The Turning Pro Moment
Since the publication of Turning Pro a month ago, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about certain concepts in the book. One that keeps sticking in my head—and demanding deeper inspection—is the moment of turning pro.
I’m going to dedicate the next few weeks on Writing Wednesdays to further thoughts on this subject. I want to talk about its relationship to the All Is Lost moment, the two components of the All Is Lost moment (the second one of which I’m calling in my head the “breakthrough moment”)—and I want to talk about the “B” story and how that fits into the Turning Pro moment.
Does this sound arcane enough? Bear with me. It’s worth thinking about.
Let’s start with the All Is Lost moment. I’m indebted to Jen Grisanti, the author of Storyline and a well-known Hollywood script consultant, for laying out this concept, analyzing it and dissecting it. If you haven’t read Storyline, I highly recommend it.
Okay, what is the All is Lost moment? In a movie, it usually comes at the end of the second act. It’s the lowest point for the hero. In the All Is Lost moment, the hero is as far away from his goal as possible. (I’m interested in this, by the way, not so much for its utility in constructing a story or a screenplay as for its importance in real life. And particularly its part in the moment that makes us turn from amateurs into pros.)
In Rocky, the All Is Lost moment is when Rocky goes down to the arena, alone, the night before the big fight and realizes that he has no chance to beat the champ, Apollo Creed. In The Hangover, the All Is Lost moment is when the guys get “Doug” back—only to find that it’s the wrong Doug. In Big Night, it’s the moment after Primo and Secondo have their big fistfight on the beach and stagger off in different directions, knowing that their restaurant has just had its last night.
Almost every Turning Pro moment is preceded by an All Is Lost moment. The “breakthrough moment,” which follows, is the decision to turn pro.
What exactly happens in an All Is Lost moment, both in movies and in real life?
What happens is the hero—i.e., you and me—comes face to face with a lie he has told himself, a lie upon which he has based his entire life (or, in a movie, the sum of the events so far in the film.)
The lie is a self-delusion. It’s an act of denial, a cherished belief about ourselves or our prospects. When events compel us at last to see this self-delusion, our reaction is “All is lost!” We believe that we cannot live without this self-delusion. There is no way out. We’re finished.
In Rocky, the self-delusion was that Rocky had a chance to beat the champ. In The Hangover, the guys’ delusion was that they could find Doug simply by re-living the prior evening. In Big Night, the brothers’ delusion was that they could make their restaurant succeed on its own terms. In the All Is Lost moment, each one of these beliefs is shattered, leaving the protagonists defeated, bereft and in despair.
Twelve-step programs deal with All Is Lost moments all the time. The alcoholic-in-denial believes he is not a drunk. He can handle his drinking, he believes; it’s no problem. That’s the self-delusion. That’s the instance of denial.
Suddenly something happens. In Turning Pro, there’s a chapter called Miss X in Bakersfield. It’s the true story of a friend of mine who woke up one morning in a motel in Bakersfield, in the same clothes she had been wearing the night before, with an empty quart of Jim Beam on the nightstand. When she looked in the mirror (literally, in the motel bathroom) she had to admit to herself that she was an alcoholic. That’s what she’d been denying for years. That was her All Is Lost moment.
The Turning Pro moment is a specific instance of the All Is Lost moment. In the Turning Pro/All Is Lost moment (I should say the All Is Lost moment that precedes the Turning Pro moment), the truth we come face to face with is that we have been avoiding our true calling for our entire lives.
We have been beaten by Resistance. We have failed as the stewards of our unique gifts. We have been amateurs, dilettantes, dabblers.
That’s the All Is Lost moment that precedes the Turning Pro moment.
What is the Turning Pro moment? It’s the decision that we will stop squandering our gifts. We will get serious about the talents we were given. We will stop living our lives as amateurs, as dabblers and as dilettantes.
For a classic example of a Turning Pro moment, read this excerpt from Rosanne Cash’s wonderful memoir, Composed. This is also, with Rose’s permission, a chapter in Turning Pro. It deals in unsparing detail with both Rose’s All Is Lost moment—“Oh my God, I am a dilettante!”—and her breakthrough moment, her Turning Pro moment: “Well, this shit is gonna stop right now! I am going to become serious about my talent and my obligation to use it.” (I’m paraphrasing!)
Next week: What are the components of the All Is Lost moment?
I read Turning Pro last month for my birthday and resolved that I would turn pro and stop messing around-resistance disagreed and promptly started smacking me around especially hard.
No matter how much I told myself that I needed to turn it around, I found myself wasting my time instead of writing.
So I was gifted with an All is Lost moment earlier today.
The computer crashed and the backup failed. A part of me wanted to commit Hara-Kiri over it, but then again, if I don’t just get back to work rebuilding what is lost it won’t ever get done…and it needs to get done.
Thank you for your direction and inspiration.
David, I’m so sorry to learn that your computer crashed. My heart goes out to you. Wishing you all the best.
Brilliant post and just the smack in the head I needed. If I’m honest, I’m at the All Is Lost moment now. I know I’m a writer. I’ve just put too many doubts and obstacles in my own way to realise that.
Asking a friend to look over my work recently produced a mixed response from her. She liked bits but felt I just wasn’t good enough, or maybe I should write for children according to her. It felt like all the times my father, well meaningly, told me I’d never write a ‘great’ novel. It was the first draft though. That’s never going to be the best. I really should have known better.
So I’m getting on with this now. All is ‘not’ lost. Thank you for your words.
I never show my work to anybody until it’s done and I need an editor. Have you ever read Brenda Ueland’s book, “If You Want to Write”? I think you’d really like it.
Brenda Ueland’s book is one of my all-time favorite writing books. Love it!
Thanks… I needed that.
I just had my all is lost moment. Or I’m still battling through it. I’m still reeling under the sense that a delusion was shattered. Trying to figure out from the shards what the delusion was and what I’m looking at in the mirror now.
Wishing you a wonderful journey as you search.
We watched an episode of The West Wing last night with this very theme. The episode from Season 2 called “Noel” written by Aaron Sorkin is a build up to this moment of coming to terms with this All is Lost moment.
Question: How do we avoid falsely creating an All is Lost moment for ourselves? Reading this I’m thinking, “What can I do to make myself have such a moment?” But I’m guessing that is exactly the wrong kind of thinking to make it happen. . .
The “moment” often grabs us from behind and shakes the living daylights out of us, then we look around to see what has caused it. From there, we sometimes do the make it or break it action.
I love the way you explore concepts. I am giving tremendous gratitude that my message about the “all is lost” is part of what inspired this exploration.
I love your interpretation of it and how you mention the moment both in movies and in life. You speak my language and the language of the masses. This is why you connect so much with your audience.
Thank you for sharing your gift.
Jen, what a beautiful and gracious reply to Steven’s post today. What are you writing these days?
Jen, I’m glad you saw this. Next Wednesday I take a deeper shot at interpreting the All Is Lost moment. Lemme know if you agree, okay?
A comment of mine on the previous ”All is lost moment” article was mostly humorist, but on this one I’ll keep a serious profile.
The “All is lost moment”, as described above, is the Big One, the moment that the realization of disaster is so great that you just have to act. The vibes of this earthquake are so big,dangerous,lethal that you just prefer to try something -anything- than get buried under the ruins of your life.
So this is the Big One.
And there are always smaller moments of this situation, also dangerous if you let them overcome you.
In unusual situations the only thing we can make is to go on doing the usual things and beat Resistance (talking about the creative process).
The above (not about the creative process) was mentioned also somewhere in the “Gates of Fire”, where the Greek army in general (not only the Spartans) is doing his stuff and routines when the devastating gigantic enemy of the Persian Empire approaches…
(I don’t remember right now the exact scene, it was something like that).
I come here often. I love to read what Steven writes, and I love to read the posts from others. Mostly because I am lost, and have been a spectacular failure. In some ways it is my diversions,as Pascal might say. I have turned aside from myself and my destiny to find distraction in oocupation, amusements, etc. “The whole clamity of man comes from one single thing, that he cannot keep quiet in a room.” (Pascal)
Turning Pro reminded me of a passage I read long ago. In the book “The Intellectual Life” by A. G. Sertillanges (a French Dominican), he talks about vocation as a state of mind. (Indeed the entire book is Turning Pro written in 1924 Catholic intellecual style. It is very good and remarkably I have forgotten about it.) “It (this state of mind) implies a serious resolution. The life of study is austere and imposes grave obligation. It pays, it pays richly; but it exacts an initial outlay that few are capable of. The athletes of the mind, like those of the playing field, must be prepared for privations, long training, a sometimes superhuman tenacity. We must give ourselves from the heart if truth is to give itself to us. Truth serves only its slaves.”
So far, for my whole life I have sought freedom only to find bondage. Now I am seeking courage to pursue submission. As Steven would say, The muse honors working stiffs.
To ge something without paying is the universal desire; but it is the desire of a cowardly heart and weak mind. This is my confession. I have been cowardly and weak. Resistance has beaten me for 41 years. I am no longer looking for a successful year, or decade or life. But to simply wage war with all I have for today.
Wishing you courage and strength to find your mountain top.
James, that’s great about “vocation as a state of mind.” I couldna said it better! (As opposed to “avocation,” which would be the amateur state of mind.)
I love your blog, Steven. I mix your writings with those of Twyla Tharp, and Rumi, and Pema Chodrön who each talk about the spiritual journey in their own way.
I don’t know if I’d say I had a ‘turning point’ moment, more like a turning point decade, as I realized I was going to have to shed more and more of my emotional and financial baggage in order to create space for the ‘new me’.
I find with every creative project I undertake I want to go deeper into the material, achieve better results, and with that, I find there are often those challenging moments where I have to celebrate my limitations, and at times, recoil and accept what I can do today.
I think the buddhists would call this ‘maitri’ — or compassion, or as Pema would say, ‘unconditional friendship and acceptance of oneself’. Learning to love the person I am right now enables me to become, little by little, the person I want to be tomorrow.
After numerous smacks on the head, sleeping in my car and then finally dusting myself, but still went back to working in the corporate world, this time somehow more successful, the finale came when my boss refused vacation time for me to attend a seminar. I handed in my resignation and have been self employed since then (two and a half years now).
The process felt like the movie Evan Almighty. Every time I strayed from what was buried deep within me, I got smacked hard.
Yes I have had to give up my Lexus, my consumerism lifestyle and all that, but I am now more happy and grateful and appreciative of life than ever before!! I still have resistance to write on a regular basis, but I am Turning Pro.
Thank you Steven
As always, Steven, you nailed it today. My All is Lost moment came in Hollywood. I was trying to sell a script about a modern day Cherokee that felt he must walk in reverse the 900 mile route of the Trail of Tears to honor his ancestor and metaphorically bring home the spirits of the 4,000 who died on the forced removal in 1838 from the SE to Oklahoma. This was before Dances With Wolves was made into a movie and everyone in LA told me no one cared about Native Americans. The door was always slammed in my face. Then one night from the roof of my apartment building, overlooking Paramount Studios, I had a “got it” moment. I was the person in the script who must walk the Trail. I sold everything I owned to finance my two month and life-altering trek. My book about the journey, Walking the Trail, went to auction in NY in two weeks and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize by Delacorte Press the next year. Now the book is a Native American classic and has sold over 250,000 copies. This year sales have soared on the new release to Kindle. (I own the e-right, thank goodness.) Here a recent PBS story about my All is Lost Moment, my walk, my book and my career. My thoughts: Take the leap of faith.
Or, as Mary Oliver says so succinctly, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Hi, Carla. What are you doing with your life? What are you writing now?
As my friend said to me the other day, that line of Mary Oliver’s is a dangerous line. It literally changes lives. It did his, it has my sisters (who is climbing Kilimanjaro next week) and it has mine. Sixteen little words.
I just finished writing my feature. My producer/mentor believes it could also sell as a pilot for a TV series. Set on a USAF military base it delves into the tight generational and community bonds between those who serve and those who by circumstance alone are asked to bear so much. More specifically, it is the fantastical and hopeful story of how a grieving 12 yr old girl and a young vet suffering from PTSD recognize recognize life giving truths about themselves through each other response to struggle. (log line obviously needs work!)
It is a story of family, friendship, loss, love and Mary Oliver’s ‘call’ is a theme that runs through it all. I am pulling together the synopsis, treatment, logline and character sheet. As a child of war and PTSD story
I do not know where I will be living after the end of September as my house that I am renting is up for sale. My children are all in or finished university. The future is as uncertain as it is full of potential and I have grown more comfortable with that uncertainty than with security. At least that’s what I tell myself. I cannot see around the corner.
My financial guy says that it’s not that he doesn’t understand my dream, its just that he doesn’t meet many people who have a passion and need to follow it with such intent. I told him that a long time ago I resigned myself to what other’s told me would be a ‘good career choice’. I dabbled for about 8 yrs. and quit that career almost to the day I paid off my student loan. Now, given a 2nd chance, I am not going to squander it on security. Somewhere deep down I know I have something to say. And that’s about all I know for sure.
Long answer to a short question. (good question!) Thank-you for asking.
Thanks for your thoughtful response, Carla. Happy to see you afire with your project that strikes me as interesting!
Thank you for this incredible post – very thought provoking and very timely.
Reading this caused me to realize how much I have incorporated the “all is lost” moment into my online writing. I branded my entire blog around the concept of “5 flat tires” – which was one of my more profound all is lost moments in life. For the past year I have been collecting stories from other people about their all is lost moments:
But until now, I didn’t realize the significance of the shattering of self-delusion as the key turning point. I now understand my own writing and my own theme even better. So thank you for triggering this insight.
And on a very related note, your writing inspired me to start an “online support group” for writers in the process of turning pro. Anyone who is interested can read about our group – and join it for free – here:
I look forward to more in this series – this is such a profound topic,
== niki mathias
Nice Niki. I’ll connect with you on Google +. Not a fan of lists on Yahoo, but am up for your idea. x Elese
I read your book and it really helped me alot. I considered it a weapon.
I subscribed to the wednesdays.
I am currently writing a book and have been dealing with resistance. I am really busy and active in my community and taking care of my family, of 7 kids, as well as, let’s just say I do alot. I learned some core things that matter recently and writing is my next stage. I am preparing to turn pro.
If you would like to do a radio interview, let me know.
http://www.facebook.com/tyreebyndom or http://www.facebook.com/koreissues
Blessings to your life, your movement and your legacy.
I loved what you’ve added to the Turning Pro Moment with this Steven. Looking forward to next week. It might be nice to see more of people’s turning pro moments… Mine arrived last week in a hospital at the bedside of a friend when I realized I didn’t want to lie in a hospital bed like that wondering if I had wasted the time I was given. I want to lie there with a smile on my face, knowing I busted a gut as a pro.
My all is lost moment was realizing finally that the person I loved would never really love my writing, would not be supportive of it, would not encourage me in it. He loved me, but not the writing. I cried and told him I was going to do it anyway.
I thought I would have trouble going forward after that conversation. Instead I feel electric.
And oddly, he has proved much more encouraging after that. But I don’t need it anymore.
Great story, Heather. It’s a novel all by itself.
I’ve just had the all is lost moment. Until now it’s been that gradual drip somewhere in the roof of your house that you try to ignore. The annoying drip that you just can’t seem to find but that keeps you up at night. The drip drip drip that precedes the epic flood that comes from some piece of essential plumbing bursting and destroying your entire house.
I woke up one morning, sat up in bed and found my whole internal landscape had been washed away and thought – good Lord in Heaven, I just can’t lie to myself anymore. I realised that I would rather live in a cardboard box under a bridge than have to continue one minute longer pretending that this was the life I’d always wanted or that I felt I was made for.
And it’s terrifying!
And now I can’t hide away or underachieve or make excuses or procrastinate. And I don’t really know exactly what I’m going to do next. And I have ABSOLUTELY no idea where it’s all going to end up. All I know is that this is it! Time to take myself seriously. There just is no place left to hide anymore.
The only place I have left to go is PRO! 🙂
So thank you Steven Pressfield for your words and advice and for making me think that maybe I’m not crazy after all but actually at the start of something real and honest, exciting and above all else possible
Standing at the All Is Lost junction and figuring a way out is a requirement of anyone who is to be successful.
I used your post as a jumping off point to tell the Turning Pro moment a friend had in college:
My only regret is being so late to your great writing. I’m catching up as fast as I can.
That’s an inventive answer to an itenerstnig question
What if I haven’t experienced my turning pro moment yet? Should wait till I do or….
So I think this requires some back story…..
I am from India and I’ve been trying to write for a long time now. I have written few short stories and one fit for nothing novel…..Yet I am afraid of starting another one and what’s more depressing is that, I spend my days fantasizing how great an author I will be. I came across your book a few days ago and I’ve had drastic changes in my life. But I am still afraid as the same has happened a million time. I would read some book and would get all riled up but soon this motivation will fade and I’ll be back in square one. I don’t know what would change me or should I wait for something to change me? If not then how will I be persistent in my effort for turning pro?