What Business Are We In?

I heard a story about Steve Jobs. They say he used to roam the campus at Apple sometimes, poking his head into random offices and cubicles. He’d ask people, “What business are we in?” and listen attentively to whatever answer he got.

 Then he’d ask, “What business are we REALLY in?”

I love that. From the moment I heard it, I began incorporating it into my own process for working on a book.

I ask myself, first, “What is this novel (or piece of nonfiction) about?”

I let myself answer.

Then I ask, “What is it REALLY about?”

I’m trying to get to theme.

Deep theme.

Almost always, the answer to the second question will take me to a level well below consciousness, meaning the consciousness of the characters in the story (or of the reader’s consciousness if we’re talking about nonfiction.)

What is Game of Thrones really about?

What is Mare of Easttown really about?

What is Grand Theft Auto really about?

I imagine Steve Jobs was looking for an answer way beyond computers or smartphones or even tech in general. I think he wanted to hear something about human consciousness or the spiritual evolution of the species.

You and I as artists have to dig just as deeply.

To say that our story is about courage or honor or redemption is not enough. That may be what the piece is about. But it’s not what it’s REALLY about.

What is your story REALLY about?

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

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31 Comments

  1. David Moran on June 9, 2021 at 7:33 am

    For thirty years my world has been using therapy to help others clear their mind. I loved the work then decided to write books to help many. Thirty seven part completed books are in a a folder. Then a new idea comes to mind and off I go.
    The cycle has been happening for three years. Enough money to live on but that is it. Every time looking at a place to sell am hit with making them rich and keeping myself poor.
    Good therapist yet poor business man.
    Websites no longer working thanks to bored teenagers wrecking them and each taking weeks to rebuild

    • Brenda Ammon on June 9, 2021 at 8:59 am

      What’s your story really about? I am a coach. I am a thinking partner together with clients. I provide a container to grow inspiration and joy for real not based on acquired values but your own core values. [email protected] .

    • Renita on June 11, 2021 at 5:33 am

      David,
      You have stated what you are about: Good therapist. Poor businessman.
      As you know, depression is related to hopelessness.
      As a good therapist, what would your Self say to your ‘hopeless feeling’ self? You are in charge. Time to set yourself an appointment. Maybe.
      Renita

    • Kate Stanton on June 11, 2021 at 11:47 am

      Hi David!
      Perhaps part of your creative cycle requires periods of rest? Incubation. The big picture will prove you’ve been “working” the entire time. Don’t lose hope. Listen to your intuition. Your “why” is helping others through your writing. That is honorable.

  2. Michael Esser on June 9, 2021 at 7:47 am

    I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately because I’ve taken up again all the drama theories from Aristotle, Lessing, Freytag, Egri to Syd Field, Linda Seger, Robert McKee. They all ask, in a way, “What is it really about?”

    There are two approaches I’ve discovered so far. You look at a story from the outside in (these are Aristotle, Freytag, Egri).
    The other looks at it from the inside out. (that is the approach of Syd Field and everyone who comes after him)

    If you take Chinatown, a film that in my opinion is unsurpassed in its structural excellence:
    From the outside in, Chinatown is about: “Limitless greed leads to total destruction.”
    From the inside out, that is, if you look at it through the eyes of JJ Giites, it’s about, “If you want to regain your dignity, find (and accept) your true self.”

    As for Steve Jobs, if you look at his company in terms of the products it makes or from the outside-in, then the story is one of trying to build the perfect computer. If you try to look at it from the inside out, or, through the eyes of Steve Jobs, the aim is to search for the perfect seduction through the means of magic.

    Steve Jobs’ still unsurpassed achievement is that he gave a soul to a cold, technical device that does nothing but process a series of 0 and 1. He gave people the belief that they can change (improve) their lives by buying a computer, just as magicians made people believe in the effects of their magic potion in earlier times.

  3. Rob Ozborne on June 9, 2021 at 7:59 am

    What’s this post REALLY about?

    I think it’s easier to busy myself doing the to-do list than to pause and seriously consider what this is really about. If I start with that, I’ll likely pitch most of my to-dos and start doing my must-dos.

    Thanks, Steven.

  4. Susan Setteducato on June 9, 2021 at 8:36 am

    LUMINOUS is about hope.

  5. Nickolas Lane Sherman on June 9, 2021 at 9:23 am

    YES! Get underneath! To the deeeeep stuff.

  6. Peter Brockwell on June 9, 2021 at 9:28 am

    It’s a joy to see Steve warming again to the question of the theme, as he’s written some, at least for me, transformative posts in the past about theme, and his insight into this area is particularly profound. This post seems to me almost like the lead-in to a wonderful post about expanding your theme down six or seven layers, from, umm, I”m making this up…exile of one individual from his career/love/hometown, through successive generalisations to maybe….the human race having surrendered its dignity and future to the short-term gratification provided by technology. Damn, let me see if I can find that wonderful post (one of a series) from two or three years ago.

  7. Joe Jansen on June 9, 2021 at 10:02 am

    Simon Sinek had a good TEDx Talk (“Start with Why”) that hits some of these chords, and uses Apple (and by extension, the mind of Steve Jobs) as a central example.

    “People don’t buy *what* you do. They buy *why* you do it.”

    Communicating from the inside out… really hits on the primacy of “theme.”

    https://youtu.be/u4ZoJKF_VuA

    • Brian Nelson on June 9, 2021 at 6:22 pm

      Joe,
      I thought of the same book. What’s your why?
      bsn

      • Joe on June 10, 2021 at 11:05 am

        Brian… my why? I think maybe from the same impulse that comes when you see a flash of lightning and you look to the person next to you and say, “Did you SEE that??” Or spying some crimson/salmon/indigo sunset and yelling into the house, “You gotta get out here. Hurry!”

        • Mike on June 10, 2021 at 3:57 pm

          Joe, complete and utter tangent…. but the color “salmon” has always intrigued me.

          The color, itself, is of course beautiful and fits as a sunset alongside crimson and indigo – but the term seems at odds with that spirit.

          What’s the why behind that word choice, as opposed to, say, terracotta or some other close hue?

          • Joe on June 11, 2021 at 7:39 am

            Hey Mike. I blame Cormac McCarthy.



  8. Jane Appleby on June 9, 2021 at 10:21 am

    To me what it’s really about is that my art stirs up a spirit of joy to their work, as I find it does in mine. May the movements of colour connect to deeper levels in those who view it and move them to ponder the mysteries they may contain. Art is never only for ourselves.

  9. Tolis Alexopoulos on June 9, 2021 at 10:48 am

    That can be the great question dear Steven.

    The reason behind everything we do is our raw energy, perhaps the core of our existence. The big question is, (1) how do we get to the core? I think by pushing ourselves to ask that question again and again every time we answer it, and (2) once we come close to the core, then what should we do? I mean, everyday life has always a way to distract us. We simply have to remember so many things that even if we find our core energy, we don’t filter our every action through it, do we? So I wonder what do we do.

    The certain thing is that we can feel it in our guts, that in that core is there the potential to equate our dream life and our real life. And that core feels deep, quite deep, but we also feel desperate sometimes with such a force inside that can’t be harnessed as easily as it can be felt.

  10. Maureen Anderson on June 9, 2021 at 11:27 am

    I alternate between thinking I should have my (life’s) story figured out by now, and realizing what a waste of time that is. To decide in advance what my life will have meant? I’m missing a sunset for that?

    • Brian Nelson on June 9, 2021 at 6:28 pm

      Maureen,
      I like it. I often reflect that when I was a kid/high schooler–I’d look at adults thinking, “They’ve got it all figured out (except my own folks of course, and some of my cognitively challenged teachers)”

      Then you get to 25, 35, 45..wonder, uh, so when is it all easy and obvious? While I now fully believe there is no there there–I have gotten a bit closer to at least understanding some of my own “REALLY ABOUT”. Closer mind you.

      Some of this heady stuff can pull us out of the present for sure–I like the early mornings by myself for this type of thinking.
      bsn

    • Mike on June 10, 2021 at 3:59 pm

      Maureen,

      I’m of a conviction that one can be either the singer or the song behind one’s own life.

      If you have that story all figured out, you’re not truly living it.

      • Maureen Anderson on June 10, 2021 at 4:20 pm

        That’s beautiful, Mike.

        As a young woman I once congratulated myself on surrendering to the unknown. “Not that I had a choice,” I quickly realized. “The unknown’s kind of in charge that way.”

        It’s as if I we have to keep reminding ourselves what makes us love any other story — not knowing how it turns out!

  11. Chuck DeBettignies on June 9, 2021 at 3:03 pm

    In Steve’s book “Do The Work” (p. 26) he mentions something that I wrote down and refer to often.

    He said,

    “Here’s a trick that screenwriters use: work backwards. Begin at the finish.

    If you’re writing a movie, solve the climax first. If you’re opening a restaurant, begin with the experience you want the diner to have when she walks and enjoys a meal. If you’re preparing a seduction, determine the state of mind you want the process of romancing to bring your lover to.

    Figure out where you want to go; then work backwards from there.

    Yes, you say.’But how do I know where I want to go?’

    Answer the question “What is this all about?'”

    I’ve just found this passage so useful to refer back to when writing. It gets me grounded and back on track.

  12. Brian Nelson on June 9, 2021 at 7:23 pm

    Yesterday I had an interesting call from a young woman separating from the Air Force this fall. I think it speaks to Steve’s post. She had a host of questions–what is the transition like, how do you find your passion, how do you work personal branding, how to find one’s mission…She had reached out on LinkedIn with these whopper of questions.

    She was super earnest–and I had to laugh (inside) about the personal branding. A GenZ/Millennial asking a GenXer about social media. Uh, Samy I’ve been on Facebook about 6 times this year–and what is Instagram again?

    While we were talking about passion/mission etc–it sounded a bit like “REALLY ABOUT”.

    What helped me figure this out was to think back about what were my behaviors saying. I was thinking about this in terms of leadership–and finally trying to articulate how I had behaved for 20+ years. We act it out before we really understand what we believe, how to say it out loud. After about 6-7 months, it came to me. That is now my signature block instead of quoting someone else.

    That might be a way to look at writing. What are the behaviors the characters are saying by their actions? What is the environment saying? What isn’t said?

    Not a writer, but it seems to me this is how I would try to answer the “REALLY ABOUT”.
    bsn

    • Kate Stanton on June 10, 2021 at 10:25 am

      “What isn’t said?” Yes! Rumi said to listen to the silence. There’s plenty to learn from what is unsaid. Great conversations going on today.

      • Joe on June 10, 2021 at 12:16 pm

        I like this Rumi quote: “Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?” His full name is like a poem: Jalāl ad-Dīn Mohammad Rūmī

        Speaking of Sufis, I was editing an author’s novel of historical fiction, set amongst 13th-century Islamic horse warriors (he knows who he is). I put on this music just to get my head in the period (Persian singer Homayoun Shajarian)…

        https://youtu.be/eh-jw62Vxg0

        • Kate Stanton on June 11, 2021 at 10:48 am

          Persian. The language of poets! Beautiful music, Joe! I enjoyed listening.

  13. Renita on June 11, 2021 at 5:36 am

    Steve,
    Thank you!
    When we write we are offering meaning systems created out of nowhere and out of our Selves.
    As people (including our little selves) evolve, we are always seeking new meaning systems to make sense of the world. This never stops. There will always be a reason to write. There will always be a need in the world for our next articulation. Such a wonderful thought!
    Renita

  14. Jurgen Strack on June 12, 2021 at 4:05 am

    Hey folks!
    I enjoyed reading your comments.
    And, good job, Steve! 🙂

    You could equally ask, I guess, what’s life really about?
    It seems to be we humans ‘seek meaning’, doesn’t it?

    The late author Kurt Vonnegut wrote,
    “We’re on earth just to fart around, don’t let anyone tell you any different.” Lol.

    I’m (still) in the process of writing my debut non-fiction book. I love it.
    But, what is it about? It’s about Workplace-Bullying.
    What is it Really about? By telling my story I set myself free.
    What is it really, really about? Trying to help others, I guess.

    Have a great weekend.
    See ya.
    Jurgen

    • Kate Stanton on June 14, 2021 at 6:38 am

      Hi Jurgen,
      It’s always fascinated me why it is so hard for bystanders to step up and publicly support someone who’s being bullied? I’m curious to hear more about your book. In my experience, bystanders did more harm than the one bullying. I suppose I expected more out of them and was let down? I’d be curious to hear more about your book!

      Kate

  15. techfire on June 13, 2021 at 10:02 pm

    That’s really nic

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