Churchill’s “K.B.O.” (Or something like that.)

There’s a skill that you and I as long-form writers have had to develop that will serve us (and everyone else) very well in this “time of cholera.” I’m not sure this virtue even has a name.

“Remember our motto: ‘K.B.O.’ Keep Buggering On.”

            It’s a little like Winston Churchill’s K.B.O. “Keep Buggering On.”

            Which itself is kinda like the famous sign from the tube-station air raid shelters during the Blitz, Keep Calm and Carry On.

            I’m reminded as well of John Keats’ concept of “negative capability.” Have you heard of this? It’s from a letter from Keats to his brother in 1817:

“I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason … ‘

          But it’s not exactly that either. It’s closer to Krishna’s admonishment to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita that we mortals

          … have a right to our labors, but not to the fruits of our labors.

          Lemme try to define this virtue straight out.

It’s the ability to keep on working with undiminished focus and effort even when we believe (or at least strongly suspect) that there will be no external reward or recognition at the finish.

            In other words, the act of performing a function for its own sake entirely.

          This is a soldier’s skill, and a mother’s. It’s a nurse’s skill. It’s a physician’s. In many ways it’s a teacher’s skill.

          For sure it’s a writer’s virtue, and an artist’s of any kind, and an entrepreneur’s.

          Whatever we call it (and I still don’t have a word), it’s a virtue we all need now.

          We cannot predicate our actions today upon any outcome we can count on tomorrow. Nobody knows. Nobody can predict. Anybody who claims he can is either lying or self-deluded or both.

          Yet we have to keep doing what we’re doing, and we have to keep doing it at a high level of commitment and fidelity.

          What makes it so challenging is that human nature was not built to operate this way. We were made in times of peril to close ranks, to take up our posts shoulder to shoulder.

          That won’t work today.

          We have to, now, maintain solidarity with our brothers and sisters in a crazy, solitary, self-distancing way. We’re forced in our day-to-day lives to operate inside our own heads, to define our goals entirely by our own criteria (which may be very different from what we believed a few days ago), to determine our best practicable methods of seeking them, and then to self-motivate, self-validate, self-reinforce as we go forward … and keep doing it today and tomorrow and the day after, with no credible terminus in sight.

          These are writer’s virtues, and artists’ and soldiers’ and mothers’ and entrepreneurs.

          I don’t have a name for this, but we all need it and we need it now.

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38 Comments

  1. John Musgrave on April 1, 2020 at 4:49 am

    Thanks for this and for the sound advice that informs these pages. Fortified, I return to my labours. I believe every artist and writer is a soldier in a war. In fact I remember a post war SAS regiment was merged with the Artists Rifles. Misfits and mavericks have always been an integral part of special forces units. Deep in enemy territory let us fight as one for we are never alone in the worlds we create.

    • Brian Nelson on April 1, 2020 at 9:27 am

      John,
      Nicely said. It has been my experience there are two types of Soldiers: Combat Soldiers and Garrison Soldiers. Neither fits well in the other domain. We need the combat Soldiers–likely the Misfits & Mavericks during combat, but they get into trouble in Garrison. I was thinking the other day–how many awards have been given to Soldiers for ‘following orders explicitly’?
      Valor does not come from obedience, but intrinsic love of fellow Soldiers.
      bsn

  2. Joe Jansen on April 1, 2020 at 6:58 am

    Part of what I’m getting from Steve’s post this morning is about “recognizing what won’t work anymore” and seeking what the world is supposed to look on the road ahead.

    I came across something this morning, posted on the FB page of a group called Science and Nonduality. It’s not short, but is articulating some broad and deep perspectives on what we’re all going through now: meaning and how we choose to live and what we have the chance to learn. It’s long, but I’ve been yearning to hear some of these ideas articulated:

    “Understanding the self as a locus of consciousness in a matrix of relationship, one no longer searches for an enemy [a virus, an illness, a terrorist] as the key to understanding every problem, but looks instead for imbalances in relationships. ”

    and

    “Perhaps the great diseases of civilization have quickened our biological and cultural evolution, bestowing key genetic information and offering both individual and collective initiation. Could the current pandemic be just that? Novel RNA codes are spreading from human to human, imbuing us with new genetic information; at the same time, we are receiving other, esoteric, “codes” that ride the back of the biological ones, disrupting our narratives and systems in the same way that an illness disrupts bodily physiology. The phenomenon follows the template of initiation: separation from normality, followed by a dilemma, breakdown, or ordeal, followed (if it is to be complete) by reintegration and celebration.”

    I’m thinking, “My god… he’s talking about the virus as a Hero’s Journey.”

    https://charleseisenstein.org/essays/the-coronation

    • Brian Nelson on April 1, 2020 at 9:35 am

      Joe,
      I’ll check that out. What an interesting perspective. I think I read somewhere–sometime–that evolution is not as gradual as we may think–but is in response to seismic events. Maybe this is one of those seismic events. I read part of an article yesterday about how prayer has become more important in people’s lives–had to chuckle because I resemble that group of people.

      Maybe, just maybe, this will help us to move from self-absorbtion to a more others focused mindset. I’m trying. I decided to deliberately begin a daily prayer practice earlier this year–specifically to ‘train my brain’ to think of others more often. Only rule is I cannot pray for anything for me–other than willingness/openness to be of service. Good stuff, as always, thanks for your note.
      bsn

      • Joe on April 1, 2020 at 11:06 am

        Brian, I like your prayer rule.

        I’m picturing the Stoics up there, kicking back in their BarcaLoungers with popcorn and soft drinks. “Okay, start it up. Let’s see if they’ve been listening.”

  3. Mary Doyle on April 1, 2020 at 7:19 am

    Midway through my third week of self-isolation (no, I’m not sick, just trying to be smart and responsible and stay healthy), writing feels more and more prescriptive, i.e. a way to ward off the free-floating anxiety that is ratcheting up by the day. I’m grateful for so much in my life right now, and the grounding act of writing is at the top of the list. Be well, everyone!

    • Brian Nelson on April 1, 2020 at 9:39 am

      Mary,
      While I do not write fiction, I have found similar solace from building my own service programs-basically trainings I’d like to offer. When I stop producing, the underlying fear rears its ugly head. I see it in my dreams, so there is certainly a degree of fear for this unknown in my subconscious. Be well.
      bsn

  4. Lyn Blair on April 1, 2020 at 8:30 am

    So true. When you write because you love to write, that’s what counts. I would call it a labor of love. This is true for any pursuit that a person enjoys. You become wrapped up in the creativity and not the end result. I don’t have a problem with staying at home. The Internet and cell phones take away the isolation factor. You can still communicate and don’t need to be “face-to-face” to do it. There’s that, plus my husband and I have spent far more time talking than we had before the epidemic. I have time to breathe and realize how much I care about people. I’m following the protocols but without fear. I like FDR’s quote, “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.” Enjoy what’s good in life. I’ve been writing more too.

    • Brian Nelson on April 1, 2020 at 9:41 am

      Lyn,
      Kelly and I are also communicating much more. Our dogs seem happier and more content than ever! Dad is always downstairs in the office. We get more walks! Hooray for COVID-19…I tell them we shouldn’t actually celebrate the virus…
      bsn

  5. Bane on April 1, 2020 at 8:40 am

    Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment, full effort is full victory.

    Mahatma Gandhi

    • Gene on April 1, 2020 at 9:33 am

      Spot on!

    • Brian Nelson on April 1, 2020 at 9:42 am

      Bane,
      I echo Gene. Perfectly stated.
      bsn

  6. Sam Luna on April 1, 2020 at 8:45 am

    Fantastic post, Steven, thanks for this. I finished the first draft of a book yesterday and thought to myself “well, might as well start the next one tomorrow, there’s no prospect of work (day job), I’ll just begin even though my outline isn’t finished.” And then realized that’s what I should be doing anyway, pandemic or no pandemic!

  7. Bill D. on April 1, 2020 at 9:14 am

    Powerful. Relevant. Timely……and Necessary.

    Thank you, Steven.

  8. Wang Jie on April 1, 2020 at 9:26 am

    Ha, I’m tickled that Steven didn’t find the word he was looking for. We composers do have an extra layer of challenge, that extreme sport of working with pure, abstract tones. They call it Absolute Music, a snobbish way of saying “this is music for music’s sake and it’s not even a thing. So who cares?”

    Words remain a distraction for real composers of absolute music. The life of words begins at a dictionary. That’s a brick of support composers don’t have. A symphony is the fiction of fictions. When I work on a symphony (as I have since this morning), reading this blog offers a kind of security – that feeling of my bare feet brought back to existence by a carpet of words.

    K.B.O. can be a kick in the butt on Mondays. Every once a while, virtues might get me through a Thursday afternoon. I like the comfort they promise. For the long haul, it’s more basic for me. Almost primitive. I do it cos I gotta do it and I don’t know why I gotta do it goddammit!

    Here is an excerpt from my 2018 essay “Love at Fifth Sight – On Becoming a Composer”

    ———
    …All my students, at some point or another, have asked me: “What, then, keeps you going?” Because I love music, I used to say. That’s true of course, but that’s also why some quit. If you sit me down with a glass of wine and ask me again, I will confess that I’m hooked on the best drug ever.

    Some call it the “flow” and there is a whole book about it. Stravinsky used to call it “the appetite.” You’ve got to wake up every day and want to hunt down those notes before they get away. You’ve got to have the techniques whenever you need them, and you must control them effortlessly. You’ve got to work hard year in and year out. But working hard doesn’t guarantee “flow.” If you can find a composer who’s earned a taste of “flow” and then quit, now that would be newsworthy.
    ———

    Enjoy the complete essay here:
    https://www.classical915.org/post/love-fifth-sight-becoming-composer

  9. Bing on April 1, 2020 at 9:31 am

    This thing we all going through is Si-Fi. Seven billion people are all thinking the same thoughts at the same time.
    For me it cuts deeply in two directions or two opportunities. I personally have the kind of mind that can scare myself to death like Steven King thinks or I can choose this opportunity to practice all the wisdom I have learned from my spiritual teachers over the years including Steven. I have a ton of blessings, more than I can count. A lot of folks are going to get hit really hard by all this.
    Thanks and God Bless
    Shalom

  10. M. H. Furlong on April 1, 2020 at 9:31 am

    Churchill is the right model for everyone during this time. What makes him so fascinating to me, and very much useful right now, is that he K.B.O.’d while suffering from his black dogs throughout his entire life.

  11. Dan Sutton on April 1, 2020 at 10:00 am

    It is sticktoitiveness. It appeared in the U.S. in the late nineteenth century. It appears to be just what you’re talking about.

  12. Apostolis Alexopoulos on April 1, 2020 at 10:06 am

    Dear teacher,

    Thank you very much. I am a writer from Greece who believed in your work – the war of art – and I believe that only because of that I am now on about 2500 hours of work on my book (in greek) with an average of 4 to 6 hours a day and a little less than 3 hours when I also have to work. I didn’t write for only a few days the past 1,5 year. I just singed up so I read here for the first time.
    On what you wrote, “Whatever we call it (and I still don’t have a word), it’s a virtue we all need now”, maybe I could suggest a name that just came to my mind: “Resultlessness”, parallel to what we call Selflessness.

  13. Apostolis Alexopoulos on April 1, 2020 at 10:11 am

    Dear teacher, (I am sorry, I accidentally submitted before I finished)

    Thank you very much. I am a writer from Greece who believed in your work – the war of art – and I believe that only because of that I am now on about 2500 hours of work on my book (in greek) with an average of 4 to 6 hours a day and a little less than 3 hours when I also have to work. I didn’t write for only a few days the past 1,5 year. I just singed up so I read here for the first time.
    On what you wrote, “Whatever we call it (and I still don’t have a word), it’s a virtue we all need now”, maybe I could suggest a name that just came to my mind: “Resultlessness”, parallel to what we call Selflessness.

    My way of reaching this truth that you speak of was by finding a healthy way to pass through (and not around) the negative feelings around me. Although ofcourse many more things helped, I believe this was crucial because when we let go for a long time, our body stops worrying that much after so much pain (controlled pain) and we cut-off a little from the results. The battle yet still remains and before I end this book I can’t say anything about success or failure. Not even when I’m done with it, although it will be a great day if it ever comes.

    Thank you for everything.

  14. Greg on April 1, 2020 at 10:20 am

    For a dose of leadership from a NYC hospital under siege check out “The Pandemic’s Most Powerful Writer Is a Surgeon” on the WSJ’s website.
    https://www.wsj.com/articles/coronavirus-emails-columbia-craig-smith-11585711804?mod=hp_lead_pos5

  15. Bill Evans on April 1, 2020 at 11:19 am

    Saw a recent sign in the Outer Banks: “Keep Calm and Carry Out” Just like Churchill might have said.

  16. Yvonne on April 1, 2020 at 12:04 pm

    As usual, the answer to my writing challenges are in Steven’s post! So grateful for this post. Since we’ve had to self-isolate, for the first time in my life, I’ve found myself not being able to write a word, not even being able to read. It’s a very unsettling feeling. I don’t know if it’s subconscious fear, resentment, anxiety, depression, or what, but for like the first ten days or so, I found myself paralyzed in any way that didn’t require operating on autopilot (in other words, anything other than doing laundry, housework, or cooking meals). I’ve slowly began pulling myself upward and while I’ve been working in other artistic mediums, still, the thought of reading and writing feels almost nauseating to me right now, and I don’t know why…I only know that my heart feels broken by this. I’m hoping as I work in the other artistic pursuits, this black cloud over my head will dissipate a little and I’ll at least have the desire. But perhaps it’s like Steven said–I just need to do the work, show up, even if it feels dry and unrewarding. Wishing everyone productivity, joy, and good health during these times. And thanks, Steven, for these posts…I don’t know what I’d do without your encouragement and advice.

  17. Andrew Lubin on April 1, 2020 at 1:03 pm

    So true Steve, and thanks for the piece. It’s all about doing the right thing for no other reason than that it’s the right thing. S/f

  18. Patrick Delgado on April 1, 2020 at 1:47 pm

    Thank you for encouraging words Steven!

    Like Dalai Lama said; “The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kind”.

    Doubt lurks along every step of the process….writing to say the least. But for some strange reason, in these times we currently are in, time seems to pass me by. The only place of true comfort and peace for me now, is by “escaping” into the realm of my imagination and storytelling. Like a Silent Warrior at the darkest before dawn!

    The first word for that comes to my mind of that type of virtue…is either OBLIGATION or SACRIFICE! An action with a duty and/or commitment = OBLIGATION / SACRIFICE. But to be honest, the topic covers so many aspects, that you could argue it has some BUSHIDO or IKIGAI spirit to it.

    For a benevolent mission of duty and commitment to yourself and others, there must be a resonance of a calling. A calling related to a gift or vision. A vision that requires OBLIGATION to something bigger than yourself, but with conviction and intention. There is no king or queen without SACRIFICE!

  19. Amy Martinsen on April 1, 2020 at 3:13 pm

    I needed this now…right this minute. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

  20. Jack on April 1, 2020 at 3:40 pm

    This article resonated with me a lot. I’ve really come around to this way of thinking lately, and your books have been instrumental in that process. A musician friend and I developed a concept called “rituals, not results” wherein we focus solely on what it is within our control to do, and not to concern ourselves with externals beyond our control. I have found this immensely liberating.

    As it applies to writers, what I can control is getting my words in every day, querying agents, polishing my manuscript, seeking feedback etc. What I can’t control is any agent taking me on as a client, selling enough books to make a living as a writer, people responding favourably to my work etc. There are things I can do to make those things more likely, or to help those things along, but I ultimately cannot control those outcomes – they don’t belong to me, in a sense. What does belong to me are the words I write, the things I have power over. Worrying about things outside of that, I’ve found, only leads to stress, anxiety and depression. Work becomes its own reward. I got back to why I love writing and why I started writing in the first place.

    I don’t think “rituals, not results” is the term you’re looking for, but I’ve found it to be a helpful way of condensing this philosophy into a handy little maxim. Thanks again for everything you do, Steve. Your books gave me the perspective that I needed to take writing seriously, to stop treating it as a hobby and to turn away from a shadow career that I was about to embark upon. You allowed me to give myself permission to write, and I will remain eternally grateful for that.

  21. Julio on April 1, 2020 at 4:03 pm

    If you did not make one single penny off your writing, would you still write?

    • Kati Reijonen on April 6, 2020 at 8:43 am

      Thank you Steven. Yes, just do it or if not it, at least something.

      This Pandemic has made me stop writing and do other things. Maybe writing wasnt my thing, after all, and maybe thats why I have struggled. My 3rd manuscript is still in the hands of the editor who doesnt like it and I dont know what to do about it… So I started a podcast instead (turns out Zoom is great for virtual interviews -the sound quality is superbe!) that I have been planning for a long time. I have recorded six interviews already and broadcasted two. And then I got the idea to ask 44 people to recite a verse of a famous Finnish poem by Eino Leino on a video. I will collect the videos into a Youtube. Its been fun! I dont know if I will continue writing one day but right now I just watch and marvel other people doing and saying beautiful things.

      Stay healthy and wash your hands <3

  22. Terry Weaver on April 1, 2020 at 4:26 pm

    Well said Steven, outstanding.
    S/F

  23. Kimberly J Frassett on April 7, 2020 at 8:30 am

    I have been a mother, a teacher and an entrepreneur and I know the word you are looking for. I taught my children and my students that the path to “freedom” is “self-government.” The degree that you can get up and get it done, determines the same degree of freedom you will experience in life. I told them that if they couldn’t manage their own schedule someone would come along and manage it for them, a drill Sargeant, a prison warden, a parent, a boss. All would be happy to micromanage their time. I think that is the word you are looking for. If you can get up and “keep buggering on” without anyone making you do it, then you have true everyday freedom.

    This is the secret to homeschooling, something many parents are finding themselves doing now. Can we or our children be trusted to educate and govern ourselves? Can we follow our interests in a disciplined way and make something productive of our minds and lives Can we be trusted with the freedom to be self-governed?

    Surprised by Joy, CS Lewis
    In the days when my father was out, I entered with complete satisfaction into a deeper solitude than I had ever known. The empty house, the empty silent rooms were the refreshing bath after the crowded noise of boarding school. I could read, write and draw to my heart’s content.

  24. Juma on April 11, 2020 at 9:07 am

    Maybe you are looking for “initiative.”

  25. Juma on April 11, 2020 at 9:17 am

    Looking again for fit, I read this and think “ No”. He means “community.”

    “We have to, now, maintain solidarity with our brothers and sisters in a crazy, solitary, self-distancing way.”

    A micro version would be military “unit-cohesion.” The true macro “community.” Commmunity as a motivating force is on track to grow over the 2-3 decades (fourth turning). I’ve noted in personal observation of millennials that it seems stronger on a micro-level. The pandemic may pull it much higher to a societal cohesion….

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  28. airgunmaniac on August 12, 2020 at 7:33 am

    Whatever we call it , it’s a virtue we all need now.

  29. Matthew A Carberry on September 8, 2020 at 7:17 pm

    Aristotle had it. “Kalon,” to exercise virtue for beauty’s sake. You perform an act virtuously, which should have a desired effect, which is desirous, but you “do it right” for the sake of its internal beauty, its “rightness,” and thus take pleasure in the doing, not the outcome.

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