When I was doing research in Israel for The Lion’s Gate, I spent hours and hours interviewing fighter pilots. I had never known any before; I had no conception of their unique and super-specific mindset, the way they were trained to think and to prepare for life-and-death missions in the sky. I was amazed. I found these airmen’s way of thinking not only fascinating but extremely applicable to the way you and I work as writers and artists.
I’m going to take the next few weeks on this blog to explore some of the parallels.
One point before we begin. The aviators I interviewed flew during the period around the Six Day War, i.e. the late 60s. Their world was old school. No computers. No satellites. No “fire and forget” missiles.
Air-to-air combat in their day was man-against-man, Red Baron, get-your-enemy-in-your-gunsights-and-shoot-him-down-before-he-shoots-you flying. In other words, a perfect parallel for what you and I do against the foes inside our own heads.
Let’s start this investigation with a passage from Giora Romm, who as a twenty-two-year-old lieutenant became the first fighter ace [shooting down five enemy planes] in the history of the Israel Air Force. The following comes from one of his interviews in The Lion’s Gate:
When I was fifteen, I applied for and was accepted into a new military boarding school associated with the Reali School in Haifa. The Reali School was the elite high school in Israel. The military school was a secondary school version of West Point. We attended classes at Reali in the morning and underwent our military training in the afternoon.
I don’t believe there is an institution in Israel today that can measure up to the standards of that school. Why did I want to go there? I wanted to test myself. At that time in Israel the ideal to which an individual aspired was inclusion as part of a “serving elite.” The best of the best were not motivated by money or fame. Their aim was to serve the nation, to sacrifice their lives if necessary. At the military boarding school, it was assumed that every graduate would volunteer for a fighting unit, the more elite the better. We studied, we played sports, we trekked. We hiked all over Israel. We were unbelievably strong physically. But what was even more powerful were the principles that the school hammered into our skulls.
First: Complete the mission.
The phrase in Hebrew is Dvekut baMesima.
Mesima is “mission”; dvekut means “glued to.” The mission is everything. At all costs, it must be carried through to completion. I remember running up the Snake Trail at Masada one summer at 110 degrees Fahrenheit with two of my classmates. Each of us would sooner have died than be the first to call, “Hey, slow down!”
When I first started writing, I could never complete anything. I would get to the finish line and choke. I’d quit. I’d blow the project up.
It took me years to face down these demons of self-destruction.
I wish I had known then Giora’s principle of dvekut ba mesima. I certainly think about it now before I start any new book, article, creative project, anything.
I set my mind at the start just the way Giora would before taking off in his Mirage IIIC or his F-4 Phantom.
Mesima is the mission.
Dvekut is” glued to.”
The mission is everything.
At all costs it must be carried through to completion.
On this idea of “completing the mission,” the thing that comes to mind is the topic of “recurring dreams.”
“Theorists suggest that these themes may be considered ‘scripts’ (Spoormaker, 2008) or perhaps ‘complexes’ (Freud 1950); as soon as your dream touches any aspect of the theme, the full script unfolds in completion.”(https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dream-factory/201411/whats-behind-your-recurring-dreams)
We have some objective to achieve, some story to tell (to ourselves or to others), some insight that is trying to work its way from the vast depths of our subconscious into this little sliver of light we recognize as our conscious mind. The dream comes at us again and again until we complete whatever the “mission” is (be it a project, novel, relationship thing, some element of personal development or growth). It’s not always the exact same dream scenario, either. The subconscious is sly:
“We’ve given him this dream every week for a year and he’s still not getting it.”
“Change it up. Bring his mother into it.”
Myself, I had long-running recurrent dreams about a troubled relationship. Once I resolved the relationship, the dreams stopped. The subconscious and its *dvekut ba mesima*, completing its mission.
Same deal, I reckon, for the stories, novels, song lyrics or melodies, scripts, pottery, sculptures, or business ideas that lurk in our subconscious (writing that in the singular, on purpose), waiting for us to get off our asses (plural, also on purpose), to complete our mission of bringing those things into this realm.
I’ll bring up one other example of someone “completing the mission.” Major Jim Gant is a retired Army special forces officer whose treatise “One Tribe at a Time” helped influence policy related to engaging with Afghan tribal leaders in our long war there (and was the subject of the Ann Scott Tyson book, “American Spartan”). Steve has written about Maj. Gant’s work for a dozen years in this space (site:stevenpressfield.com gant).
On the current American withdrawal from Afghanistan, Jim writes:
“My Afghan interpreter Ismail Khan and his brothers were critical to this dangerous mission. Ismail and his brothers worked for many years for US Special Forces and were known for their bravery and loyalty. They were like my eyes, ears and mouth. I owe my life to them. But as a result of their courageous work for the US military, their large family of 38 people in Afghanistan is now in danger of being killed by the Taliban.”
He’s now working to complete his mission, dvekut ba mesima, by pulling together resources to get the families of Ismail and his brothers out of there: https://www.gofundme.com/f/save-our-afghan-allies-from-the-taliban
I see that a number of us who frequent this Writing Wednesdays space have stepped up to help: Sam, Brad, Diana, Tolis, jj, and many “Anonymous” contributors who may be others of us who show up mid-week, every week.
For most of us, “completing the mission” is about losing 10 pounds or submitting a short story or finishing a new song. Jim Gant is living dvekut ba mesima, trying to save some lives.
Joel is in there, too.
Ahhh, I love when the world presents something that harmonizes or rhymes with the topic at hand. Following on to this string of “completing the mission ==> recurring dreams,” I opened Light Watkins’s “Daily Dose” mailer this morning:
“As Pema Chödrön once wrote, ‘Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.'”
Great post. Your recurring dreams remind me of the ‘Zeigarnek Effect’, those ear worm songs that we cannot get out of our heads…until it is complete. An example is when a waiter/waitress can remember exactly what everyone ordered…until he/she delivers the food. Then it is gone forever.
Jim Gant has been on my mind this week, thanks for the link. I’ll add my treasure.
B… thanks for the note on Zeigarnek Effect. I had to look it up: “… an activity that has been interrupted may be more readily recalled. It postulates that people remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.”
I wonder if Hemingway might have said, “That’s what I was I had in mind when I wrote”:
“I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”
Dear Joe thank you for your thoughts and calling,
what came to my mind while reading them is that after we take action on a sign of our dreams/fantasy and the dream stops (is fulfilled), I suppose that another aspect of ourselves, of infinity in a way, may pop up/reveal itself in our minds. It may be like an onion revealing a new layer every time we peel off the outer one, or a new dirty plate that reveals itself at the stack after we clean the plate on the top.
If this isn’t an adventure, I don’t know what is!!!
I’ve completed a lot of missions in my life, but nothing prepared me for the enormity of what it takes to write a novel. I’m going to get this sucker across the finish line, but it’s taken longer than I thought it would.
Apparently it always does Daniel.
Having the same experience as you.
Having lived the life for 30 years, Lion’s Gate’s passages on fighter pilots most delighted me. Thanks for doing that work with them, and I look forward to hearing more. But I do think warfare is still “old-school.” All those computers, satellites and “fire-and-forget” missiles are very useful but can never overcome people so focused on the mission they are willing to die in its cause.
The Lion’s Gate is right up there with Steve’s best work.
As a Firefighter/EMT nearing the end of my service life, I get asked a lot why do I still do this when so many I began with have moved on or begun retirement. Why push through sleeplessness, risk and all the things out there that could hurt or kill you? Why stay continually on alert even through “days off?”
Because of the mission. Because someone might be hurt, or worse if I don’t when I could have helped. That’s the mission. Even when that day comes I cannot see myself walking away, but doing what I can to help the next generations come behind me.
Now I have a phrase to sum it all up. Dvekut baMesima.
The arts we pursue and create, no matter what we do, make the world a better place, even if, at the time, in the middle of the fight or the middle of hard times, we cannot see it for ourselves.
Well written. It seems to me that those in the service lines of work: police, fire, EMS, medicine, military have the blessing of a powerful mission tied to their professional lives that escape other jobs.
I can see why you’re still at it. Meaning is everything.
I’m reading musician/actor/painter John Lurie’s memoir “The History of Bones.” The opening chapters are about spending his early youth getting high and wandering the country aimlessly before committing to mastering the saxophone and finding his own way of playing it. He writes: “Also, people always talk about talent. But really, of this I am quite certain: There is no such thing as talent, only cleaning the mirror.” He eventually gets so good at the saxophone he has to pretend he can’t really play that well so as not to appear unhip in the 70’s downtown NYC bohemian art scene, where most were merely posing as a musician. He was one of a select few who actually “completed the mission.”
Great post, Coach! I look forward to this series. And thanks for calling attention to Major Gant’s worthy charity.
Good quote, Sam. Makes me think of two from Stephen King:
“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”
““Talent is a dull knife that will cut nothing unless it is wielded with great force.”
Thanks, Steven. דבקות במשימה, indeed. It applies in all areas of life. Even the novel I’m writing.
Thank you so much for this, Steve–as usual, such a timely post for me. I was getting ready to quit just as my story is near completion…here is my sign to forge ahead and finish.
Great post, Steve, and great book!
Please note that a more accurate translation of the word ‘dvekut’ in the Hebrew phrase ‘Dvekut baMesima,’ is devotion, commitment, or dedication to the mission. ‘Dvekut’ does share the same root with the Hebrew for ‘glue’ (devek), so a more literal (if somewhat clunkier) English translation would be ‘adherence.’ An idiomatic translation of the phrase is single mindedness, doggedness, or persistence.
Pedantry aside, your post is just what I needed today. Thank you!
For those of us who are still alive and reading this post and these comments today, it’s bigger than our novels, than any of our writing, all of our writing. It is who we are at our core. What Mark Ryan said about his life really struck me. What a picture of inexplicable, tenacious service in this world. We do that spiritually, too, but it’s not as simple to picture and describe. I like being able to talk about this here.
Hear hear Mia!
I concur with Joe and Nathan. “The Lion’s Gate” is top shelf.
In future posts, I’m guessing Steve will concentrate on what he learned from those he interviewed, yet we should also note “The Lion’s Gate” as another example of Steve himself “walking the walk.”
Steve’s conduct in writing this book exemplifies “Dvekut baMesima.” I can tell you first hand how difficult/stressful it is to even get through security in Tel Aviv. I can’t imagine tracking Israel’s war heroes in-country, getting them to agree to interviews, and then thinking through sixty-three hours of questioning— before even starting to write a solid hybrid, between fiction and non-fiction.
No blowing smoke– but this was one helluva project. And on a deeper level– an answering to deep-rooted, hereditary calling.
You’ve done a lot of travel to the Middle East and Asia yourself, researching your books, aint’cha, Brad?
First time I started using Dropbox (cloud app) was after Steve talked about it ten years ago in this post about stuff he used while researching in Israel:
I’m always inspired by your content. I’m researching for my first novel, and inevitably the doubts are starting to creep in: Who do you think you are writing fiction? Just stick to non-fiction, it’s what you do…
I’m going to stay glued to my mission and complete my first novel!
Before opening this post, I was literally despairing over all the many (MANY!) partial bits and pieces I have written over the past ten years (and the many non-writing projects I have started and re-started and never completed). I’d declared myself ‘The Queen of Unfinished Projects’. Literally…just minutes before reading this post.
My father was a tail-gunner with the RAF during WWII. When he folded himself into the rear turret of that Lancaster, he had no choice BUT to complete the mission. It was literally do or die, with the odds stacked very much against him. When he and his class of 105 arrived (from Canada), they were told that only one in six would survive, and–indeed–only 17 returned home. Dad survived 40 bombing sorties over Nazi Germany.
After the war, he married, had a bunch of kids, and held down a successful career as a fire investigator (an interesting choice, considering Dresden haunted him throughout his life). And he drank. A lot. In 1977, at the age of 53, he quit the booze and at 58, he retired. He dedicated the rest of his life to veterans’ causes (completing HUGE projects, including an air show–meant to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII–that continued on for many years) and earning recognition for his work both locally and nationally.
And here I sit, conflicted over my half-written poems and stories, a hot mess of a memoir, cluttered closets, an unpainted kitchen and those last 15 lbs.
Kind of puts things into perspective, don’t it? I mean, it’s kind of a miracle that I am here at all. Living my privileged life. I’m 58 years old. I need to get busy!
Oh, Resistance! You crafty devil! You did not slay my father, and you will not slay me!
Lisa, your father sounds like he was quite a man.
Our wealth, comfort, safety, and prosperity can also be seen as our greatest curse. At the core, most of us want the path of least resistance. It seems to me we need to be pushed into life/death situations before we wake up. I re-listen to War of Art/Turning Pro, and Bagger Vance (I just LOVE this tale) semi-annually just to try to remember what matters.
Finish! You’ve got it in you. It is in your DNA.
“It seems to me we need to be pushed into life/death situations before we wake up.” Amen! I don’t believe every creator has to be the stock character “tortured artist”, but we are by nature ones that feel or think about things deeply. Life is full of the light and dark emotions. Keep going!!
Love it, love it, love it. I need to get the accurate pronunciation so I can add this to my list of power statements/mantras I keep in my head.
This is (again, how does SP seem to always know what I need?) serendipitously the exact right medicine at the exact right time. For me, ‘Dvekut baMesima’ is closely tied to attention and focus. This, from Peter walking on the water when he’s staring at Christ, but begins to sink the moment he notices the waves.
I’ve thought of this while playing pickle ball (which I call ‘Blue Collar Tennis’). When I watch the ball all the way to my paddle, I hit the shot I want to hit 7/10 times. My mistakes are almost always when I look to where I want to hit the ball before making contact. I also notice the times I begin to choke up–when my adversary rushes the net. I get a bit of the flight/fight/freeze in me–and react out of fear.
Since I’m a has-been jock, I can only understand things in sports metaphors before I really understand. I guess I’m more kinesthetic than cerebral.
Something else I’ve noticed over my life. Staying focused is where happiness exists for me. Terms like ‘finish strong’, ‘stay the course’ resonate with me. The debacle currently in AF is bringing so many mixed feelings to the fore–but the most clear is how that is the longest I’ve ever stayed ‘on target’ or ‘Dvekut baMesima’ in my life. It was a decade of life distilled into 15 months. Here is something most civilians might not believe: I laughed harder more days in combat than any stretch of time back home. Something about doing something so hard, so meaningful, so exhausting with men and women you love…it brings laughter and joy as well.
Thank you, Steve ☺️
Let me recommend James Salter’s works to the collective group about men, flying and life.
“The best of the best were not motivated by money or fame. Their aim was to serve the nation, to sacrifice their lives if necessary.” The ego must die for our soul to live out its purpose. Be glued to your mission for soul progression 🙂 I like it!!!
How difficult it is to never stop the action until completion! The dangers are twofold (or maybe many many more like you write at the War of Art): we may be tempted beautifully to be distracted, or face numerous obstacles. All ways lead to distraction! And as we get better, I suppose these obstacles get stronger too, because then we have more powers and thus more powers may be asked of us from the tentacles of resistance.
Yesterday I had a great bargaining adventure that could turn to be on my advantage. All day passed wonderfully with it, and after 12 hours of non stop work I was as energized as in the morning. On the other hand, every time I write the book, I can’t afford more than some hours and I feel no enjoyment at all (except of course this inner feeling of fulfillment that is subtle). Before yesterday, while preparing for yesterday, I had everyone around me act like crazy and creating very emotionally stressed environment, like they rampaged.
How crazy the world’s dynamics are!! Only by finding the way to be unstoppable we may reach the finish line… that moment…
Fantastic post! Thank you as ever.
Love this- complete the mission!!
You have a fascinating job when it comes to interviewing people. I am a beginning writer and I have learned literature at college, and now I write for https://edubirdie.com/examples/literature/ where students can access some samples for their papers. I want to obtain as much practice as possible. I hope next time, I will write my own book as you 🙂
Fantastic post! Thank you as ever.
To the group discussing men, aviation, and life in general, let me suggest James Salter’s writings.
Translation would be https://remarq.store/
adherence An idiomatic translation of the phrase is single mindedness doggedness or persistence.