I’ve enjoyed a sporadic conversation with Steve Pressfield , author of Gates of Fire and Killing Rommel, ever since he started his Tribes site. While most of our discussions had to do with COIN, tribalism, ancient history and Afghanistan, Steve is also generous with his time and advice with those who aspire to become better writers. Pressfield distilled his philosophy of writing, learned from the school of hard knocks, into a short handbook, The War of Art which I heartily recommend. Steve also features a “Writing Wednesdays” as a weekly tutorial in the writer’s craft and the acquisition of a professional mindset.
In the spirit of “Writing Wednesday”, Steve invited me to pose three questions to him based on my impressions of The War of Art. Here are my questions and Steve’s answers:
ZP: You write in The War of Art about “the muse”and Socrates‘ “heaven-sent madness”. It sounds very much like the “flow” described by creativity theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Does the intensity of that experience ever lead the artist astray ?
SP: In my experience, Mark, the writing process bounces back and forth between two poles. One is the let-‘er-rip mode, which could be called “flow,” or “Dionysian.” That’s the one when the Muse possesses a writer and he just goes with it. But yes, as you suggest, it can lead you astray. It’s the like the great ideas you have at three in the morning after two too many tequilas. This mode has to be balanced by a saner-head mode, which sometimes to me almost feels like a different person–an editor, a reviser. That’s really when you put yourself in imagination in the place of the reader and ask yourself, as you’re reading the stuff that this “other guy” wrote: “Does this make any sense? Is this any good? Have I got it in the right place, in the right form? Should I cut it, expand it, modify it, dump it entirely.” Then you become cold-blooded and professional. You get ruthless with your own work. This is the time, I think, when “formula” wisdom can help, when you can ask yourself questions like, “What is my inciting incident?” or “What is my Act Two mid-point.” Not when you’re in the flow, or you’ll censor yourself and second-guess yourself. But now, when you’re rationally evaluating what you produced when you were in flow.
This back-and-forthing, I imagine, would be true in any artistic or entrepreneurial venture. It’s great to let it rip and really get down some wild, skatting jazz riffs. But then we have to come back and ask ourselves, “Is this working for the audience? Is this working for the work itself?”
ZP: Amateurs reach a tipping point where they “Turn pro”. Is turning professional more from innate character or from the lessons of experience?
SP: Some people are born “pro.” I have two friends, identical twins, who are both tremendous producers of excellent work and they’ve never suffered a minute of Resistance in their lives. The lucky bastards. For the rest of us though (at least this is my experience), only after many painful hard knocks … really when it becomes simply too excruciating to continue living as an amateur (and thereby suffering the agonies of never completing anything, always screwing up, forever feeling inadequate in our own eyes and just plain not respecting ourselves) do we finally, out of sheer emotional self-preservation, say to ourselves, “This crap has gotta stop! We gotta get our act together!”
ZP: Artists run straight into hierarchies, filled with gatekeepers, between ourselves and a goal. Go through or go around?
SP: There’s an axiom in Hollywood that if you write a truly great script, it will not go unrecognized. I think this is true. What I mean by that is that gatekeepers can be our friends. They can open gates as well as close them. In fact, I vote for jettisoning the term “gatekeeper.” It’s negative and self-defeating–and it’s an insult, I think, to the editors, agents, publishers and development executives whose agenda is not to exclude us, the artists. In fact they’d like nothing more than to discover fresh talent, a hot new manuscript, a great pitch or biz proposal. In my own experience, I got shot down again and again when my stuff wasn’t ready and wasn’t good. But once I had done the work and elevated my material to the professional level, I found open doors and helping hands.
All that is not to say that “going around” can’t be a good idea too. Look at Seth Godin, who’s the poster boy for damning the torpedoes and taking his stuff straight to the marketplace with incredible success. In my own career though–now that you’ve made me think about it, Mark–I realize I’ve always gone the traditional route. And the “gatekeepers” I’ve met have become, almost within exception, great friends and allies–and I’ve wound up helping them, in other ways, almost as much as they’ve helped me.