Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

My Overnight Success

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 24, 2014

There’s a story about the Oscar-winning actor Walter Matthau. A younger thespian is bemoaning his own struggle in show biz. “Mr. Matthau, I’m just looking for that one big break!”

Walter Matthau

In the story Matthau laughs. “Kid,” he says. “It’s not the one big break. It’s the fifty big breaks.”

Here’s what I wrote a few weeks ago, in the first post in this series about the writing of The Legend of Bagger Vance.

I attempted to write my first novel when I was twenty-four. Bagger Vance [my first published book] came out when I was fifty-one.

Twenty-seven years is a long time to labor without success. Can you imagine how many times I was taken aside by spouse, lovers, family, and friends and given “the talk?” Can you imagine how many times I gave it to myself?

I proffer three truths from this nearly three-decade odyssey:

1. It’s hard.

What are the odds against being published/making a movie/releasing an album, etc.? Beyond that, what are the odds against making a living doing your own art or passion? In other words, of not being “one-and-done” but actually following up Work #1 with #2 through #10 and continuing, via these endeavors, to pay the rent?

I’m serious. What are the odds? Does anyone know?

2. You gotta be a little crazy.

Maybe more than a little. Maybe a lot more. In my experience, you have to be driven. You have to be around the bend. You have to either want it so badly (for whatever reasons) that you are willing to do anything to succeed, or you have to be so constituted emotionally that you simply cannot do anything else. You have no choice: succeed or die.

3. It’s worth it.

I know this sounds more than a little nuts. Who cares about one book, or ten, or ten albums or start-ups or philanthropic ventures? Aren’t they all vanity, as Ecclesiastes testifies? What difference, in the great scheme of things, does any individual achievement really make?

Yeah, yeah. I agree. But still, for me at least … it was worth it.

All that being said, let me toss in, as a reality check, a couple of real-life distinctions:

1. It wasn’t all wilderness.

Within those twenty-seven years, I earned a living for at least a dozen as a professional writer. I worked in advertising. I had a career as a screenwriter. And I spent six years writing unpublishable novels (which counts as work too.)

In other words the process, although it had many crazy and desperate years, was simply one of relentless, diligent labor and self-education. I was failing. But I was learning. By the time, twenty-seven years in, when I sat down to write The Legend of Bagger Vance, I was a seasoned pro who understood the principles of storytelling, who possessed abundant self-discipline, and who had had enough success in related fields to tackle this particular enterprise with confidence.

2. It’s still a mystery.

The Legend of Bagger Vance came to me in one rush, out of nowhere. I wrote it in four months and hardly changed a word in the editing. The book sold in three weeks and was optioned for a movie less than a month after that.

Why? Had I learned some “secret?” Did all those years of failure finally “pay off?” Hell, no.

It’s all a mystery.

The leather-bound, signed and numbered "Bagger Vance" is part of our Black Irish Christmas Special

Lemme wrap up this series of posts by returning to Point 3 above—“It’s worth it.”

I’ve thought about this a lot. In the end, you and I can’t judge ourselves as artists or as human beings, even if it’s only in our own imaginations, by competing with others. The only measure is our own. Only we know our demons. Only we know the stakes we’re playing for, or the depths of the ordeals we’ve endured. We know these, and nobody else can or has to. I’ve never read a rave review or experienced praise or acknowledgment, even in private personal letters that are heartfelt and moving in the extreme, and had it really touch the part of me that is deepest. Why? Because nobody knows. Nobody knows where we’ve been, you and I.

The gratification comes, for me, entirely in private. No dollar signs are attached to it. And it doesn’t show.

[P.S. Don’t forget to check out this year’s Black Irish Christmas Special, featuring the brand-new, leather-bound, signed and numbered (only 2500 available) anniversary edition of The Legend of Bagger Vance.]

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

34 Responses to “My Overnight Success”

  1. Mary Doyle
    December 24, 2014 at 6:07 am

    As soon as I saw Walter Matthau’s mug I knew this was going to be a special post, and is it ever! As I slog away here, having “the talk” with myself more often than I care to admit, I am grateful for the reminder that this is all about the long-haul process, about the internal barometer that we do this for our own reasons, and that’s reason enough. Thanks for keeping this blog real, honest, and always uplifting. Happy Holidays to you and yours!

  2. Michael
    December 24, 2014 at 6:25 am

    Great stuff! I’m 49 and a writer and you’ve inspired me to get something done! Thank you for that.

  3. December 24, 2014 at 7:11 am

    OK, I’m on the wrong side of 51, but I’m far from dead…it’s time to get back to work and work on my inner swing!

    • Nik
      December 30, 2014 at 5:27 pm

      There’s no “wrong side” of 51, in fact it puts you at an advantage because you’ve got life experience to draw from. Very few people can produce anything meaningful without that. And after clicking on your profile and seeing the work you do, I can see you’ve got a wealth of experience to draw from and the drive to do the legwork. Few writers would put themselves at personal risk for their stories, and the ones who do are special. Cheers.

  4. Barbara Allie
    December 24, 2014 at 7:14 am

    I forgot where I first read this quote but it did come to mind as I read your post today – “It is not the goal, but what you become in the process as you move toward your goal that counts” As an artist, teacher and after so many years on this journey
    myself I have to agree.

  5. December 24, 2014 at 7:14 am

    Thanks for never giving up, and living to tell. Life is a beautiful mystery, thorns and all. Happy Holidays, Steve..or is it Steven?…I feel like we are friends but I only read your words on a screen –and for all I know you could be a bot but doubt it…..Geez, here I go again getting off topic…but thank you anyway for the kindness.

  6. December 24, 2014 at 7:40 am

    Last night someone close to me sat me down to tell me something I “didn’t know.”

    I was told that writers are something special. That writers had things I didn’t, that I wasn’t a writer. That I was, in fact delusional.

    They told me that marketing myself with a website, a Facebook page, (gulp) Twitter, Instagram, etc. was purely vanity and narcissism, that everyone could see it, that everyone knew it. This person politely cautioned me that I could be throwing away my life (alas, giving details of my life) to the wider world to no avail.

    Better that I concentrate my energies on other things–specifically, things most important to this person (and not me).

    “People are snickering at you behind your back.” I was told.

    At first I tried to explain my position. Something I had already done a thousand times. Then, after this person stopped listening. I stopped explaining. Because they aren’t me. They don’t see how good this is for me. How FUN it is for me. How I don’t really care what others say. How its only going to GET WORSE as I DO MORE and BE MORE.

    So yeah, this post came at a great time. I had the talk last night!

    Merry Christmas!

    • December 24, 2014 at 8:18 am

      Bravo!! You Erika, I can tell have what it takes. Keep going, it sounds like you’ve already turned Pro. Once you don’t care about naysayers, the final frontier is close. I love the part “They can’t tell how good this is for me” I feel the same way. Congrats!

    • December 24, 2014 at 11:14 am

      Erika, sight unseen, let me advance a portrait of this “person close to you” …

      1. He or she has powerful artistic/entrepreneurial/philanthropic aspirations, though these may be partly or completely unconscious.

      2. Your friend possesses abundant talent, intelligence, and resources — more than sufficient to tackle these aspirations.

      3. He/she is not acting upon these aspirations.

      4. He/she is deeply in the throes of their own Resistance. This is, for sure, unconscious.

      5. When he/she witnesses you pursuing your inner calling with vigor and dedication, the observation serves as a keenly-felt reproach. This too is unconscious.

      That’s why your friend acts towards you with what can only be termed, if we’re calling a spade a spade, boorish and clueless cruelty and malice.

      Now the good news:

      Your friend’s remarks are in fact a high compliment to you and a tremendous validation of your course of action. Resistance (your friend’s) is diabolical but it is diabolically accurate as well. Your friend’s Resistance, seeking to keep him/her mired in unconsciousness and passivity, has correctly perceived YOU as someone who is dueling with and defeating her own Resistance. That’s why your friend is compelled (unconsciously) to strike at you and seek to undermine your confidence and resolution.

      That cruelty, ironically enough, is real validation for you of your course and your momentum.

      Best thing to do going forward: Don’t engage your friend on this subject again. Don’t defend yourself. Don’t say anything. Someday, perhaps years from now, when and if your friend becomes aware of and confronts his or her own Resistance and begins to follow their true course, he/she will apologize to you. “How could I ever have said such cruel and hostile things?”

      Then you can be friends again.

      The good news, Erika, as I said: keep doing what you’re doing. Your friend’s Resistance has confirmed its validity big-time.

      Happy Holidays!

      • December 27, 2014 at 10:14 am

        Wow! I am so incredibly surprised and humbled to come back to this thread today and see all these encouraging comments about “the talk” I had on the 23rd.

        Thank you, everyone. My heart is really touched by all the encouragement!

        Steven, you totally hit the nail on the head about my friend! He is so admirably talented in so many ways. I look up to him! But yes, he is afraid of stepping out of the invisible lines he perceives that society has created for us. Most especially the line that is drawn between “putting yourself out there” and “staying really safe”. I see the fear pop up all the time with so many people. I have really battled with it myself, and continue to do so.

        I will stop trying to justify my activities to people and just love them anyway. Isn’t it funny all the small acts of courage we need to practice in art?

        Again, virtual hugs to all. What a wonderfully encouraging surprise!

        I like this place, I think I’ll stay :)

        Erika

    • December 24, 2014 at 11:55 am

      thanks once again steve. that “once again” meaning like about 1000, or many more than that, times! God bless you and yours, and thanks for sharing what became your classic in the making, “the lions gate”.

    • December 24, 2014 at 2:07 pm

      Erika,
      So how bold is it to reply after our Yoda has responded to your post?!?!

      For what it is worth…I’ve checked out your webpage, and it think it is cool. It is fresh, with just enough snark that I smiled.

      I think your friend is just another crab in the crab-pot trying to pull you back in with dinner. Richard Bach has a great little proverb in “Illusions…Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah” about rock-clingers. I think it is very apt.

      Leadership, entrepreneurship, art, creation, growth are all very lonely walks.

      Steven mentions finding your tribe after Turning Pro. I think of it as the ‘knowing head nod’ I give to another runner in dark, rainy mornings. We do not know each others’ names, but we know we’re both choosing to do something most people won’t. I know intuitively that I like and respect him/her.

      Same with people on this site. I may never read a book from anyone here, but I deeply respect your efforts at being in the arena. TR was right. It is not the critic that counts!

      Merry Christmas.
      bsn

    • chris watters
      December 24, 2014 at 2:15 pm

      You do have what it takes Erika and it is real.

      I laughed at your friend’s comments linking an author marketing themselves with vainity. Bukowski sent hundreds of submissions out a week. (Source; his first publisher)

    • December 24, 2014 at 5:50 pm

      Erika, thank you for your candid story and remarks. I think an appropriate response would be “Get thee behind me, Satan!” :)

      I was reminded of a book I read long ago entitled “Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster and his discussion about silence and justification. Your choice to simply stop talking in defense was so very wise and so very appropriate.

      You need no encouragement to stay the course and stay true to yourself for you have it all in spades. Nevertheless, accept the encouragement that this group offers and go get ’em.

    • December 26, 2014 at 4:54 am

      Dear Erika, After reading your sharing, I was like can other people be that mean in the name of service….and my grown self said, “Of course.” And then I heard my other companion voice, my child, and my would tell them “Get away from me. I am calling the principal. Get off of the playground and stop being a bully. Stop being mean.”

      Loved your response. Protect your dreams like they are your sacred babies.

      Here is to Erika, my present self says–somewhere between childlike and being grown–as I raise my virtual glass, “To Erika”

      May 2015 and each year after that bring your more peace, more writing, and more joy.

      Just another kid having fun on the playground-Brian

    • December 27, 2014 at 5:10 am

      People too weak to follow their own dreams will always find a way to discourage yours.

      Don’t let them.

  7. December 24, 2014 at 8:06 am

    There are so many variables that go into outwardly success, you’re right in saying it’s “all a mystery.” We never know when the external rewards will show up, but the internal rewards show up once we “turn pro” as you put it. Our only aim is to turn pro, and stay pro.

    Happy Holidays everyone!!

  8. December 24, 2014 at 8:17 am

    No one is destined for greatness. That should not deter you from attempting to achieve great things.

    From my most recent (first) book – from David to Caroline (the nine year old in the story):

    “I want you to be you. I don’t want you to ever worry about what others think or what their expectations are. You are the only one that you need to live up to. Your expectations, no one else’s. Can you remember that?”

  9. December 24, 2014 at 10:35 am

    Yes. And thank you.
    Anything more would be too much.

  10. December 24, 2014 at 11:52 am

    Please keep writing, Erika – as long as you’re proud of your efforts, then congratulations for a piece well done!

    Happy Holidays to all!

  11. York
    December 24, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    These posts always come at the right moment.

    You are a true inspiration! Thank you for your work.

  12. Dick Yaeger
    December 24, 2014 at 12:39 pm

    Holiday letters. Christmas Eve and reading a friend’s reflection on their life sometimes frightens me. I tend to read between the lines…bad idea. Today I got the proverbial “Christmas Letter” from a close friend as he reflected more on his past life than just the previous year. He’s eighty and has lung cancer. I’ll drive over later today with a six-pack. I got another one a few days ago about the removal and installation of a new septic tank last year. The lengthy, detailed description was sandwiched between a couple lines about his kids. Go figure. I am confident, however, that your reflection, Steve, is for the benefit of your followers and no introspection is necessary. Thanks and Merry Christmas.

  13. December 24, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    Thank you Steve for all you do to encourage people. Your blogs are rich with wisdom and you speak truth. I always enjoy your counsel. Every good wish in the New Year!

  14. December 24, 2014 at 1:57 pm

    Dear Steve,
    Happy Holidays. Lovely post. This is timely, and confirmation of a suspicion I’ve had for the past year or so. Last summer I re-read Siddhartha. A couple of months ago I read Pete Carroll’s “Win Forever”.

    Pete was fired from the Patriots in his late 40’s, and did not come up with his ‘Win Forever Manifesto’ until closing in on 50. USC National Championships and Seattle’s Super Bowl win (GO HAWKS!!!) were a reflection of his Manifesto, born not without some very dark nights.

    Siddhartha experimented with many philosophies from stoicism to hedonism before he found his river. He blew off the Buddha before he found his way.

    I think they are related. Knowledge is not wisdom, and life is a continual refinement. Frustration and discomfort are tell-tale signs of growth, only reps 8,9, and 10 are when we need a spotter. Reps 1-7 simply fatigue the muscle to prepare it for the growth reps.

    The authenticity with which you have shared your journey is a floodlight for the rest of us. Keeps us honest, and yet gives us hope.

    I wish you, the rest of Black Irish Books, and the rest of us acolytes an uneventful and renewing holiday season.
    bsn

  15. December 24, 2014 at 5:18 pm

    Reminds me of the Seinfeld episode in which his parents want him to scrap comedy and enter the junior exexutive program at Bloomingdales. I’m guessing that a lot of comedians can relate to today’s post, too.

  16. Sonja
    December 24, 2014 at 10:39 pm

    Wow! What an incredible and powerful post. It really is hard (but then I immediately think, most things worthwhile are hard) What choice do we have when the dream won’t let go of us!

    Thanks for all you do for us, Steven. And for always keeping it real.

    Happy Holidays, to you and your wonderful team, including Shawn and Callie.

  17. Sasha Maxime
    December 25, 2014 at 9:12 am

    Regarding the work I have been asked over the years in one way or another:

    What’re you going to do when your artistic endeavors don’t work out?

    Fifteen years years later I’m still at it. I do my best to work them out minute by minute. Hour by hour.

    By now I’ve learned (through much toil) I have no other choice.

    I bow to you my fellow warriors of the light.

  18. December 25, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    At the end of 2013, I made the commitment to give my craft (acting) my full-time focus. 2014 has been one of the most exhilarating and challenging times of my life because of that decision, and although I’m not there yet … There are no regrets. I know I am following my true path and have learned so much about myself. I’m so excited to recommit to this journey in the year to come.

  19. Sharon
    December 26, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    Dear Steve, you describe my sweet spot:
    “Nobody knows where we’ve been, you and I.”

    For me, what I think at night with my head on the pillow is what matters. Same as my death bed, I reckon.

    I know that the more flack, put downs and rude remarks aimed to my art, to my soul, the more on track I am. Just like Jesus, Moses, and other greats ; )

    Thanks for your openness, and that goes for those who’ve commented as well. Happy fun blessed 2015! xoxox Sharon

  20. Virginia B
    December 26, 2014 at 7:58 pm

    Thank you, Steve. Failing is work, too. I never thought of it that way. I just thought of it as failing. But it’s also learning. This gives me the incentive to keep on trucking’.

  21. Golfo
    December 27, 2014 at 3:27 am

    Thank you, Steve. That was a wonderful piece, and a perfect message for the New Year.

  22. December 31, 2014 at 11:04 am

    Thank you so much for the inspiration to keep going. You are right – it is hard, you’ve got to be a little crazy, but it is worth it, to those of us who think we have something to say through our writing. Best wishes for a healthy and happy 2015

  23. January 1, 2015 at 8:40 am

    Hi everyone,

    What an amazing little cyber place you have going here. Such a supportive and positive group. A writer friend of mine recently recommended Steven’s stellar book “The War of Art” and since that “kick in the ass” I have been hooked. In May 2015 I will turn 5-0 and as I prepare for “Act II” its time to go pro. Many happy returns.

  24. January 13, 2015 at 7:54 am

    Good day! This post couldn’t be written any
    better! Reading through this post reminds me of my
    previous room mate! He always kept chatting about this.
    I will forward this post to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read.
    Thanks for sharing!