Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Looking for the Overlap

By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 1, 2010

[While the blog takes a short vacation, here’s a post from a few months ago that I’ve always been partial to. See you in two weeks!]

Writers and artists get asked all the time, “How do you decide which book to write, which painting to paint?” The person asking the question usually has a million ideas in her head; she’s struggling to determine which one(s) to pursue. Here’s an answer from my experience.

A few years ago, in Hollywood, I got a new agent. He was a good agent and he did what a good agent should do: he immediately sent me out on a round of meetings. I met with producers and studio execs, actors’ and directors’ development companies. These were the kinds of meetings that screenwriters go on all the time. I told the execs what projects I was working on, they told me what they were looking for, we tried to see if there was a way to work together.

I had thought the meetings would be fun and energizing. Instead they were terribly depressing. By the second week I was feeling down. Week Three, I was clinically bummed. By the fourth week I was suicidal.

I couldn’t figure out why. The people I was meeting with were uniformly smart, motivated, funny. They treated me with respect. They were good peeps. What was wrong? Was it me? This was serious. The emotion was such a downer that I thought, I can’t keep feeling this and stay in this business. What was happening? Finally it hit me.

I realized that floating in the air over every meeting I had been on was an unspoken assumption. The execs and producers and studio people all shared this assumption, and they assumed—because I was in the room with them—that I shared it too.

The assumption was this: We will do anything for a hit.

I don’t fault that position. It’s a good business model. If ultra-violence will get us a smash, let’s go with ultra-violence. If jerk-off teen comedies work, crank ‘em out. Movies based on board games, old TV shows, comic book characters … cue ‘em up, let’s roll.

The problem for me was I didn’t share that assumption. That was why these meetings were depressing me so much. I hated those kinds of movies. That wasn’t why I was here at all! I had decided to take a crack at the movie business because I loved movies; I wanted to write stuff that meant something to me. Movies like the ones I worshipped. Movies I myself wanted to see. I wasn’t a writer for hire. I was a spec writer. That was where my heart was.

I realized that I wasn’t in the same business as the people I was meeting with. I didn’t share their guiding assumption. This was a real problem. I thought to myself, Maybe I’ve picked the wrong business, maybe this isn’t going to work.

Here was the breakthrough. I drew two big circles on a piece of paper. In one I wrote STORIES I LOVE. In the other, STORIES THAT MIGHT SELL. These were two separate circles. But, I thought, let’s move them together. Is there an overlap?

Is there a quadrant, however miniscule, where these two spheres intersect? Yes, there is. That tiny sliver I called MY BUSINESS.

That was the mental model that let me stay in the movie biz. I told myself, “Steve, focus all your effort in that little overlap and don’t ever go outside it. Don’t work on stuff you love that you believe is totally uncommercial. And don’t work on projects that you imagine will sell but that you hate. Stick to the sweet spot.”

Here’s the interesting part: it didn’t work.

Maybe sorta. It kind of stumbled and bumbled in an okay way. But nothing really clicked for me until I gave up completely on hitting the overlap and just did what I loved, even when I thought nobody else in the world would be interested.

I also stopped trying to write movies. I went to books. Why? Not as a deliberate plan. Just because ideas started coming to me as pages in novels, not reels of film. The first two were The Legend of Bagger Vance and Gates of Fire. I was certain, as I was working on each of them, that these were the lamest, most arcane, least commercial subjects possible—a quasi-mystical novel about golf and an epic about an ancient battle that no one had heard of and could neither pronounce nor spell. Who would be interested in this stuff except me?

I did them anyway and to my amazement they worked–not just critically but commercially. So I guess I have to take back everything I just said about “hitting the overlap” or “writing for the sweet spot.” At least for me, no amount of second-guessing the marketplace while simultaneously trying to be true to myself paid off. As much sense as the overlapping circles made in theory, they didn’t work for me in practice.

What did succeed was being totally stupid and jumping off a cliff.

That’s my business plan and I’m sticking to it.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

19 Responses to “Looking for the Overlap”

  1. February 3, 2010 at 3:40 am

    Hi Steve … that was an interesting insight – thank you. Hilary

  2. February 3, 2010 at 4:36 am

    What an great post, Steven! Inspiring!! Asking myself this morning, “what would I write today, if I only wrote what I’d love to read?” has me going in all different direct directions. Thank you.

  3. February 3, 2010 at 9:55 am

    Love this post, Steven.

    Caught me at just the right time, as I decide what to write my next book on. I’ve had those same meetings (though with editors, not film folk) and realized writing what makes me come alive matters. A lot. Guess it’s time to get “totally stupid and jump off a cliff.”

    • February 3, 2010 at 10:34 am

      I’ve been on the same spiral toward clinical bummitude for about a year now as I try to write a western novel and a samurai comic book. Looking around the bookshelves, DVD racks, and comic shops, you don’t see a lot of things like that. Sometimes it means you’re exploring all-new stuff that will wow folks. Most of the time it means no one wants to publish it. It helps sometimes to find things that are like what I’m writing, just to prove to myself that if it’s good enough it will succeed.

      You wouldn’t think a 200-page graphic novel drawn in the style of the Sunday funnies could be equal parts children’s story, action epic and political commentary. You wouldn’t think people would pay to see a western movie that’s a narrative on American morality. But Chris Schweizer just came out with “Crogan’s March” and Eastwood won best picture for “Unforgiven”.

      Now and then, when it gets hard to churn out pages, it helps to pick up a Crogan book or listen to a man constantly assert that he “ain’t like that no more”. It’s also nice to have contact with someone who’s been there telling you it’s possible every Wednesday. Thanks, Steven.

  4. Tony
    February 3, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    Hi, I came over here from Seth’s blog. I take photos, I suspect this observation of yours works in this realm too (if not works, then keeps me happy anyway).

    Coincidently I have just been trying to take pictures that mimic some popular “looks” that is popular. I noticing the difference from what I really respond too and love, which is not so common to see in style guides. I had just made the decision to do what I like rather than what I think people want, so good timing on reading your blog.

    Tony.

  5. February 3, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    Excellent advice as always, I really appreciate all you have to share.

    Now to get back to my momentum.

  6. February 3, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    I was recently in a small town outside of La Paz, Bolivia. My girlfriend, who is Boliviana, had been to this town before and recommended we go to a specific restaurant for dinner.

    The restaurant was vegetarian, run by a Swiss man and his Bolivian wife. This was, hands down, the best meal I’ve had. Ever. And, judging from the faces around me, I wasn’t alone.

    And I’m not vegan. Not even close.

    Which makes me wonder: How much is a product’s saleability affected by the producer’s love/passion?

    My girlfiriend tells me the food was so good because “the chef’s energy mixes with the food when he makes it.” And then folks like me buy it, even when it’s not our usual menu.

  7. RJ
    February 3, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    I see two primary problems: 1) Duke…or is it Dook? 2)Marine…part of our Navy. Once you commit to doing what you love, your next step is to find others who love what you love. Business people are charged with creating profit, it’s how they keep score. Find the business people who know where your work has a market and off you go!

    Of course my snow shoe business in Tampa never did get off the ground, but the girls I met were wonderful!

    Yea, Wake and the Navy had their ways with me…years ago! What did you expect?

  8. patricia
    February 3, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    Wonderful! Thank you for sharing that journey! It makes perfect sense to me. Very inspiring as I am in the midst of recreating my career! Cheers! : )

  9. kim
    February 3, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    Great post! Not only is the overlap concept useful in the my idea vs. what sells context, but I’m also going to try it out in terms of narrowing down a list of partially developed ideas. I have a tendency to get lost in the idea development stage, because my original ideas branch out in so many different directions that I often lose focus on the original idea. Sometimes the variations on the original idea can come together in a way that adds complexity to the original idea, but in my case I often wind up with a muddled, unfocused mess — to many ideas for one screenplay. So….perhaps the overlap method will work for helping me to discard or at least delay the ideas that confuse rather than develop the original one.

  10. kim
    February 3, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    Rereading post I realize I missed the point — touche — albeit demonstrating my scattered focus yet again.

  11. Annette Mencke
    February 4, 2010 at 9:35 am

    Thank you Steven! I read your blog every Wednesday and love it.
    Its all about integrity and authenticity. People can sense when something has only been published for commercial gain. It won’t resonate with your audience.

  12. hugh
    February 4, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    Yessir! Thanks Steven.

  13. February 4, 2010 at 9:18 pm

    When I got a new literary agent, I spoke to her about the five or six projects I had in mind. She stopped me after a few and said: “Bill, for which one do you have the most energy.” I mentioned one of them. She said, “Okay, let’s focus on that one and see if we can make it saleable.” We did and it was in a much different form than I imagined, but the book worked. It was published by Penguin Perigee as Thriving Through Crisis.

  14. February 5, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Steven: the insight you share here is that we simply do a better job when we do what we love. This advice worked landing my first book deal (contract signed, manuscript still in the grinding stage) and has worked in every consulting engagement I’ve ever landed. People can feel your excitement and animation when you care deeply about the subject matter .

    And thanks for Gates of Fire (and everything since) –

    Regards,
    Stephen Denny
    @Note_to_CMO

  15. February 8, 2010 at 4:31 am

    Thanks Stephen. Still trying to “turn pro” – and put the last two lines of this blog at eye-level behind my desk.

  16. February 8, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    I too was looking for the overlap when I was asked to present at a day-long workshop on how to use online social media to build your business. All the other social media “experts,” (I’m not one, by the way), were preaching best practices. How social media could be their marketing savior. It didn’t ring true to me, because it hasn’t been mine. I tried to find my overlap, and it just wasn’t there. So I presented from my heart. My title: “Why social media hasn’t worked for me, and probably won’t for you, unless…” I told the story of the unrequited love I experienced while courting this most elusive muse; our newest marketing darling. I didn’t pack the room, because I suppose I was a bit out of the frame set of the attendees. They wanted sure fire “solutions.” I only offered them my sure fire failures. And those who attended loved it. In fact, much to my surprise, I even ended up on Fast Company’s blog. I’ve learned that social media only works if you tell better stories. That’s the “unless.” Thank you, Steven, for helping me do just that. I felt kind of stupid as I jumped off the cliff during the social media workshop. But boy do I feel better about my honest self now.

  17. Greg T
    March 27, 2010 at 7:05 am

    There are very few great people that set out for money. There are plenty of great people that limit their potential because they or someone else intentionally or unintentionally switch focus to money along the way. The overlap will always limit greatness. In todays world greatness is easier to find. Don’t be scared. Be Great!

  18. Mariane
    April 5, 2010 at 8:06 am

    Thank you for posting this important insight! I found it linked to from Empty easel http://emptyeasel.com/2010/03/29/should-we-make-art-that-we-love-or-make-art-that-sells/ and had to click it as it was just this wow! By coincidence (?) I just read your “The War of Art “- and the brave and straightforward ideas have made me more productive, my monsters are getting smaller (the idea to tell them go mind their own business is so cool – and gosh it works… mostly…)