Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Admiral Nelson’s Advice to Artists

By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 5, 2012

I heard this from Gen. James Mattis a couple of years ago when he was speaking at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. It has proved invaluable to me as a writer.

Trafalgar

Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson was mortally wounded in England's greatest naval victory, Trafalgar, 1805.

Gen. Mattis was talking to a roomful of young officers. The subject was command and control in combat. If we’re the senior officer, how can we, in the heat and confusion of action, control the men and units beneath us? And if we’re the junior officer, how can we get help and advice from our seniors above?

Mattis cited Admiral Horatio Nelson, England’s greatest naval hero. On the eve of the battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805, Nelson summoned his captains to his flagship, H.M.S. Victory.

Nelson knew that in the morning, each of his skippers would be essentially on his own. Formations would break apart, smoke and fire would obscure the scene. Individual captains would have no way of communicating with him, or he with them.

How would each commander know what to do?

When their own vessel was on fire, when wounded sailors were crying out all around them, when smoke blanketed the surface of the sea so that the skipper could no longer tell where he was, where the enemy was, or even if the battle were being won or lost … how would that solitary, isolated captain know what to do?

“In that moment,” said Nelson, “remember this: I shall fault no commander who lays his vessel alongside a ship of the enemy.”

In the American navy, that statement is called “commander’s intent.”

You and I as writers, artists and entrepreneur’s can follow that statement too.

Like Nelson’s captains, we advance into action shipshape and flushed with confidence, in formation alongside our squadron-mates, with our sails spotless and our brightwork gleaming. Our decks have been holystoned; every cannon is clean and ready and manned by crews unbloodied and keen for the fight.

Then the shit hits the fan.

By the time we’re a third of the way through our book or our movie or our new Nicaraguan restaurant, we can’t remember why we started, where we were going, or how we imagined we could ever get there in the first place.

By the time we’re two-thirds through, it’s even worse. And at nine-tenths, we’re deaf and blind and reduced to jibbering incoherency.

What to do?

“I shall fault no commander who lays his vessel alongside a ship of the enemy.”

Nelson’s statement of commander’s intent was perfect for his battle.

You and I need to seriously consider ours. What is our overriding intention? Why are we writing this book, or making this movie, or organizing this start-up?

In my experience, Nelson’s statement works pretty well in almost every case.

Keep fighting as if we were going to win.

Keep moving forward even if we don’t know where we’re going.

The smoke will clear eventually. We’ll lose or we’ll win. Great events are out of our hands. All we can do is that which is in the power of one ship, one crew, one captain.

Is Act Two breaking our back? Deal with that.

Have we run out of money? Is the kitchen staff mutinying? Is Resistance beating us to a pulp?

Wade into that.

Steer for the nearest enemy man o’ war and put the mouths of our cannons as close to his waterline as we can get.

This is scary. Nobody says it doesn’t elicit severe tightening of the puckerstring. And it’s risky. Seamen become casualties when we fight broadside-to-broadside.

But in crunch time, the skipper who remembers what he’s trying to do is the one who survives.

“I shall fault no commander who lays his vessel alongside a ship of the enemy.”

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

17 Responses to “Admiral Nelson’s Advice to Artists”

  1. September 5, 2012 at 6:17 am

    Profound.

    Somewhat reminiscent of Krishna’s advice to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.

    Another stellar life lesson.

    • September 10, 2012 at 9:30 pm

      Yes, yes, yes. The Gita. Onward and upward for us all!

  2. September 5, 2012 at 8:09 am

    Ha! Very awesome, and at just the right time!

    When the student is ready…

  3. September 5, 2012 at 8:35 am

    Excellent post, thanks for this. Mission Command doctrine applied to daily life. What are your Main Effort and Desired Endstate? Define those, and the rest is simply a matter of focusing your efforts to achieve them.

  4. Basilis
    September 5, 2012 at 10:31 am

    Yes Sir!
    I’ll sink this damned Resistance Armada!

  5. September 5, 2012 at 11:04 am

    Steve, to clarify, when Admiral Nelson said “I shall fault no commander who lays his vessel alongside a ship of the enemy”, he was stating that no act is a “wrong” act in the haste of battle?

    • David Schofield
      September 6, 2012 at 8:21 pm

      Hi John,

      I think that Nelson’s message was that, when everything became confused and commanders had to make decisions with limited or no information beyond what was going on in their immediate surrounds, Nelson’s order to the commander was to engage the enemy.

      My interpretation of the ‘I shall fault no commander who…’ element of the statement is that, if a commander took terrible losses or even lost his ship through engaging directly the enemy, then he would be recognised as having done his job.

      If that commander took those losses sailing around trying to make a decision or, worse, turned up at the end of the battle having avoided contact with the enemy, then Nelson would indeed find fault. Or, as it turned out, Nelson’s successor would find fault…

      I think that interpreting that to mean that Nelson said no act is wrong in battle would be to infer incorrectly.

      Regards,

      David

      • Mark Wynn
        September 12, 2012 at 6:06 pm

        Agree. He was saying, you will not be faulted for engaging the enemy.

  6. September 5, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Thanks, Steve. Lord Nelson’s eloquence commands respect

  7. Ulla Lauridsen
    September 5, 2012 at 11:37 am

    Brilliant. Strangely, when you wrote “But in crunch time, the skipper who remembers what he’s trying to do is the one who survives,” I thought not of my writing but of the larger perspective: Raising af family. That’s what I’m REALLY doing, and I do it by writing, but it makes a difference which is the actual aim.

  8. September 5, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    Thanks so much for this! I needed to hear it.

  9. September 5, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    I recently post my family crest – McGregor – on the wall by where I work. The motto “even do and spare none” is at the bottom of it to remind me to step into the danger and uncertainty. To be bold. Or as Nelson suggests to pull alongside the enemy.

  10. September 5, 2012 at 9:07 pm

    There is a down-home country folk statement that sums this all up: “When you are knee deep in alligators, it is very hard to remember that the original mission was to drain the swamp!”

    My way of defusing in my mind, all those oppositions to where I want to get to, is to say to myself, “It’s just another alligator!” and get back to doing the foot work.

  11. September 7, 2012 at 12:41 am

    In those days, inaccurate weaponry meant that the best chance of success was to be as close as possible to the enemy. Obviously, as they are so close, it was also a captains best chance of failure.

    I think some modern day equivalents would be “Give ’em hell!” (certainly used by John Wayne in one or two movies) or, in later years, “Let’s kick ass!”

    They are, I think, merely reminders; very much the same as “You know what we have to do and how to do it, so do it!”

  12. P.L. Bowler
    September 7, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    Andrew, your comment reminds me of great military figure’s assessment of the zeitgeist. General Douglas MacArthur observed: “There is no security on this planet . . . only opportunity.”

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