Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Organizing a Year

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 18, 2013

Shawn, Jeff and I just did an hour-long “Ask Me Anything” podcast called Organizing a Day, Organizing a Year. We’ll be e-mailing it on New Year’s Day to everyone who has signed up for First Look Access. Our aim is to help get 2014 off to a productive start.

Mamet

David Mamet. The playwright is well acquainted with agony.

One of the subjects that came up during the taping was Predictable Trouble Spots.

We were talking about looking ahead to the new year, starting out strong, staying strong—and then we remembered the horrors that inevitably lie ahead.

Bank on it, there will be moments for you and me during 2014 when our plans will run awry, when we lose focus, run out of gas, freak out, abandon hope, drop to our knees and beg for mercy.

Is there an answer?

Yes.

The trick is acknowledging, before we start, that these shitstorms will be coming—and mentally preparing for them in advance.

The marathon runner knows that at 22 or 23 miles she is going to “hit the wall.” At this distance the body’s stores of glycogen run out. Energy crashes. Our legs go dead. Agony ensues.

The trick is to anticipate this crisis and brace ourselves for it physically (carb loading) and emotionally (mental toughness). Then when the crash occurs, we don’t devolve immediately into panic mode.

Same thing with a book or a movie or any long-term project.

Here are four predictable Trouble Points:

1. The very start.

The first word of the first paragraph of the first page. Arrrgggh. How do we find the courage to get this damn thing off the dime?

2. One month in.

We’ve started. We have set sail. Enthusiasm and early momentum carry us forward, like mariners pushing off from Palos, Spain and skimming joyously toward the Indies. Then suddenly we glance astern and we can’t see land any more.

As Columbus declared at that moment, “OMG!”

The honeymoon is over. Love’s first flush has flown. We realize we’re committed and there is no backing out.

3. At the mid-point.

Here is David Mamet in Three Uses of the Knife on the subject of “Second Act Problems”:

The joke has it: remembering you set out to drain the swamp is hard when you’re up to your ass in alligators. And that is the problem of the second act.

How many times have we heard (and said): Yes, I know that I was cautioned, that the way would become difficult and I would want to quit, that such was inevitable and that at exactly this point the battle would be lost or won. Yes, I know all that, but those who cautioned me could not have foreseen the magnitude of the specific difficulties I am encountering at this point—difficulties which must, sadly, but I have no choice, force me to resign the struggle (and have a drink, a cigarette, an affair, a rest), in short, to declare failure.

4. At the end.

This was my own bete-noir for years. I could not finish a project. It’d get 99.9% of the way through and I’d panic.

Fear of success? Fear of failure? I have no idea. I would do just what Mamet predicted. Jam a stick of dynamite under everything I love and light the fuse.

Then there’s a fifth Predictable Trouble Spot:

5. When we’re about to get better.

Skills don’t advance in a steady ascent; they move forward by plateaus. It’s a staircase, not a rising slope.

When we come to a new step, we hit the riser first. We hit the wall.

In my experience, two things can happen at this point.

First, we can panic. I mean this literally. We wake in terror. We sweat. We feel fear in every sinew.

Or second, we become enraged. Free-form fury suffuses our body. Monologues of rage play out inside our skulls. We blame everybody. Those bastards! They’re betraying me!

What’s really happening is we’re about to move to the next level and it is scaring the crap out of us.

But back to our original subject: Organizing a Year.

When we make our plans for 2014—the novel we’re going to finish, the new business we aim to start, the family or service project we intend to complete—we will be very wise to remember, like those sailors setting off for the Indies, that we will encounter storms; we will become becalmed; sickness will break out onboard; we may confront a mutiny; inexplicable panic may strike the crew or even ourselves, the captain.

Be ready.

The storm will pass. Becalmed periods will end. We might have to break out the cutlasses and the flintlock pistols, but we will quell the mutiny. Even the terrors of night will yield to the new day.

The Indies lie ahead, shipmates! Have faith and keep sailing toward the setting sun.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

16 Responses to “Organizing a Year”

  1. Mary
    December 18, 2013 at 4:05 am

    Oh how I have been hoping for this podcast as I find myself trying to beat back the alligators. I am going to finish this novel in 2014 if it kills me, and then start the next one. You could not be offering us a better New Year’s Day gift guys – we who are about to (not) die salute you! Thank you for all of the inspiration, information and support this past year.

    • December 18, 2013 at 9:55 am

      Thanks for helping us get geared up for the new year. Like many of your readers, I too am in the throes of getting a book finished. All of the practical advice and inspiration we receive from you and your team really helps!

  2. Basilis
    December 18, 2013 at 4:13 am

    Before I even read what this post is about, I’d like to say that I find the “free giving book” for
    Christmas a great marketing idea.
    And, also, that I’m moved!
    That’s why I’d like to share a Christmas carol I wrote (recorded with the help of my 5-year old students) and recently uploaded it to youtube.

    Dedicated to all you artists who struggle for The Dream!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zwe5dMcjNeo&feature=youtube_gdata

    (about the lyrics, see in youtube and let’s hope that my translation makes some sense!) 😆

    • December 23, 2013 at 9:34 am

      This is so wonderful, Basilis. It’s nice to know that with all the difficulties in Greece these days, the artists are still doing their work. I have shared this with my Greek family and friends, and they all love it.

  3. Mary
    December 18, 2013 at 6:46 am

    P.S. Thanks so much for the free e-book gift!

  4. Todd
    December 18, 2013 at 6:46 am

    Steven ~
    I so needed this today…at this moment. I’ve had a project that I’ve been staring at for awhile, feeling the momentum building but being afraid to start. Of course, “starting” is on the New Year’s resolutions list but the fear lingers. PREPARING for the fear, for the difficulties, is the thing that I needed to hear and focus on. Thank you for your honesty and bluntness and how encouraging it all really comes across.

  5. Zaretta
    December 18, 2013 at 7:05 am

    Thanks, Steve. This was timely. I am in the middle of writing my first book (non-fiction) and I am up to my ass in alligators! The voices in my head are screaming to light that stick of dynamite. For the past week, I’ve been say that I couldn’t believe no one told me about this part of writing. Thanks for filling us in. Just reading that every writer goes through this is comforting.

  6. December 18, 2013 at 7:22 am

    Thanks for another great post, Steve. For me, the Trouble Spot that stands its ground and stares me down is that moment of “getting better” or improving my skill as a writer. Isn’t it fascinating that this point – moving up a level – can be thrilling and terrifying at the same time? Thanks to your reminder, I will err on the side of the thrill and not let fear stop me. Here’s to a memorable 2014!

  7. December 18, 2013 at 8:54 am

    Yup on the ‘getting better’ part as a trouble spot.

    And it’s bad when you realize something needs to be fixed, and it may be through the whole book – but wouldn’t you rather know before than after it is published?

    The ‘pre-learning tantrum’ stage when you’re all confused and haven’t yet moved up is painful and frustrating – and then you break through above the clouds to a new level of understanding, and it feel SO good.

  8. cindy
    December 18, 2013 at 10:15 am

    Another terrific post…

    I also wanted to thank the Black Irish team for the free e-book. I just read the wonderful opening of The Authentic Swing and all I want to do right now is get out on the golf course!

    My dad was an avid golfer but not a wealthy man. He sacrificed many things so he could join a golf club; that’s how important the game was to him. Despite my initial resistance my dad convinced me to give the game a chance so i’ve played since i was kid. I grew up spending summers smacking striped balls on the driving range, studying the angles on the practice putting greens and of course checking out the hot caddies as we girls oh so casually strolled by in our dorky knee length shorts, learning how to shake our stuff. My non-golf girl friends, who were invariably taking ballet or flute lessons, would tease me about my interest in the game until i told them about the uber cool hot caddies…

    On another note, my dad always called the game the great equalizer — no one, not CEO or caddie, cared where you went to college, what you did for a living or how much you made when you sunk a 40 foot putt or put your drive on the green. I think we can say the same for great writing.

    I really look forward to reading the rest of the book. And thank you so much Steve for the wonderful memories of hot summers and those sunburned, muscled young men pretending not to check us out as we pretended not to notice them when we strolled past the caddie shack for the seventh time that day!

  9. December 18, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    Epic post, Steven.
    I so appreciate this, as it is the stuff I coach my entrepreneur clients on and MYSELF on. You are so right; those checkpoints along our flight path (beginning, one-month-in, midpoint, and end…ESPECIALLY near the end) are always “fun” and almost always test our mettle.
    Thanks for helping to keep the mutinous resistance at bay for me and the rest of your shipmates.
    ~JT

  10. December 18, 2013 at 2:59 pm

    Brilliant, Steven.

    Thanks for unmasking Predictable Trouble Point #5; I had never recognized that one before. Hopefully this explains the free-form rage I’ve experienced in the last week!

  11. December 19, 2013 at 1:21 am

    Steve, Thanks for Turning Pro.

  12. December 19, 2013 at 5:17 am

    Steve, thanks for the post. I needed this – especially #5th trouble spot.

    And thanks for the free ebook gift!

  13. December 19, 2013 at 10:11 am

    Thanks so much for writing this. Shitstorms will be prepared for. May we enjoy the path before us, pilgrims from a high plan we are, perhaps we make the heavens wonder this year, why have they not given up…it’s because we believe and are deliciously addicted to the spirit of creativity!

  14. December 26, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    Interesting that the Trouble Points parallel the crisis points of a narrative. The three-act play has four points. The screenwriter’s creed has four sections, with the blow-it-all-up in the middle.

    Even life has the same Trouble Points. Beginning. Adolescence. Mid-life!!crisis. Senior citizen. And sections within them.

    Patterns and parallels. The narrative of DNA. Even in the rewrite.

    Thanks. Love the post.