My All is Lost Moment

The year was 1980. I was living in New York and driving a taxicab. The short version is I finished Novel #3 and couldn’t sell it (much like Novels #1 and #2.)

I was thirty-seven years old. My entire life, from twenty-four on, had been devoted either to writing fiction, working so I could afford to write fiction, or running away from writing fiction. I thought now, “There’s no way I can put in another five years, saving money and then writing, to try to do Novel #4. I just don’t have it in me.”

My All Is Lost Moment was kinda like this guy’s.

That was not my only All Is Lost Moment up to that point, but it certainly was the biggest and the scariest. From GOVT CHEESE: A Memoir:

            For four days I’m seriously teetering. My cat has stopped going outside. He’s looking at me funny. Clearly he’s thinking, “How am I gonna clean up the mess after Steve blows his brains out? Or get him down from the hook when he hangs himself ?”

That’s the All Is Lost Moment. Here’s the Epiphanal Moment:

            Then at the fifth midnight I have a flash.
            Why don’t I try writing screenplays?
            I’ll move to LA. Why not? I’ve failed as a novelist. Why not go out there and fail as a screenwriter?
            My friend Jennifer has worked as an assistant to a Hollywood agent. I phone her at one in the morning.
            “You have to write a sample,” she says. “A screenplay on spec. No agent’s gonna take you on without something they can show around.”
            Next morning I’m standing in the dark outside Barnes & Noble waiting for the doors to open.
            I buy a $3.95 paperback, “How to Write a Screenplay.” 

All Is Lost Moments happen in real life, and they follow the same principles as All Is Lost Moments in books and movies.

Sometimes the answer to an All Is Lost Moment is to give up a dream that can never come true, at least not for the present moment. Sometimes the answer is to embrace reality, even if—especially if—that reality breaks your heart.

It was no small thing for me to give up on the dream of writing a novel. That was my whole fantasy identity. And I certainly had no illusions that I was going to set the town on fire in Tinseltown. But to drop back to an aspiration that was (slightly) more realistic at least gave me hope. I got me down from that hook on the ceiling.

My epiphany was like Rocky’s, “If I can only go the distance … “

Rocky’s breakthrough self-assessment was, “I might not be able to fight or box or compete on the championship level. But goddamit, I can take punishment. That, I can control. All I have to do is keep getting to my feet when they ring the bell for the next round.”

In my case, as it turned out (not without irony), my moving to Hollywood proved to be the step—fifteen years later–that finally helped me get a novel published.

That was my All Is Lost Moment. And my epiphany.

P.S. Signed hardcovers of “GOVT CHEESE: A Memoir” are still available here.

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

35 Comments

  1. Jackie on March 15, 2023 at 3:46 am

    Thanks Steve. It’s stories like this that get me off the floor to face the next round. I often revisit your books for inspiration. My next round involves learning something new too. May we all be able to say that we got back up and went the distance.

  2. Navy wife PhD on March 15, 2023 at 5:21 am

    Your memoir is great, Mr. Pressfield. I laughed. I cried. It is my favorite of all of your books!

  3. Brad Graft on March 15, 2023 at 5:27 am

    This line of Steve’s/Rocky’s is the unsexy truth, relevant for us all: “I might not be able to fight or box or compete on the championship level. But goddamit, I can take punishment. That, I can control. All I have to do is keep getting to my feet when they ring the bell for the next round.”

    That is writing. That is running businesses.

    Jackie– I read several of your essays. I send sincere good vibes to you in answering the “next round” in parenting the parents. Difficult, noble work…

    • Jackie on March 15, 2023 at 8:40 am

      Thanks Brad. A sense of humor doesn’t hurt the situation.

  4. Sam Luna on March 15, 2023 at 5:39 am

    This particular part of your memoir struck me as it’s the flipside of my own journey as a writer. I came of age when our version of aspiring to write  “The Great American Novel” was to make “The Great American Independent Film.” Begging, borrowing and stealing a few thousand bucks to go shoot a script you wrote in 2 weeks, somehow get it into a film festival like Sundance, and be anointed the Next Big Thing overnight. 

    I spent just shy of 20 years on this path, beginning with writing a film that we made for the price of a pair of used cars. It went to some small festivals, even won an award. And over the next 2 decades came so, so, SO close to making one for real money …. I once had a billionaire investor take me aside at a film premiere and whisper “I read your script … call my assistant Monday and let’s get you a check.” Many wine glass clinking moments with my wife: “I think this is it. I think it’s gonna happen this time.”

    Well it didn’t happen, for all the usual reasons and some not so usual: in one case, the producer went to jail for manslaughter and we lost the funding. In another, the actor died. 

    And that’s how I came to write books. Like you, I never expected to set the world on fire with this new venture, but it was maybe something I could do on my own. Without an oil tycoon, or a movie star, or the other 150 or so people that need to come together to make a film. Just me and my laptop. Alone. 

    It was a quiet, lonesome trip through a wilderness, and once I published it, there was really no going back.

  5. Stephanie Raffelock on March 15, 2023 at 5:45 am

    Government Cheese is not only an entertaining read, it’s a study in story arc and structure — a study in being brought to your knees in order to serve something greater. I’ve loved all these posts about being in the wilderness and the all is lost moment. I learn a lot from you, Steve, and I’m grateful for your blogs, your reels and your books. Thank you for all that you do for writers and for readers. Sign me a forever fan.

  6. Don Bonin on March 15, 2023 at 6:08 am

    Been really enjoying G.C. and frankly, I don’t want this one to end. But I know it must and I know I must get back to work. My signed copy is going to my 26 year old son. Thanks Steve!

  7. Terry Steiner on March 15, 2023 at 6:46 am

    Story telling like this is the richness that makes the reader hang on to every word!
    Thanks, Steve…….again

  8. Bryan on March 15, 2023 at 6:56 am

    Steve — it is hard to put into words how much your writing (such as this post) moves me and really touches my own soul.

    I had an All Is Lost moment over the weekend and your quote about it being better to be stomped in the arena by the bull rather than being in the stands or the parking lot allowed me to have an epiphanal moment — and realize that what happened, while seeming very painful on the surface, actually showed how much progress I have made in my life and career.

    And then this amazing post showed up in my email box this morning!

    I never thought of these things though in the way you present them — it adds a rich texture and philosophical underpinning to my life that was missing before I found your writing.

  9. Kate Stanton on March 15, 2023 at 8:15 am

    Gov. Cheese, is it cheesy for me to say you have a way with words? Thank you for these messages of hope each Wednesday. Creativity and the pursuit of one’s muse is all out war. The information, knowledge, wisdom, encouragement, comradery, and entertainment make me feel understood; I feel like I have found a tribe here 🙂

    It takes humility to share anecdotes such as this. Courage. With your risk, it is our gain. I salute you marine. For teaching us how to fight these battles. Much love to each and every one of you.

    Kate

    • Jackie on March 15, 2023 at 8:50 am

      Kate, read a good book you might want to check out. Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh is an older book, but I enjoyed it. She even mentions the wilderness. Might be worth a look.

      • Kate Stanton on March 15, 2023 at 9:42 am

        Thank you, Jackie! I just added it to my goodreads list.

  10. David Klimovich on March 15, 2023 at 8:23 am

    Mr. Pressfield,
    I have been a HVAC Service technician for 20 years now and my greatest accomplishment in life is finally find the one woman that would put up with my shit and give me what I always wanted and that is three beautiful kids! I am almost finish reading A man at arms and all I can say, that is an amazing book you wrote. I hope one day A Man at Arms becomes a movie!

    • Jackie on March 15, 2023 at 8:51 am

      I second that. Movie! Movie!

  11. BoZenBo on March 15, 2023 at 9:13 am

    I’ve been lost my whole life. I read so many different books and doom scroll on YouTube to try to find the answer. I started following you a while back not consistently but I get your emails and I read them. Today I came across your all is lost moment. One comment stood out to me. So what is my fantasy identification? That is something to write about. Thank you for your time and effort. I look forward to your next post

  12. Tolis Alexopoulos on March 15, 2023 at 11:49 am

    Thank you so much dear Steve,

    all your thoughts in this post ring to me like bells from “heavens” although “hell” of course squeezes them between the realities of my current everyday life which are so many to even count. So many paths ahead, which one to follow? I can’t answer because they all must be followed.

    I like what you wrote:
    “Next morning I’m standing in the dark outside Barnes & Noble waiting for the doors to open.
    I buy a $3.95 paperback, “How to Write a Screenplay.””

    That’s the story of my life. Maybe this happened a thousand times to me these last 18 years, maybe more. Not less. But all these were foundations, never actually fulfilled, but they were set up. x euros a great book, y euros another and another and another… a prologue, a chapter, notes, sometimes a whole book. Gaining the knowledge, using some aspects of it, forgetting it, and then again and again…

    And indeed right now I’m walking on these shadow roads. They came as an answer to my hope that I could at last finish my book.

    All is lost Moments.

    The Darkness that fiercely hides the light of the soul.

    If there is light where there are shadows, then there is shadow where there are lights.

    Let’s go! We have work to do. We must see ahead not one or two but 40 years, maybe eternity.

  13. Brian Nelson on March 15, 2023 at 5:02 pm

    I love how Tolis always writes “…dear Steve, or my dear Steve,” in his preamble. I feel the way he does–maybe it is the Mediterranean in him that permits such emoting…but I feel the same, especially after a post like today.

    I don’t know why it matters so much to me to know that Steve struggled for so long, and even after ‘making it’ is in the same fight everyday–BUT IT DOES. It softens my own pain. His openness allows me to reframe my own struggles.

    Oh Jackie–I do love your writing! Kate-your music/voice is beautiful. Sam! I had no idea you wanted to make movies. How freaking cool is that? What crazy roadblocks?!?

    Brad-I am nearly done with Chains and will get the 2nd book shortly. Now there are three Jarheads who write better than me!!!

    I have never considered myself an artist. Can’t draw. Can’t carry a tune if it had handles. Tone deaf. Not imaginative with stories–but I have often said that all human beings are athletes. As I read through the comments here, and think about how everyone has shared so openly over the years here–maybe to be human is also to be an artist.

    One thing I do know for certain, I am in a better place and often a better man after spending some time with my virtual friends and mentor(s) on Writing Wednesdays.
    bsn

  14. Brigade El Dorado on March 15, 2023 at 10:05 pm

    Overall, this article is a great source of inspiration for anyone who has experienced failure and feels discouraged. It shows that giving up on a dream might not be the only option and that sometimes a change in direction can lead to unexpected and positive outcomes. Great read!!!

  15. Sizwe on March 16, 2023 at 9:59 am

    the interesting thing about “going the distance “ is that if you don’t, You never know how far you could’ve gone if you didn’t raise the white flag but stayed for the final rounds. if you do go the distance, you always have a pestering thought somewhere at the back of your head that asks, “wouldn’t it be better to branch swing into something else?”

    This is a paradox I struggle with a lot when I am in that painful “all is lost” moment. any takes on this?

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