Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Playing Hurt

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 14, 2011

The past two and a half years have been really rough for me. Issues of love and work, health and mortality have pushed me into places I’ve never been before. Yet through all this balagan (chaos, in Hebrew), I’ve produced some of the best work of my life.

I think there’s a connection.

It’s a myth, in my opinion, that we need to have our ducks in a row to produce good work. When I first started writing seriously, in my late twenties, I would work for ten hours a day, in the prime of health, with nothing to distract me. Now I’m lucky if I get an hour and a half, and I’ve got more balls in the air than I can count. Yet I do more now, and do it better, than I did then.

When I was finishing The Profession eighteen months ago, I was so sick that I had to work standing up, naked from the waist down (don’t ask). I was so unstable emotionally that I couldn’t be alone at night. I was riddled with doubt. I had lost all bearings.

Yet the work was good.

The idea that we need to be fit and trim and sane and organized to do good work is baloney. The best stuff I’ve done, I’ve produced under excruciating pressure of time and money, amid massive Resistance, insecurity and self-doubt, with my personal life in chaos. Not that I’m recommending such a state. But the fact remains: you can light up the board even with both hands tied behind your back and your feet sunk in forty pounds of cement.

Athletes play hurt. Warriors fight scared. Mothers give birth cursing, and babies emerge to daylight bawling and thrashing and wishing only to turn around and crawl right back where they came from.

The act of creation, particularly self-creation, is messy. It hurts. It’s terrifying.

But panic, self-doubt, claustrophobia, morbid dread, and all the classic “all is lost” symptoms are good, even if they scare the bejesus out of us while we’re experiencing them. They’re good because they are the product of being in over our heads—and being in over our heads makes us stretch and grow.

Stretch and recover.

Stretch and recover.

I’ve been on the road for most of the past two months, doing work that’s at least one, if not two levels beyond my capacity. It has paralyzed me at times. There were mornings when I woke up in my hotel room and had to say to myself literally, “Now, Steve, brush your teeth.”

I had to make my hand pick up the brush.

I had to walk myself into the shower. If I could have pushed a button and magically re-materialized at home, I would have done it.

Yet the work came out great.

This will be a short post, with a short moral:

It’s hard.

It’s supposed to be hard.

If you’re experiencing it as hard, you are not crazy. You’re sane. Your perception is on target.

When you’re stretching it’s hard and that’s all there is to it.

I’ll try to remember that, if you will.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

42 Responses to “Playing Hurt”

  1. Anne
    December 14, 2011 at 2:04 am

    Hi Stephen, really love your work. But you know the really odd question that came to mind reading your post was…”is it worth it?”

    • January 2, 2012 at 12:03 pm

      Steven, you inspire me to no end. Please take care of your health. Artist and writers all over the world are inspired and motivated to create great worthwhile projects because of your wisdom.

  2. December 14, 2011 at 2:52 am

    Raw. Done.

    Brilliant.

  3. Michael Kelberer
    December 14, 2011 at 3:09 am

    Reading this I realized two things:
    1. I’ve been playing hurt in several areas of my life with results I probably wouldn’t have achieved otherwise, and
    2. I somehow forgot to apply this to my writing. Still waiting to get better so i can write…..
    Thanks again, Steven.

  4. Katie
    December 14, 2011 at 3:17 am

    Remembering that it’s supposed to be hard is helpful – thank you.

  5. Mike
    December 14, 2011 at 4:37 am

    Writing as self-creation. That hits it right in the funny bone.

  6. December 14, 2011 at 6:22 am

    This is lovely, and quite right, and exactly what I needed to hear today. Thank you.

  7. Steven
    December 14, 2011 at 8:22 am

    I know you said it will be a “short post, but the effect was striking, and I think I will be back to this one as a much needed reminder.

    Appropo that I saw this today as well…

    “Adversity is common to everyone, resolve is rare.”

  8. Jason
    December 14, 2011 at 9:44 am

    As you wrote in “Gates”, the injured wrestler compensates with skill.

    Nothing brings out your best like adversity.

  9. December 14, 2011 at 10:04 am

    It’s interesting, given the prevalence of the biographical fallacy in writing about the arts, how you really can’t draw any conclusions about the state of the artist in their everyday life from the content or quality of the work they produce. Indeed, when things are bad, the doing of it can be the only real escape from the other stuff.

    Having said that, there are two types of struggle represented in your post, and they are getting tangled up. There is the fight to practise despite the external obstacles of life (health, personal circumstances and the like) and there is the inherent struggle with the internal qualities of the art.

    The latter is necessary to creation: if you always follow the easy path you can’t end up somewhere new. The former is not required: if you find yourself in good health you can still do good work.

    And so, whilst I admire your tenacity immensely, I’d also like to wish you some easier (external) times.

    • December 14, 2011 at 1:13 pm

      Oh, how I agree with your statement! :)

  10. Jasvir Samrai
    December 14, 2011 at 11:10 am

    Dear Mr Pressfield

    There is a quote that I have recently come across. I repeat it so often that one of our employees suggested that I should have a tatoo of it done on my calf. The quote is from the Bhagavad-Gita in which Lord Krishna turns to Arjuna before he enters a mighty battle between good and evil, and says, “Plunge into the heat of battle and keep your heart at the lotus feet of the Lord”. The Lord could be anthing you truly repect God , the Divine or the Muse.
    You also remind me of a time inwhich I had the opportunity to work with a therapist that had worked witht the UN at one time in his life settling disputes between tribes and feeling dispensable. Admiring him so much I asked him of all the great works and projects he had undertaken which was the one that pleased him most. He looked and me and quietly replied that the greatest thing that he had done so far was get out of bed and he admired his strenghth in doing so.

    God speed
    Jasvir Samrai

    • December 14, 2011 at 5:14 pm

      I love both of those, Jasvir. Thanks for writing in!

    • December 15, 2011 at 8:45 am

      Jasvir,
      I like those too. I like this post even more. Perfect timing. Thank you Steven.

  11. ruthie
    December 14, 2011 at 11:42 am

    I can affirm the writing standing up…the pain…the fear. He wrote every day no matter.what. He is a warrior as much as any soldier. A brave dedicated man who I love and respect.

  12. December 14, 2011 at 11:51 am

    Thanks for the timely reminder Steven. Your work continues to influence me for good. The War of Art is still one of the best books I’ve ever read. I’m really glad you’re still stretching and doing the work. Bravo.

    Juan O’Neal

  13. December 14, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    I am told that an archaic version of the Lord’s Prayer says “Lord, that I may be tested” somewhere, but I find that one doesn’t even have to ask. It’s the way we are made. Suffering is the only road to serenity.

    Thanks, Steve.

  14. December 14, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    I’m pleased to see that in this article you used the phrase, “in my opinion.” Sad to note that this same aside is oftentimes missing from your more dogmatic instruction manuals, The War of Art and Do The Work. In those books the melody you sing is that of a confident and arrogant god.

    I don’t believe in gurus and gods, although I find them fascinating in much the same way that I find pleasure in pressing down on an aching tooth. That perverse sense of pleasure is the only reason I sometimes read your articles.

    • Laura
      December 14, 2011 at 1:25 pm

      Forgive me, Anthony V. Toscano, I haven’t read anything you’ve written lately…or ever, for that matter. Please post a list of your published works, and allow me to decide if you’ve been pressing down on the correct aching part of your body.

      Thank you.

      • Steve
        December 14, 2011 at 2:48 pm

        Mr. Toscano reminds me of a rude house guest. Uninvited to the party, shows up anyway, and then proceeds to insult the host.

    • Sonja
      December 15, 2011 at 9:47 am

      Seriously! Anthony, get a clue.

  15. December 14, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    This reminds me of the law of physics, conservation of energy: energy has to go somewhere. Writing neutrally versus feeling crazy and putting every last drop of that crazy energy into your work is an explosively different experience for the reader. A tear-stained letter versus a cold, mechanical product manual.

    Steven, thanks for reminding me it is okay to feel crazy while I work, and that perhaps crazier is indeed better.

    Greg

  16. December 14, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    I have long suspected this, given my short stories were all created with a mixture of self-loathing, suicidal thoughts and hatred for humanity. LOL I guess I’m banking that you’re right as I’m about to be unemployed during the worst recession since the Great Depression. Here’s hoping….

  17. Laura
    December 14, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    Five Stars, Steven.

    I TRULY thank you.

  18. Annette
    December 14, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    I had the privilege of meeting you at the Getty Villa a few years ago and knew instantly that you were a kind and generous person. This post illustrates that. In the midst of your difficult time, you use your experience to help the rest of us. Thank you for that. I hope (and pray) your health is back on track very soon, if not already.

  19. December 14, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    Thanks, Steve. I have to turn in a manuscript in 8 days (which is a good problem to have) and I was just diagnosed with acute bronchitis. I needed this post more than you know. I’ll push through and find the other side.

  20. December 14, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    We should not give up…our goal…But…we should not be discouraged even though we cannot have it. So actually, as long as we are making effort, that is actual goal. – Shunryu Suzuki

  21. December 14, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    Reminds me of movie sets or the theatre – sometimes on set or backstage it’s incredibly chaotic and people hate each other, yet you get a beautiful movie or stage performance. I just keep writing whether I’m happy or not, have money or not, etc. You have to be a creative shark and move forward.

  22. December 15, 2011 at 4:40 am

    Writing and reading have always been my drugs of choice, and coming from a long line of absent-minded professors, I’m sure I’m not the only one. When things get hard in my life, I bury myself in my writing. A chaotic personal life gives my writing time a sort of single-minded focus that is lacking when times are good.
    While I know this can bring benefits for my work, I also know it wreaks havoc with relationships. I’m never sure if it’s worth it.

  23. Zaretta
    December 15, 2011 at 6:46 am

    Steve:

    Thanks for the reminder to hang in and press on. I woke up this morning smack dab in the middle of an “all is lost” moment as I thought about how I was going to to make progress on writing a sample chapter for a book proposal (a stretch into new territory for me), plan my business launch, parent a teenager, deal with financial challenges and the list goes on. Still the writing needs to get done.

    Thanks for reminding me to simply keep putting one foot in front of the other.

  24. December 15, 2011 at 10:28 am

    When I first read the title, I thought, ‘Playing hurt? Like as in acting the victim?’ It drew to actually read the rest of the post and I realized my initial conclusion was far from right.

    Then I thought about people out there that I know or hear about that do fall into the role of the “victim”. They transform into these helpless victims so as not to hold themselves accountable or for not doing their work. They shield themselves behind excuses and their own often exaggerated misfortunes.

    It’s pushing past all gunk that slows us down and keep producing. Keep publishing, keep striving and/or creating.

    I will admit that this week has been hard for me as has been filled with disappointments and rejections. But I will keep this in mind and not let it stop me from achieving my goals.

    Thank you.

  25. December 15, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    Thank you so much. It’s easy, when you are in the depths of despair and feeling half crazy, to think that you are the only one who has ever felt this way and that no one else could possibly understand. Reading that you also struggle makes my struggles feel a little more bearable and I appreciate your honesty.

  26. Tina
    December 15, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    Opportunity

    THIS I beheld, or dreamed it in a dream:-
    There spread a cloud of dust along a plain;
    And underneath the cloud, or in it, raged
    A furious battle, and men yelled, and swords
    Shocked upon swords and shields. A prince’s banner
    Wavered, then staggered backward, hemmed by foes.
    A craven hung along the battle’s edge,
    And thought, “Had I a sword of keener steel-
    That blue blade that the king’s son bears,-but this
    Blunt thing-!” he snapt and flung it from his hand,
    And lowering crept away and left the field.
    Then came the king’s son, wounded, sore bestead,
    And weaponless, and saw the broken sword,
    Hilt-buried in the dry and trodden sand,
    And ran and snatched it, and with battle-shout
    Lifted afresh he hewed his enemy down,
    And saved a great cause that heroic day.

    Edward Rowland Sill

  27. John Flinn
    December 15, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    Mr Pressfield,
    Wonderful post, always the Marine. I have just read Tides of War and I am absolutely fascinated with your writing and the independent voice that each book that you write seems to have. But there is a philosophy that you seem to return to and refine throughout each book about the immortality of individual warriors and I would very much like to hear what your complete thoughts are on it. Is this a form of reincarnation? Is the individual soul of a warrior (poet/statesman/farmer)independent of the body and personality they occupy at any given period in history? I can relate through experience to some of your characters and would really love to hear your thoughts on this. Thank you again for your books, they are a comfort and an inspiration to me and the guys.

  28. December 19, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Thanks for this post, Steve. It’s somehow reassuring to know that when we feel the things you’re describing, we have company.

  29. December 19, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    Now that you mention it, my most prolific writing period was when I was working full-time and going to school full-time to finish my BA degree. 8 hrs 5 days a week for work, 3 hrs 4 days a week for school, 3-4hrs a day 4 or 5 days a week to write. I have very little recollection of when sleeping got accomplished.

    Hm. Something to think about…. especially since I’m working full-time and I’m about to go back to school again.

    ~Amanda~

  30. Lon David
    December 22, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    Thanks so much Steven for letting us take a peek behind the curtain. I am relatively new to this (even though I recognize I’m probably not as new as I think, this being the process of life and not just “art”) “… product of being in over our heads…” Nice to know that the best suffer from this too. Gives us neophytes hope. Now let me go beat my head against the wall some more…

  31. December 31, 2011 at 8:12 pm

    Mr. Pressfield, you are an inspiration.

    The War of Art has been like my personal Bible for the last few years. It’s one of two books I keep by my bedside.

    I will have to check out The Profession and your other works now that I stumbled across your blog.

  32. Liz
    January 13, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    When I need a breakthrough, I read…lately, Mihaly Chikszentmihalyi(“chick-SENT-me-high”), his writings are remarkable in that what he has to say makes sense. In his book, “Finding Flow” he writes,”Good is the creative overcoming of inertia, the energy that leads to the evolution of human consciousness.” And, “Hell…is simply the separation of the individual from the flow of life…It is clinging to the past, to the self, to the safety of inertia.” Rich and rewarding reading in the glare of uncertainty. Inertia, entropy, turn off the TV.

  33. Nan Roberts
    January 17, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    Whew. What a relief. Thank you. I’ve got the intermittent tooth brushing thing (as in I won’t do it unless I talk myself into it.) And for Jasvir’s story about the therapist whose greatest feat was to get out of bed, because getting out of bed is an Issue. Thank you both. And keeping my heart at the lotus feet of the Lord. And applying all this to my writing. I thought I was crazy. It’s supposed to be hard. whew.