Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Inside the All Is Lost Moment

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 25, 2012

We were talking last week about an All Is Lost Moment coming immediately before a Turning Pro moment. We cited Rocky, The Hangover and Big Night as examples. Sounds arcane, I know. Hang in with me.

Clooney

George Clooney on his way to the All Is Lost moment in "The Descendants"

In a movie, the All Is Lost moment is that crisis (usually two-thirds to four-fifths of the way through the story) where the hero hits the wall. He has failed in all his efforts to attain his objective; he’s completely stuck. There’s no way out and no way forward.

In The Descendants, for example [screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash], the All Is Lost moment comes near the climax of the movie, in the ICU, when George Clooney’s character Matt King confronts his comatose wife (who had cheated on him and thus shattered Clooney’s belief in himself and his marriage—and then had the bad manners to get herself into a boat crash and wind up permanently comatose, so that Clooney can’t even get the satisfaction of hearing her side of the story, venting his rage, or even expressing his continuing love for her in a way to which she can respond.)

In this All Is Lost scene, Clooney’s character does all the aforementioned. But it’s a one-way street since his wife can’t answer—leaving him feeling cuckolded, alone, bereft, and a failure as a husband, a father, and a man.

The interesting question for you and me is, What is the critical component of this moment (and almost all other All Is Lost moments in life and in art)?

It’s the shattering of a cherished self-delusion.

The shattering of self-delusion is the bad news—and the good news. The bad news is that we have just crashed to earth. We have come to face to face with some excruciating truth about ourselves or our prospects, and we don’t know how to endure it. George Clooney’s character thought he was a good husband with a happy marriage and a healthy, well-balanced family. Now not only has this whole house of cards collapsed, but, worse, he realizes it was a delusion all along. His emotional response? “All is lost!”

In movies, the All Is Lost moment is always followed by a Breakthrough. The hero somehow reconciles the irreconcilable. The protagonist finds a way out of the impasse.

This is where it gets interesting.

Because the hero, in movies and in real life, doesn’t “win.”  The nature of his breakthrough is not that he (Rocky) kayoes the champ in the big fight. It’s not that Primo and Secondo (Big Night) miraculously turn their restaurant into a success. It’s not that George Clooney revives his wife, who thereupon declares her undying love and begs him for forgiveness. None of that happens.

What happens is the hero acknowledges the long-denied truth, finds the strength to accept it, and keeps on living/aspiring/loving.

ROCKY

I know I can’t beat Creed. But if I can just go the distance with him. No one’s never done that. If I’m still standing at the end of the fight, then I’m gonna know for the first time that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.

Rocky has accepted the truth (he’s not gonna beat the champ; in fact, he’s probably going to get the crap pounded out of him by the champ) and he has answered the question, “What are you gonna do about it?”

“My name is _______ and I’m an alcoholic.” The reason all AA individual statements begin like this is to reinforce and acknowledge this component of the All Is Lost moment. The recovering alcoholic admits—to himself and to witnesses who understand his plight—that he has failed to master this specific weakness.

There is enormous power in such a confession, because it places our feet firmly on the ground. We have told the truth. We’re not lying to ourselves any more. We may still be screwed and still have the exact same problem we did ninety seconds ago, but at least we’re no longer deluding ourselves that we don’t have a problem.

Now comes the critical question: “What are we going to do about it?”

For the alcoholic, the answer is, “I’m going to stop drinking.”

For George Clooney in The Descendants, it’s simply, “I’m going to keep going—with my daughters—as a family, and I’m going to appreciate who I am, who they are, and what we still have together.”

The answer to “What are you going to do about it?” is the Breakthrough Moment.

The Breakthrough/Turning Pro Moment is an epiphany, and the nature of epiphanies is that they don’t solve the original problem. They acknowledge it and they change the frame of reference.

When we turn pro as artists or entrepreneurs, we do not achieve enlightenment. Nirvana still eludes us. We will not wake up tomorrow morning freed of our fears or our self-doubts or our Resistance. In some ways, these demons will be even worse because now we’re more excruciatingly aware of them.

But in the Breakthrough/Turning Pro moment we have changed everything, because we now see our problem for what it is and we see ourselves for who we are.

The Breakthrough/Turning Pro moment is a sadder-but-wiser event. We are humbled like Rocky, like Primo and Secondo, and like George Clooney. But that humbling has given us a priceless gift: the truth about our work and about ourselves. We might not know the answer yet, but at least we know the question:

“What are you going to do about it?”

Next week: How the “A” story and the “B” story coincide in the All Is Lost moment.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

28 Responses to “Inside the All Is Lost Moment”

  1. July 25, 2012 at 2:40 am

    Dear Steven,

    I am enjoying reading your ‘Breakthrough / Turning Pro’ posts.

    This from todays is like a golden key for a rusty lock:

    “The Breakthrough/Turning Pro Moment is an epiphany, and the nature of epiphanies is that they don’t solve the original problem. They acknowledge it and they change the frame of reference.”

    Thanks again,
    Regards
    Jason Lee

  2. July 25, 2012 at 4:37 am

    Your books are on my “important reads of all time list” and I just stumbled on this post. I am subscribing to your feed now!

  3. July 25, 2012 at 5:50 am

    Thank you, Steven, for turning pro and giving us so much wisdom and help along our life-paths. By some weird cosmic coincidence I discovered The Tides of War, Gates of Fire and The War of Art as I was hitting my own real-life all-is-lost moment. I’m grateful for that. Sometimes I wish I could give-back at least some of what you’ve given me. It is a very real, material difference – I am better for having gone through this with your writing as my companion. One of the characteristics of an all-is-lost moment is the loneliness. You burn all assumptions, all connections – you need to go through your epiphany alone – it is just for you. With your books – it didn’t feel that lonely.

    • July 25, 2012 at 4:24 pm

      Thanks, Vlad. The weird part is, the more writers and artists I talk to, the more I see that the ordeals we all go through are EXACTLY THE SAME and feel exactly the same to all of us. Yet you’re right, in the moment, it’s the loneliest place in the world.

  4. Patricia
    July 25, 2012 at 7:21 am

    Steve,
    I am truly grateful for having stumbled upon your books and your concept of being/turning Pro. Also, this and last week’s post spoke a lot of me, too, and I’ve been reflecting on them.
    I notice that you often refer to the “one” All is Lost Moment before turning Pro. I find that for myself, at least so far, it has been a series of major All is Lost Moments and subsequent “what am I going to do about it”s, in different areas of my life: As a mother, as a woman, with regard to my finances, with regard to faith….and although there maybe something that connects all of these All is Lost Moments, it seems that each of them adds a new, important aspect to being pro, and it is more about the sum of them than a single incident.

    I still keep thinking whether there was a “first” one :-)

    Keep up the awesome work.
    Patricia

    • July 25, 2012 at 4:25 pm

      I agree, Patricia. Those pesky All Is Lost moment just keep coming!

  5. Patricia
    July 25, 2012 at 7:25 am

    Sorry about the typo…of course I meant Steven.

  6. John
    July 25, 2012 at 7:47 am

    Another great article!

  7. Randy
    July 25, 2012 at 8:37 am

    Steve, your articles are one of the highlights of my week. Always timely, always on point. Thank you for your generosity.

  8. Sonja
    July 25, 2012 at 10:22 am

    As usual, powerful stuff. What an excruciating moment you write about: to feel vulnerable, humble, and empowered all at the same time.

  9. Regina
    July 25, 2012 at 11:00 am

    So the breakthrough moment doesn’t have to be like Rocky where he wins the fight? It can be moving with acceptance of ones own failing?

    That lets a lot of pressure off! A bowl of ice cream on the couch with the kids can also be one. Phew!

  10. skip
    July 25, 2012 at 11:00 am

    once again, pure genius. makes one ponder a life without going thru an all-is-lost moment. on the other hand, too many of them can drive one to that AA statement!

  11. July 25, 2012 at 11:26 am

    Thank you Steven for another awesome post.
    “My name is _______ and I’m resisting/procrastinating.” ~ works for me!!

  12. Basilis
    July 25, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    It’s amazing how an article can end with a simple question and a synopsis at the same time.
    So what are you going to do about it?
    I’ve asked my self this exact question in the near past and I’m sure that I’ll do it again in the future.
    As everybody reading this article of course…

  13. July 25, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    “We will not wake up tomorrow morning freed of our fears or our self-doubts or our Resistance. In some ways, these demons will be even worse because now we’re more excruciatingly aware of them.”

    This is such marvelously good news I think I’ll make it a *triple* bourbon.

  14. Denise
    July 25, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    Many thanks, and bless you for normalizing this experience which lately feels like the war of life. Your insights are a life saver, in perfect timing yet again, and deeply healing.
    With much gratitude,
    Denise

  15. July 25, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    You don’t know how much I needed to read this, as a writer and in my personal life. Some days I miss the bliss of ignorance. And denial. And rose colored glasses.

    I love this line: “What happens is the hero acknowledges the long-denied truth, finds the strength to accept it, and keeps on living/aspiring/loving.”

    That’s the key – staying open to life and love, not shutting down.

  16. Padma
    July 26, 2012 at 3:27 am

    Experienced this feeling many a times in my life..
    but never heard from others that too which is so well put using movies. For a moment your idea made me see various moments in my life, and highlight those points where in I changed my ‘frames of reference’.

  17. July 26, 2012 at 4:11 am

    January 16th last year I broke completely. Turned the gas cooker on and took a series of long deep breaths till I couldn’t remember anymore. I woke up to my surprise.

    On tuesday I move into an old unfurnished remote irish cottage, I’m taking stuff there today in a borrowed car. It’ll be my home and studio until March next year. Then it’s being knocked and rebuilt by the owners.

    At present there is no electricity or running water, there’s a water-well thats needs power for the pump. The electricity company will connect it but it’ll take them some time. By tuesday? There are forms for forms to fill out and cash up front.

    Three years of being bullied, including violent threats, viewed with suspicion, and losing connections in the fragile environment of a small community. My day to day life, love, friendships, income and health have a ll taken hits. Too many. For too long. January 16th 2011 was my all is lost moment.

    I’m broke, exhausted and still feel isolated.

    All is lost again? Throughout the entire ordeal I got up each day and made my art. Savings substituted lack of income with frugality. But they’ve gone now. All is lost moment?

    Food, hygiene and rest will take front of stage. How I make my art will change, there’ll be old and new surprises in the process. The electricity will get connected or I’ll find another place. My relationship will find a way that works for both of us, with or without each other, we’ll figure it out. Very little will be easy for a while to come. There will be no room to fool myself.

    All is lost? I haven’t got it all figured out yet. I’m in the middle of it and can’t see the edges right now. But 10 minutes ago this comment reply box was empty, just like the blank page or the blank canvas or the empty dance hall. I’m going to shake my hands in the air, click my fingers 51 times and fill these empty spaces.

    Thanks to you all.
    Jason Lee

    • July 26, 2012 at 10:40 am

      Jason, it sounds like you are smack in the middle of “the good old days.” Your site looks great and you are banging out some really interesting stuff. Good luck and keep hammering!

  18. July 26, 2012 at 7:04 am

    Right on the money, Steve

    Semper Fi

    A friend of Bill

  19. July 27, 2012 at 6:58 am

    I’ve been trying to find a way to enter this conversation, to add some thought or insight or experience or metaphor or reference. I thought of referencing the book of Job, for instance, but that seems obvious. We spend our lives trying to define ourselves, and it’s scary because we are indefinable. And the “All is Lost” moment is also the “Who am I?” or “Where am I?” moment – and the answer is always, “I don’t know.” Maybe that’s why the truth – the Breakthrough – is an epiphany – a perception of the essence or a revelation of the Divine within.
    Didn’t someone once say that only by losing the self can we preserve (or find) the self?
    Thanks again, as always, for thought-provoking and inspiring words.

  20. July 27, 2012 at 7:05 am

    One further thought: You wrote, “Because the hero, in movies and in real life, doesn’t “win.” ”

    The All is Lost/Breakthrough might then be seen as a realization that it’s (an indefinite pronoun and to be verb) not about winning, but about being. Or perhaps we win when we do, when we perform the truth within.

  21. July 28, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    Thanks so much. Terrific post. My first visit to your site after your book was mentioned on Writer Unboxed by Porter Anderson.

  22. BigMG
    July 29, 2012 at 4:14 am

    I totally agree with Steven’s analysis (as usual).
    The ‘All is Lost’ moment can also be described as ‘Hitting Rock Bottom’. Having worked with people who ‘suffer’ from ‘addictions’, of one sort or another, you soon discover that addiction is mostly delusion.
    I’ve seen people show up places utterly gone and thinking that nobody will notice.
    When the moment comes that they’ve hit rock bottom is when their delusions are beaten out of them and they have nowhere to hide.
    When society coddles such people with words like, suffer, addiction, and other excuse filled pablum, they only prevent or further delay that All Is Lost moment.
    The All Is Lost moment for anyone is the best time of their life, because all self deception is blown away.

  23. July 30, 2012 at 1:18 pm
  24. July 30, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    Really enjoyed this post. Thank you.

  25. August 1, 2012 at 8:49 am

    I don’t know what I’m going to do about it but I have to keep trying.