The past two and a half years have been really rough for me. Issues of love and work, health and mortality have pushed me into places I’ve never been before. Yet through all this balagan (chaos, in Hebrew), I’ve produced some of the best work of my life.
I think there’s a connection.
It’s a myth, in my opinion, that we need to have our ducks in a row to produce good work. When I first started writing seriously, in my late twenties, I would work for ten hours a day, in the prime of health, with nothing to distract me. Now I’m lucky if I get an hour and a half, and I’ve got more balls in the air than I can count. Yet I do more now, and do it better, than I did then.
When I was finishing The Profession eighteen months ago, I was so sick that I had to work standing up, naked from the waist down (don’t ask). I was so unstable emotionally that I couldn’t be alone at night. I was riddled with doubt. I had lost all bearings.
Yet the work was good.
The idea that we need to be fit and trim and sane and organized to do good work is baloney. The best stuff I’ve done, I’ve produced under excruciating pressure of time and money, amid massive Resistance, insecurity and self-doubt, with my personal life in chaos. Not that I’m recommending such a state. But the fact remains: you can light up the board even with both hands tied behind your back and your feet sunk in forty pounds of cement.
Athletes play hurt. Warriors fight scared. Mothers give birth cursing, and babies emerge to daylight bawling and thrashing and wishing only to turn around and crawl right back where they came from.
The act of creation, particularly self-creation, is messy. It hurts. It’s terrifying.
But panic, self-doubt, claustrophobia, morbid dread, and all the classic “all is lost” symptoms are good, even if they scare the bejesus out of us while we’re experiencing them. They’re good because they are the product of being in over our heads—and being in over our heads makes us stretch and grow.
Stretch and recover.
Stretch and recover.
I’ve been on the road for most of the past two months, doing work that’s at least one, if not two levels beyond my capacity. It has paralyzed me at times. There were mornings when I woke up in my hotel room and had to say to myself literally, “Now, Steve, brush your teeth.”
I had to make my hand pick up the brush.
I had to walk myself into the shower. If I could have pushed a button and magically re-materialized at home, I would have done it.
Yet the work came out great.
This will be a short post, with a short moral:
It’s supposed to be hard.
If you’re experiencing it as hard, you are not crazy. You’re sane. Your perception is on target.
When you’re stretching it’s hard and that’s all there is to it.
I’ll try to remember that, if you will.
Hi Stephen, really love your work. But you know the really odd question that came to mind reading your post was…”is it worth it?”
Steven, you inspire me to no end. Please take care of your health. Artist and writers all over the world are inspired and motivated to create great worthwhile projects because of your wisdom.
Reading this I realized two things:
1. I’ve been playing hurt in several areas of my life with results I probably wouldn’t have achieved otherwise, and
2. I somehow forgot to apply this to my writing. Still waiting to get better so i can write…..
Thanks again, Steven.
Remembering that it’s supposed to be hard is helpful – thank you.
Writing as self-creation. That hits it right in the funny bone.
This is lovely, and quite right, and exactly what I needed to hear today. Thank you.
I know you said it will be a “short post, but the effect was striking, and I think I will be back to this one as a much needed reminder.
Appropo that I saw this today as well…
“Adversity is common to everyone, resolve is rare.”
As you wrote in “Gates”, the injured wrestler compensates with skill.
Nothing brings out your best like adversity.
It’s interesting, given the prevalence of the biographical fallacy in writing about the arts, how you really can’t draw any conclusions about the state of the artist in their everyday life from the content or quality of the work they produce. Indeed, when things are bad, the doing of it can be the only real escape from the other stuff.
Having said that, there are two types of struggle represented in your post, and they are getting tangled up. There is the fight to practise despite the external obstacles of life (health, personal circumstances and the like) and there is the inherent struggle with the internal qualities of the art.
The latter is necessary to creation: if you always follow the easy path you can’t end up somewhere new. The former is not required: if you find yourself in good health you can still do good work.
And so, whilst I admire your tenacity immensely, I’d also like to wish you some easier (external) times.
Oh, how I agree with your statement! 🙂
Dear Mr Pressfield
There is a quote that I have recently come across. I repeat it so often that one of our employees suggested that I should have a tatoo of it done on my calf. The quote is from the Bhagavad-Gita in which Lord Krishna turns to Arjuna before he enters a mighty battle between good and evil, and says, “Plunge into the heat of battle and keep your heart at the lotus feet of the Lord”. The Lord could be anthing you truly repect God , the Divine or the Muse.
You also remind me of a time inwhich I had the opportunity to work with a therapist that had worked witht the UN at one time in his life settling disputes between tribes and feeling dispensable. Admiring him so much I asked him of all the great works and projects he had undertaken which was the one that pleased him most. He looked and me and quietly replied that the greatest thing that he had done so far was get out of bed and he admired his strenghth in doing so.
I love both of those, Jasvir. Thanks for writing in!
I like those too. I like this post even more. Perfect timing. Thank you Steven.
I can affirm the writing standing up…the pain…the fear. He wrote every day no matter.what. He is a warrior as much as any soldier. A brave dedicated man who I love and respect.
Thanks for the timely reminder Steven. Your work continues to influence me for good. The War of Art is still one of the best books I’ve ever read. I’m really glad you’re still stretching and doing the work. Bravo.
I am told that an archaic version of the Lord’s Prayer says “Lord, that I may be tested” somewhere, but I find that one doesn’t even have to ask. It’s the way we are made. Suffering is the only road to serenity.
Sounds like the prayer written by Lt. Andre Zirnheld, the . Learned it in the Marine Corps. It’s the most beautiful prayer I know. Interestingly, the Almighty never fails to answer this part:
“…Give me, Lord, what You have left over,
Give me what no-one wants from You.
I want insecurity, strife,
And I want You to give me these
Once and for all.
So that I can be sure of having them always,
Since I shall not always have the courage
To ask You for them…”
Boy, the Big Kahuna loads you down heavily right there. You have to be patient for the promised strength, courage and faith. I think His angels are Teamsters. They’ll come after their coffee break.
damn you, you malingering tag!
I’m pleased to see that in this article you used the phrase, “in my opinion.” Sad to note that this same aside is oftentimes missing from your more dogmatic instruction manuals, The War of Art and Do The Work. In those books the melody you sing is that of a confident and arrogant god.
I don’t believe in gurus and gods, although I find them fascinating in much the same way that I find pleasure in pressing down on an aching tooth. That perverse sense of pleasure is the only reason I sometimes read your articles.
Forgive me, Anthony V. Toscano, I haven’t read anything you’ve written lately…or ever, for that matter. Please post a list of your published works, and allow me to decide if you’ve been pressing down on the correct aching part of your body.
Mr. Toscano reminds me of a rude house guest. Uninvited to the party, shows up anyway, and then proceeds to insult the host.
Seriously! Anthony, get a clue.
This reminds me of the law of physics, conservation of energy: energy has to go somewhere. Writing neutrally versus feeling crazy and putting every last drop of that crazy energy into your work is an explosively different experience for the reader. A tear-stained letter versus a cold, mechanical product manual.
Steven, thanks for reminding me it is okay to feel crazy while I work, and that perhaps crazier is indeed better.
I have long suspected this, given my short stories were all created with a mixture of self-loathing, suicidal thoughts and hatred for humanity. LOL I guess I’m banking that you’re right as I’m about to be unemployed during the worst recession since the Great Depression. Here’s hoping….
Five Stars, Steven.
I TRULY thank you.
I had the privilege of meeting you at the Getty Villa a few years ago and knew instantly that you were a kind and generous person. This post illustrates that. In the midst of your difficult time, you use your experience to help the rest of us. Thank you for that. I hope (and pray) your health is back on track very soon, if not already.
Thanks, Steve. I have to turn in a manuscript in 8 days (which is a good problem to have) and I was just diagnosed with acute bronchitis. I needed this post more than you know. I’ll push through and find the other side.
We should not give up…our goal…But…we should not be discouraged even though we cannot have it. So actually, as long as we are making effort, that is actual goal. – Shunryu Suzuki
Reminds me of movie sets or the theatre – sometimes on set or backstage it’s incredibly chaotic and people hate each other, yet you get a beautiful movie or stage performance. I just keep writing whether I’m happy or not, have money or not, etc. You have to be a creative shark and move forward.
Writing and reading have always been my drugs of choice, and coming from a long line of absent-minded professors, I’m sure I’m not the only one. When things get hard in my life, I bury myself in my writing. A chaotic personal life gives my writing time a sort of single-minded focus that is lacking when times are good.
While I know this can bring benefits for my work, I also know it wreaks havoc with relationships. I’m never sure if it’s worth it.
Thanks for the reminder to hang in and press on. I woke up this morning smack dab in the middle of an “all is lost” moment as I thought about how I was going to to make progress on writing a sample chapter for a book proposal (a stretch into new territory for me), plan my business launch, parent a teenager, deal with financial challenges and the list goes on. Still the writing needs to get done.
Thanks for reminding me to simply keep putting one foot in front of the other.
When I first read the title, I thought, ‘Playing hurt? Like as in acting the victim?’ It drew to actually read the rest of the post and I realized my initial conclusion was far from right.
Then I thought about people out there that I know or hear about that do fall into the role of the “victim”. They transform into these helpless victims so as not to hold themselves accountable or for not doing their work. They shield themselves behind excuses and their own often exaggerated misfortunes.
It’s pushing past all gunk that slows us down and keep producing. Keep publishing, keep striving and/or creating.
I will admit that this week has been hard for me as has been filled with disappointments and rejections. But I will keep this in mind and not let it stop me from achieving my goals.
Thank you so much. It’s easy, when you are in the depths of despair and feeling half crazy, to think that you are the only one who has ever felt this way and that no one else could possibly understand. Reading that you also struggle makes my struggles feel a little more bearable and I appreciate your honesty.
THIS I beheld, or dreamed it in a dream:-
There spread a cloud of dust along a plain;
And underneath the cloud, or in it, raged
A furious battle, and men yelled, and swords
Shocked upon swords and shields. A prince’s banner
Wavered, then staggered backward, hemmed by foes.
A craven hung along the battle’s edge,
And thought, “Had I a sword of keener steel-
That blue blade that the king’s son bears,-but this
Blunt thing-!” he snapt and flung it from his hand,
And lowering crept away and left the field.
Then came the king’s son, wounded, sore bestead,
And weaponless, and saw the broken sword,
Hilt-buried in the dry and trodden sand,
And ran and snatched it, and with battle-shout
Lifted afresh he hewed his enemy down,
And saved a great cause that heroic day.
Edward Rowland Sill
Wonderful post, always the Marine. I have just read Tides of War and I am absolutely fascinated with your writing and the independent voice that each book that you write seems to have. But there is a philosophy that you seem to return to and refine throughout each book about the immortality of individual warriors and I would very much like to hear what your complete thoughts are on it. Is this a form of reincarnation? Is the individual soul of a warrior (poet/statesman/farmer)independent of the body and personality they occupy at any given period in history? I can relate through experience to some of your characters and would really love to hear your thoughts on this. Thank you again for your books, they are a comfort and an inspiration to me and the guys.
Thanks for this post, Steve. It’s somehow reassuring to know that when we feel the things you’re describing, we have company.
Now that you mention it, my most prolific writing period was when I was working full-time and going to school full-time to finish my BA degree. 8 hrs 5 days a week for work, 3 hrs 4 days a week for school, 3-4hrs a day 4 or 5 days a week to write. I have very little recollection of when sleeping got accomplished.
Hm. Something to think about…. especially since I’m working full-time and I’m about to go back to school again.
Thanks so much Steven for letting us take a peek behind the curtain. I am relatively new to this (even though I recognize I’m probably not as new as I think, this being the process of life and not just “art”) “… product of being in over our heads…” Nice to know that the best suffer from this too. Gives us neophytes hope. Now let me go beat my head against the wall some more…
Mr. Pressfield, you are an inspiration.
The War of Art has been like my personal Bible for the last few years. It’s one of two books I keep by my bedside.
I will have to check out The Profession and your other works now that I stumbled across your blog.
When I need a breakthrough, I read…lately, Mihaly Chikszentmihalyi(“chick-SENT-me-high”), his writings are remarkable in that what he has to say makes sense. In his book, “Finding Flow” he writes,”Good is the creative overcoming of inertia, the energy that leads to the evolution of human consciousness.” And, “Hell…is simply the separation of the individual from the flow of life…It is clinging to the past, to the self, to the safety of inertia.” Rich and rewarding reading in the glare of uncertainty. Inertia, entropy, turn off the TV.
Whew. What a relief. Thank you. I’ve got the intermittent tooth brushing thing (as in I won’t do it unless I talk myself into it.) And for Jasvir’s story about the therapist whose greatest feat was to get out of bed, because getting out of bed is an Issue. Thank you both. And keeping my heart at the lotus feet of the Lord. And applying all this to my writing. I thought I was crazy. It’s supposed to be hard. whew.
An exceptional post in a body of exceptional work. Thank you so much. I have been looking for some guidance about resistance for years. Mine began with external mechanical breakdowns, usually my computer when I was just putting out an advertising campaign or beginning an ambitious but doable business plan. The arrival of a major drought following the purchase of agricultural land nearly caused me to lose my mind. Then it was personal injuries. Then it was various injuries and illnesses of those I had to take care of. Throughout most of this was the clear self sabotage that was my marriage. but … I realized my goals beyond my wildest expectations. The real prize has finally been the almost complete elimination of any self doubt and realizing that I now occupy a position of accomplishment, experience, wisdom and knowledge. Amazing. Now turning my attention to an earlier calling long ignored … writing!
My friend Andrew DeVaney shared this, and its really amazing and inspiring…am glad to hear that am not crazy, and am not alone in all this kind and state of life, many people are going through same and there is light at the end of the tunnel, and a rope above the cliff…
Blessings from Uganda – Africa.