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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Working on Two Tracks

By Steven Pressfield | Published: March 22, 2017


When we finish any work of art or commerce and expose it to judgment in the real world, three things can happen:

  1. Everybody loves it.
  2. Everybody hates it.
  3. Nobody notices that it even exists.

    The value of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" went from zero in 1889 to $39.9 million in 1987, the equivalent of $74M today.

    The value of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” went from zero in 1889 to $39.9 million in 1987, the equivalent of $74M today.

[Continuing our exploration of the Professional Mindset, let me repurpose this post that first ran about four years ago.]

All three present you and me as writers and artists with major emotional challenges, and all three drive deep into the most profound questions of life and work.

It will not surprise you, I suspect, if I say that all three responses are impostors. None of them is real, and none should be taken to heart by a writer or artist working from the Professional Mindset.

When we labor in any field that combines art and commerce, we’re working on two tracks.

Track One, the Muse Track, represents our work in its most authentic, true-to-itself and true-to-our-own-heart expression.

Track Two, the Commercial Track, represents the response our work gets in the marketplace. In other words, points 1-2-3 above.

Track Two counts for putting bread on the table and getting our kids through college.

Track One counts for our artistic soul.

The problem with Track Two is it also represents the siren song of riches and fame, or at least applause and recognition in the real world.

Two weeks ago my friend Paul finished writing a TV pilot. It was the first time he had completed a project from FADE IN to THE END. He turned it in to a friend who is a serious producer and who was anxious to see it. Almost immediately Paul’s spirits went over a cliff.

He became depressed, anxious, irritable. He couldn’t sleep. He stopped working. He was waiting to hear his producer friend’s response.

In other words, Paul let himself get sucked over onto Track Number Two, the Commercial Track.

Hollywood (or any big-buzz field like music, publishing, games, software) is a Rorschach test for the soul.

Can we keep our focus where it should be? Can we find our real self and stand up for it? The dream of success/glamour/megabucks is like dark matter. It exerts a gravitational pull that’s so strong it can haul even the best us down into a black hole.

What’s the antidote?

The antidote is remaining grounded on Track Number One. There’s nothing wrong with success. I hold no beef with cashing a check or getting a parking place with your name on it. But don’t confuse Track #1 with Track #2.

While Paul was pacing his living room wondering if he could really kill himself by leaping out a second-story window, the real truth of his situation was this:

He had completed his first serious full-length piece of work.

He had shipped.

He had delivered.

His creative momentum was high.

The Muse was with him.

On Track #1, Paul was rolling!

My advice to Paul (which he did not heed, by the way) was to start another project immediately. In fact Paul was already working on Project #2. But he had stopped.

Why is it so important to keep working?

Because when we finish a project and wait around breathlessly to learn the world’s response to it, we have planted our butts squarely on Track #2. Track #2 means evaluating our work and defining our artistic selves by the opinion of others. (What Shawn calls 3PV, Third Party Validation.)

Nothing good ever came from 3PV. Even success can be bad, viewed through the prism of 3PV. How many people have won Oscars in one year, only to vanish into rehab the next? And failure? Ask Van Gogh how that worked out for him.

And yet: how was Vincent doing on Track #1? He was red-hot. True, a century ahead of his time, but still smokin’ hot.

The ideal position for an artist of authenticity is when Track #1 and Track #2 coincide. When he is working his real stuff—and that stuff finds a welcome in the wider world.

When an artist’s voice is true enough to his own heart and authentic enough to his own vision, Track #1 pulls Track #2 over to it. Bruce Springsteen. Bob Dylan. Hunter S. Thompson.

But we lose our way when we overvalue Track #2 at the expense of Track #1. “Sunflowers” was just as great in 1889, when Van Gogh couldn’t give it away, as it was in 1987 when it sold for $39.9 million.

Whatever Track #2 fate awaits Paul’s pilot, he knocked it out of the park on Track #1.


Posted in Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

427 Minus 1 = Zero

By Steven Pressfield | Published: March 15, 2017


My first agent was a gentleman named Barthold Fles. He was seventy years old. When I fictionalized him in The Knowledge, I made him ninety-six. But he was really seventy.

427 is everything

427 is everything

I was twenty-nine at the time, so Bart had me by forty-one years. He was Swiss. He had represented Bertolt Brecht and even Carl Jung. He had seen and done everything.

One day Bart said to me, “How much is 427 minus one?”

I gave the obvious answer: 426.


“No,” said Bart. “It’s zero.”


He was speaking about pages in a novel.

If the full book is 427 and you’ve written 426, you haven’t got 426/427ths.

You’ve got nothing.

The work isn’t ready to be shipped till it’s 427.

I’m working on a new piece of fiction right now and I’m smack up against the finish line. It’s the eighth draft actually, but that’s the big one on this project. When I get this one done, I can say I’m over the hump.

Resistance, of course, is monumental.

So I’m thinking about Bart.

I quit 99.9% of the way through the first novel I tried to write, when I was twenty-four. Everything in my life imploded after that. It took me years to recover.

Like I said, I’m thinking about Bart.

Resistance ratchets itself to fever pitch as we approach the finish of any project. Only one response is possible. We have to assume the full Professional Mindset. Dig deep. Whatever it takes. We have to summon our resources of will and determination and push through.

No matter what, we MUST finish.

When I was interviewing Israeli fighter pilots for The Lion’s Gate, they told me of a concept they called “operational finality.”

The phrase in Hebrew is Dvekut BaMesima.

Mesima is “mission.”

Dvekut means “glued to.”

You and I may not be diving into a swarm of surface-to-air missiles or a barrage of anti-aircraft fire. But we still have to finish page 427. We have to put our bombs on target.

If you’re having trouble crossing that finish line, here are two pieces of good news:

One, you’re not alone. Everybody faces massive Resistance toward the end. It’s the nature of the beast. Like “hitting the wall” in a marathon, that moment of horror always rears its ugly head.

Two, if you can beat that monster one time (I can attest to this absolutely), it will never have the same power over you.

It’ll have power, yeah. But not at the same level.

Beat it once and you can beat it after that every time.

426 = zero.

427 is everything.



Posted in Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

“So long, David … “

By Steven Pressfield | Published: March 8, 2017


We lost a valued member of our online community this past week—David Y.B. Kaufmann of New Orleans and Houston passed away after a two-year battle with cancer. If you’ve read the Comments section of this blog, you know David. His contributions were always keen and insightful, and pretty funny too. He was also a damn good writer. His series, The Scotch & Herring Mysteries, was original, smart, and one-of-a-kind. He leaves seven children, his wife Nechama, and a round of grandchildren on the way. We send our deepest condolences to all the Kaufmann family. We’re all one good guy poorer today.

In honor of David, whose mind had a definite metaphysical bent, let’s point today’s post on the Professional Mindset in a mystical direction.

We’ve said so far in this series that the writer, if she aims to be a professional, must think of herself as an entrepreneur.

She can’t look to anyone else to support her financially, emotionally, or creatively. She and she alone must take responsibility for her enterprise as an artist. She will manage her time and her emotions. She will generate her ideas. She will hold herself accountable.

Patti and Bob back in the day (actually '75, when they first met)

Patti and Bob back in the day (actually ’75, when they first met)

She will be as mentally tough as the most self-reliant entrepreneurs and as organized and orderly as Google or Apple or General Dynamics.

We also borrowed a concept from Dan Sullivan of Strategic Coach—his idea of “Unique Ability.” In writing terms, Unique Ability meant, we said, that voice, style, point of view, and storytelling gift that was ours alone, that no one else on the planet could duplicate.

All well and good.

But now, knowing all this and having successfully internalized it, we find ourselves drifting into terra incognita. We approach the threshold of the mystery.

The question becomes, “What is our unique ability? How do we find it? And what does it mean once we do find it?”

Here’s what I believe:

The source of our voice as writers (our unique ability) lies beyond our conscious mind.

You don’t know yours, and I don’t know mine.

But it knows us.

It knows us better than we know ourselves.

Our life’s work is to find it, to open the channel to this mysterious dimension. We teach ourselves to shuttle from the conscious to the unconscious, from the knowable to the unknowable, from the material to the divine.

Did Bob Dylan, when he was playing folk songs at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village in 1961, know that he would one day “go electric?”

Did he know he would have a “Christian phase?”

Did he reckon that he would pass from writing


How many ears must one man have

Before he can hear people cry




I used to care but

things have changed.


Did he possess the slightest clue that he would one day have not one hit album but two in a row, singing American standards?

I don’t think he knew any of it.

I don’t believe any of us do.

People say that writing is a form of self-expression. I don’t believe it. Writing is a form a self-discovery.

I don’t think any of us have any idea at all what we’re doing.

Our Muse leads us.

What you and I are doing as artists is apprenticing ourselves to a part of our psyche whose contents we can never know and whose purpose we can never divine, a sector of our consciousness that knows us intimately, that carries our daimon and our voice, but that only reveals itself to us in snatches, speaking, like dreams, in symbols and riddles.

But wait, you say. How does all this mumbo-jumbo jibe with the idea of the entrepreneurial ethic, of the Professional Mindset?

Entrepreneurs have muses too. Steve Jobs did. Elon Musk. Sergey Brin.

They are being led, just like you and me, from project to project, from inspiration to inspiration.

The Professional Mindset does not lose its utility when you and I enter the Extraordinary World. It changes, that’s all.

Instead of focusing on time management, say, or acquiring the art of saying no, the Professional Mindset shifts gears and tunes in, with a patient and keenly attentive ear, to the Cosmic Radio Station.

Part of the Professional Mindset releases all inhibition, so that it can receive whatever assignment its muse presents to it next. While part of it remains grounded in Realityville, reminding itself, “Damn, this is great sh*t! I better get it down in my notebook before I forget it!”

So long, David. Thanks for being part of our gang and our metaphysical quest. We will not forget you.


Posted in Writing Wednesdays
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