Tom Guinzburg saves my life

When I first submitted my manuscript for Gates of Fire, it was eight hundred pages long. It was as big as a Manhattan phone book. My agent, Sterling Lord, told me flat out, “Steve, I can’t sell this. You have to cut three hundred pages.”

Three hundred pages?

I was paralyzed. This was only my second book. I had no idea how to delete almost half of it and have it still work. I was shell-shocked; I fell into depression and despair. 

Then I got a note in the mail—a hand-written note on personal stationery. The note was from Tom Guinzburg, who was then the president of Viking Press, one of New York’s most prestigious publishing houses. Tom Guinzburg had been one of the founders of the Paris Review, along with George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen. He was literary royalty, light-years above a novice like me.

It turned out that my agent Sterling had a weekly lunch with Tom and Larry Hughes of Wm. Morrow and other big guns of the New York publishing world. At Sterling’s request, Tom had read the manuscript of Gates of Fire. His note to me said, among other kind things, “There is a first-rate novel in here. I am confident you will pull this off.”

When we commit, the universe responds

I can’t tell you how much that note meant to me. Tom Guinzburg barely knew me. There was no profit in it for him to reach out. He did it because he was a good guy with a generous heart. 

That note changed my life. I taped it to the screen of my eight-bit Kaypro and took courage from it every day of the six months it took me to get three hundred pages out of that manuscript.

When you and I put our ass where our heart wants to be, the universe responds. We change. We see ourselves differently. But others, sometimes those we are not aware of (and whom we have no idea are aware of us), see us differently too. They may come to our aid in ways we could never have predicted and by some word or act of kindness change everything.


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.

do the work book banner 1


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.



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.



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?"



  1. Tolis Alexopoulos on May 18, 2022 at 1:53 am

    Dear Steve, I couldn’t ever read a more hopeful passage than the one you just shared. I also saved the beautiful note you got from mr. Guinzburg, for luck. Yes, the universe has it’s good turns. And it seems to enclose them almost exclusively to those who put their ass on that chair even when the chair seems to have more creativity and energy than they do. Thankfully, the ass needs no mind to sit on that (black and discolored for me) chair.

    I myself have the great honor to be able to write to you, and to tell you about my dream, only by a caprice of luck -but then again no, it was far more than that. It was the “Light Side” of the universe. It is not unequal to the card you got back then.

    What is life, if not but a dance under the stars in tranquil nights, in order to call whatever forces of the sky wander aimlessly and seek refuge? And when the rain and the thunders come -they always do, and they stay too- and we get that pneumonia, we must remain there dancing even if we are as weak as an old (wo)man who can only dance holding their stick, having someone holding them by the arm to be able to walk.

    I wish a chair-week to everyone.

    • Kate Stanton on May 18, 2022 at 6:45 am

      Hi Tolis! I agree with you! Beautiful words. My physical ass isn’t where I want to be right now, but I often close my eyes and imagine when I will be there! Singing songs 🙂 Making music!

      And DAMN, Steve–I promise my eyes are watering from allergies (cough cough)…
      We need more people like Tom. <3 Those that intuitively sense when others need a lift. I appreciate you sharing this more than anything: "I was shell-shocked; I fell into depression and despair."
      As a fan of Carl Jung's research on shadow work, I know these moments pass. Let's bring the darkness to light! Crack it open! We all have each others' backs in this creative space…
      It's courageous to be vulnerable.

      • Tolis Alexopoulos on May 18, 2022 at 10:27 pm

        Hi Kate! You always affect me and the others with the creative energy that you hold inside. Stick by it, live by it, die by it.

        Can’t stop imagining you singing and creating on all “chairs” of the world: nature, home, with people who admire the music, in music halls, even for us. More than that, I know that your dream will bring you to places and situations that will far more than one field, they will bring you to the whole experience of life.

        Live it and control it all (=chair it down :D). No matter what <3

        • Kate Stanton on May 19, 2022 at 9:52 am

          I just copied your comment into my inspiration journal. I like to read it when I feel down. You’re a “Tom” today!! I want you to read every comment you sent me aloud and address it to yourself! Kind soul–truly successful people lift others this way.
          Have a productive beautiful weekend ahead dear Tolis!

          Stick by it, live by it, die by it. AMEN!

  2. williamwoodruff on May 18, 2022 at 3:57 am

    I have never read such a great passage before today. I came here with the expectation that I would get to read something different from the rest of the platform, and after reading “Tom Guinzburg saves my life”, I feel like I’ve got more than I expected.

  3. Jackie on May 18, 2022 at 4:41 am

    This post brought back wonder-filled memories of an experience I had in my own life. Thanks, Steve, for this post and the look back.

  4. Peter Brockwell on May 18, 2022 at 6:51 am

    Ahh, Steve this is very heartening. Thank you so much for caring enough about us, your friends, to share this note and tale. You’ve told it before, but oh I can keep hearing it indefinitely.

    I have a lot of temporary personal stress at home right now, and this is just what I needed to hear. There is always a way through the distress, if you just show the universe (the muses) that you will take the pain, laugh at it, and press on…

    Time for a quick cup of tea!


  5. Carl Blackburn on May 18, 2022 at 6:54 am

    If you put yourself in that chair and keep on keeping on doors will open ahead of you…Napoleon Hill in Think and Grow Rich put forth 17 laws of success…go the extra mile…definite chief goal…cosmic habit force…positive mental attitude are a few that apply. He states “What the mind can conceive and believe the mind can achieve.” It has worked and is working for me. All the best to each one of you.

  6. Ed Van Hooydonk on May 18, 2022 at 6:59 am

    Steven, thank you for this post. Man, it hit me right between the eyes today. I’ve been doubting if my ass is where my heart wants to be, and your note confirmed that yes, it’s in the right place. Thank you, sir.

  7. Frank Magistri on May 18, 2022 at 7:00 am

    “Putting my ass where my heart wants to be” And I’m sure that the universe will respond . Thank you for sharing your experiences and wisdom !!! Much Appreciated!!

  8. Pam on May 18, 2022 at 7:09 am

    “Is your ass where your heart wants to be?”

    This drew me in today. I am far from doing the kind of writing I was made to do, but I’ve come to see that my life’s journey to this point is the “stuff” that will become my writing someday. Today a lot if it is in my head, and I may wish I’d written more down. I have few journals and a lot of my heart has gone into emails and texts to my friends. I had thought for a while that perhaps these words have been squandered, in a way, some part of my inner treasure tossed to the wind, now irretrievable and therefore lost forever. Reading today’s post I felt the shell shock in my gut. Three hundred pages??!!! Why not ask me to cut off a limb? But then I see “…after you’ve finished pruning…” and I have a sense of clarity and community. It’s all a part of the process- words are but the medium, a piece of writing is a work fashioned out of clay. It can be molded and remolded, and is in a sense a living, continuing work of art. The creative process is intimate and there is vulnerablity in expression, even moreso in sharing with others. Pruning is painful but necessary to allow space for new growth! To be able to feel all of those emotions, even to perhaps sit with them a while, lean into the discomfort, and then still soldier forth to refine the work that is so connected to our inner being… wow… I feel my heart so validated, inspired, and challenged today in a way I was not expecting.

    Thank you.

  9. Julie Merrick on May 18, 2022 at 7:31 am

    Exactly why I wrote my little journal book about letter writing! Thank you for sharing this. Onward!

  10. Regina on May 18, 2022 at 8:18 am


  11. Ben on May 18, 2022 at 8:18 am

    Steve – love this. Interesting note about Sterling Lord, who I believe is still hanging in there at age 102, I didn’t know we shared the same hometown in southeast Iowa. I was milling around an old independent bookstore in Burlington one day on a visit home and came across his memoir. I’d never heard of him before, and it was a neat moment of serendipity. Layers of life to see he helped one of favorite authors.

  12. Dea Tennancour on May 18, 2022 at 8:20 am

    So appreciate this week’s inspiration and everyone’s words. The recognition of the shapeshifting amd vulnerability in continually putting your a** with your heart’s calling is a life path indeed, the path for creative living whether writing is the vehicle or not. I also love the books Steve recommends and continually get retrieved at the right moment before I continue on the path with despair – no to that, time for committed action! Best day to all….D.

  13. Maureen Anderson on May 18, 2022 at 10:26 am

    I love the whiplash-inducing move from “all is lost” to “there is a first-rate novel in here.” So relatable!

    When it was time to write the lead for my first book, I was paralyzed with fear. The lead. For a book! I imagined people opening it, reading the first sentence, and deciding whether to buy a copy based on that. My entire career depended on the sentence grabbing them so hard they couldn’t help but fork over the twenty-two ninety-five.

    That’s how it felt.

    “I think it’s great you’re afraid,” my friend said. Huh? “It shows you’re stretching yourself, that this challenge is worthy of you.” I’d never thought of fear that way, as a sign I was on the right track. A bit later, doing dishes, the lead came to me. When the subject of the book, Dick Beardsley, was growing up, he loved to hunt, fish, and trap — and would check his trap lines on the way to school. The book is written in first person, and the lead was going to be: “I was never the teacher’s pet, but I probably smelled like one.”

    It’s been twenty years, and that’s still my favorite lead. Staying the Course: A Runner’s Toughest Race doesn’t open with it, but that’s another story.

  14. Brian Nelson on May 18, 2022 at 12:39 pm

    I believe in things that are real, but cannot yet be measured or detected. Momentum in athletic contests. Serendipitous encounters with strangers. The contagiousness of nearly everything (moods, ideas, behaviors). Knowing something is wrong with a loved one who lives 1000 miles away.

    How does one measure the impact of one kind act?

    A friend of mine was telling me about a very dark period in his life, weapon in his hand ready to eat it. Scary. Desperate. His dog came in and sat on his lap. Saved his life. Who directed the dog?

    Kind words, encouragement, smiles, eye contact with a stranger. We have no idea of the dominoes that fall, or that were interrupted from falling when we act with love.

    Lately I’ve been thinking about courage, and how it might actually be the most important virtue. It enables all other virtues. To love is courageous. To create is courageous. To chose kindness is courage. To show up is courage. To be open is courageous.

    I did a sound bath a couple of weeks ago at my yoga studio. (yoga poses while singing bowls are struck). Seriously mystical experiences for me in 3 of 4 sound baths. Sacred geometry, visions, and insight have occurred much like a psychedelic experience.

    Had profound insight as to why an event we produce ( has gripped me so deeply this past decade. Finding my ‘why’ might be another way to look at it. I wept. I shook. I now understand why it matters to me so much when it is only a ‘simple little race’. Not saving lives. Not curing cancer. Not producing art that speaks to people…it is a brutal physical experience.

    The irony? Even with the profundity of an experience that left me understanding exactly why I do what I do–and how I know ‘truth’ of my intentions and the outcomes of our event–it felt like all the tumblers opened and I understand my deepest core values/philosophy of life. Could be made into a video. Could be a book. Could be a podcast topic…

    …but when I think about sharing this–I get SUPER nervous. Resistance off the top ropes!

    Great post, great comments. I find truth here.

    • Tolis on May 19, 2022 at 4:05 am

      Great comment Brian, thank you.

  15. Alex Petkas on May 18, 2022 at 6:06 pm

    There you go – Gates of Fire is an amazing novel. It’s hard for me to imagine adding anything to it to improve it!

    I suspect Steve has been “Mr. Guinzburg” to others many times over. It’s a virtuous cycle.

    Thanks for this!

  16. Joe Jansen on May 19, 2022 at 7:44 pm

    I, too, have encouraging words taped to the wall next to my desk, from writers I respect, and one who’s become a friend. The yellow highlights are fading, but I can read the words.

  17. Heather Miller on May 20, 2022 at 1:46 am

    It turned out that my agent Sterling had a weekly lunch with Tom and Larry Hughes of Wm. Morrow and other big guns of the New York publishing world. geometry dash

  18. Jurgen Strack on May 22, 2022 at 6:32 am

    Hey there,
    an interesting anecdote I have for you in keeping with Steve’s theme.
    I finished my first ever manuscript some months ago – a non-fiction book based on a bad experience I’ve had being bullied at work, followed by a lengthy legal battle. I gave it to several people to take a look at it. Two replied – one a NYT best-selling author who was complimentary saying mine is a good story, and recommending I add other people’s experiences with bad bosses to it. Another, a British agent, said I could be proud for finishing my first book and to go on a writing course to improve my skills as it’s not publishable in its present form – to be honest, the agent kind of ripped me apart over it, but I did ask for honestey. So my point is I felt “all is lost” to “there is not necessarily a first-rate novel in here.” So not so relatable, right. Where do I go from here?

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