Depth of Work
This is a topic I plan to address in a series of posts over the next few weeks. But first I want to thank every correspondent who took the time to write in response to last week’s “Help!” post. As I type this, we’ve had 69 Comments. This is absolutely amazing, and I thank everybody. Particularly for the detail of the responses. It really helps me. I’m traveling this week and the next so I won’t be able to send out signed “War of Arts” yet in gratitude, but I will as soon as I can. Gracias, everybody, for the overwhelming and very helpful response!
Now to Depth of Work—and a confession. I’m not sure if it’s evident from my posts over the last couple of months, but I’ve been going through a crisis in my own work (see “Self-Doubt” and “Wrestling an Alligator,” among others.) Much of it has to do with depth of work, or rather the lack of it.
I’ve been shallow. Resistance has beaten me much too often. The culprit, oddly enough, has been success—and the urge that public recognition engenders to “expand.” If you glance around at this blog page, you’ll see that I have plunged over the last year into a cause that is partly political, partly military, and largely involves the attempt to influence events in the real world through direct personal participation. I love this cause, it’s a passion of mine; it has brought me great new friends (and we, by our efforts together, may even have nudged the pea a few centimeters down the trail.) But this type of enterprise is not healthy for a writer. I didn’t know that six months ago, or even two months ago.
Depth of work. This is where satisfaction comes from for people like me and you. This is the fun of the game; this is what it’s all about. This is why we all got into this business.
What is depth of work? Have you ever had one of those days at the gym where you go around yakking to your buddies, schmoozing and chilling. That is NOT depth of work. Have you ever tweeted, or checked your Facebook page, or succumbed to serial e-mailing? That ain’t depth of work either.
Jon Naber won four gold medals in swimming at the ’76 Olympics, all in world record times. I saw an interview with him right afterward. The reporter asked a very insightful question about a sport where thousandths of a second separate gold from everybody else: “What’s the difference between a good swimmer and a great one?” John Naber answered as follows: “In competition, almost immediately after you hit the water, you enter the Pain Zone. It hurts–and it gets worse every meter you go. The great swimmers,” John Naber said, “are the ones who can go deeper into the Pain Zone and stay there longer.”
That’s depth of work. In my experience, depth of work consists of two components. The first is recklessness; the second is discipline. Dionysian; Apollonian. Passion;reason.
Recklessness means putting out of your mind all thoughts or fears of the opinions of others—and even the opinion of yourself. It means jumping off the cliff. In acting, it means uncorking a fearless performance, where you risk looking like an absolute fool in an effort to get to the deepest, truest levels of the character. In writing, it means letting it rip on the page, trusting the Muse and following your instincts. It means spewing sometimes. Free-associating. Going for it.
Then comes the hard part: appending reason. Discriminatory intelligence. Now we have to ask the really hard questions. What is this stuff all about? What am I trying to do? What is the deepest truth underlying this?
I read a story once about Barbra Streisand at a recording session. She did take after take of the same song. The reporter telling the story said he couldn’t tell the difference between Take One and Take Two, or even Take One and Take Nine. But, he said, he could tell the difference between Take One and Take Sixteen. Obvious Ms. Streisand could tell. That too is depth of work.
What we’re talking about here is head-banging, non-glamorous, nut-busting labor. It’s lonely. It hurts. It drives everybody else crazy. It requires tremendous professionalism and courage (or, perhaps more accurately, stubbornness and mulishness) and control of our emotions and our fears.
The analogy of the gym is a good one, I think. Because one thing the gym teaches is that “you have to train to be able to train.” Meaning you can’t go in, Day One, and start bench-pressing the same weight Reggie Bush benches. You have to build a base of strength slowly, over time, being careful not to set yourself back by injury, impatience or boredom.
In other words, depth of work requires—in addition to recklessness and reason– commitment over time.
I’m reading a really interesting book right now by Michael Bungay Stanier called Do More Great Work. Mr. Stanier starts by citing Milton Glazer’s axiom that we all do three kinds of work: bad work, good work and great work. One of the “map exercises” in the book (a very interesting graphic technique that helps you understand what you really think or really want) asks you how much great work you’re doing. It’s a pie chart. I thought about myself. I’m doing about 0.01 great work right now. It’s such a tiny sliver of the pie, I can’t even draw it.
Another exercise in the book asks you to recall a time when you were doing great work. Here’s one for me: I had taken a month, by myself, and was renting a cottage on a farm in the highlands of Scotland. I was writing Tides of War then, which was a really difficult book about a ridiculously obscure subject. I loved it. I would work in my freezing little room in the cottage the morning, then play golf in the afternoon. It was great. I got in some really intense, long work sessions (because the days are so long in Scotland, you can play golf in the summertime till nine at night.)
Those mornings were depth of work. I had momentum, I had commitment over time; I was busting my butt and really going deep, into a subject that I loved and that I didn’t care whether anybody else was interested in or not.
Those days seem distant to me now. I’m shallow these days; my focus is scattered. I’m schmoozing at the gym; I don’t have momentum. I hate it. It sucks. I have to change. I have to get a handle on this and dig myself out.
I’m not complaining. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sharing this state of mind here on this page, so that anybody who has read The War of Art and imagines that the guy who wrote the book has conquered Resistance (while he, the reader, is still struggling with it) will be disabused of such a silly notion and will not beat himself up over it. I’m as human as the next guy and I take the gaspipe too sometimes just like everyone else.
Working deep is the answer for me. To be happy, to feel good about myself, to not feel guilty about sucking up my share of oxygen on the planet. I have to get back to it.