Gen. Slim Gets it Together

I’m reading a book I love but that I would not recommend to anyone unless they’re as crazy as I am. The book is dense. Reading it is like hacking a trail through elephant grass.  But every page has some powerful insight for us writers and artists if we’ve got the patience to stick with it.

The book is Defeat Into Victory by Field Marshal Viscount William Slim. Ever heard of him? Nobody else has either. But he was one of the great fighting commanders of WWII. He was the British general who defeated the Japanese in Burma and India, after the fall of Manila and Rangoon, the Bataan Death March, and the defeat of virtually every Allied force in Southeast Asia.

A few [of the retreating British] managed to cross [the Sittang River] with their arms on rough rafts or petrol tins. Numbers were drowned; some were shot while crossing. By the afternoon of the 24th, all that had reached the west bank out of eight battalions … was under two thousand officers and men, with 550 rifles, 10 Bren guns, and twelve Tommy guns between them. Almost all were without boots, and most were reduced to their underwear.

Field Marshal Viscount William Slim

Our Writing Wednesdays post last week was about self-reflection. General Slim’s book is that principle put into action.

This was not the first, nor was it to be the last, time that I had taken over a situation that was not going too well. I knew the feeling of unease that comes first at such times, a sinking of the heart as the gloomy facts crowd in; then the glow of exhilaration as the brain grapples with problem after problem; lastly the tingling of the nerves and the lightening of the spirit, as the urge to get out and tackle the job takes hold. Experience had taught me, however, that before rushing into action it is advisable to get quite clearly fixed in mind what the object of it all is. I sat down to think out what our object should be.

You and I in our artistic endeavors have known defeat. Some of us live with it year after year. We know the way forward is inside us. But how do we access it? 

I had now an opportunity to sit down and think about what had happened. We had taken a thorough beating. We, the Allies, had been outmanoeuvred, outfought, outgeneraled … To our men, the jungle was a strange, fearsome place; moving and fighting in it was a nightmare. To the Japanese, it was a welcome means of concealment and surprise. Tactically we had been completely outclassed. The Japanese could—and did—do many things that we could not. 

In a Hollywood movie, the images we’d see would be bombs exploding and soldiers charging with fixed bayonets. But the true image (for you and me as well as for General Slim) was of a solitary individual—and in fact the only one in all the Allied forces—sitting down alone and thinking.

The only test of generalship is success, and I had succeeded in nothing I had attempted. Time and again I had tried to pass to the offensive and every time I had seen my house of cards fall down… we had been worsted, and we had paid the penalty—defeat. Defeat is bitter. Bitter to the common soldier, but trebly bitter to his general … He will remember the soldiers he sent into the attack that failed and who did not come back. He will recall the look in the eyes of the men who trusted him. “I have failed them,” he will say to himself, “and failed my country!” He will see himself for what he is—a defeated general. In a dark hour he will turn in upon himself and question the very foundations of his leadership and his manhood.

And then he must stop! He must shake off those regrets and stamp on them, as they claw at his will and his self-confidence. He must beat off those attacks he delivers upon himself, and cast out the doubts born of failure. Forget them, and remember only the lessons to be learnt from defeat—they are more than from victory.

I love books like Defeat Into Victory because they open a window into the mind—and mindset—of a solitary individual, no different from you and me, who faced incredible adversity and somehow overcame it. 

More next week about exactly what General Slim did to turn the tide.

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

27 Comments

  1. Peter Brockwell on December 29, 2021 at 1:36 am

    Fascinating. I’m reminded of King Leonidas as portrayed in Gates of Fire, and of the mindset of the LRDG as beautifully described in one of Steve’s JABs.

    Yes, this is a great point: ‘We know the way forward is inside us. But how do we access it?’ The means of getting back on track is in our hands. That’s both liberating and frightening. Steve does the work despite the fear. Do I? Often, no. I rationalise and find distraction activities. I do the urgent instead of the important.

    An aside: it’s interesting that General Slim’s use of the word ‘worsted’ is interchangeable with ‘bested’. Like ‘flammable’ and ‘inflammable’.

    • Joe on December 29, 2021 at 5:13 am

      I caught that, too (“worsted”), Peter. Like Slim didn’t even want to give himself the slight credit of “being bested.”

    • Richard Voda on December 30, 2021 at 3:17 am

      Hi Peter,

      Thanks for the powerfull qoute “do the urgent instead of the important”. Its amazing how powerful words can be. I suddenly realized that I have fallen being busy trap 🙂

  2. Joe Jansen on December 29, 2021 at 5:12 am

    I’m noticing the somatic quality of Slim’s thoughts and thought-process, how those processes present themselves as physical sensations.

    “…a sinking of the heart as the gloomy facts crowd in; then the glow of exhilaration as the brain grapples with problem after problem; lastly the tingling of the nerves and the lightening of the spirit, as the urge to get out and tackle the job takes hold.”

    We went to see one of the “immersive van Gogh” exhibitions (for the second time). This time, I made a point of photographing all the dozens of quotes they projected on the walls — from Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo, his sister Willamien, and to other artists and friends. One of the final quotes they showed was from one of Vincent’s letters to his sister. It seems on theme with this idea of sitting with the problem and waiting for the insights that will arrive when one does this.

    From a letter he wrote Willamien (or Wilhelmina) from the asylum at Saint-Rémy, France, where Vincent placed himself in May of 1889:

    “What can a person do when he thinks of all the things he cannot understand, but look at the fields of wheat… We, who live by bread, are we not ourselves very much like wheat… to be reaped when we are ripe?”

    • Brian Nelson on December 29, 2021 at 5:15 pm

      Joe,
      Great stuff! It always adds to my understanding when I read the connections you bring to this. Happy New Year my friend.
      bsn

      • Joe on December 30, 2021 at 8:13 am

        Likewise, B!

  3. Marvin Ginsberg on December 29, 2021 at 10:57 am

    Thank you Steven. This is perfect

  4. Renita on December 29, 2021 at 11:17 am

    Steve, I must be as crazy as you are. Reading these passages moves me to tears. I’ve never been near a battle but this is my story, too. Tears like these open the heart to face its own broken places. And heal.
    I have t written anything for a while but I am a always feeling like a writer. Bless you.

  5. Stuart Lloyd on December 29, 2021 at 12:05 pm

    i won’t deny I’m crazy! but I have a morbid fascination with WW2 and have recently read Defeat into Victory as part of my research for my new non-fiction war book set in Singapore. informed by some of your previous posts, Steven, on the power of the quiet reflective moment, i made sure to seek out the comments from my subjects that played to not just what they were doing but what was in their heads before, during and after any actions. this helped change the tone of the book from a shoot-em-up battle action book to something more akin a psyscho-thriller. thanks!

  6. Yvonne on December 29, 2021 at 12:29 pm

    So perfect–this is precisely why I look forward to every Wednesday! As a writer, I never would’ve looked at how a general thinks when everything is against him as a way to guide me through my own periods of defeat as a writer. General Slim lays out how overcome he feels, but then says, “And then he must stop! He must shake off those regrets and stamp on them, as they claw at his will and his self-confidence. He must beat off those attacks he delivers upon himself, and cast out the doubts born of failure. Forget them, and remember only the lessons to be learnt from defeat—they are more than from victory.” I really love that, and may post this by my writing area. Thanks, Steve!

  7. Zachary M. Peters on December 29, 2021 at 12:43 pm
  8. Jeff Schwisow on December 29, 2021 at 3:04 pm

    Such an important and timely post for the inner war that I have been waging for the last few months. It seems that all I can taste is that bitterness…all that I can see in the sleepless night is the look of disappointment and betrayal from those that have trusted me.

    But it is time to stop! It is time to shake off the regrets and doubts and stop the attacks that I’m delivering on myself. Because it’s in winning the battle within that I take the first step toward victories in the war with out.

    Thanks, Steven!

    • Brian Nelson on December 29, 2021 at 5:25 pm

      Jeff,
      Appreciate the candor! As Steve as shared innumerable times, you’re not alone in that fight.
      bsn

  9. Brian Nelson on December 29, 2021 at 5:13 pm

    As I read this post, and remembered the times I have sat down feeling the ‘sinking heart as the gloomy facts crowd in’, I felt a bit of shame. I’m looking out my window of a snowy landscape into the greenbelt (we live in a cul-de-sac with the greenbelt behind us) in a warm home with a cup of hot coffee…not in the steamy jungles of the South Pacific.

    If GEN Slim had the fortitude to reflect honestly in such dire circumstances, orders of magnitude more dire than I have ever faced–long enough to ‘fix the object in mind’–what is stopping me? One of my achilles heals is to rush headlong into the breach with the energy and enthusiasm the ‘lightening of spirit’ brings.

    I know I think on my feet, and learn on the go–but this passage is a great reminder that (quoting Stephen Covey) everything is created twice–first in the mind, then in the world. The greater fidelity I have on paper/in my mind–clarifying that object–the more likely I will be able to realize my goals in the material world.

    Great stuff. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy New Year to the Writing Wednesday’s tribe. We actually had a white Christmas up in the PNW–so darn beautiful it takes one’s breath away. Something I’ve noticed about snow: all of God’s creatures love the snow! Our dogs, cats, even birds it seems, revel in a joyful exuberance playing in snow. It is like the entire world becomes like a six year old child.
    bsn

  10. snow rider 3d on December 29, 2021 at 10:24 pm

    i was really suprise with your article! thanks so much for shaing!
    It helps me so much

  11. Tolis Alexopoulos on December 30, 2021 at 3:59 am

    Thank you dear Steve, it’s on it’s way. How I long to devour all those books! My son also does that. But since he is less than 1 year old, he devours their pages.. literally.

    But I never have enough time to read or analyze most of them. Too many times I steal some hours from writing my book to read the other ones, and I don’t feel good after that. It’s an interesting battle between Resistance’s levels – Level 1: writing the book vs. Level 2: writing books on development/writing etc. That is the case today, when I started reading another great book.

    I really liked the reason why to read this particular one.

    P.s. I saw the new Matrix movie. It touched me so much but at the same time it made me think. I felt that many great trilogies were continued with trilogies that didn’t have their power/influence over us. Star Wars and Lord of the Rings being two classic examples. When and why does this happen, that the same creator creates a work of art that is not at the same level with their previous ones? This question haunts me for a time now and I think it concerns all of us. I wish there was some written knowledge on the field.

    • Richard Ritenbaugh on December 30, 2021 at 1:54 pm

      I’m afraid this will come across as picky, but J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was written after The Hobbit. The fault in the cinematic trilogies lies with Director Peter Jackson, who stretched a single book oriented to young readers into a bloated and thoroughly unsatisfying three movies aimed at adult ticket-buyers. Professor Tolkien realized he could not top LOTR and scrapped his sequel to it after a few thousand words.

      • Tolis Alexopoulos on January 3, 2022 at 12:38 am

        Thank you very much for replying mr. Richard, indeed his second “basis”, the Hobbit book, was much more simple and written mostly for children. I have a feeling inside me that if he “wanted”, he could make a second great epic too, no matter what the circumstances. But this is just intuition. I guess there are mechanics, like the fact that one should “burn the bridges” and not try to copy scenes/dynamics from the previous trilogy (I remember mr. King writing, “when I try to innovate, it’s always, always more interesting and good in results), or the fact that for some strange reason (I think that happened to Matrix and The Lord of the Rings) many actors at the second trilogy were not as “shining” as the ones from the first. A third thought is about “frolic”: i.e. I found C3po and R2d2 very humorous at Star Wars 4-6 but that robot’s humor at Star Wars 1-3 very ostensible, pushed, kind of unnatural and thus inappropriate for the circumstances.

        In other words, a general feeling that after a great success, the creator would focus more on what had already succeeded, making it seem fake and ostensible at the second trilogy, instead of risking new paths to express a new trilogy. But that is just the first intuitive thought.

        • Tolis Alexopoulos on January 3, 2022 at 12:47 am

          *I wonder if there is an invisible, crucial analogy between leaving the force-field of a great success, and in general of the specific rules of writing or the specific rules of any art, but not going very far off from it that the whole core of it collapses.

        • Richard T. Ritenbaugh on January 5, 2022 at 7:23 am

          Yes, perhaps even the greatest of artists really have only one magnum opus in them (a thought embedded in the phrase itself). Everything after it—if they have the wherewithal to create something as epic again&mdashseems like an imitation and thus lesser.

  12. five nights at freddy's on January 2, 2022 at 6:48 am

    A good book. Thanks for recommending it to me. And maybe I’m crazy enough to read it :))

  13. Mark M. on January 18, 2022 at 7:12 am

    A fellow Marine recommended I read this book in order to augment my consulting work/approach. He was right! This book is a classic!
    Thanks for the excellent reminder!
    Semper Fi

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  16. Ricky on March 31, 2022 at 12:05 pm

    A great read and motivator. Thank you to Steven and all you guys.

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  18. dordle on October 23, 2022 at 8:23 pm

    It’s called “Defeat Into Victory” and it’s written by Field Marshal Viscount William Slim. Can you name him? We are also the only ones who have it. However, he was a brilliant military leader during World War II. After the collapse of Manila and Rangoon, the Bataan Death March, and the loss of almost all Allied forces in Southeast Asia, he was the British commander who ultimately triumphed against the Japanese in Burma and India.

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