I’ve had the good fortune to interview and work with many great storytellers over the last few years. J.D. Meier, program manager for Microsoft’s Patterns & Practices team, and author of the “Sources of Insight”blog, asked me what the most important lessons I’d learned from the high-profile “working” writers and storytellers … the ones who actually make a living doing it.
What follows is a 3-part series of hard-earned and learned lessons from some exceptional writers and storytellers. Who are they?
Steven Pressfield, screenwriter and international bestselling author of “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” “The War of Art,” “Killing Rommel,” “The Afghan Campaign,” and “The Virtues of War,” among many others.
Robert McKee, bestselling author of “STORY” the classic book that is the foundation of the Robert McKee STORY Seminar. For the last 15 years McKee’s Story Seminar has been the world’s premier writing class for over 50,000 screenwriters, filmmakers, TV writers, novelists, industry executives, actors, producers, directors, and playwrights.
Skip Press, author of “How to Write What You Want and Sell What You Write,” “The Idiot’s Guide to Screenwriting,” and over 20 other books.
All great writers, all successful – and all amazingly different. Worlds apart. But remarkably similar. Talk to any one of them and you walk away forever changed.
FIRST UP – STEVEN PRESSFIELD
Steven Pressfield has written or co-written 34 screenplays, and is the author of international bestsellers “The Legend of Bagger Vance” (also a movie), “Gates of Fire, An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae,” “Tide of War,” “The Afghan Campaign,” “Virtues of War” and “The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Creative Battles.” His most recent book is “Killing Rommel,” a WWII story.
THE WORKS OF STEVEN PRESSFIELD – ANIMOTORIZED
Mr. Pressfield is a graduate of Duke University and a former Marine. His books are in the curriculum at West Point, Annapolis and the Naval War College, as well as being on the Commandant’s Reading List for the Marine Corps. He lives in Los Angeles.
I first became aware of Steven – not from any of his famous books or movies – but because a writer friend of mine gave me his book “War of Art.” Anyone that has ever met me knows, “art” is not the first word that comes to mind when describing my reading fare. Not the first word, but maybe right after the last word. However, my friend was dogging me out for always spouting off about what a great book should be – short, clear, emotionally powerful, life-changing – and he said “War of Art” was right up there with my all-time favorite, Viktor Frankl’s “Search for Meaning.”
A SEARCH FOR WAR, ART AND MEANING
I didn’t believe it. I only read the “War of Art” so I could refute, belittle, and humiliate my well-meaning, but almost-always-wrong, friend about the absurd deficiencies of the book in comparison to “Search for Meaning.”
I read it.
I was wrong.
Completely. Utterly. Embarrassingly.
A REFRESHINGLY CURIOUS INTRODUCTION
But before we start, an introductory note. Steven Pressfield is one of the most accessible, professional, helpful, kindest and encouraging people I have ever met – and he’s a Hollywood-er? How is that possible? Regardless of his international fame, 34 screenplays, movies, and bestselling books, I think he’s been successful because he writes like he is. What he is. And he lives what he writes. Honest. Funny. Hopeful. Curious. Engaging. Intellectually astute. Inquisitive. Thoughtful. Gracious. Humble. He powerfully connects with readers. And he never gives up. His life story is as much an inspiration to me as any of his material successes. Steven also has that quiet confidence that comes from being a US Marine (by the way, US Military Policemen – ahem, like yours truly – have that same kind of demeanor, they’re just not Jarheads).
FIRST LESSON LEARNED: RESISTANCE. IT’S EVIL.
Resistance (with a capital “R”) is the intractable foe of all working writers and the death of most aspiring writers – and entrepreneurs, painters, astronauts, and <insert your dream>. How many of you reading this right now intend, “one day,” to write a book? A screenplay? A musical play? “‘One day” is your Resistance. It’s also the unrelenting foe of anyone wanting to achieve anything substantive in this life.
Resistance is a brutal, intangibly tangible force, an implacable foe. Evil. Toxic. It wants you dead. Or dying slowly so it can laugh at your plight. It wants to fling you and your misery down a slide of excremental face-food into a feces-iously foul slow death (try saying that fast three times).
How to define or identify “Resistance?”
“Instead of “The Force Be With You,” it’s “The Force Be Against You” anytime you try to achieve something positive. The self-sabotaging force we all seem to have. Resistance stops us from living our dreamed-of life. Resistance is particularly strong in creative and business people. The person that dreams of writing a great novel, starting a great business, losing weight or breaking away from corporate boredom to serve a greater cause, all struggle mightily with resistance.” – Steven Pressfield
Steven does a wonderful job of enumerating the evil tentacles of Resistance. What are the types of activities that awaken the sleeping giant of Resistance? Brings Resistance to its feet to slay your hopes and dreams? Here’s Steven’s list.
LESSON LEARNED TWO: THE “HOW TO AWAKEN RESISTANCE” LIST
1.) The pursuit of any calling in writing, painting, music, film, dance, or any creative art, however marginal or unconventional
2.) The launching of any entrepreneurial venture or enterprise, for profit or otherwise
3.) Any diet or health regimen
4.) Any program of spiritual advancement
5.) Any activity whose aim is tighter abdominals
6.) Any course or program designed to overcome an unwholesome habit or addiction
7.) Education of every kind
8.) Any act of political, moral, or ethical courage, including the decision to change for the better some unworthy pattern of thought or conduct in ourselves
9.) The undertaking of any enterprise or endeavor whose aim is to help others
10.) Any act that entails commitment of the heart
11.) The decision to get married, to have a child, or to weather a rocky patch in a relationship
12.) The taking of any principled stand in the face of potential reprisal
“Any act which disdains short-term gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity.Any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower. Any act of these types will elicit Resistance.” – Steven Pressfield
LESSON LEARNED THREE: THE RESISTANCE RULE OF THUMB
I learned what I already knew, but didn’t know I knew, from Steven. That Resistance is relentless. Resistance is destructive. Resistance is creative. It finds ways − reasonable ways − for you to avoid doing the very thing you should be doing. And, I found out there is a Resistance “rule of thumb.“
The Resistance Rule of Thumb:
The more important a call or an action is to our soul’s evolution, the more resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.
Steven derived the Resistance Rule of Thumb from years of practical experience.
It came from my life experiences. Lots of it. For example, I was a successful screenwriter in LA when the idea for “The Legend of Bagger Vance” came to me. As a book, not a screenplay. Remember I was a screenwriter. But not just any book … a book about golf. My first novel.
First novels usually take forever to get published and realize very little financial gain, if any. Not much chance of success there. Resistance fired up the fear engine. But … the Muse grabbed me. So I did it. And … it ended up being a bestseller, both commercially and critically acclaimed, and was later made into a movie.- Steven Pressfield
What are some of the ways the “Rule of Thumb” works?
Remember I said it’s evil? It’s toxic. Protean − a shape shifter. It can manifest itself in many ways. Depression. Despair. Alcohol and drug abuse.
Overeating or overindulging in any short-term pleasure at the expense of long-term positive growth. One way is rationalization.
Coming up with all kinds of reasons not to start. Waiting for your health to get better, the right moment, the right opportunity, the right partner, etc.
This leads to procrastination. Procrastination serves its devious agenda. Rationalize and procrastinate. They become bad habits.
– Steven Pressfield
LESSON LEARNED FOUR: THE GOOD NEWS
Resistance. It’s Evil. Toxic. Implacable. Intractable. But it only strikes in one direction. Down. Never up. Never. That’s good news. Resistance means you’re trying to do something worthwile.
“If you’re working to find a cure for a disease, or to eradicate poverty, and decide that you’d rather be driving a cab in Cincinnati, Resistance won’t stand in your way.” – Steven Pressfield
LESSON LEARNED FIVE: HOW TO OVERCOME RESISTANCE & PASSING ON PASSING AWAY AT THE SAME TIME
Face it. Know it. Know what you’re facing. Steven suggested to me that facing death is a good start. But it’s one of those starts I decided to pass on for a while. (I prefer to pass on passing away). But I asked him what he meant.
“Example: a woman finds out she is going to die of cancer in six months. She quits her job immediately. She goes to a hospice (or – insert any life-long dream here), and volunteers to help other dying people. She’d always dreamed of helping others. Everyone thinks she’s crazy, friends and family alike. But she’s happier than she’s ever been. And P.S. … her cancer goes into remission.”
“Remember Tom Laughlin? He starred in the movie “Billie Jack.” He now works with cancer patients. I heard him speak once, and he said (paraphrasing), The minute a person finds out they have cancer, everything changes. What was important seconds ago to them now no longer is. Everything changes.”
When it happens, people think back to unrealized dreams. Think back on their unfulfilled dreams of being a musician, painter, farmer, or dancer. Maybe cancer is caused by not following your path − your dreams − what you should have, or should be doing.” – Steven Pressfield
LESSON SIX: HOW TO TOTALLY DEFEAT RESISTANCE
It’s harder then you ever thought because it’s easier than you think. And there’s no magic to it. None. How do you defeat Resistance?
“By starting. There’s no magic in the answer. But there’s magic in the start. Wonderful things happen when you just do it. Mysterious things happen. Ideas pop up from nowhere. Happy accidents occur. People appear in your life at the very right time. It’s a beautiful thing.
It’s like tapping into this vast collection of creative possibilities just waiting to be discovered. Those possibilities are already out there. Right now. Waiting for you, or someone like you, to discover them.” – Steven Pressfield
Just start? That’s it? Sounds way too easy. That’s all there is to it? Well, not really. It involves the dreaded “W” word.
Work.The elephant in the room. All good things eventually require WORK. Damn it all! Is there no justice in this world? Can’t we just get a “Bailout” from work?
You can dream about getting around it. But – how’s that working out for you? I’m talking to you right now. You — the one reading this. How’s it working out? Really?
NUTS, BUTTS, AND BOLTS
The key, according to Steven Pressfield, the nuts and bolts of it, is sitting your butt in the chair and treating it like a professional job (if you’re a writer).
“Yes, just start. But you have to be a professional. Do it as a profession, not an avocation. Not a weekend warrior. Have a hard hat, hard-head, lunch-pail mentality. Think like a professional. It’s an attitude shift. Show up for work every day. Rain, sleet, snow, sunshine. Then work every day. It doesn’t matter that you haven’t collected a check yet. Just keep at it. The money will come. But be prepared for adversity, failures, and criticism along the way. It will come too.” – Steven Pressfield
Steven Pressfield always provides great examples. Sometimes they’re absolutely hilarious. Especially this one. I love it. It’s uplifting. Demoralizing. Inspiring. It demonstrates the great humility of the man. And it all sprung from a perceived colossal failure.
The first screenplay I had made into a movie was “King Kong Lives.” I thought it was going to be a box office smash. But … Variety magazine reviewed it like this, “We hope writers Steven Pressfield and Ronald Shusett are not their real names … for their parents’ sake.” I learned from it. Don’t take it personal. Move on.
When Steven told me that story, he laughed. What a review.
“We hope writers Steven Pressfield and Ronald Shusett are not their real names … for their parents’ sake.”
But the review missed the key point. Steven had successfully sold a screenplay, the movie was made and got distributed to theaters.
A colossal accomplishment that few human beings on this earth (and probably others) could ever claim.
HOW TO DO IT?
How does Steven Pressfield do it? The process, the nuts and bolts of writing, churning out thoughts, connecting the words with meaningful purpose to communicate the story? While at the same time valiantly beating back the red-hot, foul-smelling breath of resistance?
THE HARDEST PART – PUTTING ON YOUR BOOTS
I put my boots on to write. I say a prayer and invoke the Muse, as the ancient Greeks did, humbly asking for aid to open up the creative channels. Then I just do it. The hardest part is sitting down. I keep at it until I’m done for the day. It can be good … or bad. The main thing is to just do it. – Steven Pressfield.
LESSON OF – AND FOR – A LIFETIME
The most important concept I learned from Steven Pressfield – applicable to any endeavor in your life of business or the business of life – is this.
Each person is destined to do something specific that only they can do. Follow your inner voice; just do it. If you don’t, you’re not only hurting yourself, you’re hurting others by not helping to enrich our world. By not sharing your gift. Do it and don’t quit no matter what. – Steven Pressfield
Ralph Waldo Emerson summed it up long ago like this;
“None of us will ever accomplish anything excellent or commanding except when he listens to this whisper which is heard by him alone.”
SUMMARY OF LESSONS LEARNED
Resistance. It’s evil. Toxic. Intractable. Implacable. Resistance hates you. It wants to destroy and defeat your hopes, dreams, aspirations and the very essence of your soul. It’s amazingly successful because it’s insidious. Clever. Devious.
Resistance. It’s easily awakened. All you have to do is try to elevate your life or others. All you have to do to summon Resistance into your life is try to do something good. Try to serve a higher cause. Resistance hates good. It really despises great.
HOW TO OVERCOME?
Face your foe. Face Resistance. You already know it, don’t you? Acknowledge and welcome the chance to fight it. Stand up for your hopes, dreams, and aspirations.
WHERE TO START?
Right here. Right now. Do it. Don’t delay. Put your boots on. Go to work. Work like a professional. At whatever calling attracts your passionate interest and devotion. Don’t be a weekend warrior. Don’t say “I’ll do it tomorrow.”
THE HARDEST PART
Don’t dream about your ship coming in “someday.” Build the damn thing – sail it out, then sail it back in yourself. Do it. Don’t delay. Your time is running out. Everyone’s is. The earth you’re standing on is rotating through time at 1,038 mph at this very moment, and traveling around the sun at about 67,108 mph. How much time do you have really to tarry?
THE MOST IMPORTANT PART?
Each person is destined to do something specific that only they can do. Follow your inner voice; just do it. You were put here for a reason. Find it. Do it.
DON’T HURT OTHERS
If you don’t do what you’re put on this earth to do, you’re not only hurting yourself, your hurting others by not helping enrich our world.
By not sharing your gift. – Steven Pressfield
Do it. Start. Lace up the boots. Don’t quit. No matter what.
Pick up “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. It’s guaranteed to change your thinking … if you sit your butt down in a chair and put on the boots.
Visit Steven atSteven Pressfield.com or email him about his latest venture “It’s the Tribes, Stupid.”First chapter below.
Episode 1: “It’s the Tribes, Stupid”
Comparing Alexander the Great’s campaign in Afghanistan (330-327 BC) to our own wars today. Making the case that the enemy in our time is not Islamism or jihadism, but the same foe Alexander fought—tribalism.
Part 2 of this 3-part series will be about lessons learned from the illustrious, eclectic, charismatic, straight-shooting Robert McKee, author of the classic book STORY. Robert McKee literally wrote the book on STORY. .