In 323 B.C., Alexander the Great reached the Kingdom of the Phrygians in Anatolia, what is now, Western Turkey. He had come here for a specific reason: to master the Gordian Knot.
The great Alexander had already crossed the Helespont, crushed one Persian army in the Battle of Granicus, and was pushing his way into the western areas of the Persian Empire, quickly becoming a thorn in the side of Darius III, the emperor.
But Alexander knew of an ancient legend in this western area of the empire, the legend of King Gordias of Phrygia, and his famous knot. The knot—which reportedly had not loose ends, no beginning or ending—was tied to the tongue of an ox-cart, and according to legend, anyone who could undo the knot would become emperor of the world.
There is some debate about the ’emperor’ part of the legend; it might have been invented in retrospect by Alexander’s soothsayers and supporters, but that’s a boring way to look at it, so fuck it, I’m gonna go with the soothsaying version, because it’s more interesting, and serves my purpose, much as it did Mr. Alex.
Such a legend was just too much of a draw for the ambitious and self-assured Alexander to pass up. When he reached the capital of Gordium, he approached the cart, and the knot, with supreme confidence.
He stood, fixed, staring at the twisting mass of rope for several minutes, attempting to find an end, or loose place that he might apply some leverage to unravel this enigma.
But he found no ends, and no slack anywhere. There was no obvious way to untie this knot.
The great Alexander appeared to be stumped.
His soldiers, surely, were beginning to wonder if they had followed the right leader into Persia. Sure, he had pulled off a miraculous victory at Granicus, but that could have been luck. The Persian Empire was massive, stretching from the borders of Macedonia all the way to the Indus River, on the border of modern India! There was no guarantee that this young man, only 23 years old, could best the great Persian Empire with all of its resources and manpower.
Alexander was stuck. The knot was winning. And this was not acceptable to the student of Aristotle, and the son of the great Philip of Macedon.
After several tense moments, Alexander did what Alexander would become famous for; when in doubt, he attacked.
In an instant of genius, and a flash, he strode up to the cart, drew his sword, and slashed the knot into two pieces! The rest is history.
Writing, Knots, Pen & Sword
At some point during the process of writing a longer work, a book especially, you’re gonna run into a mess; you’re gonna run into a Gordian Knot of your own. You can’t leave it, because if you do, your future publishing empire will blow away like so much dust on an windy, Persian plain.
You can’t expect to be Alexander the Great, unless you have the ability to slash your way through knots.
Right now, as I mentioned in my previous How I Write article, I’m faced with a knot in my current project, The End of Fear Itself.
I don’t know how Gordian it is, yet, since I haven’t actually reached it, but I’ve heard it’s up there, up the road if you will. I know it is. I’ve seen glimpses of it as I’ve been writing the first draft of the book. But I have sharpened my pen & sword in anticipation of the encounter.
It may be, when I get there, that I’ll see a loose end, or wiggly spot in the knot that I can easily unravel, and be on my way to ruling the world, but it might be of a true Gordian variety, requiring some hacking. I’m prepared for the latter.
Here’s the situation, just so we’re not talking in abstractions.
Since the book is essentially a guide to ending Fear itself, I’ve outlined it in a more or less logical way.
- Introduction: What is Fear? Why should we end it?
- Why do we Fear?
- What do we Fear?
- How do we end it?
- Masterful, genius Conclusion (of course)
This was a very logical way to lay it out at the beginning, and for the most part it works okay.
But the knot has tied itself, because as I have been writing the section on What we Fear, I’ve found myself offering advice on different categories of fears, on how to deal with them.
This is because some manifestations of Fear have obvious, or not so obvious, but effective solutions that pertain specifically to that type of Fear, and not necessarily to all Fears in general.
On the other hand, there are some general methods for dealing with many Fears that might work best at the end of the book in a section on How to Fight Fear. So, it might help to save all the cures for the end of the book. But that doesn’t feel quite right to me, so I’m gonna have to unravel this knot, soon.
It may require an Alexandrian approach: a big swing with a fuckin’ broadsword. I might just have to hack and slash my way to a solution. Or, I may get away with some deft, surgical cuts with a scalpel. Who knows which.
But this is something you should be aware of if you’re a writer, especially if you’re in the process of writing your first book, whether that be fiction or non-fiction. You will probably run into a Gordian Knot at some point.
Just don’t stop! Keep working, keep writing, but keep your pen & sword sharp and handy, because you should be prepared to attack that knot with some bold hacking, if needed.