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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Authentic Swing

By Steven Pressfield
Published: December 10, 2014

[Continuing our look back at The Legend of Bagger Vance, seeking writers' lessons and insights on the book's 20th anniversary. P.S. Don't forget this year's Black Irish Christmas Special, featuring the brand-new, leather-bound, signed and numbered (only 2500 available) anniversary edition of Bagger Vance.]

Matt Damon as Rannulph Junah in "The Legend of Bagger Vance." Behind him, left, is Michael Moncrief as the story's narrator, Hardy Greaves.

Sometimes a story—particularly fantasy, historical or sci-fi—needs a conceptual Premise. By that I mean a hypothetical truth that informs the drama the way, say, the airfoil-shaped wing informs the idea of an airplane.

The conceptual premise of The Legend of Bagger Vance is “the Authentic Swing.”

Premise is different from theme. It’s different from concept. It’s even different from “What if?”

Here are examples of premises in fiction and movies:

1. A certain ring contains the secret power of the universe. Whoever possesses the ring possesses that power.

2. In the future, technology exists that can detect crimes before they are committed. “PreCrime” is a division of police departments in this future.

3. In the future, creatures called “replicants” have been created, which are virtually identical to humans. Replicants, by the nature of their genesis, have no memories of childhood or of any past before they were created. Thus, to control them and to keep them emotionally stable, their manufacturer has implanted artificial memories, which the replicants believe to be real. When replicants discover this ruse and see through it, it is deeply distressing to them.

Sometimes non-fantasy/sci-fi stories have premises as well.

1. Love and hard work can overcome (or at least mitigate) certain psychological conditions such as bipolar disorder.

2. It is possible to recreate the past, specifically to recover a lost love, through force of will, abundant means, and an overpoweringly vivid reinvention of oneself and one’s world.

(These are the premises of Lord of the Rings, Minority Report, Blade Runner, Silver Linings Playbook, and The Great Gatsby.)

One curious thing about premises: they don’t have to be true. A premise is simply the supposition upon which the dramatic superstructure of the story is based. The reader/audience doesn’t have to buy into the truth of the premise in real life as long as he or she accepts it in the story. Nor do all the characters in the drama have to believe in the premise (though of course it’s better if they do). It’s enough for one character to believe the premise (Jay Gatsby, for example). The story can work, based on that alone.

But back to “the Authentic Swing.” What exactly is it and how does it fit into The Legend of Bagger Vance?
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The War of Art

A vital gem . . . a kick in the ass.
—Esquire
I've never read a self help book that wasn't fatuous, obvious and unhelpful. Until The War of Art. It's amazingly cogent and smart on the psychology of creation. If I ever teach a writing course this would be one of the first books I'd assign, along with the letters of Flannery O'Connor.
—Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City and Brightness Falls

What keeps so many of us from doing what we long to do? Why is there a naysayer within? How can we avoid the roadblocks of any creative endeavor—be it starting up a dream business venture, writing a novel, or painting a masterpiece?

The War of Art identifies the enemy that every one of us must face, outlines a battle plan to conquer this internal foe, then pinpoints just how to achieve the greatest success.

The War of Art emphasizes the resolve needed to recognize and overcome the obstacles of ambition and then effectively shows how to reach the highest level of creative discipline. Think of it as tough love . . . for yourself.

[This excerpt starts at the book's very beginning and continues through the opening few chapters.]

1. WHAT I DO

I get up, take a shower, have breakfast. I read the paper, brush my teeth. If I have phone calls to make, I make them. I've got my coffee now. I put on my lucky work boots and stitch up the lucky laces that my niece Meredith gave me. I head back to my office, crank up the computer. My lucky hooded sweatshirt is draped over the chair, with the lucky charm I got from a gypsy in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for only eight bucks in francs, and my lucky LARGO name tag that came from a dream I once had. I put it on. On my thesaurus is my lucky cannon that my friend Bob Versandi gave me from Morro Castle, Cuba. I point it toward my chair, so it can fire inspiration into me. I say my prayer, which is the Invocation of the Muse from Homer's Odyssey, translation by T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, that my dear mate Paul Rink gave me and which sits near my shelf with the cuff links that belonged to my father and my lucky acorn from the battlefield at Thermopylae. It's about ten-thirty now. I sit down and plunge in. When I start making typos, I know I'm getting tired. That's four hours or so. I've hit the point of diminishing returns. I wrap for the day. Copy whatever I've done to disk and stash the disk in the glove compartment of my truck in case there's a fire and I have to run for it. I power down. It's three, three-thirty. The office is closed. How many pages have I produced? I don't care. Are they any good? I don't even think about it. All that matters is I've put in my time and hit it with all I've got. All that counts is that, for this day, for this session, I have overcome Resistance.

2. WHAT I KNOW

There's a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don't and the secret is this: it's not the writing part that's hard. What's hard is sitting down to write.

What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.

3. THE UNLIVED LIFE

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.

Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic? Ever resolved on a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? Have you ever felt a call to embark upon a spiritual practice, dedicate yourself to a humanitarian calling, commit your life to the service of others? Have you ever wanted to be a mother, a doctor, an advocate for the weak and helpless; to run for office, crusade for the planet, campaign for world peace or to preserve the environment? Late at night have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn't write, a painter who doesn't paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.

One night I was layin' down,
I heard Papa talkin' to Mama.
I heard Papa say, to let that boy
boogie-woogie. 'Cause it's in him
and it's got to come out.
—John Lee Hooker,
Boogie Chillen'

Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease and erectile dysfunction. To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius. Genius is a Latin word; the Romans used it to denote an inner spirit, holy and inviolable, which watches over us, guiding us to our calling.. A writer writes with his genius; an artist paints with hers; everyone who creates operates from this sacramental center. It is our soul's seat, the vessel that holds our being-in-potential, our star's beacon and Polaris.

Every sun casts a shadow, and genius' shadow is Resistance. As powerful as is our soul's call to realization, so potent are the forces of Resistance arrayed against it. Resistance is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, harder to kick than crack cocaine. We're not alone if we've been mown down by Resistance; millions of good men and women have bitten the dust before us. And here's the biggest bitch: we don't even know what hit us. I never did. From age twenty-four to thirty-two, Resistance kicked my ass from East Coast to West and back again thirteen times and I never even knew it existed. I looked everywhere for the enemy and failed to see it right in front of my face.

Have you heard this story: woman learns she has cancer, six months to live. Within days she quits her job, resumes the dream of writing Tex-Mex songs she gave up to raise a family (or starts studying Classical Greek, or moves to the inner city and devotes herself to tending babies with AIDS.) Woman's friends think she's crazy; she herself has never been happier. There's a postscript. Woman's cancer goes into remission.

Is that what it takes? Do we have to stare death in the face to make us stand up and confront Resistance? Does Resistance have to cripple and disfigure our lives before we awake to its existence? How many of us have become drunks and drug addicts, developed tumors and neuroses, succumbed to painkillers, gossip and compulsive cell-phone use, simply because we don't do that thing that our hearts, our inner genius, is telling us to? Resistance defeats us. If tomorrow morning by some stroke of magic every dazed and benighted soul woke up with the power to take the first step toward pursuing his or her dreams, overnight every shrink in the directory would be out of business. Prisons would stand empty. The alcohol and tobacco industries would collapse, along with the junk food, cosmetic surgery, and infotainment businesses, not to mention pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and the medical profession from top to bottom. Domestic abuse would become extinct, as would addiction, obesity, migraine headaches, road rage and dandruff.

Look in your own heart. Unless I'm crazy, right now a still small voice is piping up, telling you as it has ten thousand times, the calling that is yours and yours alone. You know it. No one has to tell you. And unless I'm crazy, you're no closer to taking action on it than you were yesterday or will be tomorrow. You think Resistance isn't real? Resistance will bury you.

You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study. He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and later to the School of Architecture. Ever see one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I'll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.

4. RESISTANCE'S GREATEST HITS

The following is a list, in no particular order, of those activities, which most commonly elicit Resistance:

1) The pursuit of any calling in writing, painting, music, film, dance, or any creative art, however marginal or unconventional.

2) The launching of any entrepreneurial venture or enterprise, for profit or otherwise.

3) Any diet or health regimen.

4) Any program of spiritual advancement.

5) Any activity whose aim is tighter abdominals.

6) Any course or program designed to overcome an unwholesome habit or addiction.

7) Education of every kind.

8) Any act of political, moral or ethical courage, including the decision to change for the better some unworthy pattern of thought or conduct in ourselves.

9) The undertaking of any enterprise or endeavor whose aim is to help others.

10) Any act which entails commitment of the heart. The decision to get married, to have a child, to weather a rocky patch in a relationship.

11) The taking of any principled stand in the face of potential reprisal.

In other words, any act which disdains short-term gratification in favor of long-term growth, health or integrity. Or, expressed another way, any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower. Any act of these types will elicit Resistance.

Now: what are the characteristics of Resistance?

5. RESISTANCE IS INVISIBLE

Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard or smelled. But it can be felt. It is experienced as a force field emanating from a work-in-potential. It's a repelling force. It's negative. Its intention is to shove the creator away, distract him, sap his energy, incapacitate him.

If Resistance wins, the work doesn't get written.

6. RESISTANCE IS INTERNAL

Resistance seems to come from outside ourselves. We locate it in spouses, jobs, bosses, kids, distractions. "Peripheral opponents," as Pat Riley used to say when he coached the Los Angeles Lakers.

Resistance is not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.

7. RESISTANCE IS INSIDIOUS

Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole. Resistance is protean. It will assume any form, if that's what it takes to deceive you. It will reason with you like a lawyer or jam a nine-millimeter in your face like a stick-up man. Resistance has no conscience. It understands nothing but power. Resistance cannot be negotiated with. It will pledge anything to get a deal, then double-cross you as soon as your back is turned. If you take Resistance at its word, you deserve everything you get. Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.

8. RESISTANCE IS IMPLACABLE

Resistance is like the Alien or the Terminator or the shark in "Jaws." It cannot be reasoned with. It is an engine of destruction, programmed from the factory with one object only: to prevent us from doing our work. Resistance is implacable, intractable, indefatigable. Reduce it to a single cell and that cell will continue to attack.

This is Resistance's nature. It's all it knows.

9. RESISTANCE IS IMPERSONAL

Resistance is not out to get you personally. It doesn't know who you are and doesn't care. Resistance is a force of nature. It acts objectively.

Though it feels malevolent, Resistance in fact operates with the indifference of rain and transits the heavens by the same laws as the stars. When we marshal our forces to combat Resistance, we must remember this.

"A vital gem . . . a kick in the ass."
—Esquire
"I've never read a self help book that wasn't fatuous, obvious and unhelpful. Until The War of Art. It's amazingly cogent and smart on the psychology of creation. If I ever teach a writing course this would be one of the first books I'd assign, along with the letters of Flannery O'Connor."
—Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City and Brightness Falls
"Pressfield has crafted an enlightening book about the myriad challenges he faces every day and ways in which he battles the terror of a blank sheet of paper. Though it's written for writers, I imagine many of you would find it helpful as you struggle to keep your own creative flames shining brightly."
—Adweek
"While certainly of great value to frustrated writers struggling with writer's block, Pressfield's highly personal philosophy, soundly rooted in his own significant life challenges, has merit for anyone frustrated in fulfilling his or her life purpose."
—Library Journal
"Pressfield is a riveting storyteller and his advice might put some spine into you."
—Seattle Times
"Yes, The War of Art is hell. But Steven Pressfield is our Clausewitz who shows how you too can battle against The Four Horsemen of The Apologetic: sloth, inertia, rationalization and procrastination. Shakespeare, Rembrandt and Beethoven all are proof of what you can do with talent and General Pressfield."
—Frank Deford, author and NPR commentator
"A marvelous help for anybody who has ever encountered the resistance of a blank page, an empty canvas or an unyielding musical scale."
—Stan Berenstain, co-creator of The Berenstain Bears
"The War of Art is a real find in the overcrowded field of self-help books. It stands out with its humor and its wisdom from a man who has faced his own demons and come out swinging. If you just take one or two of the suggestions in this book, you'll be moved to get up, to get going and to try to create goals for your life. I don't just recommend this book for writers, but for anyone who wants to be a little bit better than they were the day before."
—Gloria Naylor, author of Mama Day and The Women of Brewster Place
"The War of Art is a book about 'making'—for the beginner, the pro, for those of us in service to our craft. Pressfield's wisdom got me through the darkest night of my writing."
—Mary Sojourner, NPR commentator, novelist, essayist and columnist
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