Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

All Breakthroughs come with a Fever

By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 30, 2013

I first came upon this concept in the writings of Laurens van der Post, the great South African. Are you familiar with him? He wrote one of my favorite books, The Seed and the Sower. The following comes from The Lost World of the Kalahari:

Laurens

Laurens van der Post

It has sometimes appeared to me that fever is designed, in part, to magnify reality, so that the imponderable contribution of the spirit to the malaise which produces fever, can become visible. There seems to be deep within it a rounding-up process of time which brings past, present, and future all lucidly together in the focus of a single symbol.

Van der Post believed that before the brain could assimilate as permanent some fresh personal advance or breakthrough, it had to recalibrate itself chemically. That was what the fever was doing. It was physically consolidating a spiritual change.

Van der Post was a friend of Carl Jung. He was deeply influenced by Jungian thinking and even made a couple of documentaries about Jung. But the bottom line for you and me as artists and entrepreneurs is this concept:

Every breakthrough is accompanied by a fever.

Which brings me to an episode that happened a couple of days ago with my friend Paul. You may remember Paul from several previous blog posts, tracking his struggles and progress as a writer.

Paul had a fever. Actually it wasn’t a fever; it was more like a nervous breakdown. His Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown. I’m exaggerating a little, but you get the idea. A nervous breakdown is a writer’s form of fever. It’s how we freak out, crap out, bust out, and blow out.

What was happening underneath it all was that Paul had made a breakthrough. He was getting better as a writer, becoming more of a pro. He had teamed up on a project with an established film-maker, and their work together was going great.

So he freaked out.

This fever expressed itself in two ways. First, Paul became convinced that everything he had written was garbage. He hated himself. He hated his work. I believe his phrase was “steaming turd.”

That was Symptom #1. Symptom #2 was expressed as a litany of furious and bitter grievances. I can relate to this myself. When I freak out, I do the same thing. Paul ran down the list of friends, family, etc. This one was screwing him. That one took him for granted. The third one didn’t appreciate him.

This was the form Paul’s fever took.

As I was trying to figure out how to talk him down from this ledge, it occurred to me that I had witnessed this same freak-out before. It happened every time Paul made a breakthrough in his work.

What is this all about?

It’s about fear of success.

It happens to all of us. We’re getting better and we can’t stand it. We’re approaching our dream, and it scares the hell out of us.

That’s the way we humans roll. We’re comfortable in the Known, no matter how crappy it is or how much we hate it. When we feel ourselves entering the Unknown, even if that Unknown is way better than the Known, not to mention something we’ve have been striving for all our lives, we panic. We freak. We melt down.

What makes this phenomenon particularly insidious is that we can never see it. We’re blind to the progress we’ve made. Resistance renders us sightless. Instead of feeling our fear, we project it outward onto others in the form of anger, resentment etc. and onto ourselves with the disapproving voices from childhood. You stink. You’re worthless. You can’t do anything right.

Paul himself has saved me more once from my own fevered breakdowns. He has sat me down and made me listen while he repeated all the good and brave things I have done over the previous X months. “Shut up! Stop getting down on yourself. Don’t you see how good you’ve done?”

So I tried to do the same for him now. “Think of where you were six months ago. Look at where you are now. Shut up and keep working. You’re doing great!”

The fever that Laurens van der Post was referring to in Lost World of the Kalahari happened not to him but to his wife. As van der Post was preparing for a particularly dangerous desert expedition, his wife, Ingaret Giffard, fell into prolonged delirium, which seemed to spring from concern for him and his safety. When she came out of it, she insisted: “Buy yourself a gun. The best in the world.”

Though van der Post was at that time not long removed from three years in a Japanese prison camp and had renounced all use of firearms, he heeded his wife’s instinct. It turned out, once deep into the Kalahari, that the gun he bought saved the expedition not once but three times.

So the next time you come down with a burning fever (or a plain old panicky/nervous freak-out), stop and ask yourself, “Have I just made some kind of artistic breakthrough that I’m refusing to recognize and to give myself credit for?”

Then remember Laurens van der Post:

All breakthroughs are accompanied by a fever.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

21 Responses to “All Breakthroughs come with a Fever”

  1. Basilis
    January 30, 2013 at 4:06 am

    Preparing your self for the breakthrough, the next artistic level e.t.c. you have a purpose in your life. You are focused. There is a “constructable” meaning that you make day by day stronger. You want to create it in your mind, so to feel safe…

    But if you achieve a goal, you realize suddenly that you are actually placed inside your dream already!

    And what if your latest work is the best that you could possibly ever create? Then what about the future of the dream?

    I think that there is actually a fear based on the perception that loosing the “constructable” meaning is equal to loosing the purpose, is equal to loosing the dream.

    During the creative process words like: goal, schedule, purpose, meaning (and you name what else!) are mixed in our mind with the concept of “The Dream”, and we seem to forget that they are just tools…

  2. January 30, 2013 at 4:38 am

    Hey, Pressfield: “You give me fever.”

    and one more…

    Christopher Walken as record producer Bruce Dickinson on Saturday Night Live: “I’ve got a fever, and the only thing that will cure it is more cow bell!”

    (Another kick-ass blog. Thanks)

  3. Ruth
    January 30, 2013 at 6:41 am

    I find that there are two interdependent journeys…the growth of talent and the growth of critical insight and that they grow at different times. Sometimes it feels, crushingly, as if my work suddenly stinks. And while that might be true too at times, what more commonly is happening is that I’ve taken a big step in my ability to understand what makes work great. My work hasn’t gotten any worse…the bar just moved higher, giving the illusion of backward movement, like a train on the next track beginning to move. Which can make me feel sick at heart, feverish sometimes, if I forget how usual this is. I’m a songwriter but perhaps this is true for others. Thanks for Wednesdays.

    • February 6, 2013 at 9:22 am

      Ruth: I really liked this comment. I try to just ignore the “crap” messages from resistance after I put in a lot of work on a piece of writing but seeing it as a reaction to “raising the bar” is a helpful insight.

  4. Kent Faver
    January 30, 2013 at 7:23 am

    Wonderful – thanks!

    Tara Sophia Mohr blogged about this within the last year and she did a very good job of describing the war within — as sort of a creative brain and business manager brain dilemma. Something to the effect that the creative brain is producing and the business brain is procrastinating about whether the book will sell, protecting the creator, etc. Thanks again.

  5. January 30, 2013 at 7:39 am

    Perhaps this is what Shakespeare had in mind when he had Caesar say, “A coward dies many times before his death.” (It ain’t salad.) There is a leap between the knowing and the doing, and another between the doing and accepting. If the Fever is the fight against Resistance, then the virus is most virulent when we are healthiest. But that’s the nature of the struggle.

    Time to think about the intersection of (self) belief and (self) doubt and how both may contribute to Resistance or to the Fever that burns it out.

    Thanks!

  6. January 30, 2013 at 8:51 am

    Breakthrough and fever – awesome concept. Never thought about it till today. Thank you for this, Steven, and also – thank you for “as artists and entrepreneurs”. We often forget the second part … or the first part, whatever the case may be.

    If I may add a little tweak on the ‘fear of success’ concept. A lot of us are not simply afraid of success. I think we are afraid of how we are going to take it. In order to learn and become successful we go through a lot of crap. Once the success comes, or is within reach, we are kind of afraid that with all that crap we went through – we might still stink despite the success. It is natural. I for one often think in situations like this – “How am I going to keep learning and growing, now that I’ve succeeded.” The tyranny of the regular pay-check is quite real. …

  7. Pamela Seley
    January 30, 2013 at 11:32 am

    Fear of success is a virus. Getting a fever or having a meltdown is a probably a healthy way of getting rid of it.

  8. January 30, 2013 at 11:35 am

    I’ve been physically ill more times in the past 9 (deliriously happy) months than any time in my whole life.

    I’ve also completely rethought my two businesses (for the better, by far) and begun a total retool of my writing.

    Fever. Indeed. Maybe if my doctor were a writer he’d know why I’ve been so sick. Maybe it’s just ’cause we moved cross country to somewhere new. Maybe.

    Steve, any idea what causes you to see these things? Seth calls himself “a guy who notices things” and I’m that way too, but it’s dead hard to notice things *about myself.* Is it that you’ve reached the point that when you see Paul freaking out, you’re just experienced enough to assume that you must do it, too, and then you see it?

    O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as ithers see us!

  9. January 30, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    Steven, I just took the writer’s thermometer from my mouth and it went from “normal” to “fever” after reading your piece today. Actually, I have had many fevers and at different times in my life. I had a fever when I failed in getting my movie produced in LA about the Cherokee Trail of Tears. I doubted myself and my work, its quality, purpose and meaning. I fled LA to return to the Old Cherokee Nation where I was born and raised in the mountains. It was the ideal spot to have my breakdown, surrounded by trees, creek and birds. My parents were there as well and their love was taller than the surrounding mountains. I healed and got a much bigger fever when I decided to WALK the 900 mile route of the Cherokee Trail of Tears. I sold all I owned to finance the long trek. I threw my whole body, mind and soul into the journey. I made it, wrote a book (with yet a bigger fever) about the trek in six months and it sold at auction with Random House winning. They nominated the book, Walking the Trail, for a Pulitzer Prize. Yep, that gave me another fever–one that wasn’t easy to handle because of all the publisher’s attention, media and coast to coast book tour. All that, however, gave me–in time–a little wisdom about the nature of the beast. I have learned the creature’s wrestling tricks and now–knock wood–know how to fight it: I just step out of its way, as best I can, and let my books–six published now–do the work. Flashing back to a piece you wrote about three weeks ago regarding promotion of one’s self and one’s books: This past week a major site on Facebook, Native American Encyclopedia, took it upon themselves to recommend my book, Walking the Trail, One Man’s Journey Along the Cherokee Trail of Tears. They even used my book cover as their banner for several days. THAT gave me a new fever as my sales shot through the roof, the book soaring to #5 on Kindle under Native American books. It was, however, a most welcomed fever, one that warmed my heart, one that did not give me a breakdown as had happened when I was in LA knocking on movie doors where no one was ever home. Keep up the great work, Steven. I am leading an all day writing/publishing seminar March 2nd, and I will be referring everyone there to your blog and books! This news may not give you a fever, but perhaps it will give you a discreet grin.

  10. January 30, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    I’m always impressed by the Comments to any blog post. They are so astute and generous — and almost always smarter than the post itself. Thanks to everyone who writes in.

    • January 30, 2013 at 7:01 pm

      Steven, your modesty and humility urge me to think ever more highly of you. Bravo!

  11. Mark Lawson
    January 30, 2013 at 6:23 pm

    Seriously Mr. Pressfield,

    I don’t want to scare you, but seeing as we live in the same city, I don’t know how I’d restrain myself from giving you a massive Man Hug if you ever snuck into my periphery.

    Been stuck on the last 10 percent of the fourth draft of my screenplay for three weeks. This fever had me really close to burning the headshots, ripping up my sag card and sledgehammering my computer.

    But it’s breaking. I feel it.

    Thank you.

  12. January 30, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    Steven I am beginning to understand my intermittent bouts of madness, doubt, unworthiness and litany of four letter words that I wouldn’t commit to paper, but also the sheer genius when a piece gets written like poetry a d prose rolling off the keyboard . . .Thank you for your deep insights!!

  13. Maria
    January 30, 2013 at 6:39 pm

    Thank you. I needed this today like you’ll never know. I got laid off yesterday, after months of wanting to get laid off. Yes, you read that correctly. I always felt like I needed that push to go and pursue my side projects. I worked at an unfulfilling job that was slowly crushing me. It was also a company where firings and hirings were a common occurrence, and every time someone got fired, I would think “lucky bastard.” When it eventually happened to me though, I panicked! I was shocked at my own reaction. I thought I’d be ready to open a bottle of champagne, but it was so much harder than I had ever imagined. All this time I thought that I just needed to quit my day job, and my projects would all take off and if not, I would be okay with failures too. Failures are a part of the process, right? But instead, I alternated between tears and panic. All those little voices you wrote about flared up full force. “You got laid off and now you’re going to do what?!?” So here I am, a day later, beginning to break the fever. This is what I wanted after all. A chance to follow my dreams and now, to put my money where my mouth is.

    • January 31, 2013 at 4:36 pm

      Fevers do break. Good luck, Maria!

    • Basilis
      February 1, 2013 at 2:53 am

      A bold move! Wish you the best, Maria!

  14. January 30, 2013 at 11:47 pm

    I think I’ve just been going through this, Steve. I’ve been in a kind of panic about the new novel I’m working on, doing all I can to avoid actually writing. But I’m trying to get over it and managed a few hundres words the other day and today wrote a new travel story so I hope that has given me the impetus to keep going. (That, and those pesky query letters I have to send out for my other novel!)

  15. John Thomas
    January 31, 2013 at 9:33 am

    “his examination revealed that he had no fever, no pain anywhere, and that his only concrete feeling was an urgent desire to die. All that was needed was shrewd questioning…to conclude once again that the symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera.”

    ― Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

    No matter what the medical-psychiatric complex wants you to believe, there is proof that there is a biological basis for any mental condition or illness. Nor will there ever be, Godel’s proof tells us so.

    Somewhere deep within us, matter meets spirit on equal terms and the two are able to move each other.

    My body is a mere vessel of memory. It leaks and screams, flows and dreams.

    What about jaw pain? Mine has been aching for the last few months. I don’t think it’s a problem rather a process/episode of growth for pain is nothing but weakness leaving the body.

  16. January 31, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    There are five steps to the introduction of a new baby to the world:

    They are:

    Conception
    Gestation
    Labour
    Transition
    Delivery

    Of the entire process … transition is the hardest. It is a time … just before delivery, when the mother “loses it” with a capital L, Her confidence, her composure, her steely will, her love of her partner (“BASTARD”) you name it … someone (the person closest) is likely to get a thick ear. Transition lasts an average of fourty five minutes and is the time period when the mother is most likely to give up her power and allow the doctor to intervene … usually at her peril. It is a time when most medical fuck ups take place. It is the time when the mother / (writer) most needs a coach … who knows what is really happening … a shoulder to lean on, to talk them through. Once through transition, strength returns, in spades, the “bring it on!” attitude prevails and mother delivers many times with a roar! BEWARE of this … BE-AWARE of this … have a coach on standby … know what is happening and you will make it through. Your baby will be born a champion. Fail to recognise it and your child, labor of love … your new book may suffer the interventions of lesser mortals who think thay know what they are doing and your book be still born!

    Transition is the MOTHERFUCKER of all RESISTANCE.

    BEWARE

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