By Steven Pressfield
Published: October 29, 2014
When I was first starting out in Hollywood, a screenwriter friend gave me some advice that has served me well in all subsequent incarnations.
“Steve, you and I, whether we realize it or not, are competing against Warners Bros. We’re competing against Twentieth-Century Fox and SONY and Paramount—and we have to think like they do. We have to be as professional as they are, and we have to think of ourselves in the same terms that they do.”
My friend showed me his “to do” list. It wasn’t a smudged-up scrap of cocktail napkin like mine; it was a full-on pro printout like something from NASA.
Studios have their production slates, right? I’ve got mine too. Here’s my development slate. I’m working on Script #1 now, but I’ve got #2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 lined up and in various stages of development. If I get a few days, I’ll go to work on them.
My friend showed me the books he was reading, seeking out new ideas and fresh material, and the foreign flicks and exploitation movies and oldies but goodies, films noir and so forth that he had at his bedside and beside his TV. “Fox and Warners have producers on the lot who are always trolling for new material. I do the same. I’ll find it in Mongolia or Zamboanga if I have to.”
When I first got out here to L.A., I’d go into meetings at the studios and as we were wrapping up, one of the execs would say to me, “What else have you got, Jack?” And I’d stare at him and go blank.
You can’t do that. We’re going up against A-listers. When a guy in an office asks you what else you’re working on, you’ve gotta be ready with it right then, ready to pitch it, and ready with Idea #3 and Concept #4 after that.
It’s not that you’re being mercenary or greedy. It’s just being a pro. Buyers wanna know you’re in business. They wanna know you’ve got ideas, that you never stop thinking. You’re a resource to them. Their jobs depend on you and people like you. You gotta be a pro.
One time this same friend and I were sitting in a deli called Brent’s in the Valley when a certain very successful screenwriter came in, accompanied by three gorgeous young women. We both knew the guy. He was a good writer (he had had two hits in a row and had another in the pipeline, so we had heard) who had been a lawyer in a previous professional incarnation.
“Three months ago,” my friend said, “I was pitching a project to MGM at the same time this guy was. He came in with these same three long-stemmed Stanford-educated blondes. His ‘researchers.’ Apparently he doesn’t leave the house without ‘em. But I gotta give him credit. He’s a business. He’s larger than life. He’s got more stuff in the works on his own than half the studios in town, and they know it.”
Posted in Writing Wednesdays
In January of 1966, when I was on the bus leaving Parris Island as a freshly-minted Marine, I looked back and thought there was at least one good thing about this departure. "No matter what happens to me for the rest of my life, no one can ever send me back to this freakin' place again."
Over forty years later, to my surprise and gratification, I'm far more closely bound to the young men of the Marine Corps and to all other dirt-eating, ground-pounding outfits than I could ever have imagined as I left Parris Island that first time. Gates of Fire is one reason. Dog-eared paperbacks of this tale of the ancient Spartans have circulated throughout platoons of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan since the first days of the invasions. E-mails come in by hundreds. Gates of Fire is on the Commandant of the Marine Corps' Reading list. It is taught at West Point and Annapolis and at the Marine Corps Basic School at Quantico; and Tides of War is on the curriculum of the Naval War College. In 2009, I launched the blog "It's the Tribes, Stupid" (which evolved into "Agora"), to help gain awareness of issues related to tribalism and the tribal mind-set in Afghanistan—with the goal of helping the Marines and soldiers on the ground better understand the different people they were facing in Afghanistan.
My father was in the Navy, and I was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1943. I graduated from Duke University in 1965. Since then, I've worked as an advertising copywriter, schoolteacher, tractor-trailer driver, bartender, oilfield roustabout and attendant in a mental hospital. I've picked fruit in Washington state, written screenplays in Tinseltown, and was homeless, living out of the back of my car with my typewriter. My struggles to earn a living as a writer (it took seventeen years to get the first paycheck) are detailed in The War of Art.
With the publication of The Legend of Bagger Vance in 1995, I became a writer of books once and for all. From there followed the historical novels Gates of Fire, Tides of War, Virtues of War, The Afghan Campaign and Killing Rommel.
My writing philosophy is a kind of warrior code—internal rather than external—in which the enemy is identified as those forms of self-sabotage that I call "Resistance" with a capital R (in The War of Art). The technique for combating these foes can be described as "turning pro."
I believe in previous lives and the Muse—and that books and music exist before they are written and that they are propelled into material being by their own imperative to be born, via the offices of those willing servants of discipline, imagination and inspiration, whom we call artists. My conception of the artist's role is a combination of reverence for the unknowable nature of "where it all comes from" and a no-nonsense, blue-collar demystification of the process by which this mystery is approached. In other words, a paradox.
There's a recurring character in my books, named Telamon, a mercenary of ancient days. Telamon doesn't say much. He rarely gets hurt or wounded. And he never seems to age. His view of the profession of arms is a lot like my conception of art and the artist:
"It is one thing to study war, and another to live the warrior's life."