WHAT A WRITER’S DAY FEELS LIKE
I wake up with a gnawing sensation of dissatisfaction. Already I feel fear. Already the loved ones around me are starting to fade. I interact. I’m present. But I’m not.
I’m not thinking about the work. I’ve already consigned that to the Muse. What I am aware of is Resistance. I feel it in my guts. I afford it the utmost respect, because I know it can defeat me on any given day as easily as the need for a drink can overcome an alcoholic
I go through the chores, the correspondence, the obligations of daily life. Again I’m there but not really. The clock is running in my head; I know I can indulge in daily crap for a little while, but I must cut it off when the bell rings.
I’m keenly aware of the Principle of Priority, which states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first.
What’s important is the work. That’s the game I have to suit up for. That’s the field on which I have to leave everything I’ve got.
Do I really believe that my work is crucial to the planet’s survival? Of course not. But it’s as important to me as catching that mouse is to the hawk circling outside my window. He’s hungry. He needs a kill. So do I.
I’m done with my chores now. It’s time. I say my prayer and head out on the hunt.
The sun isn’t up yet; it’s cold; the fields are sopping. Brambles scratch my ankles, branches snap back in my face. The hill is a sonofabitch but what can you do? Set one foot in front of another and keep climbing.
An hour passes. I’m warmer now, the pace has got my blood going. The years have taught me one skill: how to be miserable. I know how to shut up and keep humping. This is a great asset because it’s human, the proper role for a mortal. It does not offend the gods, but elicits their intercession. My bitching self is receding now. The instincts are taking over. Another hour passes. I turn the corner of a thicket and there he is: the nice fat hare I knew would show up if I just kept plugging.
Home from the hill, I thank the immortals and offer up their portion of the kill. They brought it to me; they deserve their share. I am grateful.
I joke with my kids beside the fire. They’re happy; the old man has brought home the bacon. The old lady’s happy; she’s cooking it up. I’m happy; I’ve earned my keep on the planet, at least for this day.
Resistance is not a factor now. I don’t think of the hunt and I don’t think of the office. The tension drains from my neck and back. What I feel and say and do this night will not be coming from any disowned or unresolved part of me, any part corrupted by Resistance.
I go to sleep content, but my final thought is of Resistance. I will wake up with it tomorrow. Already I am steeling myself.
HOW TO BE MISERABLE
In my younger days dodging the draft, I somehow wound up in the Marine Corps. There’s a myth that Marine training turns baby-faced recruits into bloodthirsty killers. Trust me, the Marine Corps is not that efficient. What it does teach, however, is a lot more useful.
The Marine Corps teaches you how to be miserable.
This is invaluable for an artist.
Marines love to be miserable. Marines derive a perverse satisfaction from having colder chow, crappier equipment, and higher casualty rates than any outfit of dogfaces, swab jockeys or flyboys, all of whom they despise. Why? Because these candy-asses don’t know how to be miserable.
The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.
The artist must be like that Marine. He has to know how to be miserable. He has to love being miserable. He has to take pride in being more miserable than any soldier or swabbie or jet jockey. Because this is war, baby. And war is hell.
WE’RE ALL PROS ALREADY
All of us are pros in one area: our jobs.
We get a paycheck. We work for money. We are professionals.
Now: Are there principles we can take from what we’re already successfully doing in our workaday lives and apply to our artistic aspirations? What exactly are the qualities that define us as professionals?
We show up every day.
We might do it only because we have to, to keep from getting fired. But we do it. We show up every day.
We show up no matter what.
In sickness and in health, come hell or high water, we stagger in to the factory. We might do it only so as not to let down our co-workers, or for other, less noble reasons. But we do it. We show up no matter what.
We stay on the job all day.
Our minds may wander, but our bodies remain at the wheel. We pick up the phone when it rings, we assist the customer when he seeks our help. We don’t go home till the whistle blows.
We are committed over the long haul.
Next year we may go to another job, another company, another country. But we’ll still be working. Until we hit the lottery, we are part of the labor force.
The stakes for us are high and real.
This is about survival, feeding our families, educating our children. It’s about eating.
We accept remuneration for our labor.
We’re not here for fun. We work for money.
We do not overidentify with our jobs.
We may take pride in our work, we may stay late and come in on weekends, but we recognize that we are not our job descriptions. The amateur, on the other hand, overidentifies with his avocation, his artistic aspiration. He defines himself by it. He is a musician, a painter, a playwright. Resistance loves this. Resistance knows that the amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in its success and overterrified of its failure. The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyzes him.
We master the technique of our jobs.
We have a sense of humor about our jobs.
We receive praise or blame in the real world.
Now consider the amateur: the aspiring painter, the wannabe playwright. How does he pursue his calling?
One, he doesn’t show up every day. Two, he doesn’t show up no matter what. Three, he doesn’t stay on the job all day. He is not committed over the long haul; the stakes for him are illusory and fake. He does not get money. And he overidentifies with his art. He does not have a sense of humor about failure. You don’t hear him bitching, “This fucking trilogy is killing me!” Instead, he doesn’t write his trilogy at all.
The amateur has not mastered the technique of his art. Nor does he expose himself to judgment in the real world. If we show our poem to our friend and our friend says, “It’s wonderful, I love it,” that’s not real-world feedback, that’s our friend being nice to us. Nothing is as empowering as real-world validation, even if it’s for failure.
The first professional writing job I ever had, after seventeen years of trying, was on a movie called
King Kong Lives
. I and my partner-at-the-time, Ron Shusett (a brilliant writer and producer who also did
) hammered out the screenplay for Dino DeLaurentiis. We loved it; we were sure we had a hit. Even after we’d seen the finished film, we were certain it was a blockbuster. We invited everyone we knew to the premiere, even rented out the joint next door for a post-triumph blowout. Get there early, we warned our friends, the place’ll be mobbed.
Nobody showed. There was only one guy in line beside our guests and he was muttering something about spare change. In the theater, our friends endured the movie in mute stupefaction. When the lights came up, they fled like cockroaches into the night.
Next day came the review in
: “. . . Ronald Shusett and Steven Pressfield; we hope these are not their real names, for their parents’ sake.” When the first week’s grosses came in, the flick barely registered. Still I clung to hope. Maybe it’s only tanking in urban areas, maybe it’s playing better in the burbs. I motored to an Edge City multiplex. A youth manned the popcorn booth.
King Kong Lives?”
I asked. He flashed thumbs-down. “Miss it, man. It sucks.”
I was crushed. Here I was, forty-two years old, divorced, childless, having given up all normal human pursuits to chase the dream of being a writer; now I’ve finally got my name on a big-time Hollywood production starring Linda Hamilton, and what happens? I’m a loser, a phony; my life is worthless, and so am I.
My friend Tony Keppelman snapped me out of it by asking if I was gonna quit. Hell, no! “Then be happy. You’re where you wanted to be, aren’t you? So you’re taking a few blows. That’s the price for being in the arena and not on the sidelines. Stop complaining and be grateful.”
That was when I realized I had become a pro. I had not yet had a success. But I had had a real failure.
FOR LOVE OF THE GAME
To clarify a point about professionalism: The professional, though he accepts money, does his work out of love. He has to love it. Otherwise he wouldn’t devote his life to it of his own free will.
The professional has learned, however, that too much love can be a bad thing. Too much love can make him choke. The seeming detachment of the professional, the cold-blooded character to his demeanor, is a compensating device to keep him from loving the game so much that he freezes in action. Playing for money, or adopting the attitude of one who plays for money, lowers the fever.
Remember what we said about fear, love, and Resistance. The more you love your art/calling/enterprise, the more important its accomplishment is to the evolution of your soul, the more you will fear it and the more Resistance you will experience facing it. The payoff of playing-the-game-for-money is not the money (which you may never see anyway, even after you turn pro). The payoff is that playing the game for money produces the proper professional attitude. It inculcates the lunch-pail mentality, the hard-core, hard-head, hard-hat state of mind that shows up for work despite rain or snow or dark of night and slugs it out day after day.
The writer is an infantryman. He knows that progress is measured in yards of dirt extracted from the enemy one day, one hour, one minute at a time and paid for in blood. The artist wears combat boots. He looks in the mirror and sees GI Joe. Remember, the Muse favors working stiffs. She hates prima donnas. To the gods the supreme sin is not rape or murder, but pride. To think of yourself as a mercenary, a gun for hire, implants the proper humility. It purges pride and preciousness.
Resistance loves pride and preciousness. Resistance says, “Show me a writer who’s too good to take Job X or Assignment Y and I’ll show you a guy I can crack like a walnut.”
Technically, the professional takes money. Technically, the pro plays for pay. But in the end, he does it for love.
Now let’s consider: What are the aspects of the Professional?
A PROFESSIONAL IS PATIENT
Resistance outwits the amateur with the oldest trick in the book: It uses his own enthusiasm against him. Resistance gets us to plunge into a project with an overambitious and unrealistic timetable for its completion. It knows we can’t sustain that level of intensity. We will hit the wall. We will crash.
The professional, on the other hand, understands delayed gratification. He is the ant, not the grasshopper; the tortoise, not the hare. Have you heard the legend of Sylvester Stallone staying up three nights straight to churn out the screenplay for
I don’t know, it may even be true. But it’s the most pernicious species of myth to set before the awakening writer, because it seduces him into believing he can pull off the big score without pain and without persistence.
The professional arms himself with patience, not only to give the stars time to align in his career, but to keep himself from flaming out in each individual work. He knows that any job, whether it’s a novel or a kitchen remodel, takes twice as long as he thinks and costs twice as much. He accepts that. He recognizes it as reality.
The professional steels himself at the start of a project, reminding himself it is the Iditarod, not the sixty-yard dash. He conserves his energy. He prepares his mind for the long haul. He sustains himself with the knowledge that if he can just keep those huskies mushing, sooner or later the sled will pull in to Nome.
A PROFESSIONAL SEEKS ORDER
When I lived in the back of my Chevy van, I had to dig my typewriter out from beneath layers of tire tools, dirty laundry, and moldering paperbacks. My truck was a nest, a hive, a hellhole on wheels whose sleeping surface I had to clear each night just to carve out a foxhole to snooze in.
The professional cannot live like that. He is on a mission. He will not tolerate disorder. He eliminates chaos from his world in order to banish it from his mind. He wants the carpet vacuumed and the threshold swept, so the Muse may enter and not soil her gown.