Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

When It Crashes, Part Two

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 29, 2010

Did you ever see the movie Wag the Dog, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Deniro, directed by Barry Levinson and written by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet?

Dustin Hoffman

Dustin Hoffman as Robert Evans ... er, Stanley Motss ... in Wag The Dog.

The film is about a lot of things, but at its core it’s a portrait of a Hollywood producer. The character of Stanley Motss, played by Dustin Hoffman, is, by all accounts, a spot-on portrayal of Robert Evans (who produced The Godfather and Chinatown, among many others.)

What does a producer do? Nobody knows. Even in the movie biz, no one appreciates the producer’s art. “Did you know,” Dustin Hoffman complains at one point in the story, “that there’s no Oscar for producing?” There’s Best Picture, he says, but not Best Producer. Because nobody knows what a producer does.

What a producer does is make things happen. What a producer does is save the day.

The point, for this post, is that you and I have to be producers “When It Crashes.” Two weeks ago, in my first post on this subject, I described a point about two-thirds of the way through the writing of my newest book, The Profession, when the wheels came off and the whole project went careening wildly off the highway. The next thing that happened, as I said, was that I myself fell apart.

What happened? In a nutshell, I forgot that I had to be a producer. I forgot that I had to shift from writer mode to Robert Evans mode.

A tremendously astute observation came in response to that first post from Rick Wolff (thank you, Rick!), who wrote in the Comments section:

One common thread I’m noticing here, more from my personal tailspin (longer than yours, Mr. P.) than from your book, is that a panic mode pulls the concentration off the problem and onto myself. It’s all, “What am *I* going to do? How will *I* survive this? How could this happen to *me*?” It’s a defensive posture, hardwired into us all. But the solution begins when I take the effort to push the spotlight off myself and back onto the problem. Putting my situation onto a mental back-burner, first, helped me feel better and stopped that negative feedback loop, and second, let me imagine a solution.

A commonplace from Hollywood and the theater is, “All actors are children”—and its corollary, “All writers are children.” There’s more truth to this than most actors, writers, dancers, singers and entrepreneurs would care to admit. What I mean is that creative types notoriously come unpeeled when the vision they’ve invested their identity in suddenly and catastrophically unravels.

That’s when the producer has to step in. That’s when grownup supervision needs to arrive. In the case of When It Crashes, that producer has to be you and me.

A producer, in real life, may be nutty. He may be a character. He may be a bully. But a producer gets things done. A producer solves the problem. When your leading lady decamps to rehab, when the city revokes the license for your new tapas bar, when your second act crashes, you—the producer—must produce. As Dustin Hoffman says to Anne Heche and Robert Deniro at the darkest hour of Wag the Dog:

STANLEY MOTSS

This is nothing! Piece of cake! Producing is being a samurai warrior. They pay you day in, day out for years so that one day when called upon, you can respond, your training at its peak, and save the day!

On any project, the Big Crash usually happens two-thirds of the way through. The phenomenon is so common, across so many fields, that you can almost bank on it. Pencil it into the schedule. It’s gonna happen.

The culprit is usually laziness. Laziness at the start. Somewhere in the initial project conception, we took our eye off the ball. We didn’t think our new drama/high-tech startup/philanthropic venture all the way through. We counted on instinct and passion. We banked on the intercession of the gods. Now our play is two-thirds done, our killer app is due to ship, our clinic in the slums of Zamboanga City is set to open its doors. Now we realize the third act doesn’t work, the software keeps eating itself, and the shantytown gangs have discovered our clinic’s cache of painkillers.

It’s one of the most amazing things in the world, watching a star producer at work. Because he or she can’t solve the problem with smoke and mirrors. He or she has to actually solve the problem.

That’s us. That’s you and me. We have to reel our project all the way back to Square One and dig it out of the hole we dug it into by our laziness and aversion to pain and work in the first place.

I’m writing this in a tongue-in-cheek tone, but When It Crashes is no joke. The skill to deal it is something they don’t teach you at Harvard. How do you learn it? Only in the moment. Only under the gun. But two things definitely help.

The first, as noted in the original When It Crashes post, is to prepare ourselves mentally in advance—so that when the shit hits the fan, we’re at least not blind-sided by it … and can stay in problem-solving mode (as Rick Wolff says) instead of tailspinning into panic mode.

The second is to have mentors and role models. “This is nothing! Piece of cake!” Be like Robert Evans. Start channeling Stanley Motss. Switch to producer mode and grind this puppy out.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

15 Responses to “When It Crashes, Part Two”

  1. December 29, 2010 at 10:49 am

    Steve I have enjoyed your posts immensely. And guess what? This week I finally finished my novel after such a long, long journey. Put my nose to the keyboard and met my goal for finishing before 2011!
    Still have the tidying up and cutting to do of course, but it’s done! How many times did I feel it was going to ‘crash and burn’? How many times did I give up hope of ever finishing it? But, encouragment like you mete out helps. Thanks so much for your wise and useful words!

    • Tricia
      December 29, 2010 at 12:38 pm

      Very helpful elaboration/s of what it means to identify with the process of creativity and how to go beyond that (ie., taking the attention off the self and focusing on the problem at hand instead).

      I would simply put a context to your comments. My experience is that it is the rare individual who does not identify with their professional/non-professional outer label/personnae, be it addict, doctor, lawyer, bum, personal support worker, literary agent, hockey mum, parent of the ever so special Renaissance man, etc., etc. And this is actually encouraged in our society/considered acceptable/always has been (ie., can you go anywhere these days without being asked: what do you do?, and knowing that howling in the bathtub won’t quaify as an answer?)

      Creative types by nature of course have be connected to the child-like spirit of play, but it does not follow that they are necessarily more childish by nature. Indeed, perhaps the process of creating forces us to grow up faster (and learn what it means not to identify) than non-creative types simply because it can be so fatal, as you point out, if we identify with our projects.

      Additionally, we also have to learn how to put our products out there, a whole separate profession not innate to the average creative type, which the one-dimensional so-called grown-up does not have to do — they smartly specialize (ie., lawyer, hockey mum, etc) and thereby minimize their (non-identity) trauma factor, which might make them more grown-up, if they were thrown into the cesspool of no identity (ie., you can’t really call yourself a writer if you are not published) apart from a negative one (dreamer,etc).

      In the end, the gift of not succeeding in a creative venture helps one enormously in the “learning not to idenify ” game of life. Methinks!

    • December 30, 2010 at 4:10 pm

      Ruth, you and I have been trading e-mails for years. Congratulations and kudos on slaying this dragon! I’m sure everybody else who reads these Comments adds the same thought. Onward into 2011. I wish you all the best!

      • December 31, 2010 at 11:27 am

        Your encouraging comments and advice are much appreciated, Steve. Thanks so much. And Happy New Year with successful writing to you and all your fans!

  2. December 29, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Two-thirds of the way through a global promotion linked to a massive Hollywood blockbuster, I got held up – literally – by a junior level underling demanding a hefty six-figure sum. The wheels had come off, then and there.

    Shifting the contruct of the problem, pulling in expert mentor advice and playing one hand better than all the others before pulled my proverbial chestnuts out of the fire. That one day, when called upon, with my training at its peak.

    I wholeheartedly agree that the time will come that all the planning in the world will fail to catch that one snag, and then we have to earn all our money on one throw. I’m spending an inordinate amount of time right now figuring out where the pot hole will be on my current project! Thanks again for a timely thought.

  3. December 29, 2010 at 11:04 am

    Steven,
    Thanks again for your words from your world.
    Mine has just crashed. Not just this instant, but a slow crawling dust storm of the last few months. Seen it coming, done all I can to stop it, but….
    It’s still hit.
    I write as I tumble through it.
    Tomorrow or the next day I’ll be able to dust myself down.
    In the meantime Thanks.

  4. December 29, 2010 at 11:13 am

    I have truly enjoyed all your recent posts on the publishing industry-guest bloggers included. It is clear that you have surrounded yourself with both smart and wise people. I am not sure why I have so much of myself invested in your art. Maybe it’s all the insider information. It is hard for me to describe why I want The Professional to succeed. Very strange but absolutely genuine. I am rooting for you, Callie and Shawn.

  5. December 29, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    2/3 of the way, huh? NOW you tell us.

  6. Nancy Darling Handler
    December 29, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    I am a painter. Years ago my teacher told me that part way into the painting it will be an awful mess and look hopeless but to keep on going and you can probably go through this and come out with a reasonable painting; that this awful mess actually added to the quality of the painting.This always gives me hope to keep on. Perhaps the When it Crashes is a natural part of the creative process and necessary to the final result! Love your blog.Thanks.

  7. Joe
    December 29, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    I recognize that skillset. Great leaders in the Army have it. They have an eye for all the little things that can go wrong and they take steps ahead of time to prevent those Bad Things from happening. You can’t prevent it all – but you can recognize the warning signs as things begin to unravel.

    It really is amazing. I’ve never worked on movies but I recognize your description of a “star producer” with a few great men I’ve served with. There’s a professional calm to the problem solving. There’s a controlled chaos to taking action to their snap decisions which mitigate or prevent disaster.

    I agree that they don’t teach it in school. You can learn a great deal if you recognize those situations that could have gone wrong if not for a few things put in place. Those situations where things do go wrong and the after action review reveals what preparation should have been done… I gotta say, no lesson burns deeper than the one where you really screwed up. You never forget.

  8. Kristin Kline
    December 29, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    Mr. Pressfield,

    I very much enjoyed reading this post, and can only throw back at you some advice I gleaned during a third (or fourth) re-reading of your book Gates of Fire. A very wise Spartan said in that book something to the affect that “There are some rooms in your mind you should never enter.”

    I believe as writers there are also some rooms we should never enter, write about, or complicate our plots with. Perhaps this is when the producer starts over-producing.

    Kristin

  9. December 30, 2010 at 10:58 am

    Thanks for the warning.
    I’m writing a third year college program and am running out of time. Sixteen different courses, 15 classes each. I’m about a third done and pushing hard. I should hit the 2/3 mark around Monday…. I’ll keep an eye out for the loose wheel.
    -Rob

  10. Dean
    December 30, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    A producer reminds me of the character The Wolf in Pulp Fiction who comes in to clean up the mess from the accidental shooting in the car.

  11. December 30, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    I love it. The Crash just happened to me yesterday – and in part because I learned so much about my inner workings from the War of Art, I became a Producer!

    I’m in the final 1/4 of completing my first product – ironically about how to overcome anxiety. The video series just needed the final touches to the last video. I needed to write a letter of intro for the ebook.

    And then – Crash.

    For me, the crash came as a complete loss of interest and motivation in the project. From a month of daily passion, motivation, commitment, task-orientation – to zip.

    For a couple hours, i fell for it. Was deluded by the tired body and bored and defeating self talk. But at some point I switched into Observer mode and saw it for what it was – Resistance.

    First, I took some of my own medicine – did EFT tapping while venting my resistance. Said things like, “I’m never going to finish it. I don’t have to finish it. It’s probably crap anyway. Nobody will buy it. And if they do they won’t like it.”

    That helped calm the fears, but didn’t put me into Producer mode.

    So then, I had the inspiration to channel one of my mentors, who plugs out fabulous product after product. I imagined what she would be thinking, feeling, doing. Then, in my mind, I stepped into her persona and felt that confidence, positive expectation, resourcefulness that would be in her.

    Anchoring that powerful state with my thumb and middle finger, I imagined returning to my own body, carrying all those positive elements with me.

    I then changed my real-life scene and took my laptop to a beach restaurant (I’m in Phuket, Thailand). In the next two hours I completed those last two pieces, feeling strong and capable.

    Thanks for putting a name and a skill to what needs to be done in the Crash.

  12. January 4, 2011 at 4:16 am

    Steven – and everybody else – my very best wishes for the New Year!!!
    For some reason while reading your terrific post Telly Savalas as Kojak came to mind. The way he orchestrated his team, his smart-ass talk and how he dealt with the problems as they jumped into his face, I guess his character would have made a fine producer.
    André