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. Carm
    July 5, 2017 at 7:58 am

    I appreciate your thoughtful, relevant and revealing posts – so, yes, keep going!

  2. July 5, 2017 at 7:59 am

    Please continue. After reading that, I’m on the edge of my seat, and so comforting to know I’m not the only one who occasionally feels physically sick with self-doubt.

  3. July 5, 2017 at 8:13 am

    I have virtually stopped reading “inspirational” blogs and books about writing because they’re all running together in my head.

    This, though, is not inspirational, not in that sense, anyway.

    This is me seeing that someone I deeply respect feels exactly like me and that I am not lost lost lost in the woods, I am following the same trail as every writer I love and respect.

    Hey, instead of lunch, let’s get together in the fetal position on the closet floor sometime, eh?

    Yes, please, more of these.

  4. Barbara Newton-Holmes
    July 5, 2017 at 8:14 am

    Oh my, Steve! As always, I am grateful for your courage and wisdom. Please keep this going. You are the best.

  5. July 5, 2017 at 8:21 am

    Thanks to Shawn for reviewing carefully and commenting honestly. Thank you, Steven, for your vulnerability with this post. And for your willingness to strap on the tool belt and get back to work.

  6. July 5, 2017 at 8:24 am

    Looks like a unanimous YES so far…I agree…please keep them coming. Thank you Steve. Blessings.

  7. Jim Ryan
    July 5, 2017 at 8:25 am

    Steve, please keep up with “The Report from the Trenches.” Not in the sense that misery loves company but in the sense of camaraderie and in that this thing we do, huddled alone, is hard and knowing everyone struggles helps us to get on with it.

  8. July 5, 2017 at 8:27 am

    Great stuff! The specifics make it that much more grounded in reality, and I think it’s very useful for us. Thank you. And please continue with these posts, Steve

  9. Larry Pass
    July 5, 2017 at 8:30 am

    I used to write computer code for a living before Chronic Fatigue Syndrome ate that part of my brain.

    When a computer gives you feedback on your code, it is truly objective. Whether the program won’t compile (what you’ve written doesn’t even make sense), or some portion takes up too may resources (this section is too slow), or it just doesn’t do what you want it to (that should be a big green rectangle, but it’s coming up as a little yellow one), there is just no arguing with it.

    Not so with prose writing. That’s what makes it so hard to accept feedback, so easy to reject it. “Well, Shawn said X, but that’s his opinion, he’s wrong!” Of course, Steve has worked with Shawn long enough to know he’s fooling himself, but it takes that kind of trust in the other person’s ability to know that you’re fooling yourself. And enough trust in your own ability to a) change what needs to be changed, and b) decide that maybe Shawn is wrong on point 7.

    “Dear Lord, give me the talent to rewrite what my editor is correct in saying needs to be changed, the self-confidence to keep what he’s wrong about changing, and he wisdom to know the difference.”

  10. Jytte
    July 5, 2017 at 8:33 am

    Not too personal, NOT boring! Please keep them coming!

  11. Harrison Greene
    July 5, 2017 at 8:37 am

    If you don’t I’ll meet you in Athens, Lysander.

  12. Jessie Clever
    July 5, 2017 at 8:46 am

    Yes, absolutely please keep posting these reports. Extremely helpful for your fellow writers!

  13. Kyle
    July 5, 2017 at 8:49 am

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. Your work is a major inspiration to me and posts like this really inspire me. You and Shawn are the real deal and this has become a spritual pursuit for me. Please continue to service us the way you have been

  14. Bahi
    July 5, 2017 at 8:58 am

    These reports are invaluable. They’re unusually frank and, of course, well written. Thank you!

  15. Creig Sigurdson
    July 5, 2017 at 8:59 am

    Mr. Pressfield, Steve, please continue to report from the trenches. It inspires me to battle my own resistance as I wrestle free of it clutches when the muse desends upon me. It is comforting to know my struggle is real. Since I have read some of your books( gates of fire and the profession are my favorites) and follow your’s and shawn’s website (bravo to you both) I have gained more confidence in my own writing. Thank you for being available and showing us the way.

  16. Catherine Vines
    July 5, 2017 at 9:03 am

    It had not occurred to me that it is such a process to accept and be able to use criticism. You are lucky to have someone so honest and direct in your life. I am jealous. It’s too easy for me to dismiss comments as personal prejudice when I don’t respect the person.

  17. Carrie Meyer
    July 5, 2017 at 9:08 am

    Anytime I read about another writer–no matter where they are in their writing career–in the throes of “gut check time”, I find solace. I may not be there today. I may not be there tomorrow. I may not have been there in weeks (which is being optimistic, I’ll be honest)… but reading how one battles Resistance is another arrow to stick in the quiver. Thank you for sharing. You are awesome.

  18. Benjamin
    July 5, 2017 at 9:14 am

    This is the exact kind of vulnerable, personal story that helps all of us out here who follow your work to keep plugging away on our own. Thank you!

  19. Fernando
    July 5, 2017 at 9:27 am

    By all means, we need to know how it all ends! :)

  20. Valerie
    July 5, 2017 at 9:34 am

    It’s so generous of you to share this, Steve. Thank you. Report from the Trenches is anything but boring – it’s inspiring! Please keep it up … or even turn it into a regular series. Good luck with your manuscript. :)

  21. Ian
    July 5, 2017 at 9:37 am

    Please keep the reports from the trenches coming – they are valuable.

    There’s a member of our family who wrote a novel (honestly, that’s not code for me. I haven’t got that far with my writing – yet). It was accepted by a major publisher but they wanted some changes. He refused to change a word of his precious novel. Of course, it’s never been published.

    Same guy had a TV show accepted, subject to changes. Same pattern, no show.

    Your point about being amateur or pro is so right. Fight the resistance.

  22. July 5, 2017 at 9:48 am

    The War of Art is one of a handful of books I’ve read again and again. I need to be reminded of the Resistance repeatedly. I don’t know why I was surprised that you still have thoughts that begin with “How dare I . . .” That is textbook Resistance right there (even after 50 years).

    Keep these posts coming. There’s nothing wrong with the tips on great villians, but we’re all in the trenches, too. It’s good to know that even you are still there next to us.

  23. July 5, 2017 at 9:52 am

    You just hit a lot of where I am in editing and revision. I am working on my first manuscript and it is nice to hear your words. There are so many voices that just say “Publish it, get it out of the way, and get back to writing. You need more writing rather than better writing.” It is refreshing to hear a professional coach others to be professional and do it through an introspective journey. The impact is not lost on me as I am sure it has not been lost on others. I am thankful for what you and Shawn have shared through Story Grid and these posts. I have been reading your stuff for about six months now. It was your personal post today that brought out my first comment. When Resistance knows me better than I know myself, it is time for self to rise to the occasion. :-)

  24. Daintry Jensen
    July 5, 2017 at 10:02 am

    We LOVE the reports from the trenches- they are incredibly inspiring and affirming that we’re not alone in our journey’s that we often daren’t speak of- many thanks Steve!!!

  25. July 5, 2017 at 10:04 am

    Never boring. Keep them coming, please and thank you!

  26. July 5, 2017 at 10:12 am

    YES! Please keep these coming – helps to understand you go thru this as well, even with all the experience you have. It’s the process we gotta commit to, and keep those huskies mushing :)

  27. Russell Wilson
    July 5, 2017 at 10:16 am

    Yes, please continue walking us through your process of dealing with this bout of Resistance. It is extremely helpful to watch as you deal with it. I’ve been fighting (and failing) for years to fight mine so your posts are like a beacon of light, even when you’re struggling. Thank you!

  28. July 5, 2017 at 10:30 am

    I’m not alone. I’ve been through this experience twice – both times able to produce novels that were published – but what a blood bath. If felt like I was having a heart attack…several times. And I truly believed I was the only one who’s ever been through this. Thanks for the gift of companionship in the trenches. Really…thank you!

  29. Joseph Clinton
    July 5, 2017 at 10:33 am

    Damn it Steve, if you even think about stopping with the posts I will straight up quit you. Those posts are the juice in the steak man. It’s what informs us we’re on the right track. If you’re still having to crawl through the mud field after your success and experience then we know when it starts to rain that our only choice is to jump head first into the muck and continue to swim. Resistance is a bitch. It’s nice to have a voice to remind us just how much.

    P.S. After three years with my ass in the chair everyday I finished the first draft of my novel and gave it to my Shawn. Her notes and my response was eerily similar to your story. Seething and beaten I walked away also for a few weeks. I finally manned up and wrote her a wonderful thank you note for all she had done though I only agreed with one of her points. I took that one point and jumped back in and made the changes. While doing so, a funny thing happened. I agreed with another of her points. And as I made those changes, well, you can see where this is going. It took me another year but I finally made it through. She was flat dead right. The writer and story the better for it.

    Keep’em Coming Steve!

  30. Shari Simpson
    July 5, 2017 at 10:39 am

    This is the first time I’ve left a comment. For all of the incredibly helpful things you’ve written (and there have been a boatload), this, honestly, has been the most helpful to me. As a writer with a number of professional credits under my belt, I still am shocked and disheartened when I suck. So, to hear that YOU still suck sometimes… sets my disheartened heart at ease. Sorry it has to come at your expense. Ha. Thank you so much for your honesty.

  31. John B
    July 5, 2017 at 10:39 am

    Yes! Most definitely please do continue sharing as you do! It is precisely because your sharing is so honestly personal that it is so not boring, and because it is so specific that it has such broad applicability. I love and share your posts not just for what they say about writing, but for how they reveal truths about life and any human endeavor.

    And, of course, I do love what you say about writing and stories, to boot! This is all new to me; I’ve never read anything about writing or creating art before in my life. I love your revelations about archetypal forms to specific genres of writing (with obligatory scenes!), just as Joseph Campbell revealed archetypes such as the Hero’s Journey encoded in humans.

    The universe being made of stories, not atoms, I see you and Shawn akin to particle physicists exploring the nature of the cosmos. Thanks for sharing your amazing insights born of your genius and dedicated hard work. You’re leaving a deeper, richer world in your wake (which I’m enjoying surfing).

    P.S. – I see nowhere on your website where I can “donate”. At the risk of being horrendously gauche, I’d like to ask how I might directly give something back to you in recognition of the value I receive from your freely offered posts.

  32. July 5, 2017 at 10:47 am

    Thank you, Steve, for sharing your experience from the trenches. You provide a balanced perspective that is extremely helpful in not only reminding us that the strong emotional response we have to less-than-shiny-feedback is doable but *how* it is manageable. Truly invaluable knowledge! I look forward to more stories by you from the writer trenches.

    • July 5, 2017 at 10:51 am

      Oops. I just realized that I can’t edit. I meant that *handling one’s strong emotional response to rejection is doable*…etc.

  33. July 5, 2017 at 10:51 am

    Dear Steven,
    Thank you and yes, please continue with these reports.

    If I may ask – how is the current process compare to the time you were creating The Gates of Fire? In other words – is there a force, opposite to Resistance? Like Inspiration, or something – when you are in the zone, and the work writes itself and all you need to do is just stay in the chair. Gates of Fire sure reads that way … but how was it in the trenches?

    Thank you

  34. Mary Doyle
    July 5, 2017 at 10:52 am

    Wow you really hit a vein with this post! Just curious – is 86 comments a record? Thanks again and keep up the good work!

  35. Wendy
    July 5, 2017 at 10:57 am

    Oh continue! I’m sure it’s helpful to you too.

    I also recently began reading Working Days: The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath about Steinbeck’s process writing that novel. Knowing that I’m normal makes it easier to push resistance aside and press on. Thanks for that!

  36. Russ
    July 5, 2017 at 11:10 am

    Yes, please!

  37. Lynn D. Morrissey
    July 5, 2017 at 11:19 am

    Well, you can stop if your readers don’t want to read the truth. I do (in small bites).:-) Actually this happened to me not too long ago, and after my angst took a back seat, I coulT see through the windshield to the editor’s wisdom. there are occasions, though, when you gotta say: But I’m the author. So there.

    Thanks for telling the truth and not particularly slant, but head on! What this post did for me was to let me know I’m not crazy and to keep us authors humble. To know that you practice what you preach, yes, does make a difference.

  38. Susie M Pruett
    July 5, 2017 at 11:19 am

    Please keep going with this series of posts. It’s not too personal or too specific or boring. I have already learned from this first post. I liked how you put his comments away and let them ruminate for awhile. Then, you began to see that some of his comments made sense. That is great advice for any writer who seeks and receives honest feedback.

  39. Rick Wiley
    July 5, 2017 at 11:24 am

    Hell yes, please continue them… You hit the nail on the head about how resistance always tries to creep back in!

  40. Dick Yaeger
    July 5, 2017 at 11:31 am

    First, a new FICTION piece. Hooray! I’m drooling already. Second, I’m super impressed that you seemingly accept Shawn’s sole advice carte blanche. Granted, Shawn is the master and you guys are joined at the hip, but don’t you argue, negotiate, even yell sometimes? I’d wager a six-pack there are pieces you think are brilliant and prepared to fight to the death before amending. Maybe that’s a future post from the trenches. Regardless, keep it up. In fact, without giving away the story, I’m certain we’d all be interested in more details. Allow us to bleed with you.

  41. Don Privett
    July 5, 2017 at 11:44 am

    Great post, my thanks:

    Norman Mailer said: “One must be able to do a good day’s work on a bad day, and indeed, that is a badge of honor decent professionals are entitled to wear.”

    Don

  42. Brendan O'Neill
    July 5, 2017 at 11:54 am

    Thanks for sharing the pain AND the glory, Steve! Don’t spare us the inner stuff. It’s incredibly valuable, vulnerable, and of great service.

  43. Jennifer
    July 5, 2017 at 11:56 am

    More please! Super helpful because it is real. Thanks for sharing.

  44. Sandra
    July 5, 2017 at 12:00 pm

    Please don’t stop.

  45. *Sonya
    July 5, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    Dare to continue!
    With the report from the trenches and the ensuing bloodbath(s).
    It is heartening to know that even the best still get kicked in the teeth. Dental bravery at its finest!
    Appreciated,
    *SGB

  46. Rebecca Frost
    July 5, 2017 at 12:18 pm

    Not boring! The personal is the most useful. Many thanks for your courage, generosity, and tenacity.

  47. July 5, 2017 at 12:19 pm

    I absolutely find it helpful. And endearing too. We’re all human. We all shatter at criticism – maybe especially at that which we secretly know is true.

    Share away, I’m all ears and eyes.
    Annie

  48. Patrick
    July 5, 2017 at 12:23 pm

    Most helpful post here EVER! Pros get stuck. Pros put in 15 months without a shiny perfect product! Pros get feedback and subsequently stall out! So you’re saying…I’m not a total fraud yet. But…push forward. I need to hear that. I’ll look at my manuscript and keep going. Keep going…

    Patrick

  49. July 5, 2017 at 12:23 pm

    Humble and compelling…please continue:)

  50. July 5, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    Wow, great post.

    Um, did someone unlock the gate to the zoo? Holy smokes…I feel late to a party commenting so late.

    Carry on, Steve!

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