John Naber won four swimming gold medals at the ’76 Olympic Games in Montreal, each in world-record time. He said something in an interview once that sticks with me to this day.

John Naber, deep in the Pain Zone

A reporter asked Naber, “What’s the difference between a good swimmer and a great swimmer?”

Here’s how Naber answered (I’m paraphrasing from memory):

The thing about competitive swimming is that the instant you hit the water, you enter the Pain Zone. Your heart is hammering, your lungs are on fire, your muscles are straining to their maximum. It’s hell.

The difference between a good swimmer and a great swimmer is that the great swimmer has the capacity to go a little bit deeper into the Pain Zone … and to stay there a little bit longer.

I’m just now finishing a novel—filling the blank pages on the climactic chapters—and I am deep into the Pain Zone. Resistance is kicking my ass. I think of John Naber every day.

Gloria Steinem once said

I don’t like to write. I like to have written.

It helps me a lot to remind myself first that there is a Pain Zone, and second, that it’s universal. Every one of us hits that wall. Every one feels our lungs burning, our heart about to explode out of our chest. Every one of us wants to quit. Every one wants to back off, just a little, so this damn struggle will stop hurting so much.

I keep thinking back to John Naber.

The difference between a good swimmer and a great swimmer is that the great swimmer finds a way to go a little bit deeper into the Pain Zone … and to stay there a little bit longer.

THE WAR OF ART

Read this one first.
It identifies the enemy—what I call Resistance with a capital “R,” i.e. fear, self-doubt, procrastination, perfectionism, all the forms of self-sabotage—that stop us from doing our work and realizing our dreams.
Start here.
Everything else proceeds from this.

The-War-of-Art

DO THE WORK

Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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THE AUTHENTIC SWING

A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.

The-Authentic-Swing

NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.

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TURNING PRO

Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"

Turning-Pro

18 Comments

  1. Graham Glover on October 17, 2018 at 6:37 am

    When I’m doing fashion photography, there’s a Pain Zone too. It’s behind the camera, in planning, in post processing, and in product production.

  2. JL Allderdice on October 17, 2018 at 7:22 am

    “The public does not realize, perhaps, the amount of work that goes into one painting before I begin to set it down on canvas. In my last picture, I spent two months–fourteen hours a day, including Sundays–sketching, making notes, rejecting ideas.” Grant Wood

  3. Susn Setteducato on October 17, 2018 at 7:24 am

    I, too, am revising the final 30 pp of my novel, and I feel like someone is squeezing my lungs. Thank you for this post, Steven. Knowing the Pain Zone is there and that the Resistance is real makes all the difference for me.

  4. Joe Jansen on October 17, 2018 at 7:37 am

    “I’m just now finishing… Resistance is kicking…”

    You’re always encouraging people here in this space. To reciprocate… In a documentary we can find on Amazon Prime, Damian Lewis narrates. In the film’s opening, he says of Major Dick Winters (“Band of Brothers”):

    “During decisive moments in battle, Richard D. Winters would often say two simple words to the men of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 2nd Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division.

    “Hang tough.”

  5. Rachel Goldstein on October 17, 2018 at 8:03 am

    Thank you for this post. I’m a wannabe author and I spend a lot of time telling myself that I don’t have what it takes – the imagination, the fire, the people-savvy. This post tells me that maybe I have what everyone has – Resistance.

    • Michael on October 18, 2018 at 7:53 am

      Rachel, read The Art of war and then Turning Pro. In that order. If you don’t get it after those 2 books, well …….They are a life changer.

  6. Marvin Ginsberg on October 17, 2018 at 9:21 am

    I am completing a book of stories and I feel like there are walls all around me as close as my skin.
    I can’t seem to move forward now.

  7. Brian S Nelson on October 17, 2018 at 9:31 am

    In our event, participants scale and descend 1628 steps in a stadium built in 1906. WAY before OSHA. These are not your present day steps of 5 inch rise and one meter run…these are steep and high. Everyone is a mouth breather. It sucks. A lot. It hurts. A lot. “We are exercising our ‘I don’t quit muscle’ on the stairs” I’d say to my Soldiers years ago. We have to exercise that muscle every day.

    There is great freedom in knowing we are entering pain of our own free will.
    bsn

  8. Jay Cadmus on October 17, 2018 at 10:22 am

    Dipped my toe into the water. Not near reaching “the pain zone. ” Planning for writing my next project comes to shuffling papers and thoughts. I hope my efforts will find me that “…zone.” Then – at least – I will know that I’ve given my best. Thanks for your time while you work on your next published novel.

  9. Lindsey Kesel on October 17, 2018 at 10:55 am

    Mental ways through the Pain Zone? Your personal endurance strategies? 😉

  10. Akaur on October 17, 2018 at 11:38 am

    Ha… what a wonderful gift. This message came at the right time. I have been thinking of starting a writing practice (again). I have been contemplating about the inevitable time of unease that will show up during my writing and voiding writing to void that time. But you shared wise words and I will take these and march on.

    Thank you for this wonderful post.

  11. Martha Shoemaker on October 17, 2018 at 12:31 pm

    Writing was not the hard part for me. Sitting down to write was. But the feeling of accomplishment in having finished my book supersedes all the pain of persevering.

  12. Eleanor F.J. Gamarsh on October 17, 2018 at 4:18 pm

    This Pain Zone you have written about has me thinking about how I have difficulty getting into deeper emotions about my brain injury accident. I’ve been trying to write a memoir of my survival and recovering journey. Too often what I write sounds like s report of how I felt or of what happened to me. I believe I’m not consciously Resisting. digging deeper. I simply don’t know how without another voice to trigger my memory and emotions.. So Resistance is present against writing more without expressing emotions. The pain zone I need to get into may be hell but I believe it would be worth the emotional opening for my healing, and for making my memoir a book another survivor or their loved ones would want to read. I would appreciate some feed-back on what I’ve written.

  13. Tine Wiggens on October 18, 2018 at 6:22 am

    Hang in there Steve, you’re a warrior! You’re doing fantastic!!

  14. Julie Murphy on October 19, 2018 at 6:57 am

    Pain’s a tricky motivator, right? With a high threshold for pain we can stay in the ring longer to win; or, that same tolerance can keep us from getting out of the gutter sooner when we’re losing.

    Our relationship with pain really can determine both trajectory and destiny. Really good insights and food for thought, Steve. Thanks.

  15. Tuseet Jha on October 20, 2018 at 8:42 pm

    This absolutely makes sense! I am currently in the same zone and havent found the courage yet to dig deeper. Reading this might actually be the trigger point! thank you.

  16. Debbie L. Kasman on October 28, 2018 at 7:10 am

    For anyone who wants to explore the idea of pain and performance further, Alex Hutchinson wrote a book called Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. It was recently featured in the Next Big Idea Club curated by Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Cain, Adam Grant, and Daniel Pink.

  17. Oludascribe on November 3, 2018 at 4:41 am

    This is a paradigm shift . A contrast to what we hear about passion “if you do what you love …….”

    Thanks Steven.

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