Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

“Keep Working”

By Steven Pressfield | Published: March 21, 2012

When I came out to Tinseltown from New York in the 80’s, one of my first paying gigs was working with a grizzled, old-time director on a low-budget action script. (This post is picking up from last week’s, about “Track #1” and “Track #2.”)

Oscar

One of these sat on the director's mantel

The director and I used to work at his house in the Hollywood hills. We’d sit side by side at a huge oak table in his kitchen for eight or ten hours at a crack. I’d drive home exhausted, but I was having fun. The director and I started becoming friends. One day during a break he asked me what else I was doing, when I wasn’t working for him.

I told him I had written three novels that never got published—and I was constantly hammering out spec screenplays that also didn’t sell. He regarded me thoughtfully for a long few seconds. “Keep working,” he said.

I could tell this was a piece of serious wisdom from a veteran who had been through the wars, but I wasn’t really sure what he meant.

The next day I asked him if he wouldn’t mind elaborating. Again he said, “Just keep working.”

Then his fiftieth birthday came around. His wife threw a big party and I helped out. The director had a few more Margaritas than he intended. He had also recently been diagnosed with cancer. When the party was over, he and I wound up in the kitchen together, doing the dishes and putting them away.

“Keep working,” he said. “Don’t turn anything down. Porn flicks, slasher movies, free stuff for friends. Don’t get precious. You’re young, you’re learning. Keep working.”

He cited three reasons:

“One, working means you’re getting paid. I know I’m giving you bupkus on this job. But it’s money, it’s validation. Every buck means you’re a working pro, you’re toiling in your chosen field.

“Two, when you work, you learn. Everybody has something to teach you. A grip will show you something about lighting, an editor will drop some pearl about what to keep and what to cut. Even actors know something.

“Three, you’re making friends. Some kid who’s schlepping coffee today may be a producer tomorrow. An actress you run lines with may hire you for a rewrite five years from now. Who knows, you might even get laid.”

My friend was making a case for Track #2, the commercial track. But implicit in his advice was to never take your eye off Track #1, the artistic track.

“This crap story that we’re working on now can teach you plenty. Because it’s working. The principles of story-telling are in this piece, just like in Shakespeare. I’m making sure they’re in there. Watch me. Do what I tell you. Porn works, splatter works, horror works; if they didn’t, nobody’d finance ‘em and nobody’d go to see ‘em. You can learn from all of them.”

We said goodnight outside by my car. I wished my friend happy birthday. He turned and walked back up the steps. He and his wife had a great house with a view over the whole city.  At the top step he stopped and turned back.

“But don’t forget, the same principle that’s healthy at one stage of your career can be fatal at another. You have kids, a mortgage, you find yourself caught up in a life that you can’t let go of. Now you’re doing work because you have to.”

Inside, on my friend’s mantel sat an Academy Award. But he had been doing episodic TV and worse for a lot of years. He didn’t say anything now, but I got the message.

“Take any job now. Learn. Make friends. Don’t turn your nose up at anything. But keep your eyes on the prize.”

There’s a sad ending to this story. My friend died a few years later. Our little action movie never got made. But I took a lot of jobs because of what my friend told me, and I never regretted any of them. And I didn’t forget what he said about Track #1 and Track #2, even if he didn’t use those terms.

“Keep working.”

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

18 Responses to ““Keep Working””

  1. Ulla Lauridsen
    March 21, 2012 at 1:34 am

    Absolutely brilliant. And now I have to go work. Resistance has been having its way with me for half an hour already.

  2. March 21, 2012 at 4:08 am

    That’s all I needed to read today.
    Thanks

  3. March 21, 2012 at 4:11 am

    Although I didn’t come to writing until much later in life, I work on it every day. I’ve met some amazing people along the way – and as you say, I’m learning from them. What’s particularly gratifying is how folks I meet through blogging or a workshop or through referral are willing to help. Humanity at its finest.

  4. March 21, 2012 at 4:36 am

    I do.

  5. skip
    March 21, 2012 at 5:46 am

    thanks steve. it aint work for me if i am passionate about it–which i am. and you are too!

  6. Basilis
    March 21, 2012 at 6:23 am

    Good advice is always needed.

  7. March 21, 2012 at 7:26 am

    A sad ending? Since your friend passed away, the ending elicits a sense of loss. But your friend created a legacy in his conversation with you, a legacy greater than his Academy Award. Encouragement of the young (novice is a better term), being a teacher and a mentor – one must have achieved mastery first, and then be a mentsch to pass it on. That last story he was telling wasn’t in the crap movie; it was in the advice he gave you and the life you have written.

  8. March 21, 2012 at 7:46 am

    Thanks for this. The Track One and Track Two lesson sure hits home with me. If anyone wants to check out my take on this, you can read my latest blog post here>, where I add basketball to the mix.

  9. Jason Keough
    March 21, 2012 at 8:18 am

    Great advice, thank you.

  10. March 21, 2012 at 10:13 am

    Thanks for another inspiring message, Steve.

  11. March 21, 2012 at 11:51 am

    Awesome…thanks so much…great inspiration (as usual)…

  12. March 21, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    Directions included, spectacles not.

    Is it resistance to feel too brain dead to write after 8 hours working a B.S. job just to pay the bills and feed the family you feel responsible for.
    Feeling too burnt out at the end of the day to put a sentence together.
    Like your friend said, “you find yourself caught up in a life that you can’t let go of.” Only maybe it’s not even the work one likes and it looks too late in the game to learn the skills to manifest the dreams.
    A young man or woman with no one dependent can live the bohemian live and pursue art, living with little money, but lots of time. I know, Tolstoy had lots of kids and still wrote, but didn’t he have money to feed and care for them while he wrote?
    Meanwhile, the pendulum gets lower with each passing day. Pay no attention to that pendulum. It’s the journey, not the destination. I just made a wrong turn and got off the scenic route for a moment. A good night’s sleep and pot of coffee in the morning should cure the boredom. You know, as I reread this, I think it is just an excuse. My resistance is having fun.
    He would make a damn good lawyer though, eh?
    So how to do inspire my positive barrister to dispel Attorney Resistances’ argument and get me back on my feet?
    How do ‘I’? I who? I’m feeling a bit schizo…

    Nice water. I’m even thirsty.
    – A tired, horse.

    • March 22, 2012 at 1:38 pm

      John, I know exactly how you feel (or at least how you felt at the moment you wrote that note.) I remember a few years ago when Steven Soderbergh won the Best Directing Oscar for “Traffic,” he said something I thought was really great. He held up the statuette and said, “This is for everyone who puts in just one hour a day pursuing their dream. Even if it’s only one hour, that’s enough.”

  13. March 22, 2012 at 12:42 am

    Piece of gold. Thanks Steve~

  14. March 22, 2012 at 10:30 am

    Thank you, Steve.

  15. March 22, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    Keep working, keep working. Just keep working. Thank you, thank you again. Just keep reminding us.

  16. March 27, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    Wow. Just wow.

  17. March 28, 2012 at 4:51 am

    Steve, I love that ! Hell yeah !!!!