Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Depth of Work

By Steven Pressfield | Published: February 24, 2010

This is a topic I plan to address in a series of posts over the next few weeks. But first I want to thank every correspondent who took the time to write in response to last week’s “Help!” post. As I type this, we’ve had 69 Comments. This is absolutely amazing, and I thank everybody. Particularly for the detail of the responses. It really helps me. I’m traveling this week and the next so I won’t be able to send out signed “War of Arts” yet in gratitude, but I will as soon as I can. Gracias, everybody, for the overwhelming and very helpful response!

Now to Depth of Work—and a confession. I’m not sure if it’s evident from my posts over the last couple of months, but I’ve been going through a crisis in my own work (see “Self-Doubt” and “Wrestling an Alligator,” among others.) Much of it has to do with depth of work, or rather the lack of it.

I’ve been shallow. Resistance has beaten me much too often. The culprit, oddly enough, has been success—and the urge that public recognition engenders to “expand.” If you glance around at this blog page, you’ll see that I have plunged over the last year into a cause that is partly political, partly military, and largely involves the attempt to influence events in the real world through direct personal participation. I love this cause, it’s a passion of mine; it has brought me great new friends (and we, by our efforts together, may even have nudged the pea a few centimeters down the trail.) But this type of enterprise is not healthy for a writer. I didn’t know that six months ago, or even two months ago.

Depth of work. This is where satisfaction comes from for people like me and you. This is the fun of the game; this is what it’s all about. This is why we all got into this business.

What is depth of work? Have you ever had one of those days at the gym where you go around yakking to your buddies, schmoozing and chilling. That is NOT depth of work. Have you ever tweeted, or checked your Facebook page, or succumbed to serial e-mailing? That ain’t depth of work either.

Jon Naber won four gold medals in swimming at the ’76 Olympics, all in world record times. I saw an interview with him right afterward. The reporter asked a very insightful question about a sport where thousandths of a second separate gold from everybody else: “What’s the difference between a good swimmer and a great one?” John Naber answered as follows: “In competition, almost immediately after you hit the water, you enter the Pain Zone. It hurts–and it gets worse every meter you go. The great swimmers,” John Naber said, “are the ones who can go deeper into the Pain Zone and stay there longer.”

That’s depth of work. In my experience, depth of work consists of two components. The first is recklessness; the second is discipline. Dionysian; Apollonian. Passion;reason.

Recklessness means putting out of your mind all thoughts or fears of the opinions of others—and even the opinion of yourself. It means jumping off the cliff. In acting, it means uncorking a fearless performance, where you risk looking like an absolute fool in an effort to get to the deepest, truest levels of the character. In writing, it means letting it rip on the page, trusting the Muse and following your instincts. It means spewing sometimes. Free-associating. Going for it.

Then comes the hard part: appending reason. Discriminatory intelligence. Now we have to ask the really hard questions. What is this stuff all about? What am I trying to do? What is the deepest truth underlying this?

I read a story once about Barbra Streisand at a recording session. She did take after take of the same song. The reporter telling the story said he couldn’t tell the difference between Take One and Take Two, or even Take One and Take Nine. But, he said, he could tell the difference between Take One and Take Sixteen. Obvious Ms. Streisand could tell. That too is depth of work.

What we’re talking about here is head-banging, non-glamorous, nut-busting labor. It’s lonely. It hurts. It drives everybody else crazy. It requires tremendous professionalism and courage (or, perhaps more accurately, stubbornness and mulishness) and control of our emotions and our fears.

The analogy of the gym is a good one, I think. Because one thing the gym teaches is that “you have to train to be able to train.” Meaning you can’t go in, Day One, and start bench-pressing the same weight Reggie Bush benches. You have to build a base of strength slowly, over time, being careful not to set yourself back by injury, impatience or boredom.

In other words, depth of work requires—in addition to recklessness and reason– commitment over time.

I’m reading a really interesting book right now by Michael Bungay Stanier called Do More Great Work. Mr. Stanier starts by citing Milton Glazer’s axiom that we all do three kinds of work: bad work, good work and great work. One of the “map exercises” in the book (a very interesting graphic technique that helps you understand what you really think or really want) asks you how much great work you’re doing. It’s a pie chart. I thought about myself. I’m doing about 0.01 great work right now. It’s such a tiny sliver of the pie, I can’t even draw it.

Another exercise in the book asks you to recall a time when you were doing great work. Here’s one for me: I had taken a month, by myself, and was renting a cottage on a farm in the highlands of Scotland. I was writing Tides of War then, which was a really difficult book about a ridiculously obscure subject. I loved it. I would work in my freezing little room in the cottage the morning, then play golf in the afternoon. It was great. I got in some really intense, long work sessions (because the days are so long in Scotland, you can play golf in the summertime till nine at night.)

Those mornings were depth of work. I had momentum, I had commitment over time; I was busting my butt and really going deep, into a subject that I loved and that I didn’t care whether anybody else was interested in or not.

Those days seem distant to me now. I’m shallow these days; my focus is scattered. I’m schmoozing at the gym; I don’t have momentum. I hate it. It sucks. I have to change. I have to get a handle on this and dig myself out.

I’m not complaining. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sharing this state of mind here on this page, so that anybody who has read The War of Art and imagines that the guy who wrote the book has conquered Resistance (while he, the reader, is still struggling with it) will be disabused of such a silly notion and will not beat himself up over it. I’m as human as the next guy and I take the gaspipe too sometimes just like everyone else.

Working deep is the answer for me. To be happy, to feel good about myself, to not feel guilty about sucking up my share of oxygen on the planet. I have to get back to it.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

33 Responses to “Depth of Work”

  1. February 24, 2010 at 2:58 am

    Thank you Steven, for being honest with us and yourself. It’s good to know those of us regularly fighting the Resistance aren’t alone.

  2. February 24, 2010 at 4:15 am

    Hi Steven, thanks so much for this blog post – your honesty about the struggles of a writer’s life is a breath of fresh air. I’m going through a similar dilemma at the moment – splitting my time between two ‘legacy projects’ (as I call them) that both mean a lot to me, and finding that the one that feels harder to work on is eliciting more Resistance and getting only shallow attention from me. Like you, I have to get back to going for depth – either by dropping one of my legacy projects, or by rearranging the way I allocate time between them.

    One book I’m finding helpful in that respect (though you may already be familiar with it) is ‘The Power of Less’ by Leo Barbuta (along with his blog zenhabits.net). Mark Forster’s books ‘Get everything done and still have time to play’ and ‘Do it tomorrow and other secrets of time management’ are also really helpful with dividing time between different tasks, while going for depth with each. Like you, he also uses the concept of ‘Resistance’ as a roadmap for what he has to do next at any given time. I also like his books because he’s one of the few time management authors who gives you advice on how to do a few things well, rather than on how to cram as many activities as possible into your day.

    Best of luck with getting back to working deep, I hope the comments you’ll receive on this blog post will help reinforce your resolve. And many thanks for this blog post.

  3. Simon
    February 24, 2010 at 5:31 am

    Hi Steven,

    It’s good to know that the struggles with Resistance are ongoing battles in the war for self-control.

    I know what you mean about being superficial in your approach to work, and the contrast that that comes from deep work and being in the bubble of a project where the work drives itself through its own interestingess.

    Keep up the fight.

  4. Jennie Spotila
    February 24, 2010 at 7:54 am

    Your post makes me realize that I’ve been doing very bad work while simultaneously indulging in an overabundance of self-flagellation because of it. Thanks for the kick in the right direction!

  5. February 24, 2010 at 8:31 am

    I’ve been working for three years on WIP and the best writing days are when I’ve sat for so long my back aches and every one is mad I’ve ignored them. This week was particularly painful for various reasons, yet I got some of my best writing done. And now I understand why. I pushed deeper into the Pain Zone and didn’t quit. I kept working.

    I’ve learned so much by reading your books and your blog. And I thank you.

    Hope you are considering another trip to Scotland.

  6. February 24, 2010 at 8:51 am

    Thank you for your openness and honestyWar of Art is good for so many of us. This book, Outliers by Malcom Gladwell and a few others have shown me the need to get after my work like a soldier. I have had to look at my life and ask, “where does resistance have a foothold?” Answer?
    The internet.
    Twitter, Facebook, blogspot, my smartphone. If there is a way that I can “connect” every 2 to 5 minutes, I do. So, I unplugged. And let me tell you, it was blood, sweat and tears to unplug. I had to tell my IT guy at my office to block me from the wireless internet. I stopped my DSL service at home. I had to delete any app that could connect to twitter, email, etc. When I go in my office from 10:00 to 4, its my lair, my cave, my trans-dimensional door into a world where the internet doesn’t exist.
    Thanks for War of Art and everything you teach us. And thanks for your humility.
    – Kevin

  7. John Arends
    February 24, 2010 at 9:20 am

    [Salute.]

  8. February 24, 2010 at 10:04 am

    This is the good stuff you should put in WofA 2.

    Tales from the front lines.

  9. Annette Mencke
    February 24, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Hi Steven,

    Thank you for your honesty. Its so refreshing and inspiring. And if you can walk the distance you train the pain threshold, it won’t hurt so much after a while.
    I also wanted to comment with a quote from Caroline Myss (Audio CD: Estes Myss – Intuition and the mystical life). She talks about our inner saboteur and the necessity for us to build strong self-esteem. She writes: “…know that the authority of your inner voice is more authentic than the authority of the opinion of an outer voice. The day you’ve mastered that engagement of your inner voice is the day that it (you could call it the Muse) can start sing to you in your sleep, in your vision because it trusts you and you trust it. Your job is to maintain that self esteem. The rest takes care of itself.”
    Without self-esteem you will not be able to take the slaughter from those who recognise the power of transformation your book (or script or music) might have cause some people just don’t wanna get that close to that power of change.
    There are no short cuts, you’ve got to walk the distance.

    I wonder if women have different strategies than men…..does anyone know?

    Thanks again,
    Annette

  10. WDF
    February 24, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    In part this seems to be one of the matters at hand … it truly is about the work.

    “Work alone is your privilege, never the fruits thereof. Never let the fruits of action be your motive; and never cease to work.” Hatha Yoga Pradipika

    I totally understand the underlying nagging discord that you feel — well that is how it feels to me. Hoping that you get the groove back and all is right in your world.

    Thanks for the piece … great food for thought.

  11. February 24, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    “Those days seem distant to me now. I’m shallow these days; my focus is scattered. I’m schmoozing at the gym; I don’t have momentum. I hate it. It sucks. I have to change. I have to get a handle on this and dig myself out”

    Really? You have to change? Well no you don’t actually, you’ll carry on living without making those changes.

    Maybe you WANT to change though, and that is a HUGE difference. Take the pressure off yourself man and do stuff you want to do and not stuff you feel you have to, must do or should do.

  12. February 24, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    I think resistance, like many challenges, is an ongoing battle. Just when you think you’ve got it licked it pops up again. Give it a minute and it’ll take an hour, a day, or more.

    That said, I do think focusing your energy in a different direction is a great technique to beat the law of accommodation be it physical or mental. It sounds like you did this successfully while writing ‘Tides of War’. Consider “It’s the Tribes, Stupid” your Ryder cup (but on a higher level). It’s not as if you’ve been swimming in shallow water… you’ve just been out of it with a dip of the toe every Wed. But that water calls you… needs you… as you need it. There is even a school of fish waiting for the return of their Big Kahuna. Looking forward to your adventures and hearing more from the Muse. Dive in… the water is great!

    A bit off topic, I couldn’t help but think of the recent performance and story of Chris Del Bosco at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver as an inspiring example of the battle against resistance in all its forms.

    http://sports.yahoo.com/olympics/vancouver/freestyle_skiing/news?slug=jp-delbosco022110&prov=yhoo&type=lgns

  13. February 24, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    Did you feel that way about Virtues of War? There were elements of the storytelling style that I wasn’t comfortable with when I first read it, but that book has stayed with me for years. I can still picture scenes from it very clearly.

  14. February 24, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    Short -n- Sweet

    Stephen, you’ve engendered this fan even deeper still by exposing our common humanity.
    I’ll keep it succinct today.

    All the best!

  15. guinevere
    February 24, 2010 at 5:25 pm

    You sound like you’re experiencing the dilemma of every creative mother I’ve ever known. I love THE WAR OF ART. I’m not yet done with it, but it seems to me that one of its blind spots may be its masculinity. It quotes a lot of men, and a lot of people who either have wives, or don’t have kids. … A woman who creates has to be able to devote herself, above all, to two pursuits: raising her work, and raising her child. She can’t give up on either. The distraction goes on day after day, every day, from birth. … Renting a Scots cottage and “working deep” for a highland summer is a nice idea. I could even afford it; it’s just not possible for me, because I have a child. Leaving the child behind is not an option. Taking the child makes “working deep” impossible.

    I’ve decided I have to surrender to this dilemma, instead of fighting it.

    Good luck. I mean it. I think I know where you are.

    • February 25, 2010 at 4:49 pm

      As a new mom of a 14-month-old — when do we stop being “new”? — I relate to what Guinevere is saying. I hadn’t noticed or considered the masculinity of the point of view from which WofA was written. I don’t necessarily think that Mr. Pressfield intended that — and I’m not suggesting that Guinevere is saying that either — but her comment really hit a nerve with me as I am struggling with the whole balancing of motherhood versus creative endeavors. Even though you know what a commitment it is to have a child, you never know really how much of a commitment and sacrifice it is until you get there. And without disparaging the role of fathers and what the wonderful men in our lives do, it isn’t the same for them. There is no going off to war or bringing home the bacon for mothers without a deep-seated guilt for being separated from our little ones. Getting online to read my favorite blogs is a luxury now, an activity that is conducted in the dead of night when the household sleeps. The description of working deep in Scotland sounds dreamy, but there’s no way in the world I’d leave my child for any opportunity like that…even for a couple of weeks…or days. I think Guinevere’s term “surrender” about sums it up. You have to surrender to motherhood. That doesn’t keep me from picking away at the novel daily, but everything comes second. And it feels like a bit of a loss sometimes, but it’s necessary…and I couldn’t change it even if I wanted to.

  16. February 24, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    Steven

    Totally thrilled to have you mention Do More Great Work in this blog post. Thank you!

  17. February 24, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    Steve,

    Thank you so much for sharing and giving it to us straight, no chaser (which is why you’re so awesome to begin with). It’s very encouraging for an “infantryman” writer like myself to hear that “General” Pressfield still has to fight the good fight against Resistance too. Also, what I love about this blog — as well as the War of Art — is that it’s written from the perspective of a real working writer. Not a writing guru or Manhattan book agent (no offense to Robert McKee or Noah Lukeman, both of whom have written books I quite enjoyed and learned a lot from).

    I’ve been writing since I was ten, and I love it…and hate it. But I love it more than I hate it, which is why I keep doing it. Writing is messy. Writing is bloody. Writing can be awesome AND a bitch (sometimes in the same session). And as a very accomplished writer once told me, it doesn’t really get any easier…you just learn to love the pain.

    Because the pain of NOT writing is so much worse.

    So thank you for sharing your agonies…and for going into the Pain Zone again and again…and thanks in advance for the awesome work of art it’s going to bring forth! I’m rooting for you! (And even though you don’t know me, feel free to root for me too.)

    David
    Santa Monica, CA

  18. josh
    February 24, 2010 at 10:17 pm

    i agree about jumping off the cliff or taking the plunge. we worry too much about what’s going to happen instead of living in the moment and surrendering to it. and who says we have to associate taking the plunge with all this self doubt and uncertainty? will there be fish to nibble on your toes at the bottom of the water, will it be cold, how will i swim?etc. make friends with self doubt and uncertainty, i say! allies! take the plunge!

  19. Ken
    February 24, 2010 at 11:09 pm

    I understand guinevere’s argument, and I don’t necessarily disagree with it…but. When I think of writers on creativity, most of the names that spring to mind first are female: Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg, Twyla Tharp, are the ones making the biggest blip on my radar about now. What I loved about WoA was the male perspective, a point of view I had missed in a lot of my reading.

    So while I honor the argument, which is, I think, that finding depth of work is more about overcoming our distractions in whatever time we carve for ourselves, rather than being able to retreat monk-like from the world, don’t give up your point of view. In an earlier post you wrote about only being successful when you quit worrying about what would be successful, even to the point of ignoring the intersection of possible success and interest. So the question is, if you imagined all those distractions being gone, what would you write.

  20. MikeF
    February 25, 2010 at 5:37 am

    Hi Steven,

    Just wanted to send a quick note to say that I enjoy “Writing Wednesdays.” Your voice and attempt to speak truth to power has helped me in my journey of trying to translate my time in Iraq to both technical and prose writing. Initially, I thought that telling my story would be easy until all the emotions and memories flooded back into my mind. You’ve given me the encouragement to tell that voice of resistance to “STFU” and drive on with my mission.

    Thanks again.

    Mike Few
    Fort Bragg, NC

  21. February 25, 2010 at 6:20 am

    So, what you’re saying is you may have actually caved to the “what will the market read” when asking about the WofA sequel? Or were you asking us if you still have more to write about it? Yes, you do. You always will. When you publish the next WofA you will have even more to write, because the subject is never-ending, just like resistance.

    I’m not being critical, I’m asking you the same question I’ve been asking myself the past several months – not about writing, but about living, which is much the same thing. Thanks for the comment about recklessness – I tend not to be reckless, and in many cases that turns out to be the sticking point to daily success. Discipline without recklessness is – well, let’s just say it doesn’t always get us up off the couch. At least in the way you have defined them here!

    Go write. And keep on agonizing on these pages – they are the beacon we follow to keep ourselves going, too.

  22. Marina
    February 25, 2010 at 7:39 am

    Without knowing it (I think), an artist by the name of Alex Grey has depicted Resistance beautifully. In an illustration of creativity, he painted a hand holding a pen (or maybe a paintbrush) with a sort of flying lizard/devil thing trying to pull it away from its work just as the pen (or paintbrush) is about to contact paper and work deeply. At least that’s how my Resistance-laden mind sees it. It’s at the top of this link if you want to see it. Thank you for your Writing Wednesdays! Marina
    http://www.z2systems.com/np/clients/cosm/viewOnlineEmail.jsp?emailId=717397

  23. February 25, 2010 at 10:15 am

    Thank you for your insights and honesty here, Steven. I see myself in your words. I’m schmoozing at the gym as well (in the form of too much emailing and social networking, etc.). I love your example of John Naber’s thoughts on the “Pain Zone.” This is definitely what makes the difference between being good or great. Going deeper and staying there longer.

    Here’s to recommitting to the time and space that facilitates depth of work before all else … compelling and engaging though those other commitments may be. Thanks (as always) for this touchstone of encouragement.

  24. J
    February 25, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    Thank you so much for taking the time and energy to write this. This is EXACTLY what I am dealing with in my life and not even on a creative-level, a LIFE level. My life is void of depth. Can’t solve the problem until you can name it, so thank you again for writing this and naming it. Now I can move forward a create depth.

  25. February 25, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    I have a co-writer. I write 1,000 words on my own blog every morning, as disciplined and edited as I can get it in 24 hours. In the afternoon I respond to my co-writer, Tim Barrus. A lot of people know Tim. He’s as passionate, risky, off-the-wall, and sometimes outright bananas as a writer can be. For instance, he says he loathes books now and will do nothing but videos. The more taboo his subject matter, the better he likes it. I’m almost a recluse in a small Montana town; he runs an art school with a lot of at-risk boys who have HIV-AIDS in Paris.

    BUT he makes me think and stretch and go dig out my old theology notes. AND I’m an anchor and docking point for him. I collect all his debris, sort, and find the through-line. He’s the lightning and I’m the bottle. Except for the times we swap and I’m the sail while he’s the keelboard. I’m seventy; he’s sixty. We’ve both been around.

    I’ve never done this with anyone else. He’s done it, but not quite this way. We get really angry sometimes but have the trust to cool off and the kindness to leave each other space, gates, places to hide for a while.

    My skills are growing. You’d have to ask him what he thinks about his. Someday we might even manage to sell this synergy, but it’s so much fun that it doesn’t matter a whole lot.

    Richard Stern and Saul Bellow used to write together. One at one end of the dining table and the other at the other. They wrote different things, but read out parts to each other. Both loved it, benefited from it. MUST one struggle alone?

    Prairie Mary

  26. Annie Stith
    February 27, 2010 at 2:32 am

    I’ve suspected for some time that well-read authors have times when they struggle with the depth when putting words to paper (or text file, as the case may be). Thank you for being so candid about being as human as the rest of us.

    Annie
    (First blog not yet published)

  27. Todd
    March 2, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    I think you found the topic for your next book.

  28. johnmark7
    March 4, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    Funny. I got criticized for cheap armchair psycho-analyzing when I said that Steven needed to go deep, that his craft had plateaued and was a bore to him. Now Steven admits he slipped into hack level for approval and commerce’s sake (which is not a crime to want to make money).

    The real pain level, the way into the depths is through prayer. Depth only comes with honest self-knowledge. Self-knowledge only comes through prayer. Prayer isn’t a panacea or a petition, it’s way into the ugly Self safely.

    The more you discover about God’s actual nature, you will correspondingly know about your own. This isn’t mystical or mysterious. It’s simply Process of Truth.

  29. March 11, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    I’m glad I read Depth of Work #2 before I read this first installment! I think you’ve answered my first question:

    Those mornings were depth of work. I had momentum, I had commitment over time; I was busting my butt and really going deep, into a subject that I loved and that I didn’t care whether anybody else was interested in or not./

    The problem with blogging and writing on the web is the facility for instant feedback. And the difficulty is remaining immune to this. Really going deep requires the commitment to stick to your purpose and intentions, regardless of whether anyone else is interested in it or not. I get it now.

    I know I can do good work, regularly, and bad work at times too, but I want to do great work. And if that requires a greater retreat from the outside world, so be it.

  30. March 11, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    oh what a ditz…

    note to self: don’t use HTML tags if you don’t know how to close them, girl.

    my apologies. only the quote was supposed to be in italics. obviously.

  31. Rob Case
    March 17, 2010 at 11:26 am

    Hi Steven,

    I’m only today getting acquainted with this blog because I am currently listening to the audiobook version of The War of Art (via a reference in Seth Godin’s Linchpin, I believe). WoA is having such an impact on me (like countless others I’m certain, I feel like you wrote it For Me), I had to utilize Google and the net to find out more about you.

    Upon reading this particular post, I wanted to say how refreshing it is to read your comments about recent doubts, ‘scatteredness’(?), shallowness, etc. I almost used the word brave, but maybe you’d find that distasteful! Anyway, for myself, I actually find a bit of comfort in hearing that yes, even you- the guy who brought this great stuff into the world with such clarity, honesty, and insight- even you continue to fight the great, and ultimately worthwhile fight. After coming to terms with just how diabolical the resistance can be, could we have ever thought otherwise?

    And then another thought (which was likely expressed by one of your other readers; I haven’t read through the other comments yet).. perhaps you just haven’t yet found that thing that has grabbed you enough to compel you to get back to that place you were in while writing Tides of War?

  32. Michael DeFoe
    May 14, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    I always trusted that you still battle – that you always have. As I know Resistance (from my experience and named by your writing), it will always be there. That’s reassuring, because I know to keep fighting. There’s purpose behind my discipline.

    Now that I’m stronger, that I recognize Resistance and combat it daily and dig deep beyond it, I’m at the cusp of a decision. I’m tending to the balance between Apollo and Dionysus. I’ve relied on Apollo during these amateur years. I couldn’t trust Dionysus with my lips let alone my life. I’m now looking at the outstretched hand of Intoxication and I’m afraid.

    We were so reckless together. We burned it all down. There were lessons learned, about myself – deep lessons that I rely on now. Apollo took me in to teach me, to save me. Can I leave him now to return? Will they share?

    Your post today was so prescient. I’m asking myself the question today. Am I ready? “Trust it” you replied, months ago.

    I’m retooled, recalibrated – its not fair how smooth I run. Yes Steven, I’m back in the game. Thanks for saying what I already knew. Here, before and many times more I hope.