Today we kick off Season 3 of The 21st Century Creative, the podcast that helps you thrive as a creative professional amid the demands, distractions and opportunities of the 21st Century.
A new feature of the show this season is full transcripts of every interview. Lots of you have requested these, so I’m pleased to provide them – just scroll down to read the full text of today’s interview.
Our first guest is Steven Pressfield, who has not one but two distinguished careers as a writer: firstly as the author of a string of bestselling novels, including The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, Tides of War, Killing Rommel and The Knowledge.
He is also widely respected in the creative community for his books for creatives, including The War of Art, Turning Pro, Do the Work, and his latest, The Artist’s Journey.
Steve was one of the very first guests on the 21st Century Creative, back at the start of Season 1, where we talked about truth, fiction and the art of storytelling in relation to his novel The Knowledge. When I saw the subject of The Artist’s Journey I knew I had to invite him back, for two reasons.
Firstly, because it’s a great book of guidance for any artist or creative, drawing on the mythical archetypes described by Joseph Campbell in his classic book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949.
And secondly, on a more personal level, I read several of Joseph Campbell’s books about 25 years ago and they made a profound impression on me. Campbell was a truly remarkable teacher who could take stories from ancient Greece or China or the Native American tradition and make them relevant and even urgent for modern readers.
So I was really excited when I saw that Steve was writing a book called The Artist’s Journey, building on Campbell’s work with his own insights into the nature of story and creativity. When I read Steve’s book there was one insight in particular that stopped me in my tracks, and made me look at my own journey in a different light.
When I finished the book, I asked Steve if he would be kind enough to come back on the show and share some more of his wisdom with the 21st Century Creatives, and as before he was very generous and gave me a terrific interview.
If you’ve ever asked yourself some of the big questions about life and art, and you want some help orienting yourself in your own journey as a creator, then this interview with Steve is a great place to start.
And if you’re inspired by Steve’s approach to getting your work done, then you might want to check out a new series he’s launching called Black Irish Jabs – short, sharp books that will give you a shot of creative adrenaline.
Just head over to Steve’s publishing site BlackIrishbooks.com and you can sign up to receive a new creative jab every month.
Steven Pressfield Interview Transcript
MARK: Welcome back, Steve.
STEVEN: Hey, Mark, it’s great to be with you again. It seems like we just did this a couple months ago, but it’s great to be back.
MARK: It’s great and we’re back with something related, but really quite different, I think. And that is the Hero’s Journey, and you’re building on top of that The Artist’s Journey. Now, this is actually a topic that’s really quite close to my heart, because I think it must be 25 years ago I first read Joseph Campbell’s classic book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. And it made a really big impression on me.
When I saw that you were building on the Hero’s Journey idea with The Artist’s Journey, it felt like Christmas had come early. So I’m really glad that we’ve got the chance to talk about this, because I think it’s a really, maybe an unexpected, but absolutely central topic for any creative.
I’m curious, Steve, when did you first come across the idea of the Hero’s Journey?
STEVEN: It was definitely during my screenwriting career. Which was back in the late 80s and all the way through the 90s. And if you remember when Star Wars originally came out. There was a big deal that George Lucas, when he wrote the script, had basically taken Joseph Campbell’s concept of the Hero’s Journey and done it beat by beat for Luke Skywalker’s you know, passage in Star Wars. And the reason that he did that was because he thought it would have a universal appeal. And obviously, it did; witness what happened with Star Wars.
In the movie business at that time all of a sudden everybody was talking about the Hero’s Journey, and every executive that you would take a script to, ordinary script to, they would ask you those beats. ‘Where’s the Crossing the Threshold moment? Where’s the Call? Where is the Meeting with the Mentor?’ That kind of thing. So that made me read The Hero With A Thousand Faces and everything else I could kind of get my hands on, and so that was when I first, really front of mind became aware of the concept of the Hero’s Journey.
MARK: And for anybody who’s listening to this for whom this is a new concept, could you maybe give us a whistle-stop tour of the greatest story in all of human history according to Joseph Campbell?
STEVEN: Yeah, well, Joseph Campbell was an American academic. He died a little while ago and he wrote The Hero With A Thousand Faces, and a bunch of other things. But he studied the myths of all kinds of people, races all over the world. And he discovered that there seemed to be this ur-myth that every culture seemed to have and it was a story, a story that happened to a hero. Whether it was The Odyssey and there was Odysseus or it was Beowulf or the Norse epics or whatever it is. And he boiled down this myth to a number of beats like about 12 beats or so. And if you want to we can kind of go over at least a couple of those, you tell me if you want to do that?
MARK: Yeah, let’s do that. Because it starts to become real when you do that.
STEVEN: So the first few beats of the Hero’s Journey, and maybe it’s a good idea for our listeners to sort of keep in mind the plot of Star Wars, as you hear this. And the Hero’s Journey, starts step one is what they call the Ordinary World. And it’s just the hero doing his normal regular stuff. So that would be like Luke Skywalker on the evaporator farm. Or it would it be Dorothy in Kansas. Or it would be Rocky, if you remember the movie about the prize fighter, when he’s just kind of a ham and egg bum on the streets. That’s the Ordinary World, step one, chapter one.
Then comes this thing called, this is the famous saying of Joseph Campbell, ‘The Call,’ or ‘The Call to Adventure.’ And what that would be is just what it sounds like; a Call to Adventure. For instance in The Wizard of Oz, it’s when Dorothy gets picked up by the tornado. In Star Wars it’s when Luke discovers R2-D2 and that message, the help message, where Princess Leia says, ‘Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi you’re my only hope.’
And then I’m only going to do a few beats just because I don’t want to bore everybody. But just to get the feeling of it. And the immediate beat that comes after The Call is the Refusal of the Call which is sort of interesting. But the hero always seems to at first balk and not want to go do the Call to Adventure. And then after that, the next meeting is what they call ‘the Meeting with the Mentor.’ And that can be either an external or internal mentor. In Star Wars it’s the moment when Luke takes R2-D2 over to Obi-Wan Kenobi, he’s the mentor. And what happens in the myth is the mentor gives the hero the courage to go forward. And sometimes he will also give them magical amulets, or a secret weapon, or something like that.
And then the next beat and this is the last beat I’ll stop here, is called ‘Crossing the Threshold,’ And at that point, the hero leaps off the cliff and leaves the Ordinary World, and enters the Extraordinary World. So if it were Star Wars, that would be when Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi, go and meet Han Solo and they become involved in the whole rebellion, the rebel alliance. Or if it was Rocky, it would be when he says, ‘Okay, I am gonna train, I’m gonna fight a champ.’
So then there are a number of beats that kind of go on after that, and the final beat in the Hero’s Journey, is the hero returns to where he or she started. Like if it’s Dorothy she comes back to Kansas or if it’s Odysseus, he returns to Ithaca, to his home.
But the key part of that final return is they come back as a changed person. They’re at a much higher level from where they were when they started. And they also don’t come back empty handed. But they come with a gift for the people, and that gift comes out of their solitary suffering and what they’d learned. So for instance when Odysseus returns to Ithaca the kingdom is in total disarray. And with the suitors going after Penelope and all that sort of stuff, and Odysseus kills all the suitors and he brings the kingdom back into balance. And that’s his gift for the people and that’s the last beat of the Hero’s Journey.
MARK: I don’t know what your experience was like. But for me it was real, it was like a Magic Eye or an X-ray for stories, that I started to see everywhere. You could take that basic template and it applies to ancient Greek myths, to stories from the Bible, Moses going up the mountain and coming back with the tablets. Or to the Buddha sitting under the tree until he’s enlightened and he comes back with a gift of wisdom and insight for the human race. And yet it can be there for the Saturday afternoon entertainment in the cinema.
STEVEN: It’s true, once you become aware of that you see it in every story. And you can see that the creators of the story knew about it. Either they knew it consciously or they instinctively had it in their blood. And they built their story that way.
But what’s interesting to me, Mark, we aren’t way beyond that, is that the Hero’s Journey, is a living breathing thing in our real lives. It is like a piece of software that we’re born with and I analogize it to a young woman’s biological clock. Where a woman will just feel at a certain point that she’s got to have a baby. She’s got to find a man and and do what she was put on earth to do. And I think that the Hero’s Journey, that piece of code that’s sitting in our brain demands to be lived out in real life.
And that’s why, usually let’s say for a young man, the young man will join the Special Forces or go off to Bangladesh or something. Some kind of a call will come and the young man will answer it. It’s like he’s driven, and young women too, to do that. So that’s the Hero’s Journey in our real life.
MARK: And it’s a little unsettling, isn’t it, to think that this is implanted inside us a bit like a destiny?
We might be tempted to quote Monty Python and say, ‘No, no we’re all individuals!’ and I’m going to strike my own path.
STEVEN: It’s a good question. I was thinking about this last night because I knew we were going to be talking about this. And as Joseph Campbell and also C.G. Jung who was a big believer in this thing. They thought that the reason the Hero’s Journey is encoded in our brains is it’s kind of a part of the collective unconscious that over the millions of years of evolution of the human race that this sort of thing happened over, and over, and over, and over again to everybody.
And so to make it a little bit easier on us, they put this code sort of developed in our brains sort of like let’s say a bird that’s going to migrate a thousand miles across the ocean. There would be an instinctive code or piece of software in their brain that would help them to do that.
If you think about it, if you think about back in the days when we were hanging around the cave, right? We could do the Hero’s Journey out of that. This was to be something that would happen over and over again. We’d be in the Ordinary World, we’re hanging around the cave, we’re eating the last of the meat that we’ve got, and suddenly the meat starts to run out. Everybody’s starving, our wives and children are getting a little upset, that would be the Call, the Call to Adventure.
And then the cavemen would say, ‘I don’t want to go out there, those mastodons are really tough, it’s cold, I don’t want to do it.’ They would go to the mentor of the tribe, he’d say, ‘Hey, you gotta go out there and get some meat, we’re starving’ etc., etc. So that story would sort of live out over and over and over again and it makes sense that it might finally sort of sink into our psyche and just be there waiting for us and compelling us to live it out.
MARK: And do you think this is why we value stories so much?
STEVEN: Absolutely, yeah.
MARK: What’s the function of the storyteller then in this context?
STEVEN: I think that we as listeners to stories, we feel this inside ourselves, this Hero’s Journey, and we can’t get enough of it. It’s like you can – as a storyteller you could do a Clint Eastwood movie or a Steve McQueen movie or any sort of book.
And it never gets old because we need to be reinforced in it. That it is true and to live it out through a story encourages us in our own Hero’s Journey. When we hit intense adversity to be able to fall back on stories that we see that would encourage us to stay the course and keep fighting through and live out our own Hero’s Journey.
And I’m a believer that we have many, many heroes journeys through the course of our life. But there usually is one central one and let me go forward, Mark, to the central concept of my book The Artist’s Journey. And the concept of this book is that once we have lived out our Hero’s Journey and I want to ask you about this in your own life, Mark.
When we live out our Hero’s Journey as artists, the final beat, the return to where we started from, is when we finally confront our own gift, and we say, ‘I’m tired of running away from this, I’ve been self-destructing, I’ve been procrastinating, I’ve been going into shadow careers and all other things. I’m through with that, I’m going to finally confront my gift as a writer, an artist, an entrepreneur, whatever it is.’ And at that point, the thesis to this book is the Hero’s Journey ends, and the Artist’s Journey begins. And the Artist’s Journey is when we face our gift and we start to then ask questions like, ‘Well, what is my gift? If I’m a writer what do I want to write? Do I want to write movies? Do I want to write video games?’ Whatever. If I’m an entrepreneur we start to ask ourselves, ‘What is my special talent that I can bring to the world? What do I have that nobody else has?’
And at that point we ‘turn pro’ and we now set ourselves a task of getting up at a certain time in the morning, taking care of our health, studying under people who can teach us how to do what we want to do, aligning ourselves with partners who are similarly inclined and so on and so forth. We become pros and we then for the rest of our lives our job is about producing the art, or the business, or the new ideas that we were put on this planet originally to do. And that’s the Artist’s Journey, the artist journey comes after the Hero’s Journey. That’s the thesis of this book.
MARK: That’s a huge idea. When I first saw you blogging about this I remembered that beat just hit me between the ears. And I thought, ‘Wow.’
Suddenly my twenties made a lot more sense to me. Because I could see it kind of having played out in my own life.
STEVEN: Do I dare ask you to give us a quick precis of your own Hero’s Journey and when it ended?
MARK: Well, this is a family show so let’s keep it within certain parameters! But no, there’s a couple of things that made me think of – one was when I was at university the Literary Society had as a guest Leon Garfield, the novelist. He read and he talked and we had a chance to ask a question. And my question was, ‘What would you say to somebody who’s considering a career as a writer?’ And I really didn’t want to hear the answer he came back with which was ‘Do something else first.’
STEVEN: Oh, really that’s interesting. Great, I certainly couldn’t agree more.
MARK: Right and I think he’d been in the Navy and he’d had all kinds of adventures. He said, ‘Because until you’ve lived a bit of life there’s not much to write about.’ But of course, I wanted to go straight to the ‘writing about it’ part.
But it made me realize, all through my twenties really, I had this nagging sense of – obviously, I was on an odyssey myself learning, trying to work out what my work was going to be. And I was training as a psychotherapist and goodness that was an odyssey in itself. And then, of course, all the people I got to work with with all kinds of different challenges, and issues, and adventures, that they were undergoing.
But all the way through I had this nagging sense of, ‘Well, I should be writing more poetry. And why can’t I write more?’ I just felt that I was neglecting my gift and it wasn’t until I got to my thirties and I got some sense of the track I was on professionally and romantically and so on that I actually started to turn pro as a writer and discovered actually now it’s time to pick up the writing tools properly.
And that was when I met my other mentor Mimi Khalvati who was on the show in the last season. And she helped me to cross the threshold as an artist. But it really became quite clear to me when I read your book The Artist’s Journey – one coming before the other, and as a kind of precursor to the other was really important. And I think I could have done with knowing that in my twenties, taking a bit of the pressure off to be churning out great verse before I’d really lived much of life.
STEVEN: I sort of was the same way where I had my own three or four-year thrashing around Hero’s Journey. And if I had known there was such a thing it might have eased the pain a little bit.
But let me read something from The Artist’s Journey, and this isn’t something I wrote, this is a quote from Rosanne Cash’s book. For your listeners who might not know Rosanne Cash is, she’s a singer, an American singer, Johnny Cash’s daughter. This is from her book, her autobiography Composed. And I won’t read this too long, it’s not too long but it will really give you a sense. This is about the moment in her life, when her Hero’s Journey ended and her Artist’s Journey began. And oddly enough or maybe not so oddly, it was a dream that she had.
The gist of the dream was and she was already a successful musician and successful singer. She had four number one hits, but what she really wanted to do was write her own material, and create her own material, and she wasn’t doing that. She was covering other people, people were writing songs for her. And so she had this dream that the conclusion of the dream was she woke up and she realized, ‘I’m a dilettante. I haven’t been doing what I’m supposed to be doing.’ And this is what she says in her book. I’m just gonna read this shortly:
‘From that moment I change the way I approach songwriting. I changed how I sang, I changed my work ethic, and I changed my life. The strong desire to become a better songwriter dovetailed perfectly with my budding friendship with John Stewart, now…’ etc.
‘If I found myself drifting off into daydreams, an old entrenched habit, I pulled myself awake and back into the present moment. Instead of toying with ideas I examined them. And I tested the authenticity of my instincts musically. I stretched my attention span consciously. I read books on writing by Natalie Goldberg and Carolyn Heilbrun etc., etc.’
And she says…she concludes it she says, ‘Rodney Crowell,’ who was her then-husband, ‘was at the top of his game as a record producer. But I had come to feel curiously like a neophyte in the studio after the dream. Everything seemed new, frightening, and tremendously exciting.’
So that was that the concept of her kind of saying, ‘I gotta get my act together. I’m going to start studying seriously, I’m going to wake up earlier.’ All that sort of stuff that one does when you switch from the Hero’s Journey of thrashing around to the Artist’s Journey of actually producing the works that you were born to produce.
MARK: How can we know when we’re being called to the Artist’s Journey? How do we know when it’s time to show up in this different way?
STEVEN: In my experience, Mark, there’s no missing the moment! It’s like a big, big moment. It’s sort of like the one thing I sort of analogize it to is when somebody has problems with alcohol, they have issues with alcohol, right? And they’re in denial of it even though they’re going out and getting drunk and their family has had interventions with them and so on and so forth. There’s usually some horrific moment when they hit bottom, hit absolute bottom, and they say to themselves, ‘It’s just very clear. I gotta change the way I’m living you know, if I keep going like this I’m gonna be dead.’
And oddly enough, if you think of it in story terms like in novels or movies, a lot of times that’s the climax of a movie. The hero hits that point and then the denouement is them starting off on that new life, taking the first steps into the new life, and what that new life really is is the Artist’s Journey, or the entrepreneur’s journey, or whatever it is. They’ve put the madness behind them and started to buckle down and take themselves seriously and take their gift seriously. As an example, I was just watching the movie Good Will Hunting the other night. You remember that one with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck? Was that at all big in the U.K.?
MARK: Yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve seen that. I think I saw it over Christmas one year.
STEVEN: If you remember the movie Matt Damon plays this, he’s like 20-years old and he’s a mathematical genius. He has this incredible gift, but he’s working as a janitor at MIT. In the movie he goes through therapy with Robin Williams as a shrink and Minnie Driver becomes his girlfriend. And when all is said and done the bottom line is he finally stops being this guy who’s in denial of his gift and he embraces it. And the last scene is him driving off to California from Boston to meet up again with Minnie Driver, who’s out there at Stanford.
And you know that he’s finally going to embrace his gift. In other words that’s the moment when he switches from his Hero’s Journey to his Artist’s Journey. Because oddly enough sort of a lot of movies end at that moment. They end at the sort of happily ever after moment and they never really show you what happens after that. And I think that’s because the Artist’s Journey is not cinematic, it’s not very dramatic.
MARK: I was just going to say that. Did you see the movie Sideways?
MARK: Without spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, at the end we know one of the characters is a wannabe writer. And it’s only at the end of the movie he sits down and starts doing his work. And of course, as you say I’m not so cinematic.
STEVEN: Right, it’s fade out, that’s enough. But it’s true like with you if you settle down and you say, ‘Okay, I’m gonna really take poetry seriously, right? It’s not very cinematic. You’re going to start studying the masters, you’re going to set up your life so that you can have a block of time every day when you can totally focus and go deep, right? Maybe you’re living with some crazy woman and you say, ‘Well I can’t do that anymore.’
MARK: Yeah, I’m too boring for that now!
STEVEN: But you know, the Artist’s Journey is kind of boring, the only thing that isn’t boring is the work.
MARK: Right and so you make this point in the book really well. So from the outside, it’s boring, it’s just some guy sat in the library or someone in her studio.
But from the inside you say the obstacles were all mental, right?
STEVEN: Yeah, and of course from the inside, what’s happening is that you, the artist or the entrepreneur, are finally aligning yourself with your gift. And you’re really answering the question, ‘Who am I?’ Which kind of underlies everything, right?
And one of the things that I do in the Artist’s Journey is I kind of list like all the albums that Bruce Springsteen has done. Or all the books that Philip Roth has done. And when you look at them in sequence right down the page, you can see how they’re on a theme, they’re all kind of tied together and you can see how they evolve over time. Pick any one of Woody Allen’s movies or anything, and that is the Artist’s Journey. And through those Springsteen albums let’s say one after the other you can see how he’s really learning who he is. With each one he kind of goes deeper and deeper and deeper. And he’s also learning what his obsession is, what he was put on this planet to investigate.
MARK: What should we be looking out for? Where should our intention and our attention be when we’re on the Artist’s Journey?
STEVEN: I think in a way it spells itself out. The question we’re asking is: What is my gift? What is my unique ability? What is unique to me that I can give to the world? So I was also thinking about the story of how FedEx started? The mail delivery service, they have that in England, right?
STEVEN: Apparently, I don’t know the name of the guy who founded FedEx. But apparently, he was a soldier in Vietnam. And when he came back from Vietnam he was wracked with guilt that he had been part of something that was terrible and destructive and etc., etc. And he kind of said to himself, ‘I’ve got to do something that’s positive for the world.’ And so that was, in Hero’s Journey, Artist’s Journey terms, that was end of his Hero’s Journey, start of his Artist’s Journey.
So apparently he was not a dummy, he knew what he was doing. And he had this brainstorm that to deliver packages, what if instead of like the post office that goes from one post office to another post office he said, ‘What if every night we took every FedEx parcel and flew them all to Memphis, Tennessee. And then we sorted them overnight put them on a plane and send them back to the other side?’
That sounds like a completely crazy idea! Like if I live in Los Angeles, if I’m sending a package to the other side of Los Angeles and I do it by FedEx it flies to Memphis, 2,500 miles overnight, and then flies back. But apparently, that worked. And so that guy, I wish I knew his name, I’m sure he sort of had to get his act together, he thought well, ‘How can I finance this? Where am I going to get the money? Where should I put my main depo? What city should it be in? How can I get tax breaks etc., etc.’
In other words, he really got down to business and then I’m sure he had to say to himself, ‘How do I organize my day that works for me so that I can accomplish this? Am I a morning person or am I an evening person?’ That sort of stuff, ‘Who do I hire? How do I treat my employees?’ So, in other words, it comes down to a lot of kind of nuts and bolts stuff.
MARK: Right. So this is something I’m curious about. That on the one level we’re talking about mysticism, we’re talking about mythology, we’re talking about ethereal planes of reality if you like. And on the other level, it is very down to earth and nuts and bolts and ‘How do we get from Memphis to Los Angeles and back again?’
Can you say something about the relationship between the two?
STEVEN: It is curious that the Artist’s Journey is a weird and mystical amalgam of the mystical and of the matter of fact.
And on the one hand, as a poet let’s say, you’ve got to where do you get your ideas? Where do you know to write? What poem comes to you? So, on the one hand, you have to perfect that skill however you do it yourself. I’m talking about you, Mark, now is what state of mind do you get into so that you can kind of be inspired where you can tap into that part of your unconscious, your muse? That’s the mystical side of it and that’s a real skill, that takes a long time to learn, I think, in my experience.
And then the other side of it is the down-to-earth part, like what Rosanne Cash said, where she would start to seriously study singing and she talks about how she trained like an athlete and she would run. And that sort of stuff of just how do I organize my day? How do I organize my week, my month, my year, so that I can be productive? But while we’re being productive then we’re in the sort of the mystical world of where do ideas come from? How do I get ideas? How do I know a good one from a bad one? That kind of thing and that’s why it’s not so easy being on the Artist’s Journey and why a lot of people don’t make it.
MARK: Because you’ve got to live in the two worlds at once, is what I’m hearing.
STEVEN: I think so. When a musician, when Keith Richards when they send him down into the basement to come back with a riff, what does he do? That’s a mystical process, isn’t it? And I’ve seen him talk about it and read his book and he can’t put his finger on it. It’s just a creative process that is a mystery and remains a mystery. But a guy like him has learned to kind of open the channel to his unconscious and to his muse and the music comes through.
MARK: And at the same time, he’s got the technical ability to actually replicate that. He can’t just say, ‘Hey, guys, I had this great thing down in the basement, I wish you could hear it!’ He can play it for us.
STEVEN: You know, when they talk about Keith Richards being this crazy guy that has been an addict…the drugs and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But it seems to me that it’s amazing that despite all of that stuff he was able to deliver repeatedly. So maybe he wasn’t quite as out of control as he might like to pretend he was.
MARK: Maybe there was a time and a place for one and the other. Because I mean when you listen to him talk, he’s quite thoughtful and intelligent and the sheer technical ability he’s got, he must have put in the hours to practice.
STEVEN: And we certainly know the guy is an amazing student of music and blues. He knows everything. As far as every artist that ever did anything. He studied them in great depth.
STEVEN: That’s a great analogy, I’ve never heard that before.
MARK: But what I need is the historical knowledge, if you like, and the technical skill to be able to look at that and go ‘Oh this was a Roman villa.’ Or it was a Medieval church or it was a Viking bathhouse or something. And then extrapolate the rest of it, because you’ve got one line, you think ‘Well, what would rhyme with that? Or what would go with that or what would fit with that?’
So you’re given a little bit of the jigsaw and you’ve got to extrapolate the rest. And, for me at least, it comes from having a bit of technical knowledge and thinking ‘Well, what would go with that?’
I don’t know what’s it like for you when you come to writing fiction?
STEVEN: It’s exactly the same way and it’s really interesting for me to hear you say that, Mark. Let me ask you this, do you have a feeling when you’re writing a poem that let’s say you get that first line, that the poem is already out there, and you’re just trying to find it somehow? Do you get that feeling?
MARK: Yeah. And in fact, this is one thing Mimi said to me years ago. She said, ‘Well, you have to assume it’s out there. Whether or not it is I don’t know. But if you assume it’s out there and you try and listen for it you’ll get it much more than if you try and make it up. Because if you try and make it up it’s just your conscious everyday self that’s trying to be clever or original.’
STEVEN: Right, I mean have you seen that TED talk that Elizabeth Gilbert gives?
MARK: Yeah, that’s a great one.
STEVEN: That famous one where she talks about the Muse and where it all comes from. And how she would talk about some musician friend of hers that songs were just sort of coming to him when he was driving. And the whole song would come in a flash. And he felt like he was just kind of taking dictation in a way.
And I’m sure that a lot of when Keith Richards goes down to the basement, I’m sure he’s got you know, there’s a melody that probably starts to play in his head and then he probably asks himself, ‘What’s the counter melody?’ What’s going to be the background behind that right? And then he sort of fiddles around he comes up with that. But it was there from the start. Once you’ve got, ‘Bam! Bam! Da da da!’ and you’re going to take it from there. So that is that mystical process. But at the same time, we have the matter of fact process of being able to manage it.
MARK: And don’t you say in the book that the key skill of the artist is being able to shuttle backwards and forth between the two?
STEVEN: Yeah, if you ask me what is this artist’s skill? And I would say this is true with the entrepreneur too, it’s the ability to shuttle back and forth. And you may shuttle 10,000 times a day between the conscious mind and the source of inspiration.
So if you’re sitting there writing that poem and it’s like a tile from an old building, you sort of make these little journeys where in your imagination you get a little more glimpse of that building. And then you go right back to the paper and you write down you know whatever that it is. And then you go back into the building again and back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. And that’s why to me I always sort of feel like there’s another dimension of reality there.
And that building is speaking to you, Mark, that building is there already and it’s just separated by a membrane from you and me. And it’s knocking on the glass, on the window saying, ‘Hey, Mark, wake up I got something for you.’ And trying to deliver it to you and your job as a poet is to sort of tune into that radio station, the cosmic radio station and pick up those signals.
MARK: Which is another unsettling thought, isn’t it?
STEVEN: I think it’s a very encouraging thought!
STEVEN: Yeah, but isn’t that fun, you know? And another thing that I say in The Artist’s Journey and this is certainly true of my own career. I’ve written, this is like my 19th book. And see if this rings bells with you, Mark.
I can truthfully say that every book that I’ve written came as a surprise to me. It was like they were certainly on subjects that before I sort of got the idea I wasn’t even interested in that subject. And I didn’t know anything about it, but then once I got into it then I became consumed by it. So again it’s sort of like that building that you’re talking about in the other dimension talking to you. And pulling you through the membrane to the other dimension and sort of telling you what you are interested in.
Again it comes back to the question of who am I? Over the course of your career, of your body of work, the works themselves tell you who you are. And each one at least in my experience came as a surprise to me. And when I was done I looked at it and I go, ‘Where did that come from?’ Have you had that experience, Mark?
MARK: Yeah. I mean that’s the point it’s just ‘Oh!’ it’s that magical ‘Oh! There’s something here!’ And that’s really the payoff for the whole thing, I think, it’s just the joy and the excitement of pursuing that and nailing it down. And thinking I could never have imagined that, but actually, somehow I did, or the other part of me did.
MARK: Okay, so, Steve, we’ve covered a lot of ground. And maybe just one last question. I’m going to maybe call to the bar of the grumpy crotchety creative that we imagined in our last interview. The guy or the gal who’s sat there saying, ‘Well this is all very well, but what does it have to do with me on a Monday morning? And I’m struggling to get my work done.’
‘How is the Artist’s Journey going to help me then?’
STEVEN: Well, here’s my answer to that. When we go through our lives they unspool day, day, day, day, right? And it’s easy for us to say to ourselves, ‘Well it’s just one sort of smooth passage and it’s boring. We don’t know where we are.’ But if you think about your life in terms of a Hero’s Journey that then changes to an Artist’s Journey, it puts things into perspective.
And you could say to yourself like I would say if someone asked me, ‘Where am I on that spectrum?’ I’m 40 years into my Artist’s Journey. But if I were a younger person and I was somewhere near the end of my Hero’s Journey, or I’d just started my Artist’s Journey, it would be very helpful of me to have this concept in my mind.
If I were Good Will Hunting and I had just gotten in my car in Boston and was heading out to California to hook up with Minnie Driver, it would be very helpful to me if I could say, ‘Oh, I get it, I’m at the end of my Hero’s Journey and I’m about to start on my Artist’s Journey.’ And then that would give me context and make me see where I am and that could be very helpful. So that we don’t feel just lost and adrift we can get our bearings and say, ‘Okay, I see right where I am.’
It’s like in school, school is broken into three-year or four-year increments and so we know that in our first year at university and pretty soon we’ll be in our 4th year at university. And then we’ll go on to medical school and bumpety-bump, right. And it helps us to know, ‘I’m in my third year at the university, okay. Then I have to learn this, I have to do that etc.’ So to know about the Hero’s Journey and the Artist Journey can kind of help us get our bearings of where we are. And make us feel like our feet are on the ground and we’re not just floundering.
MARK: Great. So this leads into what we were discussing earlier on. I think it would be a great Creative Challenge.
Would you like to share it with our listeners, Steve?
STEVEN: Okay, we talked about this earlier, Mark. And I was actually going to put this challenge out to my own people on my blog. Which maybe I will do too. And the question is to each individual. Where are you on this spectrum right now the spectrum of Hero’s Journey, Artist’s Journey? Are you four years into your Artist’s Journey, or are you still in your Hero’s Journey? Now I think that would be the Creative Challenge. Tell us where you are right now.
MARK: That’s great and hopefully that will bring people a little of the relief and perspective that I could maybe have done with when I was younger.
STEVEN: Yeah, we all could have done with that. Although I wonder, Mark, even if we knew, I don’t know if it would really have eased the pain…
MARK: Maybe a little bit. Maybe the pain of not understanding the pain. I don’t know.
Steve, thank you so much. As always it’s been an inspiration to listen to you and I’m sure everyone listening to this will have got a lot of wisdom from it. The book is The Artist’s Journey and I can wholeheartedly recommend it especially if, like me, you have a taste for mythology and storytelling, and try to relate that to your everyday life and practice as an artist.
Steve, where else should people go to get more of your words of wisdom?
And, Mark, thank you very much for having me on the show. It’s always great to talk to you because we’re so simpatico and we’re on the same wavelength about all this stuff. And I hope this was helpful to your listeners.
STEVEN: Thank you, Mark. It’s been a real pleasure and we’ll do it again.
About The 21st Century Creative podcast
Each episode of The 21st Century Creative podcast features an interview with an outstanding creator in the arts or creative industries.
At the end of the interview, I ask my guest to set you a Creative Challenge that will help you put the ideas from the interview in to practice in your own work.
Make sure you receive every episode of The 21st Century Creative by subscribing to the show in iTunes.