In this week’s episode of The Story Grid Podcast, Tim and I discuss the power of facing difficult truths with Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art and the just published Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t. Why is it so difficult to listen to mentors? Why do we insist on approaching our writing and our problem solving the same way over and over again? This, of course is the stuff of Resistance, the force Steve coined as the thing that keeps us from moving forward in our creative lives.
Click the play button below to listen or read the transcript that follows:
[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. In this episode, I have both Steve Pressfield and Shawn Coyne joining me to talk about resistance and talk about how you can build your career as a writer and it’s all around Steve’s new book, Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit.
This is part two and so if you haven’t listened to last week’s episodes, you’re going to want to start there because Steve has joined us for two entire episodes. Steve of course is a really smart guy, he’s been writing for a long time and getting to quiz both Shawn and Steve around how to become a better writer has been a lot of fun for me and I think you’re really going to enjoy it. We’re going to jump in and get started on this part two with Steven Pressfield.
[0:00:53.5] TG: All right, we were talking last time, I liked the question you had for Shawn of like, “Can you see it in their eye?” It’s interesting because if I look back over 10 years of working for myself, I remember a time in the first year where I spent half the day playing this stupid video game called World of Warcraft or Warcraft or something like that.
It was because of so many things. Where now, I know how to lock it in and work. A buddy of mine was saying, I was talking to you yesterday, he’s a writer. He says, he’s building a new house and he’s going to rip the internet out of the room that he writes in because he just falls into the Wikipedia holes all the time. I’m like, “No, when I decide to work,” I just work but that’s been a long process of learning.
Actually right before we got on the phone, I was talking to a guy named Cal Newport who wrote the book Deep Work. You know what? I feel like there’s this resistance that keeps us from working like you talk about and what are practical ways that you can stop wasting time avoiding your work and just get it done? What I’ve always tried to do, I say this thing where I assume the future version of Tim will be lazy and stupid and procrastinate. So what can I do now so that Tim in a week has no choice but to get his work done?
[0:02:30.7] SP: To me, again I’ll go back to what I said before about the look in the eye. I think if I talk about my own life, I had like about a seven year period of kind of wondering in the wilderness, of sort off yielding to resistance and like the destroying my entire life until I had the same moment that an alcoholic has, when you wake up face down in a gutter, five in the morning, your children have been kicked out on the street, your wife as it turned out, turning tricks.
You finally say to yourself, “Man, I got to get it together, this is not working.” So it seems like there is that sort of, for me, that turning pro moment when you kind of hit bottom and once you sort of had that moment, everything falls into place. You don’t need tips, you don’t need any advice, you just kind of know, as you’re tempted to screw off yet again, you could sort of look down at that road to back, waking up again in the gutter and you say, “You know what? I got to work. I got to keep working.” That’s sort of my answer for that, it requires a “come to Jesus” moment when you just realize, “This way of life is not working for me, I got to change my ways.”
[0:03:56.5] TG: I’m just — there’s guys..
[0:03:58.2] SP: I’m going to tell you, that’s BS.
[0:04:00.0] TG: Yeah, I know, I figured that was coming. No, I feel like what I want to do when people are looking at this is like — so when I work in the jail, I do this work in the jails or used to, and the guy I did the work with, he’s like, “People always say you got to come to the end of your rope but you get to decide where the end of your rope is.”
What I like to do is what can I do to stop making this mistake before it gets any worse? I want to fix things by looking at other people’s mistakes instead of having to make them all myself. What are the things that I can do to make sure I’m avoiding common pitfalls? Because you said a minute ago, when we weren’t recording, I’m going to bring it up is you said something like, “Stephen King isn’t asking people’s advice on how he should write.” But he also wrote since he was like eight years old or whatever.
So a lot of people are afraid that if they’re starting when they’re 40, it’s too late now. I want to think about like the people that are just coming in to their creativity late in life, what can they do to kind of fast forward some of the stuff that you have to go through?
[0:05:19.9] SP: Okay, I got an answer for that. It was one word: habit.
[0:05:25.2] TG: Okay.
[0:05:26.2] SP: Amateurs have amateur habits and pros have pro habits. By the way, I think anybody starting at 40, I mean I didn’t really get rolling till I was 50. We were talking a minute ago about the come to Jesus moment and he finally decide I’ve got to get out of the gutter to do this, what happens when you get out of the gutter is you adopt professional habits. You turn pro, you think of yourself as a professional writer, you teach yourself like force of will, the habits that a writer has which is X hour each day, I go into my room, I turn off the internet and I work for X hours. I do it every day or five days a week or however.
Even if you can only do one hour. You do it every day just like a professional would. You strengthen those habits every day and make sure that you don’t fall off the wagon over and over again because every day that you strengthen habit, a habit keeps you from having those moments of decision where you can say, I’m not going to go to the gym and I’m not going to work out today, you’re in such a zone and a habit you decide, “I’m just doing it.” You wake up and you’re already there at the gym. So that’s the answer to that I think.
[0:06:51.4] SC: Let me just jump in with a very small story about James Patterson. James Patterson before he became multizillion copy bestselling writher, he works in advertising and he was very successful in advertising and actually a friend of Steve’s from advertising who I met years ago, told me a story about Patterson. He was working at J Walter Thompson and he’s a creative director, not James Patterson but Steve’s friend.
He would go in every morning, he’d get to work at night and he knew not to go to James Patterson’s office, knock on the door at 9 o’clock. He knew the time to go talk to James Patterson was at 9:30. He said, the reason why he knew that is that James Patterson got into work every day at seven and he wrote from 7 o’clock to 9:15 and then he took 15 minutes to have a cup of coffee and then he opened his office tour. Then, it was all advertising until the rest of the day.
Steve’s friend told me, that had a very big effect on him because he knew, if he wanted to aspire to something larger, he had to adapt a habit like that and James Patterson spent 25, 30 years in advertising before he decided to start his professional writing career. He wrote a few books while he was in advertising but I bet you, he wrote about eight or nine novels that didn’t go anywhere before he started his professional career.
So that power of habit is really important and as Steve says, you don’t have to be specifically throwing away all of your life and boring down on that one all or nothing moment. If you have the power to just have the discipline to set aside that hour and a half and get to work early, you know what? James Patterson’s advertising work was probably quite a bit better because of that happened.
[0:08:53.6] TG: Yeah, I talk a lot about the differences between processes and goals and how a process, if you pick the right process, it will get you way past any goal you can come up with. That’s kind of what you’re talking about is it’s not about the goal of writing the book, it’s about the process of every single day at this time I sit down for this long and I work on my craft.
[0:09:16.5] SP: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more and another word for process is practice. Having a yoga practice or having a martial arts practice. If you have a yoga practice, you know that every day, for an hour or for whatever it is, you go into that dojo, into that sacred space and you do the downward dog and whatever it is that you do.
I think that’s what writing or any other art was about. Steven Soderbug when he won the Oscar for Traffic I think, he made great speech and he just held up that statuette and he said, “This is for everybody who spends just one hour a day doing their craft.” I remember at the time, I was like in tears when I heard that because I thought, “That’s so true.” It doesn’t have to be like I said before or your entire life but that one hour a day, if you’re committed, I’m sure that if we walked into James Patterson’s office Shawn, when he was doing his first things and looked in his eye, we would say, this guy’s going to make it, you know? He’s committed, even though 7 o’clock, it’s not that early.
[0:10:26.4] SC: That’s right.
[0:10:29.0] SP: A lot of people, the days are over at 7 o’clock. God bless him.
[0:10:33.5] TG: Yeah, with that idea of practice, if we look at Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or other things that have been written on this, it’s really important what they bring out is it’s not just not important to practice but it’s important to do the right kind of practice and how these people move forward year after year because they’re doing the right types of things during that practice time. So what would you say are the right types of things during my writing practice time?
[0:11:05.8] SP: Let’s define the word practice for a second because I think maybe we’re getting off it a little bit practice. I’m not talking about practice like you would it’s at a piano and practice scales. I’m really talking about a practice meeting a daily ritual habit that you’re committed to lifetime type of thing. If it’s yoga, if it’s martial arts, if it’s meditation, whatever it is.
So if you are a writer, you have to be writing something. So you’re writing project number one, book number one and your practice is to start from the beginning, however you do that, outline it, block it out, write it, whatever it is, you’re practice is to put in that year, that two years, whatever it is and take it from beginning to end and then when it’s done, you start the next one and you’re practice is to do that.
Hopefully with each book, each record album, each piece of software, each whatever it is, you’re learning more, you’re getting better, you’re putting in your time, like Malcolm Gladwell says, your 10,000 hours, and you’re getting better. Like James Patterson, like you say Shawn, I’m sure his first six or seven novels, he threw them in the trash right? They probably deserved to go in the trash.
If you look at it over time, you got to admire the hell out of the guy, right? If you’re the muse and you’re looking down from heaven and seeing him in his office day after day, week after week, year after year. You say, “This guy is going to make it.”
[0:12:41.4] TG: Right.
[0:12:41.8] SP: “He’s got the drive.” You almost can’t fail in a situation like that because you’re going to get better.
[0:12:49.3] TG: Yeah, I think that’s the hope for me when I think about, you know, we talked about like my taste far outstrips my ability right now and my thinking is, if I just show up and keep doing it every day, I can’t help but get somewhat better.
[0:13:05.4] SC: Here’s another thing that I think is important to remember. It goes off on what we just said Tim. About how your taste outstrips your skill set or whatever. A lot of people don’t even have taste and this is important, this is really important because there are certain people who are monomaniacal and what I mean by that is that they’ll go and they’ll sit in their office and they’ll do the things that we’re talking about, that James Patterson does but they’ll have no taste, they’ll have no intention. They won’t explore the territory that they want to succeed in. Success meaning to tell a great story in a particular genre.
Having the understanding that there is a way to develop your taste so that you can distinguish between masterful craftsman and people who are just sort of not so great, that’s part of the writer’s education too. It’s a crucial part. Outside of — and this is one of the things that I think helps people, the story grid helps people, as it gives them the sensibility of being able to evaluate and analyze stories in storytellers so that they can understand exactly what they’re doing.
It’s no coincidence that certain writers grab you and the suck you in and that you can’t stop reading them. The more you know about craft and the know you know about the way language and scenes work, in a way, the better a writer you’re going to be and having an intention for your work is just as important as being there.
[0:14:45.6] TG: Well how do I develop my taste then?
[0:14:50.7] SP: Tim, this is to what we were talking about before we started recording this thing where in my book, Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit, the book is about my working in five different fields of writing, advertising, movies, fiction, nonfiction, self-help and we were talking about you Tim and how you’ve done stuff where you’d done programming, you’ve done internet marketing, you’ve done books that were about kind of self-help, nonfiction thing and the point here to what Shawn was saying is, to get experience in the real world where you get feedback for the stuff that you’re doing.
So that you’re not just alone in an office or alone in a room writing. Like for me, working in the movies was a great experience in terms of learning what a story was because I was in meetings, I was pitching, I was working with other writers, I was actually having movies getting made and learning what a story was and getting real feedback and just like you Tim. It feels that you’ve been in, you’re getting feedback, you’re getting to do real work that’s exposed in a real world and that you learn from as you go along.
So it can be a trap to get too stuck in your own room in your little garage and hermetically sealed world, it’s better to be out. The other thing about working in a real world, even in fields that are not your dream field, not the one you really want to is you encounter mentors and people will take you under their wing. I’ve had quite a few of them and you learn those great lessons that stay with you all the way through and it’s the real world too. So that what you’re being told is not theoretical, it’s not abstract, it’s because we got to pay the rent, we got to put asses in the seat, we got to sell tickets you know?
[0:16:42.1] SC: Here’s the trick that you can do.
[0:16:43.9] TG: Yeah.
[0:16:45.2] SP: A lot of the posts that I write are like lessons that people told me. Just for fun I’ll just throw one out here. When I first got out to Hollywood, I worked with this director named Ernie Pintoff who passed away tragically a few years ago but we would sit side by side, he was like a real pro, I was like 30 years younger than him and every time we would get stuck in the story, he would say, “Have another body hit the floor.”
What he meant was, kill somebody. Why did he say that? Because it raised the stakes and after about the 50th time of him saying that to me, I thought, “Oh I get it.” The stories kept bogging down because it’s not really — the stakes aren’t high enough. In the real world, you meet mentors and you learn, that’s how you learn. Also you teach people too, but real world experience, even in a field that’s not your dream field, is a great thing.
[0:17:42.7] TG: So are you telling people they should quite their job and whatever, they’re bagging groceries at Kroger, maybe they’re working a mid-level management job. Should they go work somewhere in advertising or something that involves writing so they can actually make steps that way?
[0:18:00.5] SP: I do think those jobs help, to get sort of closer to it, instead of a totally unrelated waste your time job. Of course those jobs are kind of hard to get to begin with. It takes a while to get them.
[0:18:15.2] TG: Well is there any way, because a buddy of mine’s in a writer’s group and they get together and they all share their writing and kind of give each other tips and feedback and I’ve always, I kind of roll my eyes at that because I’m like, “Why do I need other crappy writers telling me that my writing’s crappy?”
[0:18:31.5] SP: I’m with you Tim, I couldn’t agree more.
[0:18:33.4] TG: But what I’m getting at is like is there a way to fix this problem of how do I move forward out of the writing holes that I’m in and get that kind of good feedback on my stuff and how do I find people to teach me to make another body hit the floor? How do I find those mentors in my writing?
[0:18:53.6] SP: I think you have to be working in some kind of writing field wouldn’t you say Shawn?
[0:18:57.8] SC: Yes and no, I think just going back to what I was saying about taste, the way I’ve ever learned anything was to watch somebody better than I doing it. There’s no better way to do that than to read within your genre that you want to be successful. So I say this, everybody always comes to me and they say, “Give me the obligatory scenes and conventions of my genre so that I can plug them in to make my story work.”
Sure, someday I’ll do that for as many genres as I can but there’s only so much one man can do. But what you need to do in light of that is to read within yourself. So if you say to yourself, I need to solve a particular problem in my work. Go find books that have solved those problems in very innovative ways and be inspired by that.
We’ve talked about this before Tim where people often have this fear, “Oh I’m ripping off the [Baga De Vita], I’m ripping off J.K. Rowling. I’m not really original but those are inspirations that you can use as structural hand holding as mentorship through sort of intellectual mentorship by people who don’t even have to talk to you, their work can mentor you.
Just to briefly talk about that thing about people who are bagging groceries, should they quit their job and lock themselves in a room and become dedicated artists? There’s conflict in every single human experience and stories are built on conflict and you can learn particular setups and pay offs for scenes in everyday life. Some of the best stuff like there’s that classic scene in Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s in line in a movie theater, some blow hard behind him talking about Marshall McLuhan and Marshall McLuhan life and this and that, hot and cold.
So Woody Allen thinks this guy is an idiot. He doesn’t know Marshall McLuhan’s life’s work at all. He pulls Marshall McLuhan out and he has him explained to him that he’s an idiot. That’s a moment where woody Allen was obviously in some line in the theater and he said, “I’m going to put that in my movie.” These are the things that a writer and a creative artist can play off of in their everyday life.
[0:21:17.8] TG: Yeah, I wonder, because I’ve done a lot of this on my end is I constantly want to find people who have made all the mistakes and to teach me how to avoid those mistakes. Most of the time, if I look back at my career, that always signals some kind of major growth for me where I find somebody that knows what they’re talking about, about a certain problem I’m having, I get them to tell me what to do and I just do whatever they say.
There’s a reason that right when I decided to start writing fiction, I just happened to start the podcast with the great Shawn Coyne on how to write great stories. It’s like this aren’t — and it’s because I seek these people out and what I find is, there’s two ways to find a great mentor that I found. One is to start out by being helpful in any way that you possibly can. Any way that you can make the person that you want their help their life, just the slightest bit easier. If you start there, and then when you ask for their advice, you do whatever they say without question. The only questions you’re allowed to ask…
[0:22:28.1] SP: That’s a good one Tim.
[0:22:29.1] SC: It is.
[0:22:30.0] TG: …are clarifying questions so you understand exactly what you should be doing. Because I know on my end, when people ask me questions or for advice and I give them advice and they immediately argue with me about why they think my advice is wrong. I’m like, “You know what? Just forget it.” People that go out and do what I say and come back and report, man, I’ll keep helping them for free because it makes me feel good.
So on the subject of getting help, a lot of people kind of decide ahead of time, “Well nobody’s going to help me or I’m not going to be able to get anybody to help me.” But if you understand just kind of basic psychology, a lot of times, you can get just amazing people to give you advice that if you take will radically change everything that you do.
[0:23:15.2] SC: That’s true. Just to tell a little bit of a story about how Steve and I decided to call his new book Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit. A lot of people don’t want to face deep truth from a mentor. What they’ll do is they’ll argue with you and they’ll say, “Well, I don’t work that way, that’s not the way things come to me.” So when we were debating how to present this book, this is Steve’s title and what we were thinking about, “Is this too harsh? Is this something that’s going to turn people off because it’s discouraging?”
But the fact is that we want to attract people who want to hear that deep dark truths and to act on that truth as opposed to people who want to be petted. I’m speaking for myself. I don’t know if this is Steve’s point of view but this is the way I’ve sort of come to fall in love with the title of this book is because it’s a truth that says, “You need to be empathetic to who you are writing for. And yes of course you’re writing for yourself but what you need to do is translate your vision into a story that other people are going to be passionate about and enjoy.”
So the harshness of Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit is something to tell people, “Hey, always keep this in mind. This is not just for you, this is not a solid system way of exploring your inner stuff and your inner child and bringing out the flowery language of your childhood in a way that can be expressive and interesting. This is about translating a personal experience, a personal truth into a story that other people can enjoy and take something out of.”
[0:25:10.0] TG: Yeah, it’s really hard as I think about how to put that into the book because I feel like there’s these times where I’m like, “Well I’m just trying to tell a kind of fun story that I would like to read.” But when I think to the last episode and I think about putting the theme into it and knowing what I’m trying to say, that’s where I start to worry of like, “Well maybe I don’t have a theme for this thing? Maybe I’m not trying to say anything important, and how big of a problem is that? Maybe I haven’t had enough horrible experiences in my life to pull from? I’ve just kind of had an easy life so my books are never going to have these deep themes.” Is that an actual concern I should be having?
[0:25:55.6] SP: Shawn is pointing to me. Actually, I don’t think so Tim because I think that — I’m a believer of previous lives and I believe that we come into this life with a whole past even though we’re not aware of it and so the actual events of our life really don’t have anything to do with what we’re capable of writing and Crust was in bed for 22 years or whatever, you know? So no, I don’t think if you have to worry about that.
[0:26:31.3] SC: I think it’s resistance. You are thinking about these things and letting them wrap their trails around you in your mind, has one major purpose. That’s to keep you from moving forward with your story. So when you start really looking at naval gazing and all that stuff in terms of, “Oh I’m not doing this, I’m not doing that,” that’s a great sign that resistance is bearing down on you, so keep moving.
[0:26:56.1] SP: Let me ask you Tim, why do you want to write fiction?
[0:27:00.9] TG: So I’ve been playing with it for a few years and it’s always been this kind of thing I do that I don’t talk about. When I do talk about it, it’s in that kind of typical way that people that do this kind of on the side like, “Oh I’m never actually going to get around to that.” So last summer, I was talking to a friend of mine about kind of what’s next in my career and I had all of these decisions, all this kind of philosophical “who am I?” questions.
He’s like, “Haven’t you been writing fiction for a couple of years?” I’m like, “Well, yeah.” He said, “Why don’t you do that?” And I said, “Because I don’t know that I can be successful.” He’s like, “Well that’s not really a great reason.” That’s when I kind of started dabbling again like, “Okay, I’m going to take this serious eventually, I’m going to take this serious soon.”
Then I go to see the new star wars movie and I’m watching this movie and I am so excited to be at the movie and I’m so happy to be there, they just did such a great job with it and it just filled me with this joy that it’s this type of joy that only comes from a great story that I get when I read great books and all this things and I realize in that moment, this is what I want to do for other people.
Is I want to be a part of bringing this type of joy into their life and the way that I want to do that is writing fiction. So that’s what kind of pushed me over the edge finally to take this seriously and start putting in the hours and putting in the time and putting in the effort to learn how to do it and to do it well.
[0:28:38.8] SP: Well that’s a great answer Tim. I think that’s an artist’s answer. I think an actor sitting in the audience, seeing some Olivier on stage says, “Oh wow, I want to be able to produce the rush that this guy gave to me watching him or athletes seeing another athlete perform. I think that’s a great answer, that’s totally validated. I don’t think you need to have a tremendous angst and the existential ennui and all this kind of stuff that they have to be purging from your system, you know? Just the idea like, why does somebody want to sing? They see someone else sing and they say, “Wow, that is great, that is fun, I want to do that too.”
[0:29:20.2] TG: is the answer “I want to be a famous writer” a bad answer?
[0:29:24.8] SP: Yes.
[0:29:25.1] TG: Why?
[0:29:26.2] SP: Because it’s looking at it from the outside in. It’s looking at it, as Shawn would say, third party validation. What you’re really saying, when someone says, “I want to be a famous writer,” and I believe that that’s probably 99.9% of the people who pick up the pen in our type writer, it’s really saying, “I’m convinced that I’m worthless. I have an empty hole inside of me, if anybody knew who I really was, they would despise me.
But if I could just be a famous writer, certainly I would be okay,” and that’s no good at all, much better to say, “Wow, I read this book and it blew me away, boy, would I love to write something that would give somebody else the pleasure that that book gave to me.” So yeah, I think that to want to be a famous writer, somebody says that to me, I can guarantee it, they’re never going to make it.
[0:30:19.0] TG: What are some other — because I think about writers that are basically using writing to work out their issues or using…
[0:30:26.7] SP: That’s okay too I think. I think that’s really what writers do. It’s what we were saying in our previous, or what I was saying in our previous podcast that writing in many ways and I include like Bruce Springsteen writing albums or Jackson Brown or whoever, the writing process is like dreaming and then it’s self-therapy. It’s working out something unconscious that we’re trying to evolve through and learn from.
Part of our hero’s journey or whatever it is that’s going on deep inside so we’re kind of writing our way out of that paper bag. That’s completely valid, it’s more than completely valid, it’s honorable. Now, the thing is, you can do that sort of writing and it kind of come out like your own personal journal, which is you don’t want to show to anybody but if you can take and actually, my first three books never got published, that’s what they were.
It was angst, it was pain, it was my own self therapy and people would read them and it was excruciating to read them. I would torture them and make them read this horrible crap, you know? That’s like those bad songs that people write or bad poems that they give to you, right? But then, like we were talking about, Tim and I getting better, you do get better and finally you sort of get over the hump. Which I thought about a long time, I have never been able to really define exactly what it is, but your stuff becomes ready for prime time. You actually can show it to somebody, it’s not excruciating. That’s sort of a mystery, it’s just practice, practice, practice until it finally gets over the hump.
[0:32:10.9] SC: We talked about this earlier Steve and you talked about it in the book to in Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit and we were talking about this in terms of Philip Roth and I told you that story and I had you buy that DVD of his interview on TVS which was fantastic.
[0:32:26.3] SP: Yeah, it was great.
[0:32:29.7] SC: What Roth is talking about is he wrote this very traditional, wonderful short stories that were very literary like Goodbye Columbus, fantastic short story. And they’re very serious. They’re a very serious writer doing serious writing work.
[0:32:48.0] SP: Right. They’re very “writerly”.
[0:32:49.4] SC: Yeah, and then he talks about this personal crisis that he had in his own life where his marriage was falling apart, things weren’t going well, he got writer’s block, he couldn’t figure it out. So he spent more and more time out on the town in New York with his friends and he found out that he was very funny and that his friends thought he was hilarious because he would share all his anxieties with them and they thought it was so funny.
So he finally figured it out, “Hey, I’m just going to write a book like that guy would.” He wrote Portnoy’s Complaint, right? He found his voice that rough voice that we all fell in love with because it was part of his authentic self. Then I think one of the things that you discovered with Legend of Bagger Vance was that, when you found that voice and you found that point of view to tell the story and you channeled it, all of that personal angst and stuff kind of fell back a little bit and you were able to sort of translate somebody else’s story in your own brain through a channel sort of something.
[0:33:53.1] SP: Yeah.
[0:33:54.3] SC: So I think if there is a takeaway, like when do you know when you’re moving beyond naval gazing to pure story telling it’s when you can sort of, “Oh that’s my voice. I know how I’m writing now, I’m not going to get all self-conscious as I’m writing paragraph one, I’m just going to let it fly and it will be that thing.”
[0:34:18.9] TG: It sounds like you should just start up by going to therapy.
[0:34:24.8] SC: Yes and no. I mean there’s no secret that a lot of writers have had mental breakdowns or have spent their lives avoiding those questions.
[0:34:37.4] SP: But here’s the other issue here, this is the writer. Or let’s get into this issue a little bit here.
[0:34:41.6] SC: Okay.
[0:34:42.0] SP: We talk about therapy then you sort of implicit in there is the idea that, “Well, you should be writing about your own life and your own angst,” and that’s not necessarily true at all. I would bet you if we had — who is the guy that wrote Game of Thrones? George R.R. Martin or something?
[0:35:00.5] TG: George R.R. Martin.
[0:35:02.0] SP: George R.R. Martin. I think of it, what was the Tale of Ice and Fire? Is that the original? I think so. He creates this world of Westeros and all this crazy stuff, right? And that I’m sure it has absolutely nothing to do with this real life obviously, but I would bet you if we had him here, he could tell you, “Oh I was dealing with the issue of betrayal, my mother walked out when I was young, so that was why I had queen whatever his name,” — So what’s interesting Tim, like we were talking about self-therapy, and this is amazing about how the unconscious works. James R.R. Martin is that his name?
[0:35:40.1] SC: George.
[0:35:42.0] SP: George R.R Martin. His unconscious created this story, Game of Thrones, to deal with issues in his life. But in this metaphor, this crazy wonderful creative metaphor that again, stories are like dreams, right? There’s dreams communicated via symbol. Anyway, I’m not sure exactly what I’m saying here Tim but it doesn’t need to be the angst of one’s own personal life. Philip Roth, he just pumped up the volume on that and made it work.
[0:36:16.7] TG: You know Shawn, you and I were talking about the guy that created the movie Apocalypse Now, and how it just destroyed him while creating this story and then you have people that are just completely destroyed by their resistance. How do you navigate those two? How do you know — because you say, “I came over the hump and I finally found my voice and then I was able to do that,” and it’s like, the writer you were doing before you found your voice, in that moment, you would have been like, “No, this is my voice, I’m writing in my voice.” But you weren’t there yet.
How do you kind of get through all that crap? Ir do you just have to — I want answers besides “just write some more”. How do you break through those walls of resistance, of feeling like I am doing it right but then in two years, you’re going to look back and be like, “I was a disaster.” What are those things that can kind of break me through those walls?
[0:37:21.4] SC: I think Tim, I think you’re asking — when you ask a question like that, you’re sort of asking for tips and there are no tips. It’s like Golf Digest, if you ever read a thing like that it’s, “Well you know, down wind you want to tee the ball higher.” That is not — I’m afraid the answer is that you have to pay your dues. It’s about suffering, it’s about practice, it’s about doing it over and over until it happens.
[0:37:51.7] SP: Let me say one thing Shawn.
[0:37:52.2] SC: No please do.
[0:37:53.3] SP: Talking about finding your voice. For me, the first seven or eight books that I wrote were in character as somebody else. So it wasn’t at all finding the voice of Steve Pressfield, it was almost like an actor getting into a role and that worked for me Tim, that freed me from that self-constipated, super self-conscious, precious writerly crap that everybody goes to, to write in a voice of somebody else and that the voices I was writing were like, way way from who I am as a person. But somehow, they were truer to me than my own actual voice. If that makes any sense? I don’t know how that helps but…
[0:38:48.6] SC: I’ll just throw something back at Steve that he’s already talked about before and is deeply in meshed in The War of Art, that is using these feelings of self-doubt and anxiety and feelings of resistance as a north star of sorts. What that means is the deeper you get into this muddled, “Am I a writer, am I not a writer? Am I really hitting my voice, am I not hitting my voice?” Is that, those are the indications that you’re getting close, it doesn’t mean that you’re getting further and further away.
It means, these are the times to lock down even harder and think about well, “Okay, I’m not running my voice. Why not pretend, let me pretend and write in somebody else’s voice and seeded where that takes. Let me rewrite this scene from the point of view of the dog. I wonder what that would do for me? I’m just going to do it as an exercise. My intention is to rewrite this scene from the point of view of the family dog as the husband and wife are breaking up and will never speak to each other again. What would the dog experience?”
Making exercises that have clear intentions so that you can bring limitations to your anxieties is a great way to break through these moments of naval gazing and writerly baloney. If you give yourself a clear problem and try and solve that problem, it’s like — I’m sure you’ve experienced this as we all have. Okay, say you’ve got a big, big meeting coming up and this happened to be on my way to Nashville to see you Tim. I’m going through my check list. “I got to get this done, I got to get that done.” What happens in the middle of it? I lose my glasses, right?
So all that other stuff is gone. All I have to do is find my glasses and then I can get in the car and then I can drive. Do you think that’s a coincidence? And Steve and I always say, whenever you’re close to finishing a novel or a project, you get deathly ill, you catch the flu, you cut your finger, you bonk your head. These things are indications that you are getting near the end and that you need to press on. The way to fix those moments of self-doubt is to find a clear intention that you can use as a way to focus your energy.
[0:41:21.2] TG: Yeah, I always feel like it’s like setting up these games to keep myself moving. If I can just get to here, I can just do that. Or like I talked about, if I can set something up so that future Tim will make good decisions in that moment then it almost takes my eyes off of the resistance long enough so I could do something, anything productive.
[0:41:43.3] SC: That’s a good way of putting it.
[0:41:45.5] SP: The other thing that you just said Shawn that’s so true is that when you’re feeling the resistance and you’re very down on yourself about it, that’s a good sign because it shows that you wouldn’t have that resistance unless your idea, the idea that you were trying to work on wasn’t a good idea and wasn’t something that wasn’t something that was important for you to do.
Right now, before we started doing this podcast and Shawn and I were talking about a new book that I’m starting right now. I’m just overwhelmed by resistance to it. I take that as a good sign because if there wasn’t that resistance, it wouldn’t be that idea. If it was a lame idea, there would be no resistance at all. So like you say Tim, it’s a matter of finding your way, tricking yourself into getting the work. But the fact that you got the resistance is a good sign as it shows there wouldn’t be resistance. Resistance is the shadow and the tree that gets casting it is the great idea that you have that you’re trying to work on.
[0:42:50.3] TG: My dream of one day no longer having resistance, that’s not…
[0:42:53.7] SP: Give it up. It’s never…
[0:42:58.2] TG: Yeah, it’s been interesting when I work with writers, because when you work with new writers, they have this dream of, if they could become a New York times bestselling author then all of a sudden all their confidence would grow and they would feel like — and I’m like, “Man, the people that have found success, they feel all the same things but actually turned up a little bit because now people are watching them.”
[0:43:20.1] SP: Right, now they’re even more afraid you know? Book number two is harder than book number one, because how are you going to match it you know? Elizabeth Gilbert went through hell trying to top Eat Pray Love.
[0:43:30.8] TG: Yeah, and what did she say in that one talk?
[0:43:33.7] SP: I think that a writer, or any artist just trying to get some more comfortable in that place of being completely uncomfortable and just realizes, this is it. Like pre-game jitters, you’re going out on the court, you throw it up and then that’s it.
[0:43:51.0] TG: Yeah, she said that in one of her TED talk, she said something like, the idea that she’s still young and her best work is behind her, that’s the thing that could get her drinking gin at 10 in the morning. I think it was an interview with Paulo — I can’t ever say his last name — that wrote The Alchemist and he talked about how he would like get up in the morning and read the paper and then check the news and then make more coffee and then basically do anything he possibly could to avoid writing. And I’m like, “But you’re good at it, it should be easier now that you’re good at it right?”
[0:44:35.1] SP: No.
[0:44:35.6] TG: That’s what I think with you Steve, it’s like you have this entire backlist of successful books, you should be like, “I can do this, I know how to do this. I’m just going to sit down and do this.” It’s not like that anymore.
[0:44:49.7] SP: It’s like Shawn and I were just talking an hour ago about this new idea that I have. I think the news gives you ideas that are always stretching you to beyond and this thing that we’re talking about, I’ve never done it before. It presents problems that I’ve never dealt with, I’ve been afraid of a lot, I’ve been avoiding for 30 years. Whatever experience you have, it helps in the sense that you consider yourself, “Well I know I’ve done it in the past but this new thing, I’ve never done before.”
It’s like Michael Jordan never won that sixth title until he was there, right? I’m sure that he was thinking, “Can I? Can it be done?” But again, I think it’s just getting comfortable in that state of discomfort or at least just knowing that it’s not a sign that I’m screwed up that I’m going to fail, it’s a good sign to have these butterflies, to be nervous, to feel this resistance. It’s a good sign. You just have to rally whatever it is, break through it, jump in the pool. As I’m saying that, it’s easy for me to say that now. Tomorrow morning when I sit down and face that dragon, it’s going to be just as hard as it was any other day.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:46:05.5] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, you can see that at Storygrid.com. If you missed any past episodes or want to take a look at the show notes, all of that is up at Storygrid.com/podcast. Then of course you’re going to want to pick up Steve Pressfield’s newest book, Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit. You can buy that at blackirishbooks.com or of course at Amazon.com as well. Make sure you pick up a copy, I know you’re going to love it.
Thanks for listening to this two part series with Stephen Pressfield and starting next week, Shawn and I are diving into a three part series called Publishing 101 where we’re going to talk through all of the ins and outs of publishing. So that’s going to come up next week, and we will see you then.