resort to perfectionism. We yield to distractions – any kind of distractions… alcohol, drugs, abuse of others, abuse of ourselves… drama in our lives… or, you know, we just run away.
Anyway, so it is this negative force that doesn’t reside out in the world, it’s in our own heads. We’re being our own worst enemy… that’s what I call resistance.
Mark: I love that. So, we’re creating that resistance and it sounds to me like – from your definition – you’re resisting your higher self. Like, you’re resisting your creative force that wants to present itself to the world.
But then your more limited ego – which is full of fear and all these biases and shadow… all these things you talked about… basically saying “no, we’re not going to let you express yourself.”
Steven: I would say that’s exactly it, Mark. That’s exactly it.
Mark: And we all have it, right? I don’t think anyone’s immune.
Steven: Everybody’s got it. I can tell you, because I’ve had like 10 000 emails from people after “the war of art” has come out. And they’re all… sometimes people pour out their hearts to you – these terrible tragic stories of god knows what.
But everybody’s got it. It’s the same voice in my head and your head and everybody’s head. It’s a force of nature, like gravity.
Mark: Yeah, I think it’s kind of the human journey or the human experience…
So, it’s in everybody. And if you don’t face the resistance and strive to overcome it – however well you might do – then you’re basically shirking from life. And I think that leads to major existential crisis in a lot of people.
Steven: Yes, definitely. I mean, almost any vice, any crime, any form of abuse or self-abuse – I think really comes from that. I think a lot of – not to get political about this – but a lot of the stuff that we see… the partisanship and the stuff that’s going on in the world today is – I think – people on the individual level not facing the demon that’s inside them, projecting it out onto the other side.
And of course there’s like a multi-billion-dollar industry promoting that stuff…
Mark: That’s right…
Steven: And politicians are building careers on that and dividing people etc., etc.….
But I think it all comes from not facing whatever dream we may have, or whatever aspiration we have for ourselves…
Mark: That’s fascinating. So, what you’re pointing to is that a culture can have this resistance and if they don’t face it – what I would say “stare down the wolf of fear” and overcome that, then you’re gonna get all this negative projection and the chaos and the ugliness that we see today.
Steven: And I think cultures absolutely do that. I mean, you think about Nazi Germany, think about Rome in her declining years, Athens… I mean, it’s a collective thing as well as an individual thing.
Mark: That’s fascinating. We could spend a lot of time going down that rabbit hole…
Steven: Yeah, yeah…
Mark: So, I’m curious – what inspired you to write “the war of art?” Because you could have just kept on going after your novels, and you did such a great job of them… and just kept on individually overcoming your resistance.
I mean what caused you to want to share this with people? Kind of take a tack to the left and be more of like a mentor to writers?
Steven: (laughing) it didn’t come out of altruism, Mark, I can tell you that. When I started having some success as a writer, friends of mine would come to me and say, “oh, I’ve got a book in me. Can I talk to you about this?”
And so I would sit up until two in the morning with friends, trying to psych them up, you know? Because they would have a million excuses – “I’ve got a job, I’ve got a husband, I’ve got a wife, I’ve got kids…” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
So I would sort of introduce them to this concept of resistance. And I kind of formulated it in my own mind – it became clear to me in my own mind – just telling them that the writing part is not the hard part.
The hard part is sitting down to write. So, sort of talking this out verbally, all the ideas kind of came together in my mind. And, of course, nobody ever listened to me. Nobody went out and wrote a book or… resistance defeated them from the start.
So, finally I just thought to myself, “I just can’t keep sitting up at night till two in the morning with people. Let me take a few months, write this thing down… and then when anybody asks me, I’ll just say, ‘here, read this.’”
So that was why I wrote it. I just kind of wrote to get it out of my way and stop having to talk to people at two in the morning.
Mark: That’s funny.
Steven: It came out very fast, by the way Mark. It was just out in two months… it was done.
Mark: Oh that’s so cool. It’s kind of like just downloading, right? Poof. There it is…
Steven: Yeah… not an instant hit either. It took a long time – took years…
Mark: Oh yeah, I totally get that. It’s like brewing and stewing and all those patterns are starting to get connected. And then when all the puzzle and the whole mosaic is there in your mind, then it just goes down on the paper.
So what were some of your insights into how a creator can overcome resistance? And I know it’s probably very individualized – but what were some of your insights on that?
Steven: Well, it’s probably staring down the wolf, in a sense. You know, it all comes down to an act of will. And an act of discipline. And a creation of professional style habits.
I have my concept of how to overcome it – is what I call “turning pro.” And I know you know this…
Mark: You have another book by that title…
Steven: Yeah, and the gist of it is that when we’re not staring down the wolf, when the wolf is defeating us, the reason is – or at least one reason for me – is we’re thinking like amateurs. When an amateur encounters adversity, he or she folds, right?
An amateur is a weekend warrior, an amateur is a dabbler. An amateur will work when they feel like it. They say, “oh gee, I don’t feel like working today, so I won’t work.”
But if you flip the switch in your head and you say, “I’m a professional,” then it doesn’t matter what you feel like. Today is a workday, you get up and you do it, right? And a professional shows up every day, a professional stays on the job every day. A professional plays hurt, right? If things are not 100% perfect, a professional doesn’t even think about that.
Michael Jordan if he’s hurt his Achilles tendon, he plays, you know? And so that’s the way that helped me get over… because resistance kicked my ass for like seven or eight years. Just chased me all around the country – I couldn’t do anything. I was just going from one terrible job to another job… and unable to write – unable even to put up put the typewriter on the desk, you know?
So finally the breakthrough for me was just to say “I’m a professional. Maybe I’m not making any money, but I’m gonna think of myself as a professional. Not as an amateur.” And that helped a lot.
Mark: Right. And the longer you resist overcoming resistance, the harder and harder it gets it seems…
Steven: Yeah. Absolutely.
Mark: I can imagine after that seven or eight years – it took an act of god almost, to get you back into writing.
I have a question – so this notion of the hero’s journey that you’ve talked about – and you did this beautiful video series on… for the launch of “the man at arms,” we talked about archetypes.
And how does the hero relate to the professional idea? Because it seems like what you’re saying, is if you want to be professional, then you’ve got to take that journey. You’ve got to step into that hero’s journey, because that’s where you’re going to meet the obstacles and the resistance and get kicked in the cajones, right? And have to fall back and get some skills and mentors and all that. Is it similar?
Steven: Yeah. I mean, I have a whole theory about… I’ll get into the weeds a little bit here, Mark…
Mark: Good. I like the weeds…
Steven: I think that we all have a hero’s journey. We all have many heroes’ journeys…
Let me go back just slightly and just kind of define hero’s journey, for whatever it’s worth… it comes from Joseph Campbell, and Carl Jung and the concept that in our minds, from birth, in our psyche somewhere in the collective unconscious – is this kind of script.
And it’s a piece of software that must have come from evolution. It must have come from hundreds of thousands of years of human beings living life, right?
And the hero’s journey it’s like a template, and it goes something like this – the hero starts in the ordinary world, it’s a kind of a boring normal situation – something happens, what they call “the call to adventure” and the hero resists it at first – that step called “the refusal of the call.” Then there’s a moment when the hero says, “okay, I’m gonna answer this call, whatever it may be.” To join the seals, to enlist in something, to fall in love, to start a business, to write a book… anything like that.
And then there’s a moment called “crossing the threshold.” And the hero goes from the ordinary world to the extraordinary world. And then a sort of an adventure unfolds.
And I believe that this happens to all of us in our regular life. I mean, it can happen in a cubicle. I mean Marcel Proust had his hero’s journey while he was in bed. (laughing)
And at some point, after encountering obstacles, and enemies, and allies, and friends, and shapeshifters we kind of reach the goal. And then there’s a chase, where they chase us – and we finally return home. It’s sort of like… a great example is “The Wizard of Oz,” of Dorothy getting swept up by the tornado, and eventually she returns home – she comes back to Kansas.
Or Odysseus eventually comes back to Ithaca. And so my whole long… this is what this is all about, is I think that like for somebody like me that was running away from his calling, from writing – for years and years and years. That was sort of my hero’s journey, where I’m encountering allies and enemies and screwing up and bumpadah-bum…
And at some point, you come to the place where you say, “I can’t take this anymore. I’ve got to turn pro,” right? If you’re an alcoholic, you wake up in a gutter one day and you say to yourself, “I’ve got a problem. I’ve got to face it; I’ve got a problem and I’ve got to change my life.”
And I think at that point in my theory we go from a hero’s journey, to what I call the “artist’s journey.” And at that point we’ve turned pro and like for a writer, let’s say… for me, I got to the point where I say “okay, I’m a writer. I don’t care, I’m gonna do this.”
Then the next question becomes, “if you’re a writer, what are you gonna write about?” The question sort of becomes “what’s your gift?” And I know that you’ve gone through this – it’s kind of a transition a lot of times out of the military it’s like “what’s next?” You know? “I’ve had this whole long hero’s journey. And I finally have defined who I am. I kind of have a sense of who I am.”
“what’s my gift? What will I spend the rest of my life expressing,” you know?
So that’s… I don’t know, I forgot even what the question was but that’s my answer.
The Hero and Artist’s Journey
Mark: You not only answered the question, but you provided me a really interesting and cool insight or distinction, between the hero’s journey and the artist’s journey. Because you’re right.
For me my hero’s journey was from CPA to navy seal… like, the insight that I was not meant to be a merchant archetype and early in my life, in my early twenties – I was meant to be the warrior archetype and go fulfill that.
That took considerable courage, because everything was against me… my family was against me, society was against me, the standards that everyone took to be normal were against me. So I had to go against the tide and overcome all that.
But then I was a pro at that point. By the time I got out of the seals, I was a pro. I was a professional. I knew how to show up, I knew how to work hard. I knew how to think well.
But I didn’t know what the next outlet was gonna be. And for me it started out as an entrepreneur. I figured out “well, okay. My next creative outlet is entrepreneurial.”
And I used to think that that started another hero’s journey, but I think you’re right. I was already a pro; I knew how to overcome and slay the dragons. I just needed to figure out what my creative outlet was.
And the creative journey is slightly different though, isn’t it? Than the hero’s journey? So what’s unique about the artist journey that’s different than the hero’s journey?
I do think that it is also a hero’s journey. But what’s unique about it is it’s like the blues brothers – you’re now on a mission from god. And all the other stuff sort of falls away. I say that like when I was on my hero’s journey – which took place in the united states – I put like 393,000 miles on my vehicle running from here to…
Since then, I hardly drive to the grocery store, you know? It’s all now in here. It’s all about what am I going to do. Now I’m able to sit down and write and let my gift come out.
But at the same time – and I’m sure you feel us this way too, Mark – this is my instrument here, so I have to take care of my instrument as well. And I include in my instrument professionalism, self-discipline, self-reinforcement, self-validation… that stuff that’s really not your art. That’s not your gift, but it’s what you need to have together, to make your gift work.
If we go back to say Michael Jordan, or Kobe Bryant, or somebody like that – their gift is what they can do on the basketball court. But they’ve got to make sure that that body holds together. And the mind holds together for the whole season.
And they know what the playoffs are like. And they’re married, they have kids, they have a wife… they know how to compartmentalize or blend or whatever they have to do to be able to deliver on the court.
So that’s a hero’s journey, too. But it’s a really focused hero’s journey. It’s a contained hero’s journey.
Mark: That’s really interesting. And that’s where disciplining oneself to have a professional practice – or a practice around your professional skills and habits. So you show up every day and you do certain things to cultivate the character that’s worthy to express the next career outlet.
Steven: Yeah. Which I’m sure you learned in the seals. You already sort of had that in one application, in a military application, a leadership application…
So now the question is how do you take that internally? And externally. Because you’re going to be helping people.
Mark: Yeah, a lot of people listening are either aspiring authors or have heard that it’s good to have a book or good to write a blog or whatever their creative outlet is… so, I think they’d be interested in hearing what is your practice. Like what is it that keeps you growing and on the edge and makes it easier to overcome resistance every time you start another project?
Steven: Well, it’s never easy and it never goes away for me, anyway. That’s for sure. It’s never easy. I’m starting a new book now, and I’m just in the…. Resistance is beating the crap out of me.
And it always does, you know. But I definitely have routines and habits and rituals that I do every day to so that I’m ready to do my work, when the time comes.
Mark: Yeah, so can we get…? Like for me, I’ve shared my morning routine with my people, or the people who are listening… it starts at 5:00 am and I have a gratitude and a meditation and visualization and a breathing practice.
And I do some of that with my wife – which is kind of a relational practice. And then I move into my yoga and then I do my workout. All that takes me like three hours, but it’s the foundation for my day. So when I go to sit down at the desk and open up a blank word doc, I feel like I’ve already won. I’ve got some strong momentum.
So what do you do to build that kind of…
Steven: Let me ask you, Mark, what is your concept behind that? And my day is the same as yours – just like that…
Mark: Why does that work?
Steven: Yeah. Let me ask you this – why not just pop right out of bed and sit down at the at the typewriter, or whatever…?
Mark: That might work for some people, but what I think is it’s like this mind that we have is so much more powerful than most people really can realize, right? It’s creating our reality. Like, I really believe that the more I experience the spiritual practice side of things, the more I recognize that we create our reality.
And our minds have the power to create heaven or hell on earth. But if you leave it to chance, it’s more likely to slip into hell territory, because of all the negative influences on us, right?
And so I also have this kind of warrior tradition mindset that every day is a self-enclosed lifetime. I call it “one day, one life.” When you wake up in the morning it’s like a rebirth or a new birth… and when you close your eyes at night, it’s like a symbolic death.
And what happens between those two moments is opportunity for a lifetime of learning and growth. It’s like the buddha said, you could find enlightenment in a single breath if you’re paying attention, if you’re close enough, right?
So I have this philosophy that when you wake up, when you become conscious again after a night’s sleep – you’ve got to seize the mind and bring it back to its source. And bring it into alignment with its calling.
And I do want to talk about “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” here – into alignment with like why we’re on this planet. What we’re supposed to do about that wisdom or that insight about why we’re on this planet. And then what am I going to do today about that? What’s my major task? What do I need to write, what do I need to think, what do I need to say… who do I need to deal with?
And then, I’ve got to follow the warrior’s tradition – because I’m a warrior – to basically win in my mind before I step foot in the battlefield.
And that’s what all the practices are, is to really when I step out into the day – and that could be opening my email – that’s my first action…
Steven: I know just what you mean…
Mark: I’m ready, I’m armored up. I’ve got my sword and my shield. And I’ve already won. Because I’ve seen everything happen in my mind already. That’s what I think.
Steven: Oh, that’s great. That’s fascinating.
And my day sort of starts the same way. I get up really early, I go to the gym… I have breakfast with some friends, I come home and I’m doing the exact same thing… I’m getting my mind ready for what’s to come.
My friend randy Wallace, who wrote “Braveheart,” he has a thing called “little successes,” and I think it’s really just sort of what you’re talking about. And from the moment he gets up, he tries to have a series of little successes before he actually gets to do his work. He might be directing a movie or whatever it is…
And he even counts like brushing his teeth as a little success. And he’s also a great fitness guy, early in the morning – where he does this thing – he actually trains with laird Hamilton, where they’re doing underwater or whatever they do – weights underwater…
Mark: I’ve done that with laird, by the way. It’s a blast.
Steven: You know what it is, right?
Mark: I do.
Steven: It’s a whole sort of concept and I know you know this of when you’re done with that, you say, “nothing I do today for the rest of the day is going to be as hard as what I just did.”
So my sort of day is the same as yours in that concept. And I’ll just throw something out there… I know you know this, but this was new to me.
A few years ago I wrote a book called “The Lion’s Gate,” that was about the Arab Israeli war of 1967. And I got to interview a bunch of Israeli fighter pilots. And one of the things that they all did was before a mission – just like you with the mental stuff – they would like fly that mission in their head that’s right over and over and over. And preparing themselves for everything that could go wrong, right? My engine flames out at 30 000 feet.
So that by the time they actually got in the plane – like you say, they’d won the war already – nothing could happen that would startle them. At least, that was the theory.
Again, that’s kind of the warrior mindset – which is the hero mindset, which is the professional mindset…
Mark: Right. So when you sit down – and I actually saw a typewriter behind you – you probably don’t use that anymore, but when you sit down to your keyboard and you’re looking at a blank sheet of paper, what’s going through your mind?
Steven: (laughing) terror, I think originally…
Well, I’m sort of at that stage right now, really, doing something… and I’m just trying… I’m a big believer, at the start of a day not to mess around. To plunge right in.
Like, if it’s the equivalent of an ice-cold pool, don’t stand on the edge, get in. And try to get something going right away, even if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Mark: So you just start writing. And then hopefully it starts…
Steven: Yeah, I’ll pick up from where I was yesterday if I’ve got a story going. But if not, I’ll just try to ask myself sort of “what needs to be done? What’s missing? What do I need to get going?” And then just try to get started on that.
And at the same time I’ll pull back from that and try to take the more global view – and ask myself “what’s the structure of this thing? What comes first? What comes second?”
But a lot of it is just sort of thrashing, you know? At least at the beginning…
Mark: Do you find that like in the beginning… I imagine you have this like “okay, this book is going to have this structure. And it’s going to have these chapters. And I kind of generally know the flow.”
That once you get into a project, that it’s kind of like no plan survives contact with the enemy. Suddenly it all falls apart. You have to reconstruct it on the fly.
Steven: Yes, that’s true. And also there’s always a moment… you’re structuring something – “what’s act one? What’s act two?” And there comes a moment where you just have to say yourself “just write the damn thing.” And just tell the story. And that’s usually the moment when things start to happen for good.
Mark: I would love to learn how you got interested in and then did research on a couple projects… and the second one I want to talk about is 300, because that’s my favorite work. But the first one I want to talk about, is your rendition of one of my favorite spiritual texts – the Bhagavad-Gita – and you wrote a book called “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”
How did you get interested in that? And where did that come from? And how did that research happen for you? That’s such a cool story.
Steven: Yeah. That was the first thing I did that actually was a success. After 30 years, that was the one.
Steven: And it just sort of came to me. I mean, I’d always been a fan of the Bhagavad-Gita. I’ve read it in like multiple translations, and I love the whole concept of the warrior being instructed by his charioteer, who happens to be god in human form, right?
And so one day I just thought “let me steal this structure, and I’ll put it into a golf story. Which at the time, I thought it was like the dumbest idea I’d ever had in my life. I was like, “who is going to be interested in this?”
But I was. It kind of had seized me, and that was another book that really came very fast, and I was just… I believe in the muse; I believe in the goddess… just sort of swept along.
And now, when I look back on the structure of that book, I don’t know how I ever came up with it. It just sort of… it just materialized.
Mark: When you talk about the muse, it sounds to me like when I talk about channeling. Like, I’ve stopped using… when I go give speeches, I think ultimately at the mastery level, you have to master the content and the practice, right?
And then that allows the art to flow a little more freely. So with Bagger Vance, you were already intimate with the book. So it’s not like you had to go out and research and interview people – you couldn’t interview Krishna (laughing).
Steven: Yeah, there was like no research for this at all. Yeah, I just made it up.
Mark: That’s fascinating. Did people come to you and say, “hey, this is about the Bhagavad-Gita.” Or…
Steven: Oh, that’s a great question, Mark. Out of like a thousand people, one person would say that. Nobody got it at all.
Which was fine with me, you know? But every now and then somebody would come back and say, “hey, didn’t you steal a structure from the Bhagavad-Gita?”
Mark: Yeah, I think it’d be instructive, to help people who haven’t read the Bhagavad-Gita understand the main lesson, right? So what do you think the main lesson or lessons are from your perspective?
Steven: It’s basically… it’s been called the Hindu bible… and it’s short, right? It’s not a long book at all. You can read it in a couple hours.
And basically it starts with Arjuna the great warrior, having a little nervous breakdown on the battlefield. And his charioteer – who happens to be Krishna… I.e. God in human form – says, “okay, I’m gonna instruct you. I’m giving you spiritual instruction.”
It’s basically like god saying to you and me, “I’m going to tell you what the world is like,” right? And it’s about things like karma… he talks about karma, about previous lives – what that all means. About attachment and non-attachment. Duality and non-duality.
And the other thing he says that’s really very unchristian and unwestern, is he’s talking about the battle and he says to Arjuna “go out there and kill everybody. Just kill them.”
And Arjuna says, “but they’re good people. I don’t…”
Mark: They’re my cousins and uncles actually…
Steven: Yeah. And so Krishna says to him – and this is really sort of a tough concept to wrap your mind around – he says to Arjuna, “I have killed them all already. All you’re doing is enacting what I have done.”
And then the other thing he says, of course, is death is not real. So that’s another premise.
And then the other really cool thing about the Gita is when Arjuna looks across the battlefield and he sees these enemies, with their chariots and their horses… ready to ready to fight. And he can see their faces, and he recognizes them, and he knows them… they’re teachers, kinsmen, whatever… that’s why he doesn’t want to kill them.
And he names them. He says “there I saw in his chariot so-and-so. Next to him was so-and-so.” But the trick of it is, is that in Sanskrit the names of these warriors also mean certain vices. “so and so” is arrogance. “so and so” is complacency. “so-and-so” is self-doubt.
So that when Krishna says to Arjuna “slay these foes,” he’s really talking about the inner war. “slay these vices in yourself.”
And then the main thing of course is what he calls “yoga.” Which is not really yoga like asana yoga, that we might practice down at hermosa beach – but union with god. Meditation. Entering that state of…
So that’s kind of the short version of this.
Mark: Well, I love that. Thanks so much and there’s one more kind of insight that really helped me… and it relates to Krishna is really telling Arjuna to get off his ass and turn pro, right? To overcome the capital-r resistance. And that if he doesn’t do his duty as a warrior and go fight this battle, then he will live a life of regret. He’ll be a fraction of the man that he’s supposed to be. Isn’t that fascinating?
That helped me so much as a seal. When I had to go into battle, I was like “I really don’t want to kill anybody.” But when I read that, I was like, “I understand now a little bit better. Like, this is my duty. It’s my duty as a warrior and if that happens…”
Steven: And not necessarily your duty to a flag or something but to yourself…
Mark: You’re correct. Duty to myself or to god, if you will. Fascinating.
Gates of Fire
Mark: Okay, so now let’s turn to “Gates of Fire.” The reason I keep mixing it up with 300 is I could swear they took your book and almost verbatim created the script for the movie. Do you think there’s some truth in that, or like did you get any credit for that?
Steven: I don’t think there is. I mean, because it came from a real event, right? The real battle of Thermopylae. It came from frank miller’s graphic novel called “300.”
Mark: Okay. So I didn’t know there was a graphic novel.
Steven: It’s actually really good. I’ll do the quick sort of backstory – was in Hollywood they have this thing called “development.” And it means when a potential project goes from an idea to a script, to something that’s cast, to something that’s financed… and so on and so forth.
And at the time that “300” was in development, “Gates of Fire” was too. And it was like a contest. Two trains going down a track – who’s gonna get there? And they got the financing first, and so they won.
Which is actually okay with me, because nobody at least has messed up the book and made a poor movie out of it.
Mark: (laughing) yeah, they did go a little off the rails with some of the supernatural…
Steven: I’m not mocking their movie. For what it was, it was a big hit.
Mark: It was a hit, yeah.
So what got you interested in the Spartans and Thermopylae, and also this kind of historical fiction. It was fascinating, and I love all the historical fiction. All the way up to your current one. It’s such a unique style of writing. I love it. How did you get into that? Where did that come from?
And I never had planned that I had no… it wasn’t like when I was a kid, I wanted to write about that. It just sort of… I was led to do it, you know? One story followed another.
But what I love about the ancient world is just what you put your finger on – is that you can use a word like “honor” with a straight face. When it’s coming from Leonidas or one of these… alexander the great or something like that.
I really hate the modern world. I think it sucks… this is not…
Mark: (laughing) you should have been born back in ancient Greece and Sparta…
Steven: And maybe I was, you know, if you believe in previous lives. But that’s… so I love that sort of… you know, if you think about the knights of the round table – that’s not the ancient world – but it’s a world where nobility and integrity and stuff is treated seriously.
I mean, I’m sure joining the seals, you had to be motivated by that exact emotion. I would imagine.
Mark: Oh, I certainly was. And what’s going through my mind right now is I don’t think those disciplines and principles are gone in this world. They’re just hidden, and there are communities of practitioners, let’s call them. Like the seal warriors and I don’t know maybe the shaolin monks and creative artist communities. And people in Zen monasteries.
And also in a more modern sense, some great communities popped up – like unbeatable mind – like what we’re trying to do – people living by a code so to speak.
So it does exist. But our population is seven billion, and it’s just a mass of distraction and so it’s just hidden, I think…
Mark: So, I want to ask you this, because I read most of those – I read the “Gates of Fire” and “The Afghan Campaign” and – there was one other that I read – what were the other ones?
Steven: “Virtues of War,” about Alexander The Great.
Mark: Oh, I read “The Virtues of War.” That was terrific.
So when you wrote – let’s start with “Gates of Fire,” what was different about you after you were finished?
Steven: Ah, that’s a great question. I think I was different after I was finished. Which I had never really thought of.
That’s a really good question… I think that I had never kind of lived in that ancient world – because when you’re writing a book for two, or two and a half years and you’re immersed in it you’re living, right? You’re really part of it.
And I think that it gave me confidence to embrace those virtues – those warrior virtues – even if it was just mentally… because it wasn’t like I was going out shooting anybody, or doing anything like that…
But it did give me confidence to believe in codes of honor. And believe in that kind of thing… I’d never thought about that before, until you asked that question.
Mark: I wonder if you begin to develop or live by a different code, or a more refined code of honor, or of ethics of your own, after that.
Steven: I think so, because, of course, I’m evolving as a writer at the same time. That’s only my second book so I’m just learning.
Mark: Hot off the press is this doozy “A Man at Arms.” And you made a comment that the lead character is it telemaron or teleron…?
Mark: What a badass, by the way. He would have been a navy seal. You think he would have probably been the best navy seal.
Steven: Well, there are certainly many of those cultures throughout history. That’s for sure.
Mark: Definitely. You said that this character showed up two or three times previously. But he didn’t show up as Telamon, did he?
Mark: Oh, it did. Tell me about that. I’m curious about that.
Mark: It’s weird – the writing process and the creative process is a strange animal. And sometimes you can structure a book, outline it – you know, I’ve got character A, he’s going to come in… he’s going to do this. Character B is going to do that.
And then other times, a character will just sort of appear on the page as you’re writing. And that’s what happened with this character. He appeared the first time as an assassin – like the Assassin’s Creed type of a guy, and a real hardcore total guy.
And what was really fascinating to me was he had his own code of honor. And I didn’t know what it was. I mean, until he would open his mouth. One of his codes was that he only fought for money. And he had a reason for that.
Not that he was a venal guy, because he never had any money… he was always broke. But he thought that fighting for money separated him from his commander’s vanity – or from the vanity of whatever country he was fighting for. A flag or a cause.
And then when he appeared in the next book, it was like 150 years later. But he was the same guy, he hadn’t aged.
Again, I didn’t plan this, and I’m starting to realize this guy is like the eternal soldier…
Mark: He’s like Highlander…
Steven: Yeah, yeah. And so like war is eternal, it’s never going to go away… the soldier is eternal, right? The warriors don’t really change, and he was I thought stuck in the warrior archetype.
I’m probably talking way too long about this, but…
Mark: No, no. I wanted to go through the archetypes as well. So this is a good place to insert that.
Steven: I think this book “A Man at Arms,” is a western. The genre is a western, even though it happened in the first century AD in the Sinai desert. And I think that the classic western hero in our movies… like a Clint Eastwood type of character, or a samurai type of character. Samurai movies are westerns too, right?
Is usually a warrior, he’s deep in the warrior archetype. Like, he’s a man of violence. The first option in any situation is to kill the other person, right?
But these great heroes that we love to see in movies – Shane or John Wayne and the searchers, they’re aware that they’re kind of stuck in this archetype. And that it’s not really the ultimate archetype, at all.
They have moral qualms about it, and they’re looking for whatever is next. They’re trying to get beyond the warrior archetype – which I’m sure that’s been your journey once you got out of the seals, right? What’s beyond this? What’s the next archetype?
So that’s what I wanted to do with this character of Telamon – the one-man killing machine of the ancient world, how is he going to evolve to whatever comes next? And so it’s a spiritual journey. And that’s what I put him on.
Mark: It seems like in this current book “A Man at Arms,” he finally broke free of the warrior archetype and was able to transcend into something new. And I’m not sure what that new would be.
Steven: I’m not either. But it involves love.
Mark: Right. That’s right. I was going to say almost like a teacher or mentor to the little girl or a father figure. Yeah, it’s fascinating.
Do you think this is – well you probably won’t be able to answer this – do you think this is the end of Telamon? Or do you think he’ll show up again?
Steven: No, I don’t. In fact, I’m terrified of when I have to take him to the next stage, because I have no idea what it’s going to be.
Mark: Tell us about the origin of “A Man at Arms,” and the story about saint Paul’s letter.
Steven: Ah, okay. A few years ago my niece got married and she asked me to be the officiant at the wedding. And the long story is my brother had secretly married them before that, but I was going to do the public thing.
And so I had to come up with like a little ceremony. So I went to the book of common prayer and I started looking through it and finding “love believeth all things, endureth all things, hopeth all things… for now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face…”
I found a bunch of quotes that I knew and that I loved. And then I realized, they all came from the same place. They came from the book in the new testament called first Corinthians – which is the letter that the apostle Paul wrote to the fledgling Christian community in Corinth in Greece.
And so that was a real letter, right? It wasn’t just the bible; it was a real letter.
And so it occurred to me… I started to think about this as a writer and I thought at that time the roman empire is running everything – Judea, everything. This letter would be like the atomic bomb of that era, because if it got disseminated, communities were going to spring up and Rome could be overcome. And in fact, Rome was overcome…
Mark: Because of the zealots…
Steven: The rise of Christianity, right?
Mark: Right. Fascinating.
Steven: So I thought “there’s a story here. If Rome is trying to stop this letter, that’s like a chase movie already.” And then I thought, “if I can bring my guy Telamon in here and put him in… let’s say that Rome hires him. Stop this freaking letter, don’t let it get through.”
“then I I’ve got him already in an interesting moral situation, where this letter is… it’s like the Bhagavad-Gita, it’s a highly charged spiritual thing, which if he knew what it was, it would change his life.”
So anyway, that’s kind of how it got off the ground. With different elements coming together that I could see would be in conflict.
Mark: Right. Is there any historical evidence that Paul’s letter caused this…
Steven: (laughing) not that I know of.
Mark: Because it kind of makes sense.
Steven: A lot of times I found when you when you make up something that just sort of makes sense, it really did happen. You find out later “oh, that did happen.”
Mark: No doubt.
Steven: Yeah. I mean, I’m sure there’s got to be something must have happened at that time. You know, “stop this freaking letter.”
Mark: I can imagine. The word got out; they must have known that this is going to be a big deal. That’s fascinating.
Just one more kind of curiosity – this is probably more for me – and I’m encouraging everyone to read Steven’s work “A Man at Arms,” it’s just phenomenal. And if you haven’t read “gates of fire…” I mean, every one of the books are phenomenal.
Steven: You know, by the way, Mark… I’m game to do this again anytime you want. I mean we don’t have to cover every base… if your people can stand it, please invite me back. I’ll be happy to do it.
Mark: Oh yeah, we can stand it. We’ll definitely do that.
But I’m curious about the character of the little girl and why you made her mute. I mean, I love that kind of story – and maybe we have to frame it up a little bit for the listeners again who haven’t read the book and how Telamon know came into contact with quote “the letter.” But it was in the form… it was in this girl’s head…
Steven: (laughing) don’t give away too much now…
Mark: I know, I know. I’m sorry. Spoiler alert.
Steven: Yeah, that’s definitely a spoiler alert. Yeah.
One of the things I needed to do with Telamon, to get him out of the warrior archetype type of thing, if you think about western heroes like Clint Eastwood and those type of movies, they almost always come in contact with another character that’s a vulnerable character. That needs to be protected in some way.
And that character changes them. Like in “Unforgiven” it was the prostitutes in the town of big whiskey. The gal his face got all scarred up, and Clint Eastwood goes to protect her.
And in “seven samurai” – which is also a western – it’s the bandits are messing around with this village. And the samurai go to protect it.
Another one – another example is “True Grit,” the Jeff Bridges version – it’s also the John Wayne version -where there’s a young girl and this boozy old Marshall with one eye, he goes to help her.
So I knew as soon as I had this little girl that there was a great chemistry going on between this one-man killing machine, and this vulnerable girl. And then to make her sort of the bearer of this letter in her head – that was even better, I thought, as far as drama.
Mark: That’s interesting. And so the mute part was just her discipline to trick people into thinking they couldn’t get her to talk.
Steven: Yeah. Because if you think about… if you’re the apostle Paul, and you’re trying to get this letter out how are you going to do it? Is it written down? That’s pretty easy for somebody to stop that, you know?
You have to have some clever thing. And like in the story, I have the fact that it wasn’t just one version of this letter. There were a lot of other versions going out too to make sure they got through.
Which is a military thing, right? If you’re going to do it, you’re going to go at it in a lot of ways…
Mark: One is none, and two is one.
Mark: Well, we got to wrap up here soon, but I’m curious – aside from your works “a war of art” and “turning pro,” what would you recommend to a budding creative writer to overcome resistance? Like what works have inspired you or helped you?
Steven: If we’re talking about a pure writer – and not just somebody that’s a general creative person – like an actor or a dancer – there’s two wonderful books. One is called “Hemingway On Writing.”
Mark: Oh cool. I’m writing this down, by the way. Because I haven’t read that yet.
Steven: And it’s actually not written by Hemingway. It was like an editor – I forgot his name – kind of went through all of Hemingway’s books and kind of pulled out paragraphs here and there where Hemingway talked about writing. And then he put it all together. And it’s really interesting.
There’s another great book called “Henry Miller On Writing” and he basically… his whole body of work is about that. So that’s good.
Also Stephen King wrote a great book called “On Writing,” that I highly recommend. Okay and there’s another book by Twyla Tharp – the choreographer – called “The Creative Habit.” That’s really good.
Mark: Awesome. Yeah, thank you for that. So any sneak peek at what your new project is?
Steven: I’m kind of superstitious, Mark.
Mark: Okay, yeah.
Steven: I’m not going to say anything yet. Good for you. I asked and I did not get it, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get. That’s where we started this whole conversation.
Steven, it’s been a total joy. Thank you so much for your contribution…
Steven: Thanks so much for having me, Mark. It’s great to see you again… your questions are great. I’m very happy to do this again anytime you want to.
Mark: Yeah, I’d love to. We’ll give you time to really dig into your next book. Maybe when that comes out and you’re ready to promote it, let’s get back on the horn…
Steven: I’ll be back in touch.
Mark: Hooyah. All right, Steven, thanks so much. Appreciate you.
Steven: Best to all your peeps that are listening in.
Mark: Yeah, and they send you regards as well.
All right, everybody. That’s Steven Pressfield. Go check out “A Man at Arms” wherever you buy your books – audio or written. I can tell you it’s fantastic. Really is.
And you’ll read it in probably one or two quick settings.
And yeah, stay focused and stoke your archetype and do your practice and be unbeatable. And we’ll see you next time.