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New Book: THE KNOWLEDGE by Steven Pressfield

Sunday, December 4th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

The Knowledge: A Too Close To True Novel

The Knowledge by Steven Pressfield

Long time readers know that noted novelist Steven Pressfield is a friend of this blog and that in turn we are big fans of Steve’s work, both his fiction and non-fiction masterpieces like The War of Art. Pressfield has a new novel out, one inspired by his struggles outlined in The War of Art and Steve was kind enough to send me a copy which arrived the other day.

What is The Knowledge about? From the book jacket insert:

Where did The War of Art come from?

How did creativity sensei Steven Pressfield come up with the notion that there is an insidious force in the universe called Resistance that keeps us from pursuing our life’s work and fulfilling our artistic destiny? And that until we recognize and engage in an end-of-days battle with the big “R,” our inner genius will remain blocked and unborn inside an internal protoplasmic goo?

Was he touched by angels as he contemplated the universe in an ashram?

Did he meet a mysterious stranger in a truck stop in Twin Falls, Idaho who imparted deep truths over a cup of muddy Joe?

Perhaps blunt force trauma in a Reno bar had something to do with it?

If only…

As his “too close to true novel,” THE KNOWLEDGE, riotously reveals, the truth of Pressfield’s Weltanschauung origin story lies somewhere between fact and fiction…

In the high-crime 1970s in New York, Pressfield was driving a cab and tending bar, incapable of achieving anything literary beyond the completion of his third-in-a-row unpublishable novel. Until fate, in the form of a job tailing his boss’s straying wife, propels him into a Big Lebowski-esque underworld saga that ends with him coming to a life-altering crisis involving not just the criminals he has become deeply and emotionally involved with, but with his own inner demons of the blank page.

THE KNOWLEDGE is not just a writer’s coming-of-age story. It’s every writer’s coming-of-age story.

If you’re a fan of THE WAR OF ART, Pressfield’s new novel, THE KNOWLEDGE, is the story behind that story and the origin tale between its lines.

I love the novel’s setting. Most people have forgotten that in the 1970’s, New York City had come to symbolize American decline and decay. It was a rough place over which the Five Families held sway, where the police department was riddled with corruption, crime was rampant and several thousand murders took place annually. Here was the Bronx at the time The Knowledge takes place:


Image result for 1970's New york

The Subway

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Times Square

Image result for 1970's New york Times square

This was the New York of Abe Beam, the Five Percenters, of a young and rising Donald Trump and an ancient and fading Robert Moses. This is where Steven Pressfield gained The Knowledge.

I look forward to reading and reviewing it here soon.

New Book: American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant by Ann Scott Tyson 

Was just sent a review copy of American Spartan courtesy of Callie at  Oettinger & Associates which tells the story of Major Jim Gant, the special forces officer and AfPak hand who pushed hard for a controversial strategy in Afghanistan based on arming and training loyalist paramilitaries out of Afghan tribesmen ( or whatever localist network would suffice when tribal identity was weak or absent). I am looking forward to reading this book for a number of reasons.

Long time readers may recall Gant coming to wider attention with his paper, One Tribe at a Time with an assist from noted author Steven Pressfield, where he called for a campaign strategy against the Taliban from “the bottom up” using “the tribes” because the current top down strategy of killing insurgents while building a strong, centralized, state would never work – the war would just drag on indefinitely until the US grew tired and quit Afghanistan ( as is happening….now). Gant, who forged a tight relationship with Afghan tribal leader  Noor Azfal ,won some fans with his paper in very high places, including SECDEF Robert Gates and Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus who gave him some cover to implement his ideas but he also faced formidable resistance and criticism. Academic experts were particularly incensed by Gant’s broad-brush use of “tribes” to cover a wide array of local networks and Afghan identities and that “tribes” were a term modern anthropology held in deep disdain ( RAND’s David Ronfeldt pointed out that while these networks are not historical tribes they are certainly “tribal” in terms of behavior patterns) while the government of Mohammed Karzai and its American boosters were bitterly hostile to any strategy that might arm locals outside Kabul’s direct control.

  It was also a risky strategy. Loyalist paramilitaries are often very effective in a military sense – as happened in Colombia when the government tolerated and encouraged private militias to make war on FARC and the ELN and badly mauled the Communist insurgents – but they are inherently unreliable politically. Paramilitaries can also  “go off the reservation” – this also happened in Colombia – and commit atrocities or become criminal enterprises or engage in warlordism and have to be reined in by the government. All of these were particular risks in the context of Afghanistan where warlordism and drug trafficking had been particularly acute problems even under Taliban rule. On the other hand, warlordism and drug trafficking has hardly been unknown in the ANA regular units and national police and is hardly the province only of irregulars.

Another reason I am interested in this book is the subtitle’s accusation of “betrayal” which I infer comes out of the long institutional cultural and chain of command clashes of bureaucratic politics between Big Army and Special Forces and Special Operations Forces communities. The long history in the big picture is that many general purpose force commanders do not know how to use these troops to best strategic effect and sometimes resent the autonomy with which they operate ( a resentment returned and repaid  at times with a lack of consultation and ignoring of local priorities in operational planning).

The author, Ann Scott Tyson is a long-time and experienced war reporter who embedded extensively with US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. She is also married to her subject which should make for some interesting analysis when I review the book.

Book Review: The Authentic Swing by Steven Pressfield

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski a.k.a “zen”]















The Authentic Swing by Steven Pressfield 

Callie was kind enough to send me a review copy of Steven Pressfield’s new non-fiction book, The Authentic Swing. Much like the title implies, it is a book with an arc.

The Authentic Swing continues a theme Pressfield began with his excellent The War of Art, continued with Do the Work and Turning Pro of helping struggling writers, artists and others conquer their resistance and acquire the mature habits of mind to become creative, productive professionals. While the previous books were advice, The Authentic Swing is a demonstration. Pressfield breaks down for the reader the gestation and evolution of his first successful novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance and applies a granular eye to the creative process but does so without tipping his hand or writing a “cookbook”. Steve is employing all his gifts as a storyteller to lead and nudge the reader into understanding.

There are many parts in the book that I like, but the following is in my view the most important, despite being less colorful and more straightforward than others:

When Robert McKee was a young writer/director in New York, he got the chance to interview Paddy Chayefsky, the only person to have one two Academy Awards for original Screenplay (Marty and Network) Chayefsky shared this priceless nugget:

As soon as I figure out the theme of my play, I type it out in one line and scotch tape it to the front of my typewriter After that, nothing goes into the play that isn’t on-theme.

If  there is a single more powerful piece of wisdom for any writer, artist or entrepreneur, I don’t know what it is.


Theme is everything.

Once we know the theme we know the climax, we know the protagonist, we know the antagonist, we know the supporting characters, we know the opening, we know the throughline.

I said before that I have a file in my computer titled NEW IDEAS. I have another THEME.  for each new project, I open a new file and title it THEME. I go back to this file over and over. I pile paragraph on paragraph, trying to answer the question, “What the hell is this book about?”

It’s hard.

Theme not only drives art, it drives a coherent life. It makes the disparate connected and gives actions unity. We see theme in great innovative companies, in the curriculum of our best university programs, at the core of great religions, in revolutionary political movements and a nation’s grand strategy. Charles Hill, drew on themes of classical literature to teach that very point about foreign policy. This advice is worth the price of the book alone.

The theme here is authenticity and allowing yourself to express it. Pressfield demonstrates this frequently by parable and metaphor, moving the reader toward the process of discovering authenticity without making the fact that it is a process confuse the reader with the expectation that it will be linear or easy, only natural. I don’t want to give away too much because it is fun to see how the vignettes unfold on build upon one another, obviously golf and the cultural context the sport provided for Bagger Vance is a large part of the book but that will not be a surprise. I will say that The Authentic Swing is a very elegant method of teaching.

Steve’s best non-fiction book since The War of Art.

Warlords Revisited

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

“The horror! The horror!

Charles Cameron sparked a discussion with his doublequotes post on two colonels, the late strategist John Boyd and the fictional monster,  Walter Kurtz from Francis Ford Coppola’s classic Vietnam War film homage to Joseph Conrad Apocalypse Now.  Kurtz is a disturbing figure, one who is recurrent in literature and history going back to Homer’s Iliad. A superlative warrior who excels above all others who nonetheless sheds all trace of civilization in his descent into barbarism. While the fall of a heroic individual can take many narrative forms, Kurtz is of a particular and dreaded kind of fallen man, the warlord.

Warlords are fascinating and repellent figures who seem to thrive best when the normal order of a society is breaking down, permitting the strong and ruthless to carve out their reputations in blood and infamy. As I have written previously:

Kent’s Imperative had a post up that would have been worthy of Coming Anarchy:

Enigmatic biographies of the damned 

“….Via the Economist this week, we learn of the death of an adversary whose kind has nearly been forgotten. Khun Sa was a warlord who amassed a private army and smuggling operation which dominated Asian heroin trafficking from remotest Burma over the course of nearly two decades. In the end, despite indictment in US courts, the politics of a failed state permitted him to retire as an investor and business figure, and to die peacefully in his own bed.

The stories of men such as these however shaped more than a region. They are the defining features of the flow of events in a world of dark globalization. Yet these are not the biographies that are taught in international relations academia, nor even in their counterpart intelligence studies classrooms. The psychology of such men, and the personal and organizational decision-making processes of the non-state groups which amassed power to rival a princeling of Renaissance Europe, are equally as worthy of study both for historical reasons as well as for the lessons they teach about the nature of empowered individuals.

….There are no shortage of warlords for such a study. Among the living we have Walid Jumblatt, the crafty chief of the Druze during the 1980’s civil war in Lebanon, the egomaniacal and democidal Charles Taylor of Liberia, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar the Islamist mujahedin commander and a large assortment of Somali, Colombian, Indonesian and El Salvadoran militiamen and paramilitaries. The history of the twentieth century alone offers up such colorful characters as “The Dogmeat General“, the ghoulishly brutal Ta Mok of the Khmer Rouge, “The Mad Baron” Ungern von SternbergCaptain Hermann Ehrhardt and Pancho Villa among many others.

What would such a historical/cross-cultural/psychological “warlord study” reveal ? Primarily the type of man that the German journalist Konrad Heiden termed “armed bohemians”. Men who are ill-suited to achieving success in an orderly society but are acutely sensitive to minute shifts that they can exploit during times of uncertainty, coupled with an amoral sociopathology to do so ruthlessly. Paranoid and vindictive, they also frequently possess a recklessness akin to bravery and a dramatic sentimentality that charms followers and naive observers alike. Some warlords can manifest a manic energy or regularly display great administrative talents while a minority are little better than half-mad gangsters getting by, for a time, on easy violence, low cunning and lady luck.

Every society, no matter how civilized or polite on the surface, harbors many such men within it. They are like ancient seeds waiting for the drought-breaking rains.

There are occasionally positive portrayals of warlords. Ahmed Shah Massoud, “the Lion of Panjshir” who fought tenaciously first against the Soviets, then later against the murderous Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s army of thugs and the Taliban’s fanatics, providing a modicum of civilized governance to ordinary Afghans wherever his power ran, until his assassination by al Qaida. The cagey and mercurial Walid Jumblatt, made the transition from Druze warlord in the 1980’s to Lebanese politician and something of an elder statesman.

In literature, Xenophon was the de facto strategos of the retreating Greek mercenaries in The Anabasis of Cyrus, cut a noble example, but like Massoud, this is a rarity. In recent fiction, Stephen Pressfield created as an antagonist in The Profession, General James Salter, a totemic and caesarian figure who takes on the great powers with his PMC forces with impressive ruthlessness. In the popular fantasy series of George R.R. Martin that began with The Game of Thrones, the notable warlord is the outlandish, cruel and somewhat demented Vargo Hoat, who leads a freebooting company of misfit brigands “The Brave Companions“, whose nonstop atrocities and ludicrous pretensions lead all the other characters to call them “the Bloody Mummers“.

Given the world’s recent experiences with the Lord’s Resistance Army, General Butt Naked and the uprisings in Syria and Libya, I think Martin and Coppola have captured warlordism in it’s most frequent incarnation.

Book Review: Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield

Monday, June 11th, 2012

Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield 

Steven Pressfield has a new nonfiction book and a new publishing company and both are vehicles for the same message.

[Full disclosure: I consider Steve a friend and this early review was made possible by his sending me a review copy and the “lunch pail manifestoBlack Irish lunchbox pictured above. OTOH, I get many review copies from publishers and PR folks and if the book they send is terrible, or just not well suited for ZP readers, I won’t review it]

First, Turning Pro is the latest sequence of a series of books that explore the mindset of the authentic creator or artist, following The War of Art and Do the Work and their struggle with what Steve terms “Resistance”, the internal psychological force that insidiously undermines our will to complete creative works (or…start them) and fulfill our life’s dreams. In the War of Art, one turned “pro” when one acquired for the first time, the mindset required to successfully battle resistance instead of supinely giving in. Turning Pro naturally expands on that aspect of Pressfield’s creative philosophy.

I say “philosophy” because that is what it is. Many of Steve’s novels are set in the ancient world of classical civilization and I know that  he has done a great deal of reading in ancient history, philosophy and literature. Before the moderns and post-moderns, philosophy asked fundamental questions and students of most schools of philosophy were seeking how to live a good life, with “good” usually meaning “virtuous” in the sense of a life that is authentic, noble or honorable. We see this in particular with Socrates, the Stoics and those influenced by them such as Xenophon, Epictetus,  Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, all of whom were concerned with philosophy as a practical way of life and not as an abstract exercise. My impression is that this has left a mark on Pressfield’s view of life.  This is not to say that Steve is writing advice from the perspective of book-learning – far from it; he makes clear his long education in the school of hard knocks, but I think the books and the knocks have been mutually reinforcing.

For example, here is Epictetus from the  The Enchiridion:

….Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself to be carried, even with a slight tendency, towards the attainment of lesser things. Instead, you must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would both have these great things, along with power and riches, then you will not gain even the latter, because you aim at the former too: but you will absolutely fail of the former, by which alone happiness and freedom are achieved. 

And here is Steve from Turning Pro:

My shadow career (I’ve had more than one) was driving tractor-trailers.

In my late twenties and early thirties, I drove trucks for a living….What I was really doing was running away from writing. Driving trucks was for me a shadow version of writing, because being a truck driver was, in my imagination, powerful and manly (just as I imagined being a writer would be). It was interesting: it was never boring. It was a career I could take pride in, an occupation that felt right to me….

….Of course this was all self-delusion.

The road was taking me nowhere.

I wasn’t writing books. I wasn’t facing my demons. I was spectating at life through the movie screen of a cab-over windshield, while every mile I traveled only carried me farther away from where I needed to go and from who I needed to become.

This is one of the major themes of Steve’s nonfiction work – the need to conquer resistance, ignore distractions, eschew indirect approaches and confront head-on what you need to do and fear to try. To take the risk and dive into the deep end of the pool without rationalizing procrastination. Easy to say, but difficult for all of us to do and Steve breaks his advice in Turning Pro into digestible vignettes that separate the world of the aspiring amateur from the polished professional, the apprentice from the master. Turning Pro can be read in one sitting or read again and again until you gain the habit of “the Professional Mindset”.

A second theme, maybe a meta-theme in Turning Pro is also present in Black Irish Books, which Steve has launched in partnership with Shawn Coyne, Steve’s co-blogger and the publisher of The War of Art, has to do with what might be called “craftsmanship as an identity”. This is probably not quite the right description, but there is an essence of nostalgia for America’s boom years of WWI to the early sixties when a man’s job was substantially his identity and his hard work  provided not only a rising standard of living for his family, but a psychological anchor and sense of pride. Something generally considered worthy of admiration.  An era I recall dimly from my earliest years of childhood in a bungalow neighborhood in Chicago where this way of life was still the norm.

Black Irish Books has a “lunch pail manifesto” authored by Coyne:

The retro lunch pail and towering thermos on the cover of Steven Pressfield’s Turning Pro are in honor of some legendary Pros.

Back in the analog days when the economy relied on blue collar muscle to build the modern world, Steelworkers gave everything they had to get that work done. In three shifts, twenty four hours a day, three hundred and sixty five days a year, hard-hatted men with lunch pails swinging from their gnarled hands passed through mill gates in Aliquippa, Baltimore, Bethlehem, Braddock, Buffalo, Chicago, Clairton, Cleveland, Gary, Homestead, Lehigh, McKeesport, Pittsburgh, Pueblo, Tuscaloosa, Steubenville, Weirton, and Youngstown among many other cities.

Without those fully stocked lunch pails, these men would never have made it through a single shift.  Let alone a double.

They couldn’t duck out and drive to a fast food joint for lunch. Their Chevy Impalas were in the rank and file parking lot, five football fields away from the shop floor. Sweat-soaked and exhausted after four hours in 100+ degree heat, they had to shed twenty pounds of flame retardant asbestos clothing just to take their twenty-minute break.

What kept them going for the second half of their shifts were the two or three chipped ham sandwiches, the couple chunks of cheese, the extra donuts from breakfast and the quarter piece slab of peach pie jammed inside their pails. And, of course, a huge thermos of coffee.

Wives spent the tail end of their evenings packing their guys’ pails. The best cold cuts and treats always went to dad.  It was a sacred thing for a kid to see a scarred hard hat and a full lunch pail on the kitchen counter. That helmet and pail represented the indispensable tools of her father’s work—the armor to enter his chosen profession and the fuel to get him back home….

This is a theme that strikes a jarring contrast with America’s melancholy zeitgeist – an economy that is stagnant and in danger of cratering, elites who look out for a quick buck and an upcoming generation of cheerful smartphone experts with helicopter parents who expect huge rewards for just showing up.  The stark, black, industrial lunch box is an artifact of the world of Nelson Algren or Studs Terkel but it is also a symbol of skilled labor, hard work, excellence and productivity, of a simpler but more muscularly dynamic time while the boxing glove denotes a pugnacious stance toward adversity or resistance.

Are you ready for Turning Pro?

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