Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Report from the Trenches, #1

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 5, 2017

 

I’m gonna take a break in this series on Villains and instead open up my skull and share what’s going on in my own work right now.

It ain’t pretty.

Joe and Willy, from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Bill Mauldin

Joe and Willy, from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Bill Mauldin

I’m offering this post in the hope that an account of my specific struggles at this moment will be helpful to other writers and artists who are dealing with the same mishegoss, i.e. craziness, or have in the past, or will in the future.

Here’s the story:

Eighteen months ago I had an idea for a new fiction piece. I did what I always do at such moments: I put it together in abbreviated (Foolscap) form—theme, concept, hero and villain, Act One/Act Two/Act Three, climax—and sent it to Shawn.

He loved it.

I plunged in.

Cut to fifteen months later. I sent the finished manuscript (Draft #10) to Shawn.

He hated it.

I’m overstating, but not by much.

Shawn sent me back a 15-page, single-spaced file titled “Edit letter to Steve.” That was April 28, about ten weeks ago.

Every writer who is reading this, I feel certain, has had this identical experience. Myself, I’ve been through it probably fifty times over the years, for novels, for screenplays, for everything.

Here was my emotional experience upon reading Shawn’s notes:

  1. I went into shock.

It was a Kubler-Ross experience. Shawn’s notes started out positively. He told me the things he liked about the manuscript. I knew what was coming, though.

When I hit the “bad part,” my brain went into full vapor lock. It was like the scene in the pilot of Breaking Bad when the doctor tells Bryan Cranston he’s got inoperable lung cancer. The physician’s lips are moving but no sound is coming through.

Here’s the e-mail I sent back to Shawn:

 

Pard, I just read your notes and as usually happens, I’m kinda overwhelmed. As you suggest, I’ll have to re-read a bunch of times and chew this all over.

MAJOR, MAJOR THANKS for the effort and skill you put into that memo. Wow.

I’m gonna sit with this for a while.

 

Can you read between the lines of that note? That is major shell shock.

 

  1. I put Shawn’s notes away and didn’t look at them for two weeks.

In some corner of my psyche I knew Shawn was right. I knew the manuscript was a trainwreck and I would have to rethink it from Square One and start again.

I couldn’t face that possibility.

The only response I could muster in the moment was to put Shawn’s notes aside and let my unconscious deal with them.

Meanwhile I put myself to work on other projects, including a bunch of Writing Wednesdays posts. But a part of me was thinking, How dare I write anything ‘instructional’ when, after fifty years of doing this stuff, I still can’t get it right myself?

There’s a name for that kind of thinking.

It’s called Resistance.

I knew it. I knew that this was a serious gut-check moment. I had screwed up. I had failed to do all the things I’d been preaching to others.

  1. After two weeks I took Shawn’s notes out and sat down with them. I told myself, Read them through one time, looking only for stuff you can agree with.

I did.

If Shawn’s notes made eight points, I found I could accept two.

Okay.

That’s a start.

I wrote this to Shawn:

 

Pard, gimme another two weeks to convince myself that your ideas are really mine. Then I’ll get back to you and we can talk.

 

  1. Three days later, I read Shawn’s notes again.

This time I found four things to agree with.

That was progress. For the first time I spied a glimmer of daylight.

  1. Two days later I began thinking of one of Shawn’s ideas as if I had come up with it myself.

Yeah, it’s my idea. Let’s rock it!

(I knew of course that the idea was Shawn’s. But at last, forward motion was occurring. I had passed beyond the Denial Stage.)

I’ll continue this Report From the Trenches next week. I don’t want this post to run too long and get boring.

The two Big Takeaways from today:

First, how lucky any of us is if we have a friend or editor or fellow writer (or even a spouse) who has the talent and the guts to give us true, objective feedback.

I’d be absolutely lost without Shawn.

And second, what a thermonuclear dose of Resistance we experience when faced with the hard truth about something we’ve written that truly sucks.

Our response to this moment, I believe, is what separates the pros from the amateurs. An amateur at this juncture will fold. She’ll balk, she’ll become defensive, she’ll dig in her heels and refuse to alter her work. I can’t tell you how close I came to doing exactly that.

The pro somehow finds the strength to bite the bullet. The process is not photogenic. It’s a bloodbath.

For me, the struggle is far from over. I’ve got weeks and weeks to go before I’m out of the woods and, even then, I may have to repeat this regrouping yet again.

[NOTE TO READER: Shall I continue these “reports from the trenches?” I worry that this stuff is too personal, too specific. Is it boring? Write in, friends, and tell me to stop if this isn’t helpful.

I’ll listen.]

 

 

 

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

156 Responses to “Report from the Trenches, #1”

  1. July 5, 2017 at 2:58 am

    This is pure Gold Steven! Please continue writing the reports. I found it very useful and keen to know more, particularly exposing why Shawn’s ideas hit a nerve with you. Thank you so much.

    • Scott Mitchell
      July 5, 2017 at 6:23 am

      Steven – the “report from the trenches” is like a splash of cold water on your face — it can be shock, but it does wake you up. Please continue with those. But. . . a question: Should there not come a time when the writer has follow her own muse and stick to what she’s written, even if she has a trusted and talented editor/friend/mentor saying otherwise? (By the way, my father was a WWII Marine veteran, and we grew up with Willie & Joe. So there’s Willie staring at a single intact window pane in a bombed out building, and Joe advising him: “Better go bust it, or you’ll be thinking about it all night.”)

    • Lyn
      July 10, 2017 at 7:57 am

      By all means, please continue telling us how you’re overcoming “Resistance” with a capital “R.” I’m in prime position to relate to it because the same thing happened to me about a month ago when a fellow writer critiqued my novel. It felt like a stomach punch straight to the gut. I knew some of her critique was right, but taking off my blinders hasn’t been easy. I “thought” I was just taking time off for a family vacation but when I got back to the novel, rigor mortis had set in. I couldn’t even think. Deep denial. Like you, I found a few points I could admit were valid. One step at a time. It’s so helpful to hear how you’re dealing with this.

  2. July 5, 2017 at 4:15 am

    Dear Steve

    There’s part of me — the ‘Joker’ — who wants to give you a dose of your own medicine and say, “Don’t write another Wednesday post until you’ve nailed the rewrite”; but there’s another part, the less sadistic geezer, that’s intrigued how you dig yourself out the hole. On balance, it’s your call, but I’m sure all us amateurs would learn a great deal by understanding the need for honest feedback and what the hell to do with it.

    Blessings
    Julian.

  3. July 5, 2017 at 4:33 am

    In 2015, I decided to move into novel writing (specifically Cyberpunk). had my own Shawn, only his name is Casey. I sent him my first draft, knowing that he’d take it as a first draft and not inappropriately kill my inner artist with surface critique.

    He was SAVAGE in his honesty. And it hurt. Bad.

    We have worked together for ten years creating any manner of things (video games, websites, comics) but this was the first time he was acting as a sounding board instead of collaborator… reading his email burned me alive. But it was all truth, and that burning was necessary to cleanse the field of weeds.

    Long story short, this post form you was so relatable I had to comment after years of reading your stuff. Please share more. And thank you. It’s a HUGE benefit to see the established and successful folks we look up to and take advice from go through what everyone goes through. It helps make success seem attainable :)

  4. Mary Doyle
    July 5, 2017 at 5:19 am

    Yes, by all means, please continue – you’re lucky to have Shawn and we are lucky to have you!

  5. Stelios V. Perdios
    July 5, 2017 at 5:31 am

    This is helpful, if not sobering.

    It’s a reminder the no professional artist is exempt from the editing process–even if they’ve worked 18 months on a project and had done 10 drafts.

    Personally, I’d be more terrified and paralyzed if an editor (especially somebody like Shawn) wrote:

    “This looks great. Let’s publish it as is.”

    • Stelios V. Perdios
      July 5, 2017 at 5:40 am

      ..says the guy who left an extra “the” in his comment. :)

  6. David Smith
    July 5, 2017 at 5:56 am

    Please, please, please don’t stop. It hurts so good, as that Hoosier boy would say.

  7. Allen Laudenslager
    July 5, 2017 at 6:06 am

    Keep the reports coming. It gives me hope that I’ll improve when you admit that after 50 years you still struggle with all the same thing I’m fighting.

  8. Amy
    July 5, 2017 at 6:15 am

    MORE from the trenches!

  9. Shelia Watson
    July 5, 2017 at 6:15 am

    Yes, keep ’em coming. This helps more than you know. I appreciate your sharing part of your journey.

  10. Murf
    July 5, 2017 at 6:17 am

    Transparency is beautiful.

  11. Robert Scanlon
    July 5, 2017 at 6:17 am

    Love the reports from the trenches! Especially as a fan of Shawn’s Story Grid (& podcast listener), this brings it to life in a new way :)

    Keep ’em coming!

  12. July 5, 2017 at 6:24 am

    My vote is that you continue with these types of posts. I’m not going to lie, it’s terrifying to read and to identify with the moment of shock when receiving such notes. But I also like how over time that shock turns into forward movement. Thank you for sharing such a vulnerable and personal moment.

  13. Kent Faver
    July 5, 2017 at 6:24 am

    Very helpful, and inspiring, very! Please continue. Maybe it’s like Springsteen letting us watch a practice session. Unlike the final product – it looks almost human, but we know the magic is in there once it all comes to fruition.

  14. James G.
    July 5, 2017 at 6:26 am

    It’s not too personal. Part of the problem anyone doing work that faces resistance is that problems seem unique and personal. We think we are alone in feeling this, and look at all those pros out there who crank out work, beat their demons, and have a sip of tea along the way. That others go though it, that they defeat exactly what we mere mortals go though, it helps.

  15. Teresa
    July 5, 2017 at 6:26 am

    This “reports from the trenches” was just what I needed today. Thank you for being open enough to share so much of yourself with us.

  16. Conrad
    July 5, 2017 at 6:26 am

    Thank so so much for this personal insight Steven. It’s so good to hear these stories so as to keep a constant reminder that Resistance is out to trip us up everyday… even for the guy who literally wrote the book on it!

  17. Linda
    July 5, 2017 at 6:29 am

    It’s not boring! Gut wrenching. I heard, “Don’t feed the monster!” I thought, ‘Time is an illusion.’ I recalled, “We’re all in the same soup.” (CGJung)
    Thank you for sharing.

  18. Caron Harris
    July 5, 2017 at 6:31 am

    Totally loved this post. Moving and useful. Thank you for sharing it, and please do NOT stop. I truly want to know what happens next!!

  19. Amber
    July 5, 2017 at 6:33 am

    Please continue these. I NEED them. I need to know what it’s not gonna be perfect and that’s okay. That I’m gonna write crap and that’s okay, that the pros do it too and they have to rewrite and do the work even when they really really don’t want to, but that it’s possible to come out the other side, even when it’s really hard. That no path is an easy walk in the park even after doing it successfully once or even a few times.

    The reminders are a godsend.

  20. July 5, 2017 at 6:38 am

    Yes, please keep us updated on your progress. Seems weird, I know, but it kind of helps to know we aren’t alone with our resistance. Keep Writing!

  21. July 5, 2017 at 6:40 am

    Love these Steve. Most of us don’t have the version of Shawn that you have. But, taking his class, listening to his podcast, gives me a feeling that I at least on the edge of the Shawn universe. When you share, I get closer. And the next time I want to put my book away and never look at it again, I will remember your posts! Thank you, for writing what is really going on!

  22. July 5, 2017 at 6:40 am

    Please don’t stop sharing. As someone moving from writer to author (and hopefully to professional author) hearing your story helps me. If the Pro needs wait time to think through their changes, than it it OK for me to need wait time, too.

    My husband listened to the total meltdown at New Year’s (no one likes my story, I’m wasting my time, argh, ack) etc. Now we are starting to move beyond that to how can I fix this mess but it is a hard road to move to the next step. Thank you for sharing your story.

  23. Pamela Hodges
    July 5, 2017 at 6:41 am

    Yes, please. Keep being honest. You are not too personal. You are real and honest. You show the only way to fight resistance is to do the work. Every day. Don’t give up. Slay the dragon.

  24. July 5, 2017 at 6:42 am

    Keep posting these updates, they are really helpful, precisely because they’re personal and specific. Helps us realise that all truly great work does not just fall into our lap or receives instant approval but involves huge effort, blood, sweat & tears. And anger/frustration. You’re right, resistance wants us to say:”Aah well, I’ll just give up then.” Because giving up doesn’t require any effort or hard work as opposed to reviewing and refining our new creations. I often think of seeds, having to push like hell to get out of their seed coat, then having to carry on pushing like mad through the dark soil, without the faintest idea if they’re going the right direction, how long it will take, are they making any progress and whether this is even worth it. Once they’re out at ground level, they get attacked by snails etc etc but somehow they keep pushing on and eventually some turn into beautiful stately trees. Keep on pushing, it will be worth the pain and struggle. Kick resistance in the teeth!

  25. July 5, 2017 at 6:42 am

    Thank you for you honesty, Steve! It definitely helps to know that Resistance can still rear its head even for you. Please continue. Not boring at all. We writers are such geeks! Cheers.

  26. July 5, 2017 at 6:42 am

    Thank you Steve.

    You adventure gives me hope, even though your worst work could surpass any of mine.

    Please share all the unedited versions.

    And thanks for being a PRO!

  27. Patrick
    July 5, 2017 at 6:50 am

    Loving it Steve, please continue

  28. July 5, 2017 at 6:52 am

    PLEASE keep the report from the Trenches!!!

    • July 5, 2017 at 6:59 am

      Whoops need to add this. For me, it is like not being able to see the forest for the trees.

  29. July 5, 2017 at 6:53 am

    This is definitely not boring. It takes guts to write about this, but the raw honesty of it is what makes it so helpful for us writers. It’s actually exactly what I needed to read right now. I’m sure you’ll find a way out of your predicament.

  30. Carl
    July 5, 2017 at 6:54 am

    Keep them coming…we’re all fighting the big R.

  31. July 5, 2017 at 6:56 am

    Hi Steve
    By all means, please keep sending us Reports From the Trenches. Online, it’s too easy to glamorize our lives and achievements and make everything look effortless (see: Facebook, Instagram). I find it so encouraging that even a pro like you still wrestles with this stuff 50 years in. It makes it okay to have these struggles myself. Resistance would have us believe that being a Pro means creating without heartache, that if it isn’t easy we shouldn’t even try. Thanks for unmasking the Enemy once again, and inspiring us all.

  32. Christine W.
    July 5, 2017 at 6:56 am

    Please continue. I got a similar response from my agent on a book. That was ten years ago and resistance still has me mired in a shadow career. Hearing your struggles gives me hope.

  33. Currer Bell
    July 5, 2017 at 6:57 am

    KEEP POSTING!!!!!!!!!!!

    So helpful.

  34. fjr
    July 5, 2017 at 6:59 am

    Sharing this sort of experience is one of the most valuable things an expert/pro/highlyproficientperson can do.

    There is particular value because of the remarkable proliferation of process-sharing online by people who do not actually have any such expertise.

    For example, a couple of weeks ago I read almost with shock a post by an everyday blogger whose advice was entitled something like How To Do Great Art and used as her vehicle what she went through to get something written that she needed to get done. (Enough said).

  35. July 5, 2017 at 6:59 am

    Remember the last time art was easy?

    Me neither.

    This kind of angst is art. That being said, if you sit down, you CAN pull your pants on two legs at a time. Before you go “Huh?” all the pro, non-pro, am I there yet comments brought that on.

    IMO, art’s a journey, not a destination and to walk the path is a reason to live, not mourn. Complete with hills and valleys, as Steven has shared.

  36. Jack Price
    July 5, 2017 at 7:05 am

    Steve,

    I love both: posts about the principles you’ve mastered while faithfully writing toward the light at the end of the tunnel, and posts that remind us how that light can morph into a Resistance freight train intent on crushing that faith. (And what a gift that you’re not a fusty relic from an antique century but a living, breathing man of our time, struggling as we struggle.) Your knowledge arms us. Your fight inspires us.

    Jack

  37. July 5, 2017 at 7:11 am

    Reverend Pressfield! I say you’re right! This is a very boring and thoroughly uninteresting post. I’d much prefer your polished,concrete, well reasoned and thought out instruction and encouragement…:)

    ARE YOU KIDDING US? THIS is the Gold brother! It’s a magical share and I feel privileged to have read it.

    It does seem to me, without knowing word 1 of the material however, that a) any artistic endeavor such as this is a subjective one – to both the writer and the reader. I have no doubt that there would be a vast audience who would love your 10th draft with absolutely no changes whatsoever! But on the other hand b) if you agree that Shawn has an understanding of your end goal for the material and if you believe that his feedback would in fact get the material closer to the desired end result, AND you have faith in his ability to get you closer than you could get on your own, it’s a no brainer to jump in and make a revision with the changes. If nothing else it’s yet another opportunity to be creative and take on a challenge and create another new thing. You can then sit with them both and decide which you prefer personally and go with that one. It’s YOUR creation, and you’re brilliant at what you do,of course you are,or you wouldn’t have the success and devoted following you do. Find courage and confidence in us and be true to the talented artist we all love and admire so. It will be fantastic either way, I have no doubt.

    Best wishes my friend!

    • July 5, 2017 at 1:17 pm

      I’m with Ken on this one, would like to see both sides.
      But, whatever, I am a fan of your posts. They are the ONLY ones I make time to read.

  38. Chris
    July 5, 2017 at 7:14 am

    So. Extremely. Helpful.

  39. Karen
    July 5, 2017 at 7:15 am

    Yes, YES! Please do continue these “reports from the trenches” posts, Steve.

  40. July 5, 2017 at 7:17 am

    Hate that you have to go through this, but love that you’re sharing the experience. Very insightful, and you’re not even capable of writing anything boring.
    -RG

  41. Mike R
    July 5, 2017 at 7:19 am

    Steven,

    I hope these “trench reports” become a regular addition to Writing Wednesdays. The Villain breakdown you’ve been laying out is great head knowledge. The report today is more like spirit fuel.

    Fifty years in you’ve developed a keen Geiger counter for Resistance. Us, the passengers & crew of your Reader-ship, our Resistance detectors advance by leaps & bounds when you grant us a peek into your personal struggle like you have today.

    Thank you Steven!

  42. July 5, 2017 at 7:20 am

    I not sure if doing really good work ever gets easy. We do get in the habit of doing the hard work.

  43. July 5, 2017 at 7:21 am

    Great report, please continue with these !

  44. July 5, 2017 at 7:25 am

    Dear Steve,
    It is only 0714, and this is already the 40th post…so I hope that message is clear enough. Please keep these personal posts coming. Your blogs about the “Lion’s Gate” are still some of my favorite, the open Kimono blogs are the stickiest for me.

    My ‘art’ is currently a race. We race up and down stairs at the historic Stadium High School in Tacoma, Wa. For the first five years I marketed the race as this ‘CrossFit-ish, Spartanish–are you tough enough’ event.

    This year we have pivoted to make it about unifying and connecting via shared struggle. (I always told my Soldiers that I was a big fan of collective suffering for team building, but my wife and others said ‘suffering’ wouldn’t resonate with people).

    Bottom line is we have a video that I’ve thought of for 18 months to communicate this vision. I am surprised at my own fright, nervousness, and unease–but I do know why–I’m exposing my inner core, and it is frightening. Naked before the Gods.

    That said, Kelly and I had a very difficult discussion about this video a few weeks ago similar to your feedback from Shawn. She was right. I think we are close to nailing it–but I got angry, defensive, frustrated…basically acted like a toddler.

    I’d like to share this video in this forum when it is ready to go, if that is appropriate.

    I think your ‘from the trenches’ posts encourage some repricocisty from us. It is authentic, and I for one, love it.

    Thanks for what you do. Your fiction is fantastic, but your non-fiction and blogs save lives.
    bsn

  45. Kelly Perri
    July 5, 2017 at 7:41 am

    Steven,
    Please continue. The process doesn’t bend, even for someone with your depth of insight (unfortunately, sigh). You can do it!
    Kelly

  46. Matthew Lutz
    July 5, 2017 at 7:44 am

    Keep posting! The timing is dead nuts for me. I just got back feedback for my pilot from a literary manager, and it wasn’t pretty (ego-wise). I’ve been sitting with it for about a week now, and after giving DO THE WORK another quick read to get my mind straight, and seeing this post, I’m finally ready to dive into the re-write. Thanks. Truly.

  47. July 5, 2017 at 7:49 am

    Steven, keep ’em coming, they are like traveling with a friend. Yes, you can travel alone, but it’s better with a friend, especially when one feels a little lost!

  48. July 5, 2017 at 7:53 am

    It’s helpful to know that the story wrangling process is ongoing…sometimes they break easy, and sometimes they break hard. Not for the faint of heart or the fragile, this thing! Thanks for all you do and say.

  49. July 5, 2017 at 7:55 am

    Thank you Steve for sharing. Feels like your post was a kick in the.. for me. I’ve moved through shock and resistance. I’ve been stuck in the angry stage for awhile now. LOL
    Thanks for keeping me “moving through the process.”
    All my best.

  50. Mike
    July 5, 2017 at 7:57 am

    Keep this stuff coming! It’s very helpful.

    • July 5, 2017 at 9:02 am

      Yep, it’s all good so keep pouring your heart onto the page.