“Just write the damn thing!”

Let’s get back to our “fighter pilot wisdom” series.

Flashing back to our friend, Israel Air Force ace (for shooting down five enemy planes) Giora Romm, let me paraphrase something he told me about fighter pilots in general.

There are some pilots in any squadron who are excellent fliers, undoubtedly brave in many air-to-air contexts, yet who in action will often loiter around the margins of an engagement rather than plunging aggressively into the fray. I witnessed this a number of times in confrontations with the enemy along the border. This is in wartime, remember. Certain pilots would stay on our side of the line and not cross over.

Wow. I had never thought of that. But hearing Giora tell it, I could believe that was a common phenomenon.

Air-to-air combat. Who’s who? What’s what?

It got me asking myself what the equivalent was in the writer’s world. I realized I had an answer, at least for me, immediately to hand—and on the very book I was interviewing Giora for.

When I got back from Israel after conducting interviews for The Lion’s Gate, I had almost five hundred hours of tape from about eighty interviewees—soldiers, tankers, and airmen who had fought in the Six Day War of 1967.

I took this responsibility very seriously. This was not fiction, where I could make stuff up or change the story to suit my own aims. This was real. I had to be absolutely true to what had factually happened.

I began transcribing the interviews. Each one took about a week. I was scrupulous. I was religious. I was painstaking.

I was loitering.

The realization hit me one day. There’s the enemy. There’s the engagement. And here I am, hanging back, flying in circles on the wrong side of the border.

I said to myself, “Just write the damn thing!”

Immediately all problems cleared up.

Resistance takes many forms, and one of them is the temptation to loiter around the margins of our book, our movie, our startup.

Giora, in our interview, went on to make a further point.

I don’t believe these pilots’ problem was lack of courage. The issue was that they were unsure of the contours of the problem. Planes were zooming this way and that. Who’s who? What’s going on? The pilots were hanging back, as if they were waiting for a photo to develop. Whereas other pilots (like me) were comfortable jumping in, even when we weren’t sure exactly what was going on. That’s airmanship—the ability to make a judgment based on minimal cues, sometimes even totally insufficient ones.

I was like those hanging-back pilots at that point in writing The Lion’s Gate. I peered at the work before me, and all I saw was confusion. I kept waiting for the picture to come into focus. But it never did. I could’ve spent a year transcribing interviews and been just as uncertain as I was at the start.

Sometimes you have to fly straight into the chaos.

Sometimes you have to tell yourself, “Just write the damn thing!”

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42 Comments

  1. Kelton Tobler on September 29, 2021 at 7:16 am

    Excellent advice, vividly illustrated. Just what I needed today. Thank you, Steven.

  2. Nick Sherman on September 29, 2021 at 7:23 am

    This gets me pumped up. I’m going in! Thank you Steve

  3. John Clarkson on September 29, 2021 at 7:30 am

    I am a huge fan of Mr. Pressfield. However, sometimes I fear that all his attention on Resistance, Resistance, Resistance simply feeds the beast. I believe that “Just write the damn think”, along with a cogent explanation about focusing on the “contours of the problem” is the best Pressfield attack on Resistance that he has ever offered.

    • Carla Kuhn on September 30, 2021 at 3:26 pm

      Thank you, John. Your sentiment about Mr. Pressfield is my own, too. I’m a huge admirer of his honesty and wisdom, rendered with deep personal investment and precision. However, you note that he may well be, at this point, feeding the beast. This is quite apt. There’s more to getting the damn thing written than managing one’s resistance or hierarchical self to allow the Muse to do her work. There’s the “self-edit” that comes to mind. It runs amok in the writing process, before thought transitions to physical ink on the page. Those who train to do, say, improv comedy are coached out of that habit. Perhaps easily dismissed as a form of resistance. Except, improv coaches see it much more expansively. I suspect there’s a vast terrain awaiting Mr. Pressfield’s skilled exploration.

  4. John Clarkson on September 29, 2021 at 7:31 am

    Sorry…thing, not think.

  5. Steven E. on September 29, 2021 at 7:37 am

    I recently read a very interesting book. On Killing by Dave Grossman. His research on battle dating back hundreds of years says that most soldiers never fire their weapons and that most of the killing is done by a few soldiers. He posits that some people, no matter how well trained and prepared for battle, are resistant to killing. This could be at play in your example. Worth a read.

    Resistance takes many forms.

    One more thing: I’m really enjoying A Man At Arms.

  6. Roy on September 29, 2021 at 7:37 am

    More great advice Steve. I’m going in right now

  7. Bill Corbett on September 29, 2021 at 7:42 am

    It is said the IDF doesn’t have any ‘good’ aviators. They get rid of them. They only have great ones.

    It’s from military aviation (John Boyd) that we get the OODA loop framework (Observe Orient Decide Act). It is this last element ‘Act’ that supersedes the three former ones. When it comes time to transition to the Just Do It stage, informed by the three previous stages, it is critical that inputs be executed with ruthless singleminded tenacity. Anything less invites failure.

    • Bruce Andis on September 29, 2021 at 9:38 am

      “[I]t is critical that inputs be executed with ruthless singleminded tenacity. Anything less invites failure.” Perhaps the best among a surfeit of good comments.

  8. Paul J Triller on September 29, 2021 at 7:44 am

    One of the best bits of encouragement a writer could ever want.
    Thank you.

  9. Christopher Perdue on September 29, 2021 at 8:00 am

    “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.” –Andy Dufresne, Shawsahnk Redemption

  10. Peter Brockwell on September 29, 2021 at 8:26 am

    OMG this is a deceptively profound piece from our guru. All I can think about is considering this at a meta level: how does this apply to the big picture of our lives? How much time do I spend ‘loitering’, ‘waiting for the picture to come into focus’ every day of my life? Too bloody much! (I’m channelling Jordan Peterson).

    Interestingly, once you plunge in all the worrying contingencies disappear and you’re just in the fray, getting on with it. A mundane example: I’m readying my house for sale, and each day sees me on my knees with a paint brush, a scourer or a screwdriver. And the task list grows every longer. But it’s really not stressful once I’ve put away the to-do list, spread the dust sheet, and opened the paint can.

    This is a sage insight for a creative endeavour, but also for the very living of our lives, perhaps.

    • Brian Nelson on September 29, 2021 at 9:25 am

      Well said. The way I’ve said it is that I think better on my feet. You don’t see that great bounce-pass into the paint (cannot think of an appropriate soccer metaphor…) in basketball from the stands. The option is only obvious to TR’s famous ‘man in the arena’.

      I’m not sure if ‘thinking’ is accurate–kind of a kinesthetic ‘figuring it out’ instead of pure, linear, rational thought.

      Action solves 95% of my problems. Just as I wrote that–I thought about how the other 5% of the time, action only makes things worse. Still, the safe bet is to act.
      bsn

    • Tolis Alexopoulos on October 3, 2021 at 12:59 pm

      Well said Peter, I really liked the phrase “I’m readying my house for sale, and each day sees me on my knees with a paint brush, a scourer or a screwdriver. And the task list grows every longer. But it’s really not stressful once I’ve put away the to-do list, spread the dust sheet, and opened the paint can.”

  11. Brad Graft on September 29, 2021 at 8:36 am

    I’m with Peter (and best to you on the house).
    Great post, Steve. Resistance hates it when we simply dive headfirst into the melee; momentum is not built dilly dallying about in the fringes.

    • Brian Nelson on September 29, 2021 at 9:27 am

      Brad,
      To quote GEN Patton, “A good plan violently executed is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”
      bsn

  12. KENNETH N PROUDFOOT on September 29, 2021 at 8:42 am

    Excellent insight. Real. I was wondering what it was I was doing/not doing on a writing project currently on my desk. I was waiting for an insight about the next step. You’re right that the next step is to jump in and just write. TY

    • Pamela Sue Johnson on September 29, 2021 at 9:21 am

      The fear of fucking it up paralyzes.

      Being willing to fuck it up anyway is what helps me the most as an artist to just paint the damn thing. It is what I teach my students :: be willing to make messy art. Let go of making it a perfect masterpiece and performance anxiety diminishes.

      This is Bird by Bird 101 on shitty first drafts.

      Just write the damn thing is right on time as I don’t always open your Writing Wednesdays but of course today I did as I decided this week to just write the damn thing and either it’ll be alright or it will be a mess, but it will be illuminating.

      One thing is for sure : if I don’t go after it I will never know how bad I could have fucked it up… or how epic I might have slayed it.

      So I’m writing the damn thing with a large dose of Let’s see how this goes.

      [Love your work!]

      • Yvonne on September 29, 2021 at 10:26 am

        Pamela, you articulated my problem very well!

  13. PennyH on September 29, 2021 at 9:07 am

    This is exactly how I have been feeling. This is exactly what I needed to hear today. Thank-you!

  14. Debra Myers on September 29, 2021 at 9:11 am

    Oh wow. I am totally dithering about sending my art to galleries to find representation thinking it needs to be better, more cohesive, always something more. Thank you for this.

    • Pamela Sue Johnson on September 29, 2021 at 9:27 am

      Hi Debra, I just peeked at your website. Love your work ! I’m following you now on IG. Love discovering new artists!

    • Lin Keeling on September 29, 2021 at 11:05 pm

      Debra–three words. Go for it! I love your work.

  15. Satu Oksanen on September 29, 2021 at 9:14 am

    Thank you! I will read this text every day until the damn thing is finished. I bbebieêe it won’t be long now…

  16. Brad Graft on September 29, 2021 at 9:28 am

    Pamela– I think you’d appreciate this… The Marine Corps has a reputation for a being a spit and polished outfit. A service known for detailed planning and 3″-thick “operation orders.”
    Yet to their credit, they teach their leaders early in the game: “A c-grade plan executed is better than an a-grade plan half drawn & sitting in the box.” The Corps encourages it’s leaders–at all levels– to error on the side of massive action– Now.

  17. Sam Luna on September 29, 2021 at 9:47 am

    In my head I call this “Eldin-ing,” a reference to Eldin the house painter from the TV show Murphy Brown. He never finished painting the interior of her house …. he’d stop, start, paint a mural, paint over it … I always thought it was hilarious. I have a family member who has been pursuing a PhD for 25 years, she’s Eldin-ing. I have a project that I’ve filled notebooks on with back stories, doodles (I call it ‘concept art’ to make it sound more productive)… I swear I’ll actually write the first draft, but I’m Eldin-ing it for now.. Even something as simple as learning how to get an ISBN number (takes 5 minutes online) can turn into weeks of research for me, much less writing a brief for a graphic artist to design my cover. It’s a comfortable (and comforting) place to live in, until suddenly it isn’t, and I think most creative people do it at some point, consciously or not.

    • Jeff Meister on September 29, 2021 at 11:33 am

      I wish I had something noteworthy to add, but I will say this. Many times I don’t read comments on a post. Sometimes I’ll take a quick scan… This time I read each and every comment and found gold in every one. And that says something when Steven’s post was a masterwork on its own merit. Thanks all for a massively valuable conversation. Now, go write the damn thing…

  18. Adam Schwartz on September 29, 2021 at 10:02 am

    The affirmation that gets me out of bed at 7:30 a.m. seven days a week and to my writing desk (still in pajamas) to write for three hours is a phrase that manual workers use here in Indiana: “Get ‘er done.” (Best said with an Indiana accent.)

    Nothing gets me moving like “Get ‘er done.”

  19. Yvonne on September 29, 2021 at 10:25 am

    I love this. Might have to hang a little note at my desk to “Just write the damn thing!” as a motivator when I find myself flying in circles. Thanks Steve!

  20. Alkan Oeztuerk on September 29, 2021 at 10:45 am

    This is literally a message that I needed today. I wasn’t opening up your emails for a couple of weeks. But now, in the middle of writing a book, I decided to check my emails. Saw your newsletter and clicked on the link.

    The message is clear. Thanks, Steven. Now let’s get back and just write the damn thing.

  21. Scott Mitchell on September 29, 2021 at 1:05 pm

    “I began transcribing the interviews. Each one took about a week. I was scrupulous. I was religious. I was painstaking.

    I was loitering.”

    That little beat alone was worth the price of admission. It goes to show how Resistance is more than willing to help you rationalize not writing the damn thing. While you are patting yourself on the back for being scrupulous, religious and painstaking, nothing is being written. And Resistance is standing behind you with that cold, amused smile.

  22. Maureen Anderson on September 29, 2021 at 2:04 pm
  23. Stephen S. Power on September 29, 2021 at 3:25 pm

    This reminds me of Heinlein’s Rules of Writing (which I have to imagine have been cited here before:

    You must write.
    You must finish what you start.
    You must refrain from rewriting (except to editorial demand).
    You must put it on the market.
    You must keep it on the market until sold.

    That’s basically it. That’s the life. My only addition would be to the third (which I’ve often seen put last because, presumably, rejections sometimes come with advice that’s worth taking before putting a story back on the market again): If a story’s been on the market for so long that you have in the meantime become a better writer, then let the new guy have a crack at it before it goes out again.

    I would bet that only 10% of people who say they want to write, actually write. I’d bet only 10% of them ever finish anything, good or bad. And only 10% of them send it out. If it’s rejected, I’d bet only 1% starts all over again. So just getting something to the SASE stage puts you in the .1% of aspirants, and getting past that first batch of rejects to work #2 puts you in truly rarified air. Which is heartening if you’re there already. Now it’s a war of attrition.

  24. Heidi Haaland on September 29, 2021 at 7:29 pm

    This is the best thing I’ve read in ages.

  25. Joan on September 30, 2021 at 7:59 am

    I’ll be damned if “damn” shouldn’t be “damned” in the phrase,“just write the damn thing.” Indeed, in focusing on the wrong use of a word, might I be walking around the swimming pool instead of diving in? 😗

  26. Renita C Wellman on September 30, 2021 at 10:12 am

    This also applies to podcasters. I have shared it with my podaster community. Thanks, Steve!

  27. Jurgen Strack on October 1, 2021 at 1:54 am

    Action always beats inaction.

  28. Tolis Alexopoulos on October 3, 2021 at 2:11 pm

    Thank you so much dear Steve, and all friends here.

    It’s really a hot point for me. I must look into that even closer, because although my progress is slow because of my “way”, my instincts tell me I’m not exactly in the wrong way. But I am sure that I need corrections, and you remind me that every time.

    I must also tell you about an audiobook that I’m listening to these days, titled “Deep work rules for focused success in a distracted world”. I think it is scientific based, and it gave me a few great insights. In case you haven’t read it yet, I think it will be of value to you.

    “Lock the target!” 😉

  29. Paulo Yvonny on October 4, 2021 at 4:03 am

    Excellent advice, with lots of examples. That’s just what I needed today. Thank you so much, Steven.

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