Steven Pressfield’s latest book on writing, “The Artist’s Journey,” is both a wake-up call and a how-to for creatives of all stripes. Using the structure of the “hero’s journey,” he describes how to overcome resistance and become the artist we wish to be.
The idea of the “hero’s journey” was popularizing by Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” In it he identified the common features of myths across cultures and time periods, distilling them into a structure of 17 stages. Many students of literature or film are familiar with it as a tool to analyze narrative structure, or a means to structure our own stories.
Pressfield takes this structure and applies it to the real life struggle of becoming an artist, tying it to his own concept of the “Artist’s Journey.” Drawing examples from mythology and pop culture, as well as his own life, he lays out a convincing argument for what it takes to be an artist.
At the end of the hero’s journey, after having overcome self-doubt and a series of trials, the hero returns home with a “gift for the people.” This could be Prometheus returning with fire or Luke Skywalker with knowledge of the Force, it’s all the same. Applied to the life of an artist, the journey represents all the struggles inherent to committing to completing a piece of art, and the gift for the people is the work of art itself. The hero and the artist returns home having changed.
In his book “The War of Art,” Pressfield describes in great detail what he calls “resistance,” those forces that prevent us from completing (or starting) our work. He examines all the different things that distract or frighten artists away from pursuing their work, and notes that in every case these “enemies” are self-generated. He takes this further in his new book, reminding us that all of an artist’s strengths are self-generated too.
Having made the hero’s journey, Pressfield suggests that now we must make the artist’s journey, which allows us to open the pipeline to the muse. An artist’s talent, no matter what form their art takes, boils down to just one thing: shuttling between the ordinary and the extraordinary world, and recording what they find. It is this act, reaching beyond the vale of consciousness to access material from the unconscious, that is so frightening to would-be artists.
“…only when the pain of not doing it got greater than the imagined pain of doing it did I somehow find the ball to pursue what I really wanted…”– James Rhodes, pianist, from “The Artist’s Journey”
Although many of Pressfield’s thoughts on art and artists tend towards the esoteric, one of the things I like best about his writing is that he shuttles between the mystic and and the mundane so easily. He knows that part of being an artist is also about craftsmanship, as well as having the mental toughness to both start and finish projects in the face of adversity.
If you are looking for inspiration to get started, or to get you out of a slump, look no further than “The Artist’s Journey.”