Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Beautiful Losers

By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 7, 2015

People write me letters sometimes. Wannabe musicians, aspiring novelists; I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.

Andy Warhol and friends at Max's Kansas City

Andy Warhol and friends at Max’s Kansas City

These letters purport to be seeking counsel. The writer details his or her struggles with deciding which creative field to pursue, their frustrations with their own indecisiveness, with getting their art going, etc. Then they ask for advice.

Now, there’s a good way to ask for advice. The good way is when the person is earnest, sincere; he or she can, in truth, profit from a boost of encouragement or an impartial reality check. That’s the good kind of advice-asking.

But that’s not what these other letter writers want.

I can’t tell you how dispiriting it is to receive such missives. They reek of mental weakness, shallow superiority, and an impenetrable mantle of self-delusion and self-indulgence. Worse, they’re “hooks.” Meaning their aim is to steal a piece of the recipient’s soul.

For years I took these cries for aid seriously. I’d ask myself, How can I help? What wisdom can I impart? The poor letter-writer seems to be suffering so.

Then one day I realized, These characters aren’t really looking for help. They love the state they’re in. They’re wallowing blissfully.

They are Beautiful Losers.

The 70s in New York (even if you weren’t there, you have a sense of that era, I’m sure) was the golden age of the Beautiful Loser. CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City, Andy Warhol’s Factory, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, the Ramones. Crime was rampant, night life was incandescent, fashion re-invented itself minute-by-minute.

The world of Beautiful Losers is a sphere of posing and posturing, of faux accomplishment and genuine despair.

How do I know?

Because I’ve been there myself, and for a lot longer than I care to admit.

The Beautiful Loser is in love with her own Resistance. The state of self-dissatisfaction, even self-loathing, that arises when we fail ourselves as artists and as human beings is interpreted in the Beautiful Loser lexicon to be hip, glamorous, existential ennui. It becomes in the Beautiful Loser’s mind a badge of distinction, a sign of her own exceptionalism.

It can be tremendously seductive, the idea of being soul-broken, discarded, misunderstood. See New Wave cinema, punk rock, heroin chic, not to mention much of contemporary fashion. It’s a billion-dollar industry, manufacturing and distributing the wan, neurasthenic, faux-suicidal look and the clothes and cosmetics that go with it.

The conceit of the Beautiful Loser is that he/she carries with them as a form of self-advertisement their own untapped and unexploited potential. (That’s why it helps to be beautiful.) The idea is that one’s unexplored What-I-Could-Be-If-I-Cared is more glamorous (and more erotically alluring) than the inevitably less-than-cosmic achievement that one might produce if he/she actually tried.

I have no sympathy any more for Beautiful Losers.

I destroy their letters and e-mails instantly. They’re bad news. Bad karma. I don’t want them around me, even crumpled in my trashcan.

I wrote a post a few weeks back called “Resistance and Hooks.” These loser letters are hooks.

The writer is seeking a response.

The problem is that no response will make a dent. A kick-them-in-the-ass reply will simply be perused with bemused disdain and discarded. A kindly-intentioned reply, something meant to provide encouragement and understanding, will be received with even greater condescension. The Beautiful Loser will experience mild (very mild) titillation for less than the time it takes to read the response, then turn to Instagram (or the B.L. beside them) seeking the next distraction.

Nothing will change, because the Beautiful Loser doesn’t want to change. She’s happy marinating in her shadow persona, creating the shadow work of art that is her life.

I know those lives. I understand them. They can be fun. They can be romantic and glamorous and dramatic. For a while. The problem with exceeding the expiration date is that you are selling out your daimon.

Unwritten plays and unpainted canvases possess a life of their own. They will turn on you. They will come back and make you pay.

I’d rather give five bucks to a panhandler on the street than waste a millisecond on one of these sallow and shallow mofo’s. In the end, the only person for whom they have greater contempt than themselves is you (i.e., the positively-projected version of themselves), if you’re foolish enough to try to help them.

 

 

 

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

50 Responses to “Beautiful Losers”

  1. October 7, 2015 at 6:00 am

    Pow! between the eyes. This is so many of us, even people who manage to ship their work fall into this trap.

    Patti Smith’s first autobiography is full of this–including the Max’s moments. And it accurately captures the ennui of the five-time filmmaker as much as the outsider.

    Thanks Steve. Guts and generosity.

  2. Julie
    October 7, 2015 at 6:12 am

    Right on, Steve! Took me a long while to recognize Beautiful Losers. They exist in many arenas. Now I steer clear.

    Sure. Once upon a time, I was a Beautiful Loser, too.

    No thanks.

  3. RF Kacy
    October 7, 2015 at 6:14 am

    Tell us how you really feel! :)

    Actually, I found this post to be interesting and educational. I don’t think I’ve ever been closely exposed to BLs in the way you describe, although I am now afraid that I will start seeing them everywhere.

    The trick will be developing my own response to it. You certainly seem to have found yours!

    Thanks, once again, for sharing your thoughts with us.

  4. Maggie
    October 7, 2015 at 6:22 am

    Thank you for saying this! There’s something very, very draining about the beautifully articulate “oh woe is me” stuff, which tends to fill up my Facebook inbox. Because it’s Defeatist. And it’s telling the Muse it Can’t be done. When what I need is to go Do the Work, instead of focusing on the “can’ts” people keep filling the air with. I agree a lot of people seem to really enjoy believe they’re a tortured, unappreciated artist who “can’t” write a book because the world is stacked against them, and don’t actually want to be told they can.
    I’m eternally thankful to everyone who told me to just shut up and write. :)

  5. October 7, 2015 at 6:36 am

    Arghhh :) You nailed it. Steven, you keep going deeper and every time you do, I am right with you. I have BL’s in my life, and probably was one at one point although it was more internal than external for me…I still spot it in others with SUPER RADAR and occasionally the beginning thoughts even in myself and I immediately PURGE, BURN, EXECUTE, TERMINATE. If I don;t accept this thinking and behavior on myself… I am sure not going to accept it from someone else. Go dump your (heavy, odoriferous,debilitating and contagious) garbage in your own brain :) I love you. I love War. It, and you, have helped to make wanted changes in my life that I did not have the tools to do on my own. Forever Grateful :)

  6. Currer Bell
    October 7, 2015 at 6:43 am
  7. October 7, 2015 at 6:44 am

    Whoa! Oh, woe! Oh, whatever.

    Read a BL blog moaning and groaning re the state of the universe, no matter said BL had won a prestigious national award in said BL’s genre. Got to summary of said BL’s newest release and gagged. Utter schlock. What if’fing run a’muck.

    Met my share of BL’s, looking for crit partners. What a pain!

  8. Mary Doyle
    October 7, 2015 at 6:59 am

    Love this! BL’s are everywhere. As I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten better at recognizing them and stepping to the side to let them pass.

  9. October 7, 2015 at 7:05 am

    There are Gothic artists who create great works of genius, which are reactions to the society and cultures they live in. And there are people who hang around posing.

    I think it is important to differentiate between the two.

  10. October 7, 2015 at 7:08 am

    Wow.

    I needed this.

    I feel like I’ve been getting a lot of these type of emails recently and I was judging myself accordingly for not being able to do more, help more, etc…but I also noticed there was always something off with man of these letters…something that made me simultaneously upset (because nobody likes seeing someone struggle) and defensive, as if the request (cry) for help could never be satiated.

    I didn’t have a word for it…now I do: beautiful loser.

    Love it.

    What a powerful realization – now I can avoid being pulled into this form of Resistance in the future.

    Thanks for the great work you do Steven – keep it up.

  11. Patrick Maher
    October 7, 2015 at 7:49 am

    J.K. Rowling was a beautiful loser for ages. I don’t get the God stuff, the moral stuff, the stuff about being part of a culture either. What the hell do they mean by “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?” I’m successful, I’m more a “Do unto others-period kind of guy.” I sure as hell don’t need losers like J.K Rowling all over my face like a wet jelly fish.
    How many publishers said that?

  12. October 7, 2015 at 8:07 am

    Me, for much of my life. Ouch.

    And I keep seeing “old me” hither and yon, trying to give them a leg up.

    Henceforth, instead, I give them the boot.

    Slowly understanding what it means that I have no right to the rewards of the work, only to the work itself.

  13. October 7, 2015 at 8:18 am

    WOW. Love the directness of this thought and the openness of admitting the place this BL lifestyle had in your own life at one time and the allure of it for others sometimes for their entire lifetime. I have to admit that in one part of my creative life I ship, i produce consistently, creative stuff that I care about and am proud of. That is when i and we are designing simulation worlds in my company. Check. Its hard, creative and we and I produce. But on the creative writing side that I do alone beyond the job – I have published one novel and have essentially lived with another in a BL kind of way for much too long (way past the expiration date so to speak, and I can feel the BL in me talking about that particular unfinished novel – like you said it is SO much easier to make is super interesting in concept than in reality – and man i cringe when I remember me talking about it – fuck talking about it – write it dickhead – said LOVINGLY to myself of course). So thank you for the kick in the exact right part of my ass. It hurts in a way I don’t want to avoid.

  14. Barbara Saunders
    October 7, 2015 at 8:29 am

    I’m not sure why you connected “CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City, Andy Warhol’s Factory, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, the Ramones” with BL. All of those people and entities shipped.

    • October 7, 2015 at 9:45 am

      I totally agree.

      • October 7, 2015 at 8:56 pm

        you can ship and still live a life of “posing and posturing, of faux accomplishment and genuine despair.”

        • October 8, 2015 at 6:34 am

          I thought the point is if someone creates good/great art or not, not their personal life.

  15. Boses
    October 7, 2015 at 8:36 am

    I am a Loser and this letter came at the right time.

    Thank you,

    • Boses
      October 7, 2015 at 9:00 am

      What I would like to add is this came at the right time and I appreciate it.

  16. Sonja
    October 7, 2015 at 8:44 am

    I’m only going to say that every word in your post was delicious! Thank you for the whack on the side of the head. Again. I loved it.

  17. Jody
    October 7, 2015 at 8:46 am

    Ouch.
    Hurts so good.
    I was raised by a hook thrower a/k/a Narcissistic Personality Disorder with Explosive Rage.
    So nice when I figured this out.
    I probably struggle with the BL archetype but I keep doing the work and raised the children and even buried a daughter 4 years ago. [Is that a hook?}
    I keep going.
    Your books and posts are excellent.
    Thank you.

  18. r. ganas
    October 7, 2015 at 9:00 am

    I concur Barbara Saunders!
    Wholesale slamming of the 70’s New York scene? Come down off your high horse, Pressfield.
    You wrote about a golfer, for christ sake.

  19. October 7, 2015 at 9:04 am

    This is a harsh reality. I’m slowly learning this myself. When someone says, “help,” in any way, I’ve been conditioned to do it. And, I like to help people. Sadly what you’re saying is WAY to true. There are some people that I look back on, think on this blog, and nod about. You’re correct. Time and again they ask for help, yet years later, I’m going the work (my work), while they are still busy asking for help. I think it’s more for the conversation. You mentioned a great way to tell the difference though. How do we feel? They are energy depleters for sure. This is a harsh, but good reminder. Not everyone can be helped. I’m too nice. It’s hard not to.

  20. Aaron C
    October 7, 2015 at 9:34 am

    Tough medicine to be sure.

    I admit. I’m a beautiful loser (some days less beautiful to be sure).

    But I’m unwilling to pull anyone else into my drama, or ask for advice. All the advice I need has been given, and until I choose to follow it, I don’t feel I have the right to ask for anything more.

    That advice was very simple, and it was given through reading your book, “The War of Art,” and this blog.

    The advice itself: “Do the work.”

    That’s it. Everything else on my part is just an excuse, and I know it. I’m still not doing the work, and it’s killing me. Perhaps someday I’ll learn, but that day hasn’t arrived yet. Don’t know if it ever will.

  21. October 7, 2015 at 9:39 am

    That about says it all.
    No coddling or sugar-coating or booster chair.

    Your post will NOT positively affect these ‘types’ of people, but they WILL (I’m certain) serve as reminder and notice to others who lean in that direction.

    Nicely done. (Lee)

  22. October 7, 2015 at 9:43 am

    You can only be a loser if you’re playing in a game to win it. I’d prefer to view the souls you describe as beautiful dreamers.

  23. October 7, 2015 at 9:49 am

    Powerful.

    And spot on.

    As usual.

    Thanks, Steve.

  24. Marvin Waschke
    October 7, 2015 at 10:13 am

    The BLs are a good reason to avoid writers conferences. It is tough to weed out the people who talk about writing but don’t write.

  25. Marvin Waschke
    October 7, 2015 at 10:17 am

    For beginners like me, it is not BLs requesting advice that is the problem. BLs offering advice are deadly. And common.

    • Mary Doyle
      October 7, 2015 at 11:09 am

      Marvin, that is an excellent (and very true!) observation!

  26. Joan Simon
    October 7, 2015 at 10:47 am

    Hello. This post is so timely for me. I’m sorely tempted by “hookers.” Always have been. But I, myself, am tempted to hook. I have a great coach who doesn’t let me “do the script.” And your books, Steven, have been a huge blessing to me. I’m so grateful.

  27. Jacki
    October 7, 2015 at 11:09 am

    Yes!!! Have known many!!! Was married to one once way back when. We were both very creative but wallowed in limitation. I exploded once divorced. He’s remained in resistance his whole life since. Such a bummer. Thanks for Writing Wednesday’s!!!! XO

  28. Nancy
    October 7, 2015 at 1:38 pm

    A co-worker once called these types, Vampires because they suck the blood right out of you if given the chance. Great post.

  29. Dsvid
    October 7, 2015 at 6:49 pm

    Where do I find the mobile version?

  30. Kathleen
    October 7, 2015 at 7:23 pm

    Never linger too long with the ignorant,
    throw stones at their talk.
    Walk only with the lovers.
    the mirror of the soul gets rusty
    when dipped in muddy water.

    – Rumi

  31. October 7, 2015 at 8:26 pm

    OUCH! and YA! I grew up surrounded by Beautiful Losers. And when the family money that they live on runs out I expect to get a few of those letters myself.

  32. October 7, 2015 at 10:44 pm

    I really think we can get stuck in a “loser loop”. We read all the self help books in the book store and truly, deeply agree with their concepts, yet our habits don’t change at all. We blow with the wind, we never work or work inconsistently. We keep putting it off to tomorrow.

    What does it take to climb out of that dratted loop? Maybe it’s simply allowing ourselves to be bored. Bored with tiny, incremental, the-world-can’t-see-this change. Itty bitty improvements. Stuff only we see in our tiny corner offices in the attic.

    Hard, hard work can be very boring most of the time. Igniting love affairs, going broke, winning eBay auctions is exciting. Things that produce quick and cheap results are exciting, even fulfilling for five minutes.

    Steve, you’ve found me and all my friends out.

  33. October 7, 2015 at 11:10 pm

    Dear Steve,
    You said, “Now, there’s a good way to ask for advice. The good way is when the person is earnest, sincere; he or she can, in truth, profit from a boost of encouragement or an impartial reality check. That’s the good kind of advice-asking.”

    That’s me, and I would cherish your advice.

    A retired military Vet has asked me to write his memoir. We’ve talked at least a hundred hours over the summer. He keeps saying, “I trust you.” He knows this isn’t my usual genre, but we connect and he has some weird confidence I’m the person. This is no minor kudos from a 30-year Army Colonel. (He has 5 Purple Hearts; I didn’t even know that was possible!)

    I suggested you, and his reaction was, “No–no Marines.” Ok. So I’ve wanted to contact you and ask “Should I do this though it’s way outside my expertise (yeah I see my BL in that statement). He has sacrificed greatly for many and deserves the best. I don’t see myself as resisting so much as assessing. I need to drop it or get on with it.

    How do you decide to take on a military memoir, Steve? I’m guessing you’ve had many offers from Beautiful Losers to write their story; you’ve had to connect, to want to put in the time.

    Oh man I’m so out of my depth if I take this on, and I know that’s no excuse; it is also, do I want to live with death and war at this level for a few years as I write, interview, research, fact check.

    Whether you reply or not, thanks for this post and your books. I gave “The Warrior Ethos” to my Vet friend’s teenage son.

    Shalom, Sharon

    • October 8, 2015 at 7:02 am

      Hi Sharon,

      No one can tell you whether to take on a military memoir. But I can’t imagine finding someone less qualified than me to write about war, and you might find it interesting — that I did it anyway.

      A Vietnam vet asked me to write his story. I said no. My husband fought me on that, and won. He knew I could do a good job on the book, and he was right. To the extent outside validation matters, I was over the moon when we won a Minnesota Book Award for Left for Dead: A Second Life after Vietnam. Even better? When veterans told me I’d gotten it right. I’d found a way to put into words what their experience was like.

      As you said, you’re probably not going to feel very good if you inhabit the character. It took me a while to figure out why I was almost always in a bad mood as the book took shape. It was written in first person and finally I realized, “Of course you’re in a bad mood. You’re in Vietnam.”

      I’ll never be able to thank my husband enough for encouraging me to write Left for Dead. I proved to myself I had chops. Rising to that challenge changed how I felt about myself.

      It also made me feel just the teeniest, tiniest bit less conflicted about never having served my country in the way our veterans have.

      As to how I did it? Here’s how…

      http://maureenanderson.com/blog/item/70-slow-it-down

      Good luck!

      Maureen

      • October 8, 2015 at 8:34 pm

        Dear Maureen,
        I haven’t said yes or no. I’ve been listening and told him I make notes later. He might be surprised the depth and volume of those notes. Talking many long nights to a Vet of his experience is a rare experience for me.

        Thanks for the can-do punch and link to your blog, which I read. My gut tells me Mr. Pressfield nailed it for me in his response to have the Col. write his own memoir.

        If Col. disagrees with “my” idea, I’ll go from there, keeping this discussion in mind.

        He and I are simpatico on the importance of giving voice to certain events and people. Amen!

        xoxox Sharon

        p.s. I have studied maps – as a theologian when I studied ancient wars ; also been to Israel and other places in common with my Vet friend. But never shot a gun; may have to change.

    • October 8, 2015 at 7:53 am

      Sharon, having read Maureen’s response, I have to say I would advise the opposite — not for you, but for your friend the Colonel. HE should write his memoirs. It’s impossible of course to “advise” at long range, but it may be his own Resistance to facing the project that makes him want to reach out to you. My experience is that once a person bites the bullet and gets over the “I’m not a writer” mindset, not only do they do a great job but the process of writing the memoir is tremendously fulfilling, illuminating, and restorative. After all, who knows the story better than he? And he knows what was INSIDE his heart, whereas you would only be recounting that at second hand.

      That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

      • October 8, 2015 at 8:19 pm

        Dear Steve,
        That’s it! The forest I didn’t see for the trees.

        He’s told me a writer once offered to do the memoir, wanting to set up an interview schedule. The Col. is tough, but didn’t want that kind of stress. I’m guessing you know what I mean. He does well with seemingly random conversations, and is very open.

        I was with him today, writing in his front yard while he worked in his shop. We hang out. I didn’t disturb him to discuss the memoir, but you know I will next time he initiates the conversation; likely very soon.

        There’s so much I want to share with you but in respect for his story as well as mine I’m concise.

        Thanks and kisses, hugs and burritos (which Colonel’s wife made for us tonight).
        xoxo Sharon

  34. Sabrina
    October 8, 2015 at 8:28 am

    I don’t know if I’d call myself a ‘beautiful loser’ but I was definitely a ‘beautiful failure’ as in failed actress, failed musician, failed writers. It took me many years to realize that while I can write a song or a poem, I simply don’t have what it takes to be a musician or a writer who is compensated appropriately for it. Yet I had “the dream” and wasn’t about to give up. Yet, as I approached 50 and began to face the health issues I was going through, I began to realize that it was time to “give up the dream” because it simply wasn’t a realistic one. Yet, it was just stunning how many people would tell me not to give up because it seems like that’s the mantra you’re supposed to continue to chant. However, for some people, the best advice might be the TRUTH, no matter how unvarnished and ugly it may be! It was hard adjusting to not playing the game with other wannabee artists and keeping up a front, but I found it liberating to do so. So here I am 5 years on from that decision to stop pursuing a music career (or appearing to do so, and I’ve never been happier or more at peace with myself. So what do I do now? Instead do what I know I am good at: being a receptionist and an active ‘support’ person for other up and coming artists, musicians, architects, etc. Maybe to some people that sort of life is mundane, but I find it fulfilling to not live in some narcissistic haze when the reality is I’m simply ordinary…and that’s ok. Sometimes one has to give up an unrealistic dream in order to find out who you really are and then become that success where you were meant to be successful. After all, without an enthusiastic audience and #1 fans and the support teams that help get things going, where would the performers be, right?

    • October 8, 2015 at 8:41 pm

      Dear Sabrina,
      The world can never have enough people like you!

      I’ve had careers in music and I’ll tell ya that w/o “support” we’d be nowhere. Thank God for you!

      I’m a bit older than you and it’s true with age I care less and less what others think. As of last year I no longer play violin in orchestras – I don’t need to and anyway my arm hurts now ; ) Good crazy.

      Best and Love, Sharon

  35. Isabelle
    October 8, 2015 at 10:21 am

    Hi.
    I just wanted to say: I am sorry you met people like that. Not only sorry for you, but for everyone after you met them and tried to help them that could have benefit more if you had not met those people.

    That’s it. Nothing to ask, no wisdom,nothing but I am feeling sorry.

  36. October 8, 2015 at 3:04 pm

    This post struck a chord. Look at all the responses! It says something about our mindsets – I’m not sure what – that a “between the eyes” post generates so much comment. Perhaps the Beautiful Loser within each of us never goes away and when we see it in the mirror – or another person, it disturbs us. Deeply. Resistance the yetzer hara – always takes another form.

  37. October 10, 2015 at 10:24 pm

    Nice post I really love to read more.

  38. Rahul Taneja
    October 15, 2015 at 3:13 am

    If I reflect, I never happened to be a BL. At times, I don’t take free advice from the people who are very generous in giving it. But I waste a lot of time dealing with BLs. Will be cautious from next time.
    Great Job, Steve!

  39. Aidan Carr
    October 15, 2015 at 1:34 pm

    First-rate songwriter (and recent National Book Award nominee in fiction) John Darnielle is one of those rare lyricists whose work often reads beautifully on its own. (Not that that means anything, for the record.) Here is the opening lyric from his 2011 album ALL ETERNALS DECK, titled “Damn These Vampires.”

    Damn These Vampires

    Brave young cowboys of the near North side!
    Mount those bridge rails! Ride all night!
    Scream when captured! Arch your back!
    Let this whole town hear your knuckles crack!

    Sapphire Trans-Am. High-beams in rain.
    Drive wild broncos down the plain.
    Push up to the corner, where the turbines hiss …
    someday we won’t remember this.

    Crawl ’till dawn
    on my hands and knees …
    Goddamn these vampires
    for what they’ve done to me.

    Tie those horses to the post outside,
    and let those glass doors open wide,
    and in their surface, see two young savage things
    barely worth remembering.

    Feast like pagans. Never get enough.
    Sleep like dead men. Wake up like dead men.
    And when the sun comes, try not to hate the light.
    Someday we’ll try to walk upright.

    Crawl ’til dawn
    on my hands and knees.
    Goddamn these bite marks
    deep in my arteries.

    Crawl ’til dawn
    on my hands and knees.
    Goddamn these vampires
    for what they’ve done to me.

    — John Darnielle (punctuated by Aidan Carr)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dRTqDG9Mo18

    P.S — I never thanked you for writing me back last year … thank you. When the going is tough (like it is now — goddamnit Aidan get OFF of the Internet), that email is one of the disintegrating scraps of paper from back home that I can take out and read again under the stars, in the gaps between thundershowers. I have to go now.

  40. Scripty
    November 4, 2015 at 10:45 am

    I read this again and Steven really nails it. For years I thought if I wanted to be a “filmmaker” and/or “writer” I had to wear black all the time, smoke clove cigarettes, and only listen to punk rock/alternative music, etc. Did I mention that part of my life was in the late 80’s/90s? I bought into it – but I knew deep down I didn’t fit in. But wrote anyway, but didn’t believe in myself. Now that I’m older and that phase is long gone, I realize it was all bullshit. There’s nothing “exciting” or glamorous about being in pain. Trust me, I’m a cancer survivor. I may look like a soccer mom now, (I’m not) but damn it, I’m STILL WRITING and now PRODUCING after a long hiatus. I just needed a nudge.
    Thank you Steven!!!!