Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Why I Write, Part Two

By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 28, 2016

 

If you’re a writer struggling to get published (or published again) or wrestling with the utility or non-utility of self-publishing, you may log onto this blog and think, Oh, Pressfield’s got it made; he’s had real-world success; he’s a brand.

J.K. Rowling has earned her spot on the Elite List

J.K. Rowling has earned her spot on the Elite List

Trust me, it ain’t necessarily so.

I don’t expect to be reviewed by the New York Times. Ever. The last time was 1998 for Gates of Fire. That’s eighteen years ago. The War of Art was never reviewed, The Lion’s Gate never. My other seven novels? Never.

I’ve got a new one, The Knowledge, coming in a month or two. It will be reviewed, I’m certain, by no one.

If I want to retain my sanity, I have to banish such expectations from my thinking. I cannot permit my professional or artistic self-conception to be dependent on external validation, at least not of the “mainstream recognition” variety. It’s not gonna happen. I’m never gonna get it.

If you’re not reviewed by the New York Times (or seen on Oprah) your book is gonna have tough, tough sledding to gain awareness in the marketplace. No book I publish under Black Irish is going to achieve wide awareness. BI’s reach is too tiny. Our penetration of the market is too miniscule. And even being published by one of the Big Five, as The Lion’s Gate was by Penguin in 2014, is only marginally more effective.

There are maybe a hundred writers of fiction whose new books will be reviewed with any broad reach in the mainstream press. Jonathan Franzen, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, etc. I’m not on that list. My stuff will never receive that kind of attention.

Does that bother me? I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t want to be recognized or at least have my existence and my work acknowledged.

But reality is reality. As Garth on Wayne’s World once said of his own butt, “Accept it before it destroys you.”

On the other hand, it’s curiously empowering to grasp this and to accept it.

It forces you to ask, Why am I writing?

What is important to me?

What am I in this for?

Here is novelist Neal Stephenson from his short essay, Why I Am a Bad Correspondent:

 

Another factor in this choice [to focus entirely on writing to the exclusion of other “opportunities” and distractions] is that writing fiction every day seems to be an essential component in my sustaining good mental health. If I get blocked from writing fiction, I rapidly become depressed, and extremely unpleasant to be around. As long as I keep writing it, though, I am fit to be around other people. So all of the incentives point in the direction of devoting all available hours to fiction writing.

 

I asked hypothetically in last week’s post, What if a writer worked her entire life, produced a worthy and original body of work, yet had never been published by a mainstream press and had never achieved conventional recognition? Would her literary efforts have been in vain? Would she be considered a “failure?”

Part of my own answer arises from Neal Stephenson’s observation above.

I wrote for twenty-eight years before I got a novel published. I can’t tell you how many times friends and family members, lovers, spouses implored me for my own sake to wake up and face reality.

I couldn’t.

Because my reality was not the New York Times or the bestseller list or even simply getting an agent and having a meeting with somebody. My reality was, If I stop writing I will have to kill myself.

I’m compelled.

I have no choice.

I don’t know why I was born like this, I don’t know what it means; I can’t tell you if it’s crazy or deluded or even evil.

I have to keep trying.

That pile of unpublished manuscripts in my closet may seem to you (and to me too) to be a monument to folly and self-delusion. But I’m gonna keep adding to it, whether HarperCollins gives a shit, or The New Yorker, or even my cat who’s perched beside me right now on my desktop.

I am a writer.

I was born to do this.

I have no choice.

 

 

 

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

44 Responses to “Why I Write, Part Two”

  1. Amy
    September 28, 2016 at 3:45 am

    Not to get all religious, but . . . one of the things that has always stuck out to me about Genesis is the idea that “The Lord Spoke,” and “it was” — the gist being that words have power. Words are alive. Words set things in motion.

    It’s easy to see the work of the hand, of the farmer who picks apples so a little girl, somewhere, can eat, or of the Habitat for Humanity builder. It’s harder to see the effects of words on a person’s life, but the effects are out there all the same. This Genesis concept has always guided my thinking on why someone writes. In a sense, it is someone’s life work, someone’s calling, if you will. It’s a way of being a doctor, a healer, a listener, an activist, a builder, a servant, even if only to one’s self.

    Thank you for the continuous posts, and the humanity/humility you display within what you write.

    • LarryP
      September 28, 2016 at 12:01 pm

      “one of the things that has always stuck out to me about Genesis is the idea that “The Lord Spoke,” and “it was” ”

      Amy, this is one of the big misconceptions. Yes, it starts out “and God said, ‘let there be light,’ and there was light” ( far more powerful in the original) but after that, God is always doing something after he speaks, he separates, he places he makes. So it is with writing. You can say you’re a writer, but it only happens if you do the writing.

      • Christine
        September 29, 2016 at 9:33 pm

        “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God”. Amy is not misconceived (in any sense of the word). The writers of the Bible, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, are, in part, trying to explain the spiritual power of words. Remember that the writers of the Bible were…Writers! They feel the creative power of words and use that as a metaphor for Creation Itself.

  2. Mary Doyle
    September 28, 2016 at 5:10 am

    “I have no choice” says it all. Thanks for this poignant follow-up to last week’s post.

  3. September 28, 2016 at 5:14 am

    I am that writer you describe above, who “worked her entire life, produced a worthy and original body of work, yet had never been published by a mainstream press and had never achieved conventional recognition.”

    But that’s okay. I’ve stopped looking for validation from anyone, although in the early years, I would have killed for external success.

    I have been writing fiction since I was 14, published by small and micro presses since 1999, and 100% indie published since 2011.

    I have come to the realization that I write because I love the act of creation. I love being immersed in story. I would write even if no one else got to read it.

    I’m lucky, though, that enough people want to read my stories that I can now write full time — which is the ultimate achievement, in my estimation. I will never be reviewed by traditional sources, appear on a traditional best seller list, or be picked up for a movie. I’m way, way too small for any of that.

    But I get to write every day and all my bills are paid.

    Bliss.

    t.

  4. September 28, 2016 at 6:25 am

    I tell people not to believe fiction writers because we lie for a living. I also tell people if they want to have a chance at a successful career as a novelist, pick a specific genre, write a series, become known for that. Don’t believe me.
    I’ve never done that. I’ve written whatever interested me, whatever struck my passion, no matter the genre.
    In some ways, writing is self-exploring. Trying to answer our own questions, whether conscious or not.
    It’s a great bonus if others want to read it. Even better if they pay to read it.
    And the other key about acclaim is you can’t have success with the “haters”. In fact, the more success, the more people who are going to not like what you’re doing. But it’s like a relationship. I’d rather have my wife pissed at me than not care. Apathy is death.

  5. marie
    September 28, 2016 at 6:40 am

    thanks, not a writer, I am an artist and my medium is journalism and film and many of the things you said resonated with me, thanks again.

  6. September 28, 2016 at 6:58 am

    Well put, Steven. I’m compelled to write same as you, regardless of who ever reads it or doesn’t read it.

  7. Christine Mooney
    September 28, 2016 at 7:28 am

    As I continue to get a steady trickle of form rejection emails into my inbox, this is just the thing I needed to read. Thanks for another great post!

  8. K M McGovern
    September 28, 2016 at 8:07 am

    Mr. Pressfield,

    I want to thank you for your work on helping writers understand resistance and what it means to turn pro. I made a conscious decision to be a pro and have been attempting to meet a daily goal of 100 words a day through September. I have had mixed success and failure, I write everyday and have quite a few days over my goal. On the other hand the days where my goal isn’t met I generally sit while the inner critic makes the wheels spin. At that time I look at what I create and find cliche’ or flat, boring. I know my best bet is to get it down the first time and then criticize. Do you or anyone that follows this post have any advice on how to silence my inner critic. Thank you again for your efforts and collected wisdom on creating art.

    KMM

  9. September 28, 2016 at 8:24 am

    I write an online comic strip style series. Sort of a ‘sit-com’ on paper. I have a wee following of fans. I write and draw and post every week because that wee group wants to know what happens next. I can’t leave them hanging — and the funny thing is, I want to know what happens next too.
    As always, thanks for great posts,
    Anne

  10. Tony levelle
    September 28, 2016 at 8:36 am

    Exactly right.

    Refreshing and honest.

    Thanks!

  11. Eric Tolladay
    September 28, 2016 at 9:05 am

    I call my reading habit an addiction, which always draws a sort of nervous laugh in public. People aren’t used to associating something positive like reading with something negative like addiction. As Neal Stephenson indicates, it keeps me from getting depressed.

    Lately I’ve noticed my writing habit seems to be of the same character. Perhaps I am addicted to writing as well. I have a day job, I pay my bills, my family comes before my addictions, so I think my bases are covered. After that, who cares? It’s what I am

  12. Maria Rabelo
    September 28, 2016 at 9:36 am

    Texto lúcido e inspirador! Obrigada!

  13. September 28, 2016 at 9:48 am

    It never ceases to amaze me the CONNECTION I have felt and all that I have learned from Writing Wednesdays and What It Takes Plus Steve your non-fiction books. For me it has been and it seems the same “thing” happens no matter the journey. Even though I am not a writer; I journal. “I was born to do this.” “I have no choice”

  14. Linda
    September 28, 2016 at 10:05 am

    Hi SP

    I’m certainly glad you keep writing.
    War of Art changed my life and, I’m making a guess here, but I’d say, incalculable others.
    On my bookshelf it sits alongside Illusions and Path with a Heart, on the ‘it’s time to read that one again’ shelf.

    Thank you for channeling that masterpiece.

    And thanks for the inspiring blog posts.

    Best regards.
    Linda

  15. Dick Yaeger
    September 28, 2016 at 10:28 am

    Well said, Steve. You continue to be an inspirational mentor. I do hope it won’t be another eighteen years until your passion returns to its roots—historical fiction. Regardless, I’ll wait.

  16. Bev Ross
    September 28, 2016 at 11:32 am

    Thanks for sharing your feelings in such an open way.I am surprised that you write to keep sane. It is an affirmation of the depth a person has to go to express a great work of art. You have created an amazing and powerful body of work.
    Writing that is all about money is not success. Anything that is all about money is not successful. The push for more material gain and more acknowledgement from the general masses does not make a work of art more valuable. Maybe in terms of hugely egotistical standards but not in the precious, meaningful and grand world of creativity and art.
    Being a full time writer who makes a living from his or her books is nearly impossible. Things are not set up for that and society does not support it. Artists in general are not supported in our society. The up side of this is that there is a lot of room for originality. One doesn’t need a pope to pay the bill. Or a rich patron who has a lot of power to decide what one does.
    Rather than blame oneself for lack of public acknowledgement I think it better to just write and go where the writers are and the people who love new work. Hitting the jackpot is a crapshoot in so many ways.
    Encouragement is helpful and I get encouragement from a writer’s group in town. Deep psychotherapy would be required for me to write to my full capacity and get published. A support group really helps.

    Kind regards to all readers and writers,
    Bev

  17. September 28, 2016 at 11:35 am

    From one of my favorite Kris Kristofferson songs, ‘To Beat the Devil’:

    I was born a lonely singer and I’m bound to die the same / but I’ve got to feed the hunger in my soul.
    If I never have a nickel I will never die ashamed / ’cause I don’t believe that no one wants to know.

    Thanks for helping us beat the Devil, Steve.

  18. September 28, 2016 at 11:38 am

    This vulnerability today is so very Jewish, and also very Charlie Brown. Charlie is such a candid, cool dude… For those of us who still struggle with our identity as a writer, these words work wonders. Thanks for that!

  19. LarryP
    September 28, 2016 at 12:09 pm

    I think the question, “is this person a failure (or a success)’ is ill-formed. We can fail or succeed to achieve a goal, but we can’t BE successes or failures.

    As to whether the writer who was never published succeeded or failed, it has to depend on what her goal was. If her goal was to be published, or be read by x number of people, or be interviewed by Oprah, then, yes, she did fail to achieve her goal. If her goal was to write something for the sake of writing it, then she succeeded.

    Personally, if no one ever reads the things I want to write, then I will have failed, because my goal is to reach others with my writing. Not why Mr. Pressfield writes, but it is why I write.

  20. Lee Monson
    September 28, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    Part of what you said reminded me of something Charles Bukowski wrote:

    “He asked, ‘What makes a man a writer?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s simple. You either get it down on paper, or jump off a bridge.’”

  21. Stacy Chambers
    September 28, 2016 at 12:35 pm

    Funnily enough, I’m reading Gates of Fire right now.

  22. September 28, 2016 at 12:56 pm

    My consciousness writes all the time. Getting it on paper means chasing it down and putting a slice into sentences. I can’t grasp anyone looking at blank paper and having nothing to write. I’ve never understood the woman who said she wanted to be a blogger but couldn’t think of anything to write.

    More seriously, I think neurology would support the idea that before there are words, there are concepts, bodily memories, experiences — all asking to be words and THEN written. When I was teaching high school kids, the hardest part was making them just sit and think for ten minutes before allowing them to write anything. Otherwise they wrote the same old cliches, stuck their heads into the same old buckets.

    If a person has lived a rich, intense, astonished life, the words can push hard to get onto paper, but what happens to that paper is an entirely different matter. Three-year-olds who can barely hold a crayon can tell a person remarkable things.

  23. September 28, 2016 at 1:14 pm

    Steven, as those of us who’ve been working our way through this writing gig knows, it’ll whittle you down to your bare essence and leave you naked. Turns out, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – this becoming who you are meant to be. Whether we accept it or not, writing because we have to, because without it we bleed, is what it is. One of the truly wonderful rewards is the connections we make with other people. Thanks for this post. As always, spot on.

  24. September 28, 2016 at 2:16 pm

    Steven your work matters to me. Deeply. I am an artist…a pro, about to have my first solo exhibition because of you.
    Your work matters. Plus who needs the New York times…you have grass roots support. That means more I reckon.

  25. David Contarini
    September 28, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    Steven – you write stuff so that doush-bags like me will read it
    And stop themselves from going crazy things or making bad decisions (I’m talking war of art)…navigating by resistence is my saviour and has saved countless friends of mine as well… Harry Potter has NEVER done that for me!!

  26. Leo
    September 28, 2016 at 3:52 pm

    That is basically what Hemingway said:
    ” I like to do and can do many things better than I can write, but when I don’t write I feel like shit. I’ve got the talent and I feel that I’m wasting it.”

    (https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/01/04/with-hemingway-arnold-samuelson-writing/)

    Thank you for this.

    • Amy
      September 30, 2016 at 6:50 am

      (In general, articles from Brain Pickings are wonderfully enlightening!!)

  27. C. Longoria Gonzalez
    September 28, 2016 at 7:38 pm

    Thank you, Mr. Pressfield! Another great post.

    Because of you, there’s not a day goes by, including weekends, that I don’t say the words, “Fight the Resistance!” out loud. (Sometimes, I scare my dog Lucas when I do that. Poor dog.)

  28. Sonja
    September 28, 2016 at 8:09 pm

    As usual, good stuff. I think I once read that you develop symptoms if you don’t do the work/writing. I’ve always remembered that and feel the same way. For those of us who hear the call, but battle Resistance, there can be many symptoms, the majority of which you list in WoA.

    And that’s what it is sometimes, isn’t it? Relieving the symptoms by simply getting on with the work so we don’t suffer by our own hand.

    As always, thank you for your consistency and wisdom.

  29. September 29, 2016 at 2:01 am

    Dear Steve,
    Your latest books had made my “I am stocking up these books for my kids as a must read advice for life” list. And may I add, that “The War of Art” was the book that inspired the making of this list in the first place.
    Thank you for putting in words exactly how I feel, roll and view my creative life. I feel less alone in my non apologetic and not always easy choices, and more content and happy as an artist.

    What I have learned lately, is that my creative work has more demands than I expected: not only I have no choice than to create what I am being called to create, I also need to promote it and to make sure it gets out there, in some way. This is part of an equation that I have not considered years ago, although I have embraced my artist already. Here, I have a choice. Most of the time I don’t want to be bothered about promoting my work. What matters for me is to create it. Then I am fulfilled. It’s enough. I don’t need external validation. But no, no, no. There is the next level calling, asking me to Stand By My Art. To serve it after the birth. Would I abandon my baby after labor? Would I refuse to change its’ diapers because I don’t feel like it? This is how it is with creative work. After having “no choice”, there is a choice, and this better be the one that leads to expansion and connection. There is only room to gain but still sometimes it’s so hard to do.

    Thank you for allowing this space. Also, big big thanks for revealing honestly your “why”, and not having it be about changing the world. You do so, regardless. :-)

  30. September 29, 2016 at 4:00 am

    What an annoying question you ask, and thank you Steven Pressfield for asking it.

    No one asks me why I play sports or paint pictures, but I suppose even if they did, I would not mind the question. But with writing, the questions messes with my mind.

  31. September 29, 2016 at 7:25 am

    This is a wonderful post. I’m having my first book published in Fall 2017 with a small press. I wonder if I’ll even sell any books…. Yet I realize it doesn’t matter. Not only did I write the thing, it’s time to put it out in the world with no expectations; but no hiding either. Your blog inspires.

  32. Vanessa
    September 29, 2016 at 8:40 am

    Why writers write is like why is Hillary Clinton still running for president, despite having the 2nd-most highest so-called “unfavorability” rating (across most demographics, gender, age, race, class, etc.). She just keeps going. I think that’s what writers, artists and other creative must do.

  33. September 29, 2016 at 11:07 am

    I love this! You are so loved already by so many, Steven and have transformed their lives by your marvelous books on Resistance and others. Who cares about the NY Times when the Marines have your Warrior Ethos as required reading, as does Oxford University for Gates of Fire, and other schools do too – one of my nephews had to read it and loved it. He considers you his favorite author. I promote and give away your books to others who I know will profit from them. You have taught us so much. I will keep plugging away too because you are right, we are born this way, we have to write, whether we reach the bestseller lists or not. God bless you, Steven, and thank you! :)

  34. September 29, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    I agree with all of you and as a visual artist using an obscure medium–I’m a fiber sculptor–I get all of these comments along with, why don’t you paint? The answer is because my medium is essential to what I have to create–it doesn’t work in paint or 2D. What we make, whether a story, a poem, music, or whatever, is as much a part of our need to create as our need to do it in the first place.

  35. S.J.B.
    September 29, 2016 at 5:10 pm

    “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.”

    Franz Kafka

  36. September 29, 2016 at 5:49 pm

    Psychologists have actually studies this. The compulsive creative impulse (I made that term up) is a real thing. It can be expressed in spiritual or mystical terms, as well.

    There are three parts to this: The writer, compelled internally to write. The work, which should at least show increasing mastery of craft. The audience, be it one or a million, which forms a community with the writer (artist). In this post you speak to the first, but the other two are important for the first.

    i think we have to separate “validation” from “audience,” and “success” from “best-seller” (whatever that means) or “prestige review.” As I mentioned before, many of our greatest writers were not “discovered” until late, or after passing. Their audiences were small. Many of the “best-sellers” or “most critically acclaimed” from a given year, decade or period are now either forgotten, footnotes, or tedious background reading for Ph.D. students.

    Many a genre writer (they are NOT hacks!) did just fine without “stardom” of any kind. They wrote because they could, and could do it regularly, and I’m sure they too had that compulsion. Westerns, Romance, SF/F, Detectives, even comics – from this mulch grew great writers. And authors weren’t always acknowledged. But there were, and are, always fans, magazine subscribers, avid and supportive readers.

    After the spiritual need to write, comes the equally great need for an audience. But what we have to recognize is that just as the writing must be ours, and not someone else’s (better, worse, or equivalent), so do our audience must be ours (large, small, medium), and so long as the audience, even of one, shares our passion, our theme (your term) and our story, it is enough.

  37. Garry
    October 3, 2016 at 8:36 am

    Brilliant Steve – thanks.

  38. David
    October 6, 2016 at 2:42 pm

    I’m fascinated to see that other people struggle with the same ideas as I do. But I don’t feel like a writer (screenplays) since I’m not produced, don’t have an agent, and have no prospects. Lots of school, lots of scripts. I try to give it up but feel directionless without it. So I write… am I a writer? No, I can’t say that I am since it doesn’t get read. But I write. I question it constantly… but I’ll keep going cause I have to. I see people get produced who can’t seem to string two coherent sentences together… but they obviously have something I don’t… chutzpah? No idea… But since reality sucks I’m going to keep writing… and flailing around in the dark is what I do… but that’s too long for a business card….

  39. October 12, 2016 at 1:55 am

    I concur. I write- and I need no one to validate it anymore than I need validation to breathe.