Surviving in the Desert
A few years ago I wrote a book called Killing Rommel. Killing Rommel is a novel set during WWII in the North Africa campaign. Its heroes are the men of the Long Range Desert Group, a true historical British commando unit that fought behind the lines against Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and the German Afrika Korps.
The first time I heard the name Long Range Desert Group, I fell in love with it. I said to myself, “I don’t know what this is, but I gotta write a book about it.”
“Long Range.” Way cooler that Short Range.
Even better: “Long Range Desert.” Somebody was going out into the Tall Sand a long, long way.
And “Long Range Desert Group?” It didn’t sound typically military to me. It sounded like a tech start-up.
The LRDG, it turned out, smacked more of a civilian outfit than an over-organized, rigorously-disciplined military team. The trucks they drove were Chevy “30-hundredweights,” bought from civvie dealerships in Cairo. Discipline was slack. Improvisation was the order of the day.
Why did I love this subject?
Because it reminded me of the writer’s life.
The men of the LRDG had a mission. Their charge was to leave civilization behind and advance alone into the unknown. Once out there, they could call on no one for aid or rescue. They were on their own, with nothing to assure their success except what they brought with them.
That’s you and me. That’s the writer’s life.
The desert is a metaphor for the creative sphere that you and I operate in. The desert is beautiful. It’s remote, it’s odd, it’s strange. Only a special few dare to enter.
The desert contains secrets. It’s mysterious; it seems barren but it’s actually teeming with life if you know where to look.
The desert is reality stripped to its essentials. It’s pure. It’s geometric. Its landscape of dunes and wadis (dry rivercourses) has been shaped by nothing but the elemental forces of wind, water, and time.
The desert is cruel. It will cook you, freeze you, drown you. Worse, the desert is indifferent. Its sand will drift over your corpse in minutes. It will forget you as if you never existed.
That’s our world, yours and mine. It’s the dimension we enter every day, seeking our Muse.
What about enemies?
The desert holds two—the external foe (in the case of the Long Range Desert Group, the enemy was the Afrika Korps) and the internal adversary, the men’s own fears and Resistance.
Think about it. Your truck breaks down five hundred miles from civilization. By noon, external temperature will hit 130 Fahrenheit. Can you keep your head? Can you improvise a fix for your cracked engine block? Can you stretch twenty gallons of fuel to carry you home?
That’s you and me at page 183 in our novel. That’s us in the middle at Act Two.
What I love too about the Long Range Desert Group (and why it fits into this series on the Professional Mindset) as that it was—and had to be, by the nature of its mission and the grounds over which it operated—self-contained.
Into the beds of those Chevy trucks the men of the LRDG loaded fuel, water, rations, radio gear, weapons, ammunition, spare parts. Into nooks and crannies they wedged their bedding and clothing, their tea and tins of bully beef. Like sailors they brought rum, in porcelain demijohns jars labeled S.R.D. (for Service Reserve Depot) that they translated as “Seldom Reaches Destination.”
That’s you and me too. The essence of our artistic/entrepreneurial life is that it is and must be self-contained.
We and we alone must decide what we will work on, and how, for how long, under what conditions, with what ambitions and aspirations. We have to master the art of self-evaluation. Is our idea good? Good enough to give two years of our lives to?
When our vehicle founders in the Sand Sea, what resources can we call on within ourselves? The cavalry isn’t coming. It’s up to us and us alone.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Long Range Desert Group was the type of men it sought for its ranks. The LRDG never lacked for volunteers. Out of one application-round of 800 men, it selected twelve.
Most of the men in the Long Range Desert Group were Kiwis. New Zealanders. They were farmers and stockmen, mechanics and farm appraisers. Their age was roughly ten years older than regular line troops. Most were married and had children. No few owned and worked farms and ranches of considerable size.
They were mature men (alas, no women went into the desert in that era, though that almost certainly would be different today) whose primary emotional characteristics were resourcefulness, level-headedness, self-composure, patience, the ability to work in close quarters with others, the capacity to endure adversity and even to thrive on it, and, not least, the possession of a sense of humor.
In other words they weren’t blood-and-guts man-killers. (Okay, some were.) They were cool customers, possessed of grit and savvy, who could embark on a mission whose hazard was such that saner heads would call it absolutely nuts—and see that mission through, no matter what .
Isn’t it interesting that those are the same qualities you and I need, to survive in our own inner deserts?
Self-containment & self-sovereignty. These traits seem to be at such odds with the delightful mania of ideas, enthusiasm, and the clear visions of the future I can so easily see, and want to discuss.
Callie wrote about ‘Summit meetings’ Friday. Celebrating before one actually achieves anything. She slapped me in the face. I love to talk about what I want to do much more than actually doing the work. One of my personal flavors of Resistance.
Self-Containment & Self-Sovereignty. Also, it was a great book. Thank you again for what you do.
“I love to talk about what I want to do much more than actually doing the work. One of my personal flavors of Resistance.”
This is a good point, and something to watch out for.
I try to limit my “writing advice” stops to Steven’s blog, a blog written by my creative writing instructor, and occasionally sites with specific tools like character creation questionnaires.
An entire industry has sprung up around teaching people how to write, but it’s almost always another way to procrastinate. And I can’t help but notice lots of people talk and talk about writing but never actually produce anything. It’s dangerous because it helps people convince themselves they really are making progress, but you can’t make any real progress unless you work.
Just to be clear, I’m no better than anyone else — if I let myself get caught up in that stuff, I produce nothing. And oh can I procrastinate with the best of ’em. I’ll be writing, open the browser to look up a fact right quick, and an hour later find I’m 17 tabs deep into Wikipedia, reading about deforestation in Borneo, or the 1996 New York Knicks, or a Michio Kaku lecture on artificial intelligence.
I second everything Brian said, and add – cooked, frozen, drowned and LONELY. The desert group had each other, we have only ourselves and our word processors. The cavalry most definitely is not on call, but we do have you, Steven. Your genuine sentiment in clean expression is such a blessing!
I read War of Art a few years ago and it’s changed my life. Thank you for your writing.
This post is especially helpful. No one’s there to do the work for you. No writing professor, or MFA, or workshop can do the writing for you.
By the way, I think you should incorporate a Facebook Share button. Your site has the option to like, but a share button would display the article to more people on Facebook and allow them to quote you, etc. I manually shared your article just now, but a share button could increase traffic.
Thank you for an interesting article. My father spent some time in the North African desert in WW2 and in 1962 aged 18 I travelled on a Lambretta motor scooter across the edge of the desert from Egypt to Tunis camping out on the way. Now at 72 and not very well I’m writing my account of my travels. My father was also in charge of some New Zealanders at one time who he much respected.
And I look forward to reading your book
Steven, you always kick me in the seat of my pants when I most need it! Thanks for being the voice in the wilderness!
I thought of the name Get Real Foundation for a Functional Nutrition/Functional Medicine in-home network marketing business I wanted with New Earth. The business has not come to fruition. I do not know if it is meant too. As the spiraling of life happens, timing, it has become more of a symbol for me to realize how I have been living on a foundation of SAND (Oh how cruel “sand” can be) and fog and HAD/HAVE no Long Range Vision for what “the muse” has in mind so keep asking myself the vital question, “What is my relationship to the present moment.”
Yes. I loved that book. I think I’m going to take it off the shelf and read it again. You have a way of making military history timeless–to make it relate to all of us, whether we’re writers, military, or teachers…
Steven, great newsletter. I’ve been interested in military history all my life and your analogy of the LRDG for the writing life is terrific!
It also reminded me of two more things: back in the late 1960s there was a TV series called “The Rat Patrol” based on the exploits of the LRDG (see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060018/ ); and as an example of surviving in the desert against the odds (AND with a woman aboard!) of course there’s the fantastic “Ice Cold in Alex”, one of my all-time favourite movies ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0053935/ ).
The BBC here in the UK also ran a documentsry series recently about the birth of the SAS, which of course used many of the LRDG’s tactics in the desert.
Love that book Killing Rommel. Am rereading. I remember the words in your article very well. Nice imagery.
[…] Steven Pressfield’s “Writing Wednesday” email newsletter helped–Surviving in the Desert–and I overcame my resistance. And when I bought the above at Print Bookstore in Portland (ME) […]
Great metaphor – indeed we are all in our own inner deserts of self destruction or survival. Not that I’m complaining, because I plan to survive. Thanks, Steven.
Wednesdays used to be just “hump day.” Now there’s something more to look forward to. Appreciate this one in particular (the book and the column). And I remember being a kid and watching “Rat Patrol” with my dad and my brothers. Gracias.
Wonderful piece, Steven! Make a movie about these fellows. Anyone would love it.
Killing Rommel is a great book. I read it when it 1st came out and going to be reading it again shortly. Would love to see a movie based on the book or the LRDG.