Blood on the Tracks
Like you, I have no idea what Steve Pressfield is going to write in his “Writing Wednesdays” columns. We e-mail about twenty times a day and talk two or three times a week, and he’d tell me generally what he’s going to do for a particular week if I were to ask. But I don’t ask.
Whatever it is he comes up with, I know no one else would write it the way he does.
Anyone who has ever written a declarative sentence they intend to share publicly knows how hard it is to “pitch” their stuff. They know that there’s some sort of mystical mojo that dissipates when you talk about your work.
It’s been my experience that the writers I admire most sound like idiots when they’re describing something they’ve written. Here’s a quote from Hemingway about his novel Across the River and Into the Trees in Lillian Ross’s wonderful 1950 profile in The New Yorker, “How do you like it Now, Gentlemen?” (Worth the premium subscription alone for this article):
Book start slow, then increase in pace till it becomes impossible to stand…She’s better book than ‘Farewell’ [A FAREWELL TO ARMS]…I think this is best one, but you are always prejudiced, I guess, especially if you want to be champion.
I think the reason it’s hard for the pro to pitch her own work has to do with what Steve wrote about back in March (“Working on Two Tracks“) as well as his great piece last week (“Self-Doubt and Self-Reinforcement“).
In March, Steve defined the two tracks as:
1. The Muse Track, our work in its most authentic, true-to-itself and true-to-our-own-heart-expression
2. The Commercial Track, our work that puts bread on the table and puts our kids through college.
For me, I don’t see these two tracks as separate lines on the great railroad of our soul. Rather, I see them as separate rails on a single track. To serve one without serving the other is the state of amateurs… Their trains never get out of the station.
You can’t move if you can’t turn on both rails. Here’s my take on the two rails:
Creations that mean something to one
Creations that mean something to others
Within the spectrum between these two creative rails—self-indulgent work meant only for the creator or schlocky hack work for all, lays the world of the pro.
You want to create something “uniquely familiar”—a work of art that could not be created by anyone but you, but also one brilliantly in the realm of the human collective unconscious. People recognize the arena of your creation, but are challenged and changed by its final execution. The kind of work that makes Joe Schmoe from Kokomo and Michiko Kakutani both say “Holy $#%.”
You have to be fiercely protective of your Muse to get the wheels rolling on rail number one. If you blither-blather about your incomplete opus on best business practices in management consulting instead of doing the work allowing for serious internal debate through however many drafts it takes to finish, you’ll never finish. You’ll be talking about that project ad nauseum alienating every soon to be ex-friend you’ve asked for “their take” or “their notes” on your “work in progress” along the way.
But you also want to create a work with broad appeal. You want to communicate with other people, not just fiddle alone in your “studio” polishing a poem until it loses all its initial passion and meaning. You know you have to trot the thing out to get any traction on rail two.
What that trotting out requires is a “pitch.” It doesn’t have to be high concept X meets Y, but if you don’t have a provocative way to describe the substance of your work, when you paint your masterpiece, it will fail to break through the ever increasing noise of our connecting world.
The pro accepts this never ending internal battle between art and commerce as her territory. She gets in the muck and wages war on preciousness and cheese alike. She fights in the service of the story. The story does not fight to come to her. And I mean Story in the largest context (an algorithm, a blueprint, a bathroom restoration, etc.), the meaning behind the product.
The amateur doesn’t even know he’s in a war. He thinks that a magic fairy will touch his shoulder and the words or the paint or the numbers will arrange themselves in a staggering work of art. He’ll merely be a conduit chosen by an extraterrestrial force for greatness. When it doesn’t happen, he finds another project or another hobby and starts the vigil again.
The Muse ignores the amateur. She’s too busy handing out Xiphos’ to Pros and shouting “Follow Me!”
But what really separates the pro from the amateur is that she knows she’ll come out of the wars disappointed. No matter how close she gets to writing something both singular and universal, she’ll discover that she moved a little further down one rail than the other.
Her stand-up comedy routine is a tad too esoteric or veering toward shtick. But the more work she puts in—the more bits she puts out there—the closer she’ll get to finding her true voice. What also happens during this long, painful, and often maddening experience is her work will begin to speak for itself.
Does Louis C.K. have to pitch? What about Yo Yo Ma? Derek Jeter? Jack Welch? Put in the hours to make your work extraordinary, get it out there and take the slings and arrows that come with the territory. Then do it again.
After he unleashed The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway became Hemingway. He didn’t have to say anything else about his work. To pitch it was beneath him.
I suspect Lillian Ross knew that. Of all the experiences she had tailing Papa on that peculiar 1950 New York trip she chose to share those that exposed his vulnerability. With his pumping of his proverbial chest and decreeing his place in the literary pantheon, that lost lion in winter was wrestling with his mortality.
By the end of Ross’s profile, we understand that a man who loses faith and respect of his own work will face a bitter end.