Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Wrestling an Alligator

By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 20, 2010

A friend asked me the other day how I experienced Resistance. What did the phenomenon feel like to me? I told him it was like wrestling an alligator.

"And I haven't even got a pen knife."

"And I haven't even got a pen knife."

That’s not always bad. Sometimes the beast is a cute little cayman. I can clamp his jaws shut with my left hand, grab him by the tail with my right. It’s no problem to wrap him up and get him into the trunk of the car.

But sometimes that gator gets a little bigger. Right now, in the project I’m working on, he outweighs me by eighty pounds and he’s kicking my ass.

How Bob Dylan does it

Have you read Bob Dylan’s book, Chronicles?  A significant section covers his struggles trying to put together one specific album. I don’t know if Mr. Dylan would say he was dueling Resistance or just the challenges of the work, but his style of combat, if memory serves, included impulsive cross-country airline flights, massive music listening, employment of controlled substances, midnight forays into weird parts of town, crazy phone calls, collaboration with strangers and a general instinct-driven voodoo-thrashing that somehow all came together and produced the answer he was looking for.

Resistance: 100 million years B.C.

My own struggles are a lot more reptilian. Maybe it’s because the medium I labor in is an essentially-solitary enterprise that requires hours of focused concentration daily (or nearly daily) over a sustained period of time. It’s not aerial combat, it’s foot-slogging. It’s infantry work. But back to that alligator.

Here’s why the gator-wrestling metaphor rings true to my experience as a writer battling Resistance:

1) The enemy is as big as I am. Bigger sometimes. And he’s all muscle. By no means is it a foregone conclusion that I’m gonna beat him.

2) He’s sneaky-fast. The bastard is cunning; he’ll sneak up on you underwater and strike out of nowhere. And he can cover ground like a racehorse.

3) He’s invulnerable. His hide is two inches thick–and I don’t even have a pen knife.

4) I have to grapple with him belly-to-belly. There’s no other way. This is not a rapier duel or an archery match; it’s up close and personal–two bodies, head-to-head, tail-to-tail, rassling in the mud.

5) The gator can get you from both ends. One blow from that tail will break your leg. And those jaws? If he gets them around you, fuggedaboutit.

6) The bastard is prehistoric. He’s got scales, man! And look at those eyes. He doesn’t even have warm blood. Seth Godin calls Resistance the “lizard brain.” There’s a lot to that. This foe is primordial; he was walking the earth with the dinosaurs. To him, I’m lunch–and he’s got a predator’s pedigree that goes back 100 million years.

7) There’s no negotiating with this sonofabitch. I can’t holler uncle or make a deal. And this sucker doesn’t just want to kill me, he wants to eat me.

The only way to win is outlast him. I can’t shoot him; I can’t drown him; I can’t punch him in the nose and make him quit. The only hope is to stay so close to him that he can’t get those jaws around me, while using my body weight to wear him down. His only weakness is those stubby little arms. If I can keep him off-balance long enough and keep him thrashing trying to get to me, I can tire him out. The fight will go out of him–at least till tomorrow, when he’ll be back.

An invitation to comment

That’s how I experience Resistance. How about you? How does this monster come after you? I’d like to know. Write in below under “Comments.” If we get some good stuff, we’ll run it in this space–and we can all compare notes.

Bob Dylan, we’ll be glad to hear from you too.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

33 Responses to “Wrestling an Alligator”

  1. January 20, 2010 at 5:02 am

    Without a penknife!

    This is brilliant.

    Of course, you’ve got one hell of a sleeper pinch, Steve.

  2. January 20, 2010 at 7:09 am

    I loved this post.

    The beast comes after me late at night. For whatever reason, I severely doubt my work at the end of the day. Resistance hits me hardest when I’m weakest.

    Eagerly awaiting Mr. Dylan’s comments…

  3. January 20, 2010 at 7:26 am

    I always imagine Resistance as that desperate, petty drug addict, lurking in the alley, armed with a knife, who mugs me while I’m walking to my office. I can either chase him off by dodging him or making a brief stand or let him take my money (my attention or my momentum).

  4. January 20, 2010 at 7:49 am

    My Resistance is a bog. It’s thick, and as dark as ink, and I’m sunk in it over my head, blinded. I can breathe through I don’t know what miracle, but my breaths are shallow, only enough to sustain life.

    I wade through the bog, each step an effort. If I’m good, and struggle hard enough, sometimes it will reward me with a small island where I can rest. Never for long, though: soon enough my oasis sinks back into the bog, and I can watch myself get sucked back in little by little.

    It’s either sentient or haunted, because quite often there are whispers: they remind me of my failings, tell me how desperately far it is to the shore.

    I *think* there is a shore. I’ve never seen it, not even in a dream.

    As long as there’s hope that one day I’ll walk in the sunlight, breathing chestfuls of air, I struggle on.

    Some days I suspect that putting this hope in my head is one of the monster’s favourite jokes.

  5. January 20, 2010 at 8:05 am

    I heard ‘reptile brain’ menitoned in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. One of the climbers, the doctor from Texas, was left for dead at night, but he wasn’t dead. He crawled the edge back to camp. He credited his survival to his reptile brain function.

    With that in mind, fighting the alligator always goes better when it’s done on their terms. I pull on my gator boots, cinch my gator belt, (just so he’ll know what happened to the last gator whipped up on) and wade into the swamp and stay there all day. I only worry when the gator trails shards of its last opponent. That gator knows how to win and the lessons learned from losing were final.

  6. January 20, 2010 at 8:24 am

    The negative force driving me to distraction is: I want to know the outcome before I make the effort. This mental frenzy disorients my will, leaving me dazed. I overcome this, “spin” by meditation.

  7. Jennie Spotila
    January 20, 2010 at 8:38 am

    My Resistance is a smooth-talking good-looking salesman. He’s all flash and smiles. He says, “I have something special for you today!” or “You’ve never seen a price this good!”

    One day he wears a heavy black coat and says “Hey lady, wanna buy a watch?” while furtively holding out one side to display them. Another day, it might be a stack of real Persian rugs at unbelievable prices. Or he might change tactics completely and offer up the most beautiful organic produce I’ve ever seen. And I am hungry.

    Unlike real salesmen, my Resistance is not beaten when I ignore him for a few minutes or walk quickly past his stand. No. My Resistance alternately whispers and hollers in my ear, then tugs at my wrist, or starts pitching stuff around my office. He tells me about his kids, and how they need school clothes/rent money/medicine. He reminds me how important it is to eat beautiful organic produce (at unbelievable prices!). Each day, he serves up exactly what I think I want because Resistance knows he’s got me as soon as I am distracted from that thing I really do want – the Work.

  8. January 20, 2010 at 10:04 am

    For me, Resistance shows up as . . .

    . . . sort of what I’m doing here, right now.

  9. Evan
    January 20, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    My Resistance is a bully.

    The sort who is part of your daily life for years before you become aware of his pernicious effect. He is arrogant, convincing, and charismatic. I’ve never done anything to him, but he always singles me out and kicks my ass.

    He gives me false choices and tells me they’re the only ones I have. He creates a narrative where I lose and he wins, a basic narrative with a million different beginnings but just one end. His behavior is instinctual; he’s hardly even aware anymore that his every word and action is barbed and poisonous, but it is. Allowing him to heap on the abuse has its short-term rewards, sometimes. It’s easier than fighting, and he can be downright charming when you give him what he wants. But it’s never enough.

    You can’t appeal to your teacher or your parents. A fight with a bully is always your fight alone and it’s always personal. You can’t reason with him. You can’t even respond to him.

    You just have to stand up to him no matter what. Every day, getting on that school bus, you just have to take a deep breath and prepare for the worst.

    But the first time you stand up to him, a whole new world opens up, and even thought you might not win every fight, you’re never the same person again.

  10. January 20, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    My resistance is a fairy wizard. He loves to distract me with shiny new ideas. “Here, what do think about this? Isn’t it lovely? Oh, but look at that idea over there. Yes, that is much better. Go for that one. But wait, what’s this in my pocket?…” Sometimes he showers me with so many at once, I feel I’ll drown. He also likes to set fire to my seat to see me jump out of it and run around.

    When he is in a serious and concerned mood, he reminds me of the bills that need paying. “Oh, yes. You really should do something practical. Go find work that will pay your bills. You have to eat right? What about that car repair? You really do need health insurance you know. Nobody makes money at their art. Don’t you know that? I’m not so sure you have the talent anyway.”

    It has taken a long while for me to see him. I would catch glimpses of him, but then fall into his fog of distraction and forgetfulness. It has taken some practice but I find that if I just sit still, I can see him and what he is up to. I can say, “Hi, Resistance, I see you. Thanks for all the ideas. I am going to see what I can do with the idea right in front of me though.” I can allow him to do his thing, but I go on with my art.

    The quote from “The War of Art” that helps me is:
    “What do I feel growing inside me? Let me bring that forth, if I can, for its own sake and not for what it can do for me or how it can advance my standing.”

  11. Darrelyn Saloom
    January 20, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    Resistance, at this moment, is reading this blog instead of working on a chapter that’s giving me fits. It’s a force that pulls me from my work with distractions and guilt. Guilt for not paying enough attention to my husband, aged mother, grown children, grandchildren, and friends.

    In order to finish the project I am smack in the middle of, I often have to ignore my loved ones and not give in to the oh, so dramatic guilt trips laid before me like a trap. I’ve had to learn to say “no” in order to continue my work, one word, one sentence, one paragraph, one chapter at a time. Diligence and the ability to say “no” are my best weapons against the ubiquitous beast.

    I also have a copy of The War of Art next to my computer. Thanks, Steven.

  12. January 20, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Doesn’t wrestling the aligator prevent everybody from writing down what has to be written down?

    Ooh¡ I did it again…

    Thank you, Master Pressfield.

  13. G. L. Paulk
    January 20, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    I have been battling resistance my whole life, and I come from a good upbringing. I can’t blame anyone but myself. I feel overwhelmed constantly by failure and am afraid of success. I love life and family and cats, dogs, etc… but not myself. I’ve enjoyed The War of Art tremendously and have learned much, but even as I read the words that uplift me, the weight of the unknown pushes me down like a wet, electric blanket. How long does, or should it take to break this boundary of resistance? I know, everyone is different and we all have our own demons, so the question I’m really asking is what does the first light look like, so I know what I’m looking for? Thank you for your writings and shedding new light in your unique way.

    • John Tennant
      January 21, 2010 at 12:28 pm

      Your comment rings true for me. I came from a privileged upbringing, had all the advantages in the world–but I constantly battle guilt that I haven’t done more with my life. And so the answer for me is: do more with my life. It seems easy.

      But those dreams, those goals, I make them too big. Then I feel overwhelmed with the immensity of the task of doing them–it’s impossible. Write a book? Impossible. Record an album? Impossible. Write a column? Impossible. Change careers? Impossible. Become a counselor? Impossible. Climb Mt. Garibaldi? It’s too big, and I’m too small.

      I’ve actually learned that all of those things only seem impossible because of where I am now. So the way I overcome resistance is I take great joy in anything I do that moves me a little bit towards where I want to be. A journal entry? Awesome. A blog entry? Amazing. Write lyrics for a new song? Incredible. Kung fu 2 nights a week? Now I’m on a roll!

      I beat resistance when I don’t care if what I do is ‘good’ and when I know that what I’m doing is ‘good for me’. The only way I’ll become a better writer is to write a lot of bad stuff first. Same with music.

      Thanks to everyone who comments and thank you, Steven. Now I gotta go… the muse, she’s here.

      • G. L. Paulk
        January 21, 2010 at 6:00 pm

        You sound like my twin! Thank you for your comments. I appreciate the comparison and take it to heart. Things have been going that way for me too. I’ve been writing more now than ever and not caring where I’m going with it. Lots of poems lately, although dark, but therapeutic. I even wrote a song as well for the first time. I don’t know what to do with it, but I did it.

  14. January 20, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    Mr Resistance visits less and less the harder I work. It’s a funny thing about writing; my most stringent deadlines, and my harshest critic – is me. And every time I pass THAT test, Mr. Resistance fades further into the background.

  15. johnmark7
    January 20, 2010 at 9:39 pm

    I’m trying to grasp this thing called resistance which so many identify as a severe psychological handicap and which I’m trying to locate in my own life in some respect.

    I’ve never really had a problem in not finishing what I’ve started, or finding the going too rough and having to wrestle myself toward completion.

    My problem, what stops me before I get started, is the sad fact that no matter how good the end product of my labor, it shall not reward me with a single, thin dime.

    I used to create art simply for the joy and sake of doing it; and usually there was a challenge in it that propelled me; that satisfied my hunger for learning more about creating art and myself through the process.

    But that no longer suffices. I want an audience. I want some recompense for the labor. I want to be worth something in the world and to the world to some small extent.

    That’s what stops me now. The lack of payment after a lifetime of perfecting my skills. The novels, screenplays, essays, and criticism have piled up into a prodigious heap not to mention the hundreds of pieces of music I can’t afford to take into a studio to get them properly performed (and then go unheard, unsold even then).

    But Steven gets well paid for his work so I’m a little curious about his resistance. I’m tempted to wonder if it’s because he lacks something compelling to say; that he’s said all he has to say in other books or places and has nothing burning in him to tell other people.

    If that’s the case, he needs a long vacation from storytelling, a fallow period to expand his thoughts and feelings into richer depths.

    I’ve often abandoned playing music and composing it for years. The same with literature. The people who crank out story after story year after year are generally hacks in genre writing. Some are pretty good hacks in that they may have more telling details and commentary here and there, but generally, they’re still hacks.

    Write when you have something important to say and no one else can tell it the way you will. I write stories and make the kind of music I do because it’s the only way I’m going to get to read or hear the kind of things I really would like to find out in the world for me to enjoy that speaks to me (and thus, will speak to others if they care to take it in).

  16. January 20, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    Well, you know mine because I wrote about meeting him (under hypnosis!) and left a lovely comment.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about him—I call him The Resistor, and he looks a lot like Darth Vader—because I just finished Seth’s excellent new book and there’s that great chapter about the phenomenon in there. (Which made me think of you, too, which makes me glad to be commenting on it here and neatly closing the circle.)

    The thing that struck me about The Resistor when I met him is that he exists solely to push back and thwart me, but that it is nothing personal. It’s just his job, like gravity. So he comes at me every which way, because that’s what gravity or air or whatever will do, just fill an available space.

    He wins most often when I am tired, so I try to get enough sleep, or when I am otherwise weak, so I try to keep myself strong. He dangles shiny things in my field of vision, so I have learned not to get so mad, but just to say, “Oh! The shiny things! Now, where was I?” and put the puppy back on the mat, as Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield advocates so eloquently.

    I suppose that’s the secret for me, if there is one. Not to expend energy pushing back, but to use his force and energy in my work, in the martial arts fashion.

    Some days he wins, some days I do. Keeps life interesting, that’s for sure.

  17. johnmark7
    January 20, 2010 at 11:22 pm

    Since so many seem to have “resistance”, I’m also wondering how many people have or are maintaining an active prayer schedule and life?

    It sounds corny to some, but prayer makes life better for people. Prayer makes people whole (if they let it).

    Not here to proselytize. Just a suggestion.

  18. January 21, 2010 at 1:53 am

    I’ve only found one way of beating Lady Resistance consistently: looking her in the eye. That’s always the hardest part, isn’t it? It’s easy to feel resistance… it’s much harder to acknowledge it and figure out why its there. And solutions always sleep with causes.

    Whenever my pen is impotent, it’s usually because there’s facts I haven’t uncovered yet.. or holes in my knowledge and/or experience that I don’t want to acknowledge.

    P.S. – It’s true what they say. Alligator does taste like chicken… It’s been a staple in my diet for the past year now.

    • Michael DeFoe
      May 12, 2010 at 1:34 pm

      Excellent. I feel the exact same way.

      Resistance is a hot chick with a sucker punch. Don’t blink at her beauty – brace for the blow. You look her in the eye, tighten your core, and give it right back.

      She sees the darkness inside you. The narrow corners where you hide your fears and your guilt. Make sure you know them too – drag them into the light. Don’t let her feel special. For that she’ll sulk away, hating you.

      Good. You hate her too.

      Like any bad broad, she’ll look over her shoulder. She’ll bat her innocent eyes and you’ll want to welcome her back. Resist. Be strong until she turns the corner – be strong a moment longer.

      Now get back to work.

  19. Kristin
    January 21, 2010 at 3:44 am

    For me resistance is a voice saying “What’s the point? Life is meaningless, so why are you even trying? And, by the way, your ideas aren’t going to work. You’re going to ruin everything.” This voice imbues me with a feeling of hopelessness, weariness. I start saying to myself, “yeah, it’s all meaningless anyway.”
    The good news is that I stop myself now. I hear that mean voice and, after listening for a while, I can say “This is that nasty voice. It may not be right.”

  20. January 21, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    I overcome resistance by thinking how much I will regret later not doing what I resist doing this very moment. Missed opportunities, unrealized potential, buried talents (OK, I will be humble here–not talents but my personal strengths, perhaps :), and low self-esteem as a result. Also, I believe there are so many interesting people out there and I may not meet them if I stay in my own shell and not reach out. These thoughts keep me moving and stretching my own limits. And sometimes I get modest rewards for my bravery that encourage me to keep trying.

  21. J. Scott Shipman
    January 21, 2010 at 7:31 pm

    Steve,
    An excellent and accurate post. Internal resistance is a beast, indeed. Your book, The War of Art and these post help to keep us ever vigilant. Many thanks!

  22. January 21, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    Resistance always takes the form of warped time. Paul Graham has <a href=”http://www.paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html”an excellent article about “Makers Schedule’s vs. Manager’s Schedules and he basically talks about how, for a creator, a mid-morning meeting that might only take about an hour NEVER only takes an hours work away from one’s creative efforts. Because the specter of the interrupted work means the morning becomes psychologically ruined. Resistance at work, baby. And that’s exactly how resistance is for me.

    If I have calls scheduled and “only” have an hour before a meeting or something, then resistance will convince me that I should do a bunch of unimportant busy work tasks with that time because it’s ONLY and hour. So I answer e-mails, check twitter, check for software updates, etc. And if I have all morning, or even all day, then resistance convinces me that there’s no rush, because I have “All morning,” I can afford to do a few fun things before settling down to work. Next thing you know, half the morning (or more) is gone.

    This is where the notion of “looking resistance in the eye” comes into play. I have to recognize the siren calls when they come, look resistance in the eye, and say, STFU, and then get down to work.

    When I get past that stage, resistance pulls the “you’re writing crap” crap. That’s when I have to ask one of two questions: 1) will it get any better if I procrastinate on it, or will having written a shitty first draft win me the attempt at a much better 2nd draft, and/or 2) if everything I wrote was destined to turn out as crap, would I still want to write for a living? Would it still be worth doing? The answers to those two questions can usually get me through. But I’ve got to win a few battles with resistance before even getting to that stage, and it’s in the early battles where my record is so spotty.

    – Jeff

  23. January 21, 2010 at 10:31 pm

    I’ve come to have a very different view of resistance in the years I’ve been studying and working with it. First, it may be prehistoric, but I’ve come to believe it really has my best interests at heart. It truly believes I’m in danger when I’m about to rock the boat on my blog or public speak and it’s tactics are meant to be a useful way to get me to “safety”.

    Second, the single and only advantage I’ve been able to gain over it is awareness, or “enough space” for both it and me to sit together with a minimum of reaction. Like many of the commenters have said, being still and looking it straight in the eye and breathing with it has been the best way so far to maintain left brain function and logical decision making in the face of whatever it’s dishing. And anything that helps me deepen awareness has helped.

    Third, I believe our metaphor for it makes a huge difference in it’s power over us. I think of it sometimes like a scared child that needs to be consoled and parented correctly this time, or I think of it like my memory bank for potential danger.

    There’s a Sufi perspective on resistance that I’ve found hugely helpful, which is that our resistance is everything in us that needs to be transformed in our pursuit of what we love. And there’s a perfect alchemy in the way our calling leads us directly toward our inner and outer obstacles. So it can seem sometimes like we’re no farther ahead when we defeat resistance for one day, but I believe now that each win is one more step in the transformation process.

    And finally, I want to say to the fellow with no money to get music produced – that lack of time, money and energy are just other forms of resistance. = >

  24. Kathleen
    January 22, 2010 at 10:46 am

    Hi Steven,

    Resistance feels like a force that sucks every once of positive energy out of me. Yesterday, after reading your latest post, the monster must have gotten riled up and went on the offense because I watched a presentation that I knew would take the wind out of my latest venture. Ready to quit, again, I picked up the “War of Art” and opened to the “Resistance and This Book” page. Resistance must have thought it had me and momentarily looked the other way. The voice you decided to ignore sounded remarkably like the voice I had been listening to. Back on track until the next bout, I want to thank you for going ahead with the book, writing this blog, and sharing your battles. Your voice gives me strength.

    Kathleen

  25. January 23, 2010 at 7:04 am

    The way I see resistance is that it is universal justice. If you can be taken down you will be. I see every living organism having all the essential elements necessary to be a complete expression of whatever that organism is. Resistance, from my perspective is always there to assure that every expression is earned and not given a free pass. Just think of all the crap that would be produced if there were no resistance. Funny, how much time this society spends on trying to eliminate resistance of any sort when we should be honoring and saluting it for being one element of life that keeps things real. Just think of any sporting event with only one player. How much fun would it be to watch the Super Bowl if only one team were playing. Without resistance there is nothing gained. The tougher the opponent the greater the victory. Thanks Stephen for bringing to light this very essential element of life and for giving it it’s due.

  26. Janet
    January 23, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    One of the most profound things I ever read about the craft of writing appeared on this website. It was, “Nobody wants to read your shit.” On one hand, I wish I had learned that 40 years ago. Writing on certain subjects or in a articular way may be therapeutic for me but that doesn’t necessarily mean that anybody else will think it’s a good read. After stumbling on that advice, (actually, my husband emailed me the article) I looked over my shoulder at vast expanses of drivel I have produced and thought, “Ugh!” I need to stop doing that right now and go straight to the part where it’s not cleverly camouflaged therapy. That worked for about a page. However, once I sat down to write something other than therapeutic s–t, somehow, all my stories had degenerated into that category. Resistance has taken an entirely new form. It’s all just therapy. But somebody told me that the word Satan is Sanskrit for “I resist.” I took that as my absolution and wrote another page. It was flat as a pancake but they were actual words on a page.

  27. January 27, 2010 at 4:38 am

    Resistance is “Alien”, hibernating in a seemingly friendly human body and suddenly burst out of the body destroying all in its wake. Big resistance catches me before I have time to run, to defend myself. It drags me into never-never land, and I can’t return. Little resistance is what I can stand and fight, beat it back, think I finally destroyed it. But we know … it only found a new body.

  28. Tom Wilson
    January 28, 2010 at 10:06 am

    A quote comes to mind and I can’t quite remember the author. “If you live in a world without pressure you wouldn’t be good at anything.” I want the monster to show his head, I want him to chase me down, I want to be aware that he is lurking. That prospect keeps me honest and keeps me moving and changing and watching and searching and curious. The monster is always present but so am I.

  29. January 30, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    Steven,

    The only way I fight the Resistance is by reminding myself that I am here for a specific purpose, and that living up to that purpose is not optional, it’s mandatory. Before I knew that resistance was named Resistance, I was no match for it. I was the 98-pound self-esteem weakling, and Resistance was kicking sand in my face. There really wasn’t much of a fight. Eventually I got to a place where I began to see myself differently, in a far more positive light. It was only when I began to view my talents, gifts, and abilities as gifts that I needed to offer to the world that I was able to fend off Resistance. Living up to that which I was created to become is my obligation and responsibility. When resistance rears it’s ugly head, the larger-than-myself me is able to move forward, stronger and more determined out of respect and obligation to God and to the world I am here to serve.

    I am thrilled that I discovered your artistry. Thank you for sharing the gift of you with the world!

  30. February 16, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    I’m in its belly! It’s dark in here. Cut me out, quick.