Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Paul’s All Is Lost Moment

By Steven Pressfield | Published: February 8, 2012

My friend Paul is writing a pilot. He’s never done a piece of writing this serious before. The work is totally on spec.

Paul's All Is Lost Moment was a lot like Rocky's

Paul has a full-time business and has to do his writing at odd hours. A couple of weeks ago he had a crisis that made him almost suicidal. When I describe it to you, you’ll say, “Man, have I been there!”

A script for a TV pilot is about fifty-five pages long. Paul was on Page 52. He went home after work, sat down at his laptop and opened up the script to (blank) page 53. But first he decided, just for fun, to skim over pages 1 to 52.

By the time he was done, he was in despair. I saw him the next morning.

“What a blistering, unconscionable piece of crap! Who am I kidding giving birth to this abortion, or even deluding myself that I am, or might someday become, a writer? This worthless, steaming turd that I’ve been busting my ass over for … “

Paul was distraught. Inconsolable. I had to walk him home just to make sure he didn’t do something desperate.

Seventy-two hours later, I saw Paul again.

“I’m on page 62,” he said. His aspect and demeanor had totally changed. He was a new man. “I finished the f*@ker,” he said.

“And did the pages miraculously get better when you looked at them again?”

“Hey, I know I’m an idiot … “

We started talking about the scene in the first Rocky, where Sylvester Stallone, on the night before the big fight, gets up out of bed and goes down, alone, to the arena. He sees the giant billboards with pictures of the champ, Apollo Creed—and one huge placard with his own image. His face falls. His shoulders slump. The promoter is the only person in the auditorium. “What are you doing here, Rocky? Go home and get some sleep.”

Rocky shuffles back to his hellhole apartment and crawls miserably into bed with his girlfriend Adrian. “Who am I kidding,” he says, “getting into the ring with Creed? He’ll wipe the floor with me. I’m gonna look like a fool and a bum, which is what I am.”

In screenplays, the All Is Lost moment comes somewhere near the end of the second act. You can set your watch by it. In the All Is Lost moment, the hero is as far from his goal as it is possible to be.

Rocky in the meat locker. Sometimes you just gotta keep punching.

But there’s another aspect to the All Is Lost moment, in fiction and in real life, that is often overlooked or underappreciated.

The All Is Lost moment comes at the instant when we stand on the threshold of moving to the next level. We sense this—and we panic. Resistance rears its malignant head and hammers us.

That’s what happened to Rocky and that’s what happened to Paul.

Rocky was face to face with the possibility that he might actually possess the talent that he had always dreamed he had. Paul’s moment was exactly the same. Fear of that breakthrough was what unnerved them both.

Consider Rocky. Apollo Creed did not wipe the floor with him. Rocky fought the heavyweight champion of the world to a draw, something no other contender had ever done. True, Creed beat the hell out of Rocky—but Rocky gave the champ as good as he got.

Rocky was wrong in his self-assessment as a bum.

Paul was too.

Seventy-two hours later they had both passed over an ocean and arrived at a new world.

“I know I’m not done with this damn thing,” Paul said three days after his All Is Lost moment. “I’ve got rewrite after rewrite ahead of me, and in the end the script may turn out to be as big a piece of garbage I originally thought it was. But I don’t care. This is the first piece of serious work that I’ve really finished. I started with nothing twelve weeks ago and I’ve got something today. And I did it.”

We’ve all been to that place where Paul and Rocky stood, and we’ll all be back there again. Will we remember, next time? When we hear that self-annihilating voice in our heads, will we recognize it as Resistance? Will we understand that the panic we feel is caused not by any rational assessment of who we are or what our work is worth, but by the dread of moving to the next level?

Will we take heart and steel ourselves with patience?

The All Is Lost moment is inevitably followed by a breakthrough. Trust me. You can set your watch by it.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

34 Responses to “Paul’s All Is Lost Moment”

  1. February 8, 2012 at 5:17 am

    I faced such a moment just the other day. I went to a rock climbing gym with my friends who climb every week. Unlike them, I am overweight and out of shape. I strapped up and clipped into the belay, got about three feet off of the ground, and panicked.

    “What am I doing here?” I thought. “This was a big mistake.”

    Thankfully I was there with good friends, who didn’t taunt me or belittle me. I tried again a few minutes later and got about four feet off of the ground. Then again. And again. Every time I freaked. So when my friends said that they had a climb that was easy, I resigned myself to climbing one more time. Suddenly, I was two-thirds of the way up. I could do this. I kept moving, without thinking, until I could touch the pipe on the ceiling.

    Two days later, I’m still sore, and still happy. I did something that I never thought I could do, and I’m a better man for it.

  2. pixie
    February 8, 2012 at 6:25 am

    Wait … if the work can still turn out to be the piece of garbage he thought it was, does he unquestionably “have something” today? It’s a little early to be claiming breakthrough.

    • February 8, 2012 at 7:51 am

      Yes, because he has a script in hand. That’s far more than he had 12 weeks ago.

      You can’t succeed or suck without having something.

    • February 8, 2012 at 4:04 pm

      Pixie, thanks for writing. However, I must join Tyler in taking exception. Paul’s breakthrough wasn’t about achieving quality, it was about overcoming Resistance. The quality will come in time. What he did was epochal. He went from Someone Who Had Never Finished Something to Someone Who Had Finished Something (and from now on could keep finishing stuff.) That changes the DNA. That’s huge. When I had my own “finish it” moment, it took me another 23 years to get a book published. The quality wasn’t there yet, but the “turning pro” moment had happened. Like Lindbergh flying the Atlantic, there was no immediate payoff in the sense of airlines suddenly being able to fly people or cargo planes being able to fly freight. That would take years. But what Lindy did was take the human race from We Can’t Fly The Atlantic to We Have Flown The Atlantic. That’s what Paul did. He stepped into the cockpit in New York and stepped down in Paris. That’s a breakthrough, which is why I took him out a couple of nights ago to knock back a couple of single-malts and commemorate the moment. Thanks for writing in, Pixie, even if I must respectfully disagree with what you wrote.

      • February 10, 2012 at 6:48 am

        Graduating from Never Finishing Anything to Finishing Something is, in a way, learning to stop holding on to an idea, even a crappy one. I have finished paintings I thought were tripe, yet invariably someone else really needed to see it. In finishing, I let it out in the world, and got it off my list of stuff. (If you don’t finish it, it hangs around your place begging for change.)

        Some people are addicted to holding on. But holding on to one idea, even crappy, takes up the real-estate required for the really awesome ideas. Or: other ideas. Either way, good or bad, the only way to let it go is to finish it. On average, I paint about 3 really good things out of 38. I just have to be willing to do the 38.

        I stopped needing to know if it was good or bad. I just assume that if I’m making it, and I don’t know what for, perhaps it wasn’t for me.

      • February 12, 2012 at 12:47 am

        >He went from Someone Who Had Never Finished Something to Someone Who Had Finished Something (and from now on could keep finishing stuff.) That changes the DNA. That’s huge.<

        Wonderful. And spot on! Thanks for this post.

  3. February 8, 2012 at 8:37 am

    THANKS I NEEDED THAT!!!

  4. February 8, 2012 at 8:47 am

    just recently had my own “all is lost” moment. in this case, not with a creative endeavor, but with a life endeavor. made a hugh breakthrough. the key is to recognize that feeling and realize that is part of the big picture…and not let is spook me next time. i learned something valuable…

  5. February 8, 2012 at 8:48 am

    Trying to write the lead for my first book was paralyzing. It was the memoir of marathon champion Dick Beardsley, and I wanted to open with a scene from his childhood–which he spent hunting and fishing and trapping. He even checked his trap lines on the way to school.

    I knew if the lead didn’t grab people they wouldn’t read past it. They wouldn’t buy the book, and my writing career would be over.

    My friend calmed me down over dinner one evening. “I think it’s great you’re terrified,” she said. “It proves this is a challenge worthy of you.”

    Doing dishes a couple of hours later, the lead came to me: “I was never the teacher’s pet, but I probably smelled like one.”

    Staying the Course: A Runner’s Toughest Race doesn’t open with it, but that’s another story.

    Now when I feel paralyzed at the start of a writing project, corny as this sounds, I welcome it like an old friend: “You again!” I practically say out loud. “Thanks for reminding me I’m doing the right thing with my life. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work…”

    • Andrea Balzano
      February 11, 2012 at 12:07 pm

      Lovely, Maureen! I think I might copy this and re-read often.

  6. February 8, 2012 at 9:35 am

    When I first heard Steven comment on this phenomenon it was a life-changer. I recognized it immediately as the deaded “they’re going to catch on to my little art scam because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing” feeling.

    Every single drawing has this moment, and of course I thought I was the only person in the entire world who had it, and my non-artist confidants only reaffirmed it with their quips of “You’re crazy – it’s terrific!”

    The treatment is alwasy the same: hoik up the slacks, crack your knuckles, shoot your cuffs and get back to work.

    Have faith, Grasshopper!

    Thanks Steven!

  7. Robyn
    February 8, 2012 at 9:47 am

    Thanks Steven. Very helpful. I work in a different context but it still applies. You have no idea how many hours my husband has spent listening to me & then saying, “Yes, you can do this. Yes, this is the right thing to be doing and you are very gifted etc.” And he’s right.

  8. February 8, 2012 at 10:41 am

    The Jack B. Sowards Rule of Five…. It takes five scripts, fully written and rewritten, before a writer is “sellable” My dad had years of documented evidence among his writer friends and students to make it, if not etched in stone, at least a viable anecdote. That’s four increasingly less sucky scripts until the fifth one might actually sell. (He ended up going back after his No. 5, and reworking one through four — all episodic t.v. scripts for existing shows — and selling all but one of them.) Don’t know what to make of the JBS Rule of 5, and I don’t know if it applies to books as well as screenplays and television scripts, but I’m willing to give it the time it takes to get through five pieces, even if they sort of suck.

    • February 9, 2012 at 9:25 am

      Many times I feel like I’m a hack, a fraud. It scares me. It paralyzes me sometimes. I do everything but what I really want to do because of excuses, fear and procrastination. Every bit of it is Resistance.

  9. February 8, 2012 at 11:58 am

    The All is Lost moment is also the time when the Saboteur loves to strike. The Saboteur is the self-destructive aspect of our personality that is never satisfied, highlights the negative, criticizes us cruelly and always lies. It helps to know that that voice inside your head that says “This is crap! Who do I think I am trying to write?” is a pathological liar. It also helps to know that you’re about to make a breakthrough and that makes the Saboteur more nervous and likely to attack.

  10. February 8, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    Today. Today, all was lost. I drove around wondering how I could bother continuing with all this nonsense, wasting my life and everyone else’s time.

    Then I got this thin slice of truth from the sandwich of life, and realized that maybe I can do this for one more day.

  11. Ruth Greenwood
    February 8, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    Reminds me of when I had gotten a chance to cowrite a song for full performance on a network TV show. We sent it off to the producers, and at 10 pm the next night, I got a call that the producers had chosen a different song.

    Songwriting is a “turndown game” where that’s pretty much how it goes 95% of the time. I shrugged my shoulders.

    And then, at 11, I got a call that the one producer who’d liked our song argued the rest of them into changing their minds. A few weeks later I got to see the most perfect performance of something I’d written…and then my name whip across the screen in what seemed like the world’s fastest credits. Decades later I still get royalties from it.

    All was lost. Until it wasn’t.

    Truth is, if I had realized I myself was at one of those “All Is Lost” points and muscled through, I might have had 50 of those. But thanks to you, I’ve learned that these internal stops, while within me, are not evidence of my deficiencies. They’re natural, almost inevitable, plot devices in the movie that is a creative life. The hardest part is retraining myself to understand that they’re not red lights, but big green lights that I should jam on the gas and power through. I don’t know why no one else said this to me in all my years of writing, or at least made me face it, no one except you. But I’m glad you did. Although I all but need an inner eyelid tattoo reminding me to shut up already, put my head down, and DO THE WORK. I HAVE the book, but forget sometimes. Need the tattoo. Will look for acceptable substitute. Thanks.

  12. February 8, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    Oh man, I really needed to read this today. Thanks champ.

  13. February 8, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    Fear and doubt are thugs in the night on a street most writers can not avoid walking to get to the inner and commercial home they long for. Your Rocky analogy is beautifully, simply and powerfully written, and I bet all your readers fully identify with it. I do. Many years ago I moved to LA to try to sell a script about a modern day Indian who felt he had to walk the 900 mile route of the Cherokee Trial of Tears to honor his 4,000 ancestors who died on the Trail in 1838. This was before Dances With Wolves and no one in the biz felt Americans would buy tickets to see such a movie. I became depressed, dust blowing in the wind. Was my script and idea just foolishness? I decided I was the man in the script, sold everything I owned and took a bus to Oklahoma to start walking the Trail back to my old Cherokee home in the mountains of north Alabama. I wrote a book, Walking the Trail, about my experiences. It went to auction in two weeks in NYC and Delacorte Press nominated it for a Pulitzer Prize. It has become a Native American classic and last year went on display in the National Teachers Hall of Fame. Who knows, my movie just might be made yet.

    • February 8, 2012 at 4:06 pm

      What a great story, Jerry. You literally walked the walk. I hope the move gets made and you love it.

      • February 9, 2012 at 3:49 am

        Thanks for responding to my post, Steven. You’re doing a magnificent service for writers. I just signed on here recently and look forward to following you.

  14. February 8, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    This is one of the reasons I’m so keen on the places in literature where sports and fiction come together. A great sporting event,like great fiction, usually features somebody overcoming this “All is Lost” moment. Besides Rocky, Rannulph Junah comes to mind!

  15. Hope Muturi
    February 9, 2012 at 1:25 am

    Wao. Powerful.

  16. February 9, 2012 at 2:27 am

    Very useful! Thank you.

  17. Basilis
    February 9, 2012 at 5:19 am

    The All is lost moment hunts me exactly at the finishing part of the book (last two or three chapters).
    But this is good.
    It’s the time that I feel the responsibility of my decisions.
    So what should I do know, that all is lost:
    Abandon, or continue?
    It’s like walking lost (and thirsty) in the desert: It’s a long way to return, so will I stop or will I go on? There might be an oasis, right after the next sand hill, there might not.
    I prefer to be the wondering bum into nothingness and find out, than stay right where I stand and just wait…

  18. February 9, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    Thank you so much for this. I needed it more than I can say.

  19. February 10, 2012 at 7:15 am

    Thought-provoking and encouraging, as usual. One aspect not covered: the transition from the “All is Lost” moment to the “Go For It” moment. In the case of Rocky, Paul (Bullwinkle and John, George & Ringo), and all the rest of us who reach the end of Act II, how – or when or why – do we get to Act III? The curtain closes all the same, the chapter ends, the commercial comes, the scene shifts, the chorus changes – all regardless if we, the protagonists, make it to the other side. Some obviously don’t. I think it occurs when we say “So What?” When we recognize that it doesn’t matter (italicize that) if “All is Lost,” then “So What?” – we might as well go ahead and take the risk, plunge, leap.
    Perhaps preceding the “So What?” is the “Of Course” – of course all is lost. That might explain why the shift from “All is Lost” to “Go For It” is largely sub or semi-conscious. We don’t will ourselves out of bed on a cold morning; we lie in bed until suddenly we’re standing on our fee. When Resistance starts with the self-annihilation talk, the “of course” moment comes when within ourselves we say, “of course I’m nothing – but that “I” isn’t me, it’s the nothing that’s the Resistance within.” Since I am a fool, I might as well be one.
    All Is Lost – Abandon the Self (Ego) – Go For It

  20. February 10, 2012 at 8:49 am

    “Will we take heart and steel ourselves with patience?”

    Patience is the hardest part. It’s too easy to go into freak out mode and throw your hands up in the air.

    But patience takes a lot of willpower, focus, and (of course) more patience.

    Great read!

  21. Sonja Eaton
    February 10, 2012 at 10:34 am

    Steven,
    You have a wonderful way of explaining Resistance in all its forms.

  22. Hammer Thy Signature
    February 11, 2012 at 9:38 am

    Your work on resistance has changed my life for the better at moments I really needed it. Thank you, SP, for being there, for being open, and for knowing that there are those of us who will find your words revelatory.

  23. February 13, 2012 at 11:10 am

    I feel like these moments never really end. My first major “All is Lost Moment” probably came in college when, after struggling with my novel for a year and a half and being dissatisfied with it, I just shoved it aside and wondered whether I really wanted to be a writer or not. Shortly after that, I visited Japan for study abroad, which would become my muse, and wrote extensive descriptions of living in that country, plus a short story and a work of fanfiction. When I came back to my novel, my whole attitude changed. I stopped worrying about how Ithought my novel should be written and began to trust my instincts more.
    But these kinds of moments continued after that. In fact, just yesterday, I was struggling with a month’s worth of work that seemed terrible to me. I just wanted to give up. But today, I just set new goals and kept going. I wonder if it means that we are always moving up to new levels. After all, we’re always improving every day. It might not be dramatic, but these small steps always raise us to new levels.

  24. March 3, 2012 at 6:08 am

    WOW Thank you! I don’t get on twitter very often, but for some reason did today and somebody had this linked…it was fate for me to read this at this time in my life!

  25. adpd
    July 4, 2012 at 7:25 am

    As a massive Rocky fan, I’d just like to point out that he loses in the first film to Apollo Creed. However, he is the first man to go the distance with him. Arguably, if there had been a 16th round, perhaps Rocky would have been able to win by a knockout or a stoppage due to the internal injuries Apollo had suffered from Rocky’s vicious body attacks.

    In Rocky II, Rocky wins by knockout against Apollo.