Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Resistance at the Ph.D. Level

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 12, 2017

 

Continuing our “reports from the trenches,” let me flash back briefly to last week’s post with the aim of setting today’s piece—Report #2—in a relatable time context.

General William Slim in Burma, 1943

General William Slim in Burma, 1943

The plot so far:

April 28, 2017. Shawn sends me his editorial notes on my new manuscript (my Draft #10.)

Same day: I go into shock.

Two weeks later: I summon the courage to read Shawn’s notes again. I succumb to shock a second time (though not quite as badly.)

Three days later: I read ’em one more time. Shock is receding.

Two days after that: I begin to actually grasp what Shawn is trying to communicate.

Fast-forward to today, July 10. I have outlined (new) Draft #11 in detailed, scene-by-scene form. I’m about halfway through the next pass of actually writing it.

Projection into future: Another five weeks to finish Draft #11. Will need at least two more drafts after that. Then send again to Shawn.

Future/future: possibly begin process all over again.

I wrote half-jokingly in last week’s post that this experience has had a heavy Kubler-Ross feel to it.

Alas, it’s true.

For sure I’ve been going through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression. The objective has been to get to the final stage—acceptance.

Acceptance meaning the ability to read Shawn’s notes objectively (or as objectively as possible) and respond to them like a professional, i.e. without ego, without defensiveness, without laziness or short-cut-itis.

The Big, Big Question:

How can I decide which of Shawn’s eight points I agree with and which I don’t?

This is Resistance at the Ph.D. level.

In other words, my ego/self-protectiveness/laziness/pride etc. is rejecting EVERYTHING Shawn is suggesting or proposing. Reading his notes for the first, and even the second time, I literally could not understand them. Not because Shawn hadn’t expressed himself with absolute clarity. He had. But just because the blow was too severe. It was a Mike Tyson shot to the solar plexus.

Yet I knew, in some hazy part of my brain, that Shawn’s notes were right. I trust him absolutely. I’ve seen him be right, over and over. He knows his shit, and he knows my shit.

Shawn’s notes are on the money, I’m certain. At least some of them. Probably most of them.

Problem: How do I come back from the fetal position and shake off that defensive armor of self-protection?

Because Resistance, bank on it, is loving every minute of this.

Resistance wants me to crumble.

Resistance wants me to deny, to dissent, to defend.

How do I defeat this diabolical entity?

Here are two things I did:

  1. I recalled to mind the multiple horror stores that Shawn and other editors have told me over the years about writers self-destructing at precisely this moment in their process. In other words at the moment of semi-completion but not real completion. The moment of I-think-I’ve-nailed-it-but-I-really-haven’t-but-I-can’t-face-the-nightmare-of-having-to-regroup-and-start-again.

These stories will turn your hair white. The poor writer (and I can empathize completely, believe me) goes into shock/denial/defiance/rationalization. He fights back. He scorns his editor’s input. He stomps his feet, he digs in his heels. He refuses to make the changes.

Climax of tale: writer’s book dies, writer is never heard from again.

Okay.

I’m telling myself this. I’m scaring myself straight.

Rally, Steve. Suck it up, baby. Read Shawn’s notes again. Focus. Move back to the 30,000 foot view. Gain perspective.

Which of Shawn’s points do you agree with? Don’t just be tough on yourself, be tough on him. He’s human. He’s fallible. He can be wrong.

Trust your instincts, Steve. This is your book. Only you and your Muse can carry it to completion.

What do you think?

Which points do you agree with?

  1. The second thing I did to help me through this moment was I reminded myself of how it works for novelists and screenwriters in Hollywood.

The system is

 

If Writer #1 can’t lick this script, fire him and bring in Writer #2.

 

I said to myself, “Steve, you’re fired.”

 

Thanks a lot, buddy, you took the story as far as you could. Now step aside. We’re bringing in Steve #2.

 

I told myself, “Steve, you’re hired.”

 

Welcome aboard, Big Guy. Here, read this piece of crap we just got in from Steve #1. Tear it apart if you have to. Just make it work.

 

I became Steve #2. (There may be a Steve #3 and #4 lurking to replace me when I screw the pooch too, but for now let’s put that out of our minds.)

Steve #2 has certain advantages that Steve #1 doesn’t.

First, he starts with a clean slate.

It’s not his fault that this project is all bolloxed up.

He’s the surgeon.

He’s the Fix-it Man.

He’s the pro from Dover.

Steve #2 will come in, sew this mess up, and get it back on his feet.

Sometimes you and I as writers have to play mind games with ourselves. We have to find a way to gain perspective, to seed ourselves with patience. I’m reading a terrific book now called Defeat Into Victory by Field Marshall Viscount William Slim. It’s a true memoir of the war in Burma, 1942-45, against the Japanese. The part of the book I’m reading now is the Defeat part. General Slim and the allies are getting their butts kicked.

The story is fall back, fall back, fall back. Rally, regroup, counterattack, get beaten again.

This is warfare at the Ph.D. level, as my friend Major Jim Gant says. It’s a dead ringer for our struggles as writers, yours and mine, when we receive and must absorb brave, insightful, constructive (but devastating) feedback on our work.

Next week we’ll get into specifics on this process of rallying back. I’m making it up as I go along. I’ll keep reporting to you, as long you think it’s helpful. Lemme know, please. It helps.

P.S. General Slim and his soldiers did stop the bleeding (after first losing all of Burma) and did, eventually, fight back and turn defeat into victory.

 

 

 

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

50 Responses to “Resistance at the Ph.D. Level”

  1. Marla M.
    July 12, 2017 at 4:41 am

    Thank you so much for these trench reports and these blogs. Especially this morning as I rally after a crushing last week. Think Junuh, afternoon round, ninth hole after choosing the driving iron even though Vance guided toward the three-wood. Okay, so I’ve lost ground. I’m regrouping and getting back in the fight.

  2. Mary Doyle
    July 12, 2017 at 5:13 am

    You really got me when you fired yourself and then rehired yourself – I’m tucking that concept away because God only knows there were times I could have used it and more times coming down the pike. Thanks so much for this series Steve!

    • July 12, 2017 at 6:24 am

      Mary,
      I agree. I love the idea of multiple Steves, Maries, Brians…brilliant way to approach it.
      bsn

    • July 12, 2017 at 9:54 am

      I agree! Will definitely use this strategy of firing and hiring my self in the future. Thank you for sharing.

  3. July 12, 2017 at 6:04 am

    This was a timely post for me. Resistance just doesn’t apply to writing or other traditionally designated created activities.

    I run and practice taijiquan. I like to do my thing early in the morning before the events of the day conspire to take my time away from me.

    Every morning when I wake up, so does my Resistance and we begin to wrestle. I usually win, but not always.

    Some days you’re the pigeon and other days you’re the statue.

    • July 12, 2017 at 6:25 am

      I love this comment, Rick. Makes me want to yell, Good Morning, Resistance!

  4. Arthur Shapiro
    July 12, 2017 at 6:17 am

    This is awesome. To dissect the resistance process, and counter it as you have, makes me feel there is hope.
    Steve, thank you so much for this… Now it’s back to work.

  5. July 12, 2017 at 6:20 am

    My resistance is basically life throwing wobblies at me. I had a job interview last Thursday for a Cloud Academy based in Belfast, but found out yesterday I didn’t get the job. I had busted so many guts trying to prepare for that role, then I got slapped in the face.

    Some of the jargon used here is alien to me, I must admit, but my art is primarily graphic design and there are quite a number of obstacles that resistance throws at me.

  6. July 12, 2017 at 6:23 am

    Steven, you know perfectly well that we tend to put you on a pedestal. Knocking yourself off it, over and over, is useful. Most of us don’t have a role model for that because nobody has stepped up to be one. Nobody but you… You and Shawn and Callie might enjoy knowing that I have a visceral reaction whenever a new email from y’all (proper use of term) shows up in my inbox. I prepare to laugh and cry at the same time. That’s what you guys do to me, and to others, I’m certain.

  7. July 12, 2017 at 6:29 am

    Thanks for the honesty, Steven. I feel like there’s a part of vulnerability here that I haven’t read in your books. It’s probably there, I just haven’t seen it. A part of me wants to get to where it’s easy, but you make it clear that telling good stories never will be. I don’t know how to wrap my head around that without losing my sanity. Thanks again.

  8. July 12, 2017 at 6:37 am

    Dear Steven,
    Thanks again. It is both troubling and rewarding to read that Resistance never goes away. Your mental Jui Jitsu models appropriate responses, I’m stealing the multiple personalities approach for sure.

    My initial ‘canary in the mine-shaft’ for Resistance is how I eat. My slow-wittedness to my own interior requires that my body is frequently my teacher. When I chose to eat poorly, or skip exercise, I know that I’m hiding from something. It is like I’ve given Resistance room to land a well placed haymaker. It is best for me to grab him close, and hold on.

    Oh–and it is so cool for Shawn to respond on Fridays about this epic battle from his foxhole. Love it.
    bsn

    • July 12, 2017 at 7:12 am

      I love it too, Brian! It’s a very cool new “riff!”.

      Steve and Shawn, let her rip!

  9. Todd Syswerda
    July 12, 2017 at 6:42 am

    Steve, your insights are so applicable to the “real life” of trying to better yourself (whether through ‘creating’ or getting in shape or whatever). This morning’s post is SO timely (agreeing with a reply from above) as I, in my creative endeavor, am working with a collaborator and find we are at different stages of responding to the edits and the critiques. Granted, I can only apply this to myself but it helps me understand the tentativeness of my creative partner. Thank you for not only sharing your work and insights with us but also for sharing the reality of your creative struggle.

  10. Linda
    July 12, 2017 at 6:44 am

    Yes, this helps. Thank you. I just fired my ass- that timid scaredy pants boo hoo it’s too hard writer is outta here!

    • July 12, 2017 at 6:57 am

      Linda,
      I LOVE IT! I laughed out loud.
      bsn

  11. July 12, 2017 at 6:47 am

    This is awesome. Thank you for the powerful validation of what can sometimes feel like a kind of death. And thank you for being vulnerable.

  12. Conrad
    July 12, 2017 at 6:51 am

    Thanks Steven. This is gold, especially as I’m currently going through it.
    Your Steve 1 and Steve 2 idea is so on the money. Conrad 1 got fired from a project after he couldn’t face re-opening it for 2 months. Conrad 2 is now in the hot seat!

  13. Karen
    July 12, 2017 at 7:03 am

    Yes, absolutely, please continue sharing this particular experience AND, in general please do continue sharing these kinds of personal experiences. It certainly helps your readers. So yes, please continue this kind of post for as long as it feels right to YOU to do so.

    In today’s post, I’m particularly glad that you’ve created a balance between the imperatives to (a) trust the [well-chose] editor, with (b) concurrently “Trust YOUR instincts…, …Which points do YOU agree with?”

    Thank you, Steve.

  14. fjr
    July 12, 2017 at 7:08 am

    I am musing about two questions in response to this post. One is whether work done with youngsters to be less ego-defeated by setbacks and disappointments can build muscle for combating resistance in the future. I think yes and work on cognitive change of this sort with young people encountering their first setbacks in an academic setting, the first times they not only cannot just coast but can barely succeed even with great effort.
    Another is, what if a person doesn’t have a Shawn whose judgment he actually trusts absolutely?

    • July 12, 2017 at 7:19 am

      Fjr, retired educator here. We need to focus more on kids efforts and less on their finished products. And when we do focus on their finished products (evaluate), we need to show them all the things they did well and all the things that need improvement, then send them back to the drawing board to improve. It helps if you send them back to the drawing board with the comment, “My work isn’t there yet…but it will be soon!” Of course, we haven’t figured this out yet. We just evaluate and move on.

  15. July 12, 2017 at 7:10 am

    I know you must hear this an awful lot these days but I can’t thank you enough for sharing your defeats (and victories) with the rest of us! for the first time in ten years, I feel I’m moving forward. The Story Grid has changed my writing positively (and my life) and I’m beginning to feel like that “pro” you mentioned in your podcast a while back. Can’t tell you the difference your honesty has made! Pam#1 was fired right after I began my Foolscap sheet and Pam#2 is rockin’ it! (I like her better anyway!) Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!!!

  16. Jack Henke
    July 12, 2017 at 7:28 am

    Keep on firing please, Steve. I don’t know how many times I have fallen into the trap of believing that I’m the only one in the world to go through this.

    Thank you,
    Jack

  17. Barbara Newton-Holmes
    July 12, 2017 at 7:38 am

    Wow. I am dizzy with appreciation and admiration, Steve. Could not be more appropriate or timely. Thank you so much for bringing us along.

  18. July 12, 2017 at 7:42 am

    Dear Steven,

    I LOVE this blog. Thank you. I’m noticing my resistance in all kinds of new and sneaky ways and how it disguises itself. I’m seeing how it’s distracted me with my old drama queen ways and habits…
    Your work is so incredibly valuable. I quote you to my students every week, and I make my clients get your book. (The War of Art).
    I’m almost done with Turning Pro and I just got No One Wants to Read Your Shit…
    I guess you could say I’m an obsessed fan.
    Thanks again,
    Elaine

  19. July 12, 2017 at 8:12 am

    Steve, whenever in the trenches and it hits hard as it does for some kind of wake call or “whatever”; does what Eckhart Tolle say about Resistance to acceptance: “Surrender one could say, is the inner transition from resistance to acceptance, from “no” to “yes.” Whatever you accept completely will take you to peace, including the acceptance that you cannot accept, that you are in resistance” make any sense to OR Would It Help in anyway in conquering the “obstacle” that has gotten in the way. I had “a shock” within my healing process 5 months ago. THINKING and FEELING OK I got it all together. Then a golf cart accident with a diagnosis of 100% Whiplash of the entire body. The shock was the intense anger I felt. Never in all the years of the healing process did I ever experience “this kind of anger” within me. If I would have known the amount of work I still needed to do; I would have said “fuhgeddaboutit”. It took “surrender” before I could even “find out” what I was till Resisting Within Me. Now I have to watch for it not to be a “gotcha” type of thing from Resistance.

  20. July 12, 2017 at 8:24 am

    Steve, this rocks.

    You had me laughing out loud today. You are truly battling resistance at the Ph.D. level and your courage is inspiring. I love that you’re willing to share with us the moment by moment of the struggle and show us that even a pro like you wrestles with the challenges feedback brings — and give us such a handy framework to deal with it.

    Case in point, I’ve got a screenplay rewrite that’s right up Jenna #3’s alley. She’ll be getting right on that today.

  21. July 12, 2017 at 8:33 am

    Powerful point from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow: These mind games work, even when we play them on ourselves, even when we know it’s happening.

    When the time comes, I now know I’ll have to thank JDC1 for his hard work and hire JDC2 to move the ball forward. Great stuff.

  22. Ursula
    July 12, 2017 at 9:17 am

    This helps a ton to sort out our individual and collective shit. Helps so much not to feel alone knowing that you me, all of us are fighting the exact same enemy.

    Your Writing Wednesday blogs are always a kick in the pants, a nudge, a prodding to get my lazy, insecure, chest-pounding, hair-pulling butt in gear and gain ground no matter how small.

    And yes, indeed, yesterday, all I accomplished in the two hours I had was inserting a comma and removing it. But I was there!! And I was there today again.

    That,I think is the Ph.D Level too.

  23. July 12, 2017 at 9:18 am

    Thank you for being so open about the struggles, internal and external. Really helpful and I look forward to seeing how you overcome. Thanks

  24. July 12, 2017 at 11:01 am

    Looking forward to the next one !

  25. Bill Pace
    July 12, 2017 at 11:12 am

    Great work sir! I’m saving this one for my students to…

    A) show them what the true process looks like
    B) how pros handle rejection, doubt and resistance
    C) to prove to ’em that they dang well better take the time necessary to truly listen to my comments and suggestions

    Thanks again. Truly can’t wait for this book to be published so I can enjoy reading it.

    Keep up the great work!
    Bill

  26. July 12, 2017 at 11:57 am

    The part about firing Steve #1 and hiring Steve #2 (and 3 and 4). Pure Tanzanite. Thank you.

  27. July 12, 2017 at 12:04 pm

    These are the most helpful posts I’ve seen of yours. Practical tips on getting past resistance, not just understanding what it is. Hearing your personal accounts is insightful and informative. As an editor enrolled in Shawn’s certification course in the fall, these are the kinds of questions I’ve been asking: How do I help a client prepare for the emotional work ahead? How do I help them know which feedback is uncomfortable because it does not resonate and which is uncomfortable because if resistance to the work ahead? Thanks for posting.

  28. July 12, 2017 at 12:42 pm

    God, I love you, Steve. Your honesty is just beautiful. I so admire the work you’ve done to get to the point where you can have such a productive relationship with your selves. Thank you so much for y our posts. I never miss them.

    • July 13, 2017 at 7:44 am

      I was scrolling through the comments today to see what everybody else said about this epic post. Thank you for saying, I LOVE YOU STEVE because every single week I want to say it and you just did it, Carol!

  29. July 12, 2017 at 12:58 pm

    Yep, today I’m firing A#1. I’m so sick of that lazy, self absorbed, manipulative, moody, and a downright procrastinator.
    Yep, she’s gonna get the boot. A#2 will get everything straightened out. She’s got a far better attitude to work, she’s even set some new goals, put on some lippy (always helps) cleaned the shit from the work space. My god, I’m going to have to go like hell just to keep up with her. Thanks Steve. Gotta go she’s already at the desk……

  30. July 12, 2017 at 2:18 pm

    Yes! This is extremely helpful. Please keep going!

  31. July 12, 2017 at 3:34 pm

    Everything you write is grist for my mill! Keep going!

  32. annie
    July 12, 2017 at 5:06 pm

    I am actually WRITING a dissertation, and this is amazing! Thank you so much for writing it. It is perfect. Turns out the dynamics between writers and editors are much like the dynamics between grad students and advisors ;-).

    I need to fire Annie #1, and bring in Annie #2 – for sure. And now I see how much of my ego is in this project.

  33. July 12, 2017 at 6:51 pm

    Yes, Steve, this is incredibly helpful. Thank you. I had no idea the process could be anything like this for a professional like you. Wow.

    Also it was helpful to hear that you work long and hard on your outline BETWEEN drafts. I’ll do that from now on, rather than just tweaking drafts in a continuum, in such a way as to never know where one draft ends and the next begins.

    Every detail you reveal is gold for writers like me. Thank you.

  34. July 12, 2017 at 7:15 pm

    Hmm… what I’m thinking about is not just the content of this post but the impact of this one and the last on this community. At one point in my life I studied methods to accelerate group bonding and one of the best is to take a group of people and “put them through shit.” Based on the comments, it seems to me that Steven’s experience with the Mike Tyson shot to the solar plexus has become a virtual shared “group shit experience” that is causing those of us who follow you like bloodhounds to become more of a pack. Cool.

    Like so many others, I love the mind game of firing Self #1 and hiring Self #2. I hope to need that myself in a few months. Hoping that because it means I will have gotten myself and the story to a place where it has morphed from ideas and scribblings to A Thing That Exists and That I Have Feelings About.

  35. July 12, 2017 at 8:18 pm

    Hi Steven,

    The brutal honesty of your blog, particularly when you point the flame thrower at yourself is startelingly honest. I’m no author, I’m actually in music but what you speak of resonates so much with my own experience and the experience I observe of others in my field its frightening.

    What is impressed upon me the most is, even in knowing and having written deeply about ‘Resistance’ as you have, none of us are immune. The path is clear, the resistance will subside and we move forward.

    Thank you for your blog and your writing.

    And

  36. Julie Murphy
    July 12, 2017 at 9:17 pm

    Kudos on the regime change. I have a good feeling about Steve 2.0. Great analogy of the Resistance PhD program. Nice.

    Raptures of the Deep. Nitrogen narcosis (NN):. A reversible alteration of consciousness that occurs while diving deep.

    There are stories of divers in NN taking off their breathing masks because they just knew they could breathe underwater. Or a few who were so disoriented they mistook up for down and swam away from help and safety.

    Thanks again for pointing us toward the surface and going deep to bring back treasure.

  37. Tine
    July 13, 2017 at 6:18 am

    You got this, Steve! I know you do. You can do this! Keep going! Keep us posted and honour the struggle.

  38. Louis-Philippe St-Laurent
    July 13, 2017 at 6:42 am

    Keep the Report From The Trenches coming, please!!

  39. Laura
    July 13, 2017 at 7:54 am

    I’d never heard of the word bolloxed (bollix, bollocks) so I went on an etymological search. Sorry, if I’ve offended anyone.

  40. Rock
    July 13, 2017 at 8:20 am

    Very helpful. Thank you! Rock #1 has been fighting in the trenches for the past 60,000 words, but it’s time for that cool commando, Rock #2, to blaze into battle for the last 30,000. Love how your friend, Major Jim Gant, phrases it. Love what you and Black Irish Books keep putting out. Just mailed another friend a copy of War of Art. Cheers!

  41. July 13, 2017 at 10:13 am

    Bring it on, Steve II!!!

  42. Blaine Tyler
    July 14, 2017 at 11:00 am

    As a former fighter, current screenwriter, and always artist, I thank you for your work. Behold, a true master of writing! Blogs like this show you’re human too, just like the rest of us mere mortals. Thanks for the inspiration (and the mind games!)