Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

“Trenches #1,” Redux

By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 13, 2017

[Not sure why, but my instinct tells me to re-run this post (the first in our “Reports from the Trenches” series) today, rather than posting a new one. Sometimes things need to be seen twice. I think this might be one of those times. So … here goes, in its entirety:]

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

33 Responses to ““Trenches #1,” Redux”

  1. September 13, 2017 at 2:16 am

    Thanks for re-posting this.
    Like you say, no matter how much experience we have, criticism and the cruel hand of Resistance slaps us all in the chops. Regularly. Ruthlessly.

    Never forget. Now, get back to bloody work.

  2. Mary Doyle
    September 13, 2017 at 5:45 am

    Trenches redux? Bring it on!

  3. September 13, 2017 at 6:17 am

    Please continue these statements from the trenches.

  4. Karen Peper
    September 13, 2017 at 6:24 am

    Liked post–raw, true.
    One request: In pro/amateur comparison you made pro male (you) and amateur female. Subtle, but insensitive. Worry less about mixing it up gender-wise and be more conscious of WHO you assign WHAT character parts too. This one stuck out like a sore thumb and hurt your piece.

    • Nik
      September 13, 2017 at 1:00 pm

      Only if you’re looking to be offended. It was innocuous.

  5. September 13, 2017 at 6:27 am

    Thanks for reposting this. I noticed the pro-male/amateur female bit too but it didn’t bother me as much as knowing that every word in this post is the truth and it hit home pretty hard. Do I think you should continue this repeat? Absolutely. It hurts but I need it. :)

  6. September 13, 2017 at 6:36 am

    Thanks for rerunning this – your candor is inspiring! I needed to hear this today.

  7. September 13, 2017 at 6:43 am

    Thanks. Your posts about your process are great — and reassuring. If you’re still going through this at your stage of being a writer, what am I on my first solo book complaining about? Bring it.

  8. September 13, 2017 at 6:45 am

    Never made the pro/male/amateur/female connection at all. I appreciate seeing “she” in relation to art making of any kind because most people use “he”. So, I don’t care. What I do care about is that a pro like you, Steve, gets hit hard by Resistance just as much as we “amateurs” do. Thank you for the honesty and please continue on.

  9. September 13, 2017 at 6:46 am

    Your struggle, so candidly reported, tells me my struggle is not a fatal flaw; it’s part of the process. Thank you for this.

  10. Terry Steiner
    September 13, 2017 at 7:11 am

    Just finished Shawn’s new book for the third time and see his influence in your work and wonder how a veteran writer like you becomes discouraged. But when I reflect on Shawn’s editing skills and expertise and his demands it’s more obvious that he cares about you and your work. It’s just that you need a Kevlar vest to survive his initial feedback. Now . . . just unbuckle and enjoy your writing with your good buddy at your side.

  11. Matt
    September 13, 2017 at 7:14 am

    Please continue. I’m in the same boat re: editor’s first notes, and feel better with your guidance.

    And like you, Im struggling to involve my female sidekick in helping to solve the mystery.

    I think I have too much plot and not enough character, but don’t know what to exorcise 😉

  12. September 13, 2017 at 8:06 am

    You were spot on by reposting! Re-reading it still brought some new benefits I didn’t grasp the first time around. Thanks, Steve

  13. Dan
    September 13, 2017 at 8:18 am

    All the interesting stuff happens in the trenches. Keep it going.

    I’m ruthlessly putting down my own Resistance at the moment, so hearing that the higher ranks have bad days/weeks/months too, helps keep the moral up!

    Keep fighting the good fight!

  14. Jack
    September 13, 2017 at 8:32 am

    Don’t stop. Please keep it coming. Your wounds, experience and travails give me hope, encouragement and strength. Huge thanks, well wishes and respect.

  15. Carinn
    September 13, 2017 at 8:47 am

    I needed this today. So glad you posted and re-posted. These are timeless lessons and I need the encouragement that this is a “normal” part of the process.

  16. September 13, 2017 at 9:00 am

    Please continue. Don’t hesitate to re-run posts. Just as you had to re-read Shawn’s notes, we need to re-read your posts to get the information that is relevant to where we currently are in our journey. If your columns weren’t personal, we would lose interest.

    I have written for national and international magazines, had three books published, and wrote a column or five years. Every point you make is as relevant to my current career, as a woodcarver, as it is to writers. Resistance, fear and self doubt rear their ugly heads no matter what our artistic goal may be. Your posts let us know we are not alone in our battle to succeed.

    Please continue, and thank you for being there for us.

    P.S. Without feedback, it is understandable that you would doubt your posts were hitting home, or even read. I never leave replies. When I read your emails, I just say to myself, “Another great post. Thanks, Steven”. May I suggest you emulate Amazon and have a place that asks, “Was this post helpful? Click Yes or No” because that would show you how valuable your posts are to us.

    Again, thank you and keep up the good fight. We need you, no matter where our artistic muse takes us.

    Best wishes,
    Susan.
    SusanAlexanderCarves.com.

  17. Currer Bell
    September 13, 2017 at 9:30 am

    Recently, had to do a page one re-write on a project that my writing partner and I thought was complete and ready to head into production. For a bit a back ground we have been working on this story for years, and with the current team for almost two years.

    It was heart breaking on so many levels…we thought we were at the finish line and moreover loved the script.

    I remembered reading this post and it really helped me realize that it is all apart of the creative process. There is no linear straight line to the end zone. You have to trust the people you are working with and just get over yourself.

    It would have been so easy to throw in the towel over “creative differences” and walk away, but we hung in there. We just completed the treatment and are heading into re-writes.

    Thank you for sharing your struggles. Your words do help all of us in the trenches.

  18. Kristy e
    September 13, 2017 at 10:50 am

    Thank you for posting. It’s so important to know you struggle too. It makes me feel much less crazy. Thank you for the reminder!

  19. Paul Garrett
    September 13, 2017 at 11:20 am

    You published a book on how to conquer resistance. I guess Resistance it trying to show you who the boss is…

  20. Herbert William
    September 13, 2017 at 12:00 pm

    Thanks for the bitter (sweet) truth pill chap.

    Not boring at all, just hard to swallow.

  21. A.O. Shred
    September 13, 2017 at 12:35 pm

    Steve,

    Thank you for your honesty. I can’t imagine your frustration, but I can tell how passionate you are about creating work that is meaningful. This post is truly inspiring, and has earned you a lifelong fan.

  22. September 13, 2017 at 4:17 pm

    Keep doing this, Steven – there’s gold in here. I’ve been on both sides of this equation and they’re almost equally painful.

  23. September 13, 2017 at 5:13 pm

    I love these! it’s so inspiring that an accomplished pro like you still struggles with these things.

  24. Julie Murphy
    September 13, 2017 at 7:20 pm

    Keep saying it ’til we get it, buddy.

    In a Resistance test, none of us can walk a straight line between amateur and pro.

    It’s almost like we need the friction of struggle to bring forth art, and it’s good when we see rock bottom as a place to push back up.

    Thanks for helping us get purchase under our feet again, Steve.

  25. September 13, 2017 at 7:54 pm

    Thank you.
    I appreciate your vulnerability and I personally always prefer to read personal stories. If you want to keep writing them, I will keep showing up to read them.
    I wholeheartedly agree you are beyond fortunate to have Shawn in your corner, and to give such thorough and generous feedback to you. What a blessing.
    You’re also very fortunate to have such loving and generous tribe members here cheering you on through this ass kicking from resistance.
    *waving my Pom poms cheering you on in between my own ass kicking in the trenches*

    Whatever you do, don’t ring that bell :)

  26. September 13, 2017 at 8:09 pm

    Hi Steve,
    I guess you’re getting all the positive feedback that shows your sendings are right on. Yes. For me too.
    I liked that phrase: the process isn’t photogenic. Made me smile.
    This going with your sensing doesn’t always work and it’s a risk we take. Sometimes I make a great meal for my elder parent and sometimes it’s exactly what she needs and sometimes it isn’t. I’m always disappointed when it doesn’t hit the mark but it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop cooking and exploring new recipes. It will be better next time, you know?
    Pain is part of the process. It isn’t photogenic and doesn’t always have to taste perfect.

    • September 13, 2017 at 8:16 pm

      i like this eating metaphor… the end product must be good enough to eat.

  27. Ben Ker
    September 14, 2017 at 2:59 am

    Keep writing Steven. Everything I read of yours is super helpful. Especially this stuff.

  28. September 14, 2017 at 12:49 pm

    “Action alone is thy province, never the fruits thereof”

    Your work has been a support to mine in ways I could never adequately express.

    Thank you.

    Steven Lee Adams

  29. September 15, 2017 at 1:19 pm

    Why is the War of Art still selling and held onto like a bible?
    You can’t find many used copies. You wrote about universal truths. You let us know there is no one victory.
    You didn’t tell us how to win the war of art. You told us how to fight the war day after day after day, because that’s what we choose to do. What we love.
    What you say helps me. Thank you.

  30. September 15, 2017 at 1:46 pm

    When I first read Bagger Vance I wrote and asked if you belonged to SRF. You said, “Indeed I do.”

    If you are coming to the Hollywood 75th Anniversary on Sunday, please look for me. I have very bright silver hair and I will be handing out food boxes.

    I do not usually read about War but I bought The Afgan Campaign to see if I can tune in with you.

    Jai Guru! Nancy Sanford

  31. Gina Marie Walden
    September 15, 2017 at 5:41 pm

    Thank you for sharing!

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