For the last seven years, Steven Pressfield has published a weekly column called “Writing Wednesdays.” I've read all of Pressfield's nonfiction books and most of his novels and for good reasons. If you are a writer, artist, entrepreneur, or anyone trying to do something hard and creative in the world, Pressfield should be your patron saint.
Anyway, recently, preparing to write a couple of really hard books, and needing every conceivable advantage, I went back and caught up on seven years’ of Writing Wednesday columns. Highlights herewith:
So hats off to spec writers and artists and to anybody who’s crazy enough and gutsy enough to put their money on themselves and roll the dice. You may be deluded. You may wind up in a pool of blood by the side of the road. But no one can take this away from you: you did one of the hardest and bravest things that any entity capable of consciousness can do. You leapt from the known to the unknown deliberately, boldly, and in full cognizance of the risk. I salute you.
But if we can drill down deep to answers that are universal and that speak to universal human themes… then we’ve got something. Then we have achieved depth of work. This is killer work and you gotta be nuts to do it. You have to want it for reasons a lot of people are not going to understand. There aren’t many Francis Ford Coppollas and this is why. It’s hard to go deep. It hurts. There’s a price to pay and maybe most people don’t want to pay it or even think about. Are we willing to pay that price? Am I? Are you?
First, though they feel like defeats, sticking points are actually good signs. A sticking point means we’ve arrived at a threshold. We’re on the brink of moving to a higher level… sticking points are about fear. Yes, we are struggling with a real problem in the real world but what makes it worse is the multiplier effect of fear. What are we afraid of? We’re afraid of growth. We’re terrified of exposure. Remember, nothing scares the crap out of us more than advancing, because to advance is to move from the known to the unknown.
Then the critical part: carry on. Keep working. Don’t stop. In the Marine Corps, they have a phrase: “work the problem.” That’s our mantra now. Find what’s wrong. Remain cool. Fix it.
One increment at a time, we learn our craft, we face our demons.
At least for me, no amount of second-guessing the marketplace while simultaneously trying to be true to myself paid off. What did succeed was being totally stupid and jumping off a cliff. That’s my business plan and I’m sticking to it.
Part of being a professional is being mentally prepared for these rough patches. I did an interview earlier this year with Gen. Hal G. Moore, who knows a little about life-and-death combat, and he made the point that he always prepared himself and his soldiers mentally for all possible Worst Case Scenarios, so that his troopers “could stay in problem-solving mode and not go into panic mode.”
If we look at our lives, we will see that we all hit “all is lost” moments over and over. If we think back to the major goals and accomplishments in our lives, we can often find a breaking point that happened right before the achievement. If we have suffered a broken heart, we may fear that we will never find love again. Yet it is often because our heart was broken that we do find love again. Our broken heart leads us to take inventory and to heal. We become more whole. This in turn can lead us in a healthier direction when it comes to love.
He pointed out a fundamental flaw in the concept of the book and that flaw was fatal. I had no idea how to fix it. I didn’t think it could be fixed. I panicked. I lost all perspective. I forgot that I had written The War of Art. I forgot that I had read The War of Art. I freaked. I went into an emotional tailspin that took months to pull out of.
Panic is good. We panic when we find ourselves on a threshold. We freak when we discover ourselves on the cusp of moving to a higher level. We panic, almost always, when we’re on the brink of success.
It’s about showing people that taking risks and seizing opportunities in life is a choice, and that in order to succeed, you gotta push yourself through sometimes uncomfortable places.
We as professionals must keep reinforcing to ourselves the notion that we are having fun, this is art, this is innovation, this is a gift for others. This is our soul’s calling and our life’s passage. Because it is. We need to take a lesson from Paul Anka and be a pro like he is. “This is it, kid. People drove ninety miles through the snow to get here tonight to see you. Respect them. Respect yourself. Respect the art. Respect the lifelong process of night-after-night, show-after-show. That’s your calling, that’s your life. You chose it and you wouldn’t have it any other way. Get out there and give it everything you’ve got!”
Resistance wants you to go back to sleep, meaning remain unconscious. Resistance is always selling the easy way, the shortcut, the cheap shot. Resistance urges the artist/addict to slack off from, to sidestep, to avoid, to run away from, to not do; to accept mediocrity, to avoid pain, to back away from the fight.
We’re all human, and the human condition hurts. How do we make that pain go away? How do we get to that place where we can set down our burden, close our eyes, draw an easy breath?
I’m no expert; I could be wrong. But it seems to me that the road turns two ways. If you serve the devil, the ride is free. Serve the Lord and you have to work.
Not only do we have to work, but we have to perform that work in the teeth of fear, isolation, self-doubt and self-sabotage. We have to fight our bosses, our mentors, our religions, our pasts and our beliefs about ourselves and what we’re capable of. The addict and the artist are both struggling to emancipate themselves from the tyranny of the ego. When she’s an artist she somehow finds the courage to take the slow, hard, unglamorous path. When she’s an addict she grabs the EZ-Pass.
What is the pain of being human? To me, it’s the condition of being suspended between two worlds and being unable to fully enter into either. We can’t reach the upper realm (that belongs to the gods). If the upper realm, as Plato testifies, is the sphere of perfect love, truth, justice and beauty… then the artist seeks to call the magic of this world down and create, by dint of labor and luck, the closest-to-sublime simulacrums of those qualities as mortal measure can produce.
Only two questions matter, and no one can answer them but me:
- Did you stay true to your vision?
- Did you give this book everything you’ve got?
Cole Porter was a pro. He knew he didn’t have one song, or ten songs, or a hundred and ten songs. He had a million of ’em. In other words, this wasn’t his job, this was his career. He was in it for the long haul.
Where is the joy in writing for me? It’s not in the praise; it’s not in a paycheck. It’s in the work itself. The sweat of it and the grind of it and the happy moments when it gets rolling all by itself. The joy is private and silent.
So I want to be working on the next book (or the next after the next) when this one comes out. I want to be a moving target for that sneaky, ego-driven part of myself that pins its “hopes” on a ride in a glossy limo. That Cadillac is going nowhere. The action is here on the sidewalk, where we are right now.
What I like most about Hemingway’s mind-set is that he shoots for the stars. He’s trying really hard to be really good. Say what you will about him, the guy changed fiction writing in the 20th century.
Labor toward excellence is an antidote to the lower realm. The lower realm is mediocrity. It’s ego. It’s stuck-in-the-self. It’s petty. The lower realm is belief in instant gratification. The lower realm is distraction. The lower realm is shallowness. It’s Resistance; it’s ego-centeredness. It’s all those forces, internal and external, that keep us earthbound, timebound and ball-bearing-bound.
Like Hemingway, I need to write one decent sentence. I gotta get back to work.
The greatest creations and experiences, from art to business, happen in the fray. Those moments where you’re willing to lean into the unknown and act in the face of uncertainty. To live in the question long enough for insights, solutions, revelations and ideas to arrive that would never have come through a shorter, less-exposed dalliance. Nothing worth creating ever comes from waiting for perfect information or absolute certainty.
Problem is, living in the question kills most people. We are wired to experience action in the face of uncertainty as fear and anxiety. Our brains’ fear centers, the amygdalae, light up and make us want to run for the hills.
But, then there are these seeming exceptions to that rule. People who appear to possess a near superhuman tolerance for uncertainty and even the ability to stalk it in the name of creating bigger, badder, cooler stuff.
The addict is the amateur; the artist is the professional. Both addict and artist are dealing with the same material, which is the pain of being human and the struggle against the self-sabotage of Resistance. When we’re acting as amateurs, we’re running away from our calling meaning our work, our destiny, the obligation to become our best and truest selves. When you turn pro, your life gets very simple.
Musashi Miyamoto’s dojo was smaller than my living room. Externals became superfluous. In the end he didn’t even need a sword. And the calling and purpose that had seemed to others (and to ourselves) to be only a dream becomes, now, the central reality of our lives.
The idea that we need to be fit and trim and sane and organized to do good work is baloney. The best stuff I’ve done, I’ve produced under excruciating pressure of time and money, amid massive Resistance, insecurity and self-doubt, with my personal life in chaos. But panic, self-doubt, claustrophobia, morbid dread, and all the classic “all is lost” symptoms are the product of being in over our heads and being in over our heads makes us stretch and grow.
It’s supposed to be hard.
When you’re stretching it’s hard and that’s all there is to it.
Track #1, the Muse Track, represents our work in its most authentic, true-to-itself and true-to-our-own-heart expression. Track #2, the Commercial Track, represents the response our work gets in the marketplace. The ideal position for an artist of authenticity is when Tracks #1 and #2 coincide when he is working his real stuff, and that stuff is finding a home in the wider world. When an artist’s voice is true enough to his own heart and authentic enough to his own vision, Track #1 pulls Track #2 to it.
Is life without meaning? Are you and I marooned on an atom of dust hurtling in the dark through a pointless cosmos?
But we can’t act as if we believed that.
We must act as if there were meaning, as if our lives and actions did have significance, as if love is real and death is an illusion, as if the future will be better than the past, whatever that means.