Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Start Before You’re Ready

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 7, 2010

In the past few weeks we’ve put up a couple of posts—“Cover the Canvas” and “Start at the End”—that seem like advice on the subject of writing. They aren’t. They’re about beating Resistance.

Erwin Rommel. "The Desert Fox" made a career of starting before he was ready.

A number of the principles that work against Resistance are counter-intuitive. They seem to make no sense, but in fact their logic is impeccable. Here’s one that’s worked for me many times:

Start Before You’re Ready.

Don’t wait till you’ve got your ducks in a row. Dive in now.

Have you ever asked a friend who’s an artist or entrepreneur how they’re doing on a project you know they’re psyched about? Sometimes you get the answer, “I’m getting ready to start on it.”

“I’m working up the outline.”  “I’ve almost got the business plan.”  “I’ve got a little more research to do.”

When Resistance hears phrases like that, it can hardly contain its glee. Resistance knows that the longer we noodle around “getting ready,” the more time and opportunity we’ll have to sabotage ourselves. Resistance loves it when we hesitate, when we over-prepare.

The answer: plunge in.

A lesson from the improv stage

In her wonderful book, Improv Wisdom, Patricia Ryan Madson puts forward an axiom: “Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up.”  Of course this is the essence of improvisation. The improviser has to trust her unconscious. If she thinks too much, she’ll freeze.

Patricia Ryan Madson's indispensable classic

Prof. Madson has an exercise that she used for years in her standing-room-only classes at Stanford. “Imagine a box, open the lid, see what’s inside.” The magic is that there’s always something inside. It may be different each time, but there’s always something. The Muse delivers; the unconscious provides.

That’s the payoff we get when we start before we’re ready. The novelist discovers a new character who pops up out of nowhere and enriches the story beyond all expectation; the painter finds the canvas tugging her in a direction she had never considered; the actor stumbles onto happy accidents, oddball readings, moments of authenticity that he could never have anticipated if he’d sat down and planned it out.

Good things happen when we start before we’re ready. Not only do we open ourselves to the blessings of happy serendipity, but we steal a march on the forces of procrastination, perfectionism, overpreparation, fear and self-doubt. Remember, the enemy is not the work. It’s not the difficulty of the work. The enemy is Resistance.

Stealing a march on the enemy

Can you stand another Pressfield military analogy? This one’s from WWII, the campaign in North Africa. In this story a German is the good guy. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, “the Desert Fox.”

In February of 1941, Rommel was given command of the brand-new Afrika Korps and sent from Europe to Libya, with orders to hold back the British, who had defeated Germany’s Axis allies, the Italians, and had pushed them back a thousand miles to the gates of Tripoli. Rommel landed with less than half of his tanks and men. He had strict orders from the high command to take no aggressive action. His superiors wanted him to wait till all his forces had landed and the Afrika Korps was at full strength.

Instead Rommel hopped into his Fieseler Storch scout plane and flew east to take a peek at the British lines. What he saw, amazed him. The Brits had pulled back; their defenses were thin to nonexistent.

Rommel attacked. He had only a handful of tanks and virtually no fuel. But the audacity of his assault rocked the British so hard, they wheeled and withdrew. One of the quirks of warfare in the desert, where there are no natural defensive barriers like rivers or mountain ranges, is that, once one side gets the other on the run, that “run” can go on for a long time. In this case it was a thousand miles, all because Rommel started before he was ready.

Ready is too late

By the time we’re ready, it’s too late. The moment has passed. Resistance has seen us coming and has marshaled all its forces to lay us low.

Bottom line: if you catch yourself uttering such phrases as, “I’m just about ready to start” or “I only need a few more days of research,” remember the Desert Fox. He attacked before he was ready–and kicked the enemy’s butt.

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