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I'm super excited to bring you this interview with Steven Pressfield, who has been one of my ‘virtual' mentors for many years through his books and his blog. I'm definitely a fan girl! We talk about Israel and his latest book on the Six Day War, The Lion's Gate – and we also go into the Resistance and some of his tips for writers around habits and mindset.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Steven Pressfield is the author of screenplays including The Legend of Bagger Vance, novels around the classical wars of ancient Greece and modern warfare like Gates of Fire, and non-fiction works including The War of Art and Turning Pro, which I know are on the desks of many writers listening. His latest book is ‘The Lion's Gate,' a hybrid history of the Six Day War.
I've split the interview into two on video: you can watch our discussion about The Lions' Gate here, and another on tips for writers here. You can also listen to the audio above or on the podcast feed on iTunes or Stitcher, or read the transcription below. In the interview, we discuss:
- A brief overview of the Six Day War and the events that feature in ‘The Lion's Gate' as well as why Steven wanted to tell this story, after many years of writing books around classical wars
- The concept of ‘en brera.‘ Why the Israelis had ‘no alternative' at that time and perhaps, still don't?
- Our mutual love for the country of Israel, and the places that particularly resonated with Steven
- Why Steven chose to tell the history in the first person POV, and his interview research technique, plus using the techniques of fiction in writing narrative non-fiction
- “The Lion's Gate' as the book Steven has been avoiding writing, and how resistance manifested during its creation
- I have a quote by Steven from The War of Art on the pinboard by my desk. “On the field of the self stand a knight and a dragon. You are the knight. Resistance is the dragon. The battle must be fought anew every day.” How we can fight resistance as authors.
- How spirituality plays a part in Steven's writing life and books, including his prayer to the Muse
- From Turning Pro, “The difference between an amateur and a pro is in their habits.” The habits of a pro writer and the discipline to keep to the path.
- Defining success as a writer– after multi-million books sold, being on Oprah, movie hits and more. ‘You have the right to your labor, not the fruits of your labor.' It's not about the rewards of writing, it's about the writing itself. How it took 10 years for ‘The War of Art' to find its audience.
- On comparisonitis. Getting a handle on jealousy.
- Balancing the demands of ego against fear and self-doubt – and how to stop self-censorship.
- Mental toughness and being a warrior as a writer. This is not easy work. It's a battle, and mostly, you're on your own.
- Thoughts on the changing world of publishing
- You can find lots more about Steven's writing process in his FAQ here
You can find Steven at StevenPressfield.com and also BlackIrishBooks. You can find The Lion's Gate on Amazon here.
Transcription: Interview with Steven Pressfield
Joanna: Hi everyone. I’m Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com, and today I am super-excited, because I have an interview with Steven Pressfield. Steven’s latest book is “The Lion’s Gate,” and we’ll be talking all about Israel. But I’ve been a fan for many years, and I have some of his other books here, “Turning Pro” and “Do the Work” and he also wrote “The War of Art” and lots of fiction, and I’m just thrilled to be able to interview him today.
I would say that Steven is probably one of those people who is a mentor to me as a writer, in terms of the fact that I’ve been reading his blog for years, I’ve read all his books, I am definitely a fangirl, that definitely comes across in the interview. Without further ado, here’s the interview with Steven Pressfield.
Joanna: Hi, Steven, and welcome to the show!
Steven: Hi, Joanna, thank you for having me, it’s a pleasure to meet you in Skype, after all these years.
Joanna: Yes, you too.
So, for anyone who doesn’t know you, perhaps you could give us a brief overview of your writing career, just to put this new book, “The Lion’s Gate,” into context.
Steven: I was a screen writer for years, and then around 1995, I think, I started writing novels. And I’ve written a number of kind of war-themed books, “Gates of Fire” was about the three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae, and I’ve done five or six other Hellenic war stories about Alexander the Great, about Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War, and I’ve written about the Brits, about you guys, in World War Two, in the North Africa campaign.
And then one day it just kind of hit me, about three or four years ago, I said to myself, “Steve, you’ve written about all these other people but never about your own people, so why don’t you?” and the Six-Day War was an important event in my life, you know, in America, and an incredible story, that I would rank with the great, with Trafalgar or anything. So that was why I wanted to do this.
Joanna: And then, for anyone who doesn’t necessarily know about the Six-Day War, because I guess it was a while ago now …
Could you just give us a brief overview of the events that happen in “The Lion’s Gate”?
Steven: OK. In 1967, Egypt had a President named Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was probably the greatest and most charismatic leader that any Arab nation has had. And he saw himself as the epicenter of a pan-Arabic movement. He envisioned a state of single Arab states from the Atlantic, all the way to Afghanistan, with himself at the head. And at the time, that seemed quite believable, because when he would make his speeches, they would be cheered just as much in Baghdad and Damascus as they were in Cairo.
So, anyway, for reasons known only to himself, he began really rattling sabres around the area in 1967, moved a thousand tanks and some men across Sinai to the borders of Israel. And Syria was with him, and Jordan signed a pact, King Hussein signed a pact, and it was kind of an existential moment for Israel, where one of the soldiers that I interviewed over there was telling me that that song by The Doors, The End was popular then, if you remember that, if you remember a verse from that song, “This is the end, my friend, this is the end,” and the soldier said that was what it really very much felt like.
And so, Israel, with their backs to the wall, launched a pre-emptive strike against Egypt, an air strike. And six days later, the tables had completely turned, Israel had utterly trounced the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian military forces and changed the entire balance of power in the Middle East, and captured the West Bank, captured the old city of Jerusalem, captured the Sinai Desert and the Golan Heights. And all of these kind of things that you see going on now, the troubles, spring from that particular era in the Middle East, when the borders all changed.
Joanna: It’s such a dramatic story, and in the book, you, you’ve taken these interviews and turned them into something a lot more personal.
Maybe you could talk a little bit about your research process and what that meant to you.
Steven: OK, that’s a great question, Joanna. Now, before this, I’d always written novels, historical fiction, where, as you know, you get to make things up, and if you have a part of the story that doesn’t work, well, you just write a scene and ta-da. But in this case, that absolutely couldn’t work, because the history was still there. So I went over to Israel, and I got to interviewing 67 or something veterans, fighter pilots, tankers, men and women, and I had 400 hours of interviews.
What I learned from this process as a writer is that non-fiction is fiction, in the sense that, I don’t mean that you can make anything up, but in non-fiction, you have to go by the rules of storytelling. This was narrative non-fiction. So, in other words, I put it together, as an artist would put it together, and moved one interview here and one interview there, and cut this and cut that, to tell a whole story with recurring characters, where in Chapter One, you meet “Cheetah” Cohen, and he tells you his story about him and his brother, and then he comes back in Chapter Eleven, and is woven in and out the story, and the same with a lot of the other characters. And a bunch of the characters know each other, so their stories kind of intersect. I hope that explains it a little bit.
Joanna: It does, and what, I think what’s interesting, because you have a mixture of older and younger characters, and women and men, and different levels.
How did you choose the people to feature specifically?
Steven: I didn’t, I knew I wasn’t going to try to tell the whole, comprehensive story of everything that happened. What I wanted to do was a little bit like Saving Private Ryan, or Black Hawk Down: just focus on three or four units, and just pick a few people in those units, and then follow them. And the emotional climax of the war was when the Israeli paratroopers reached the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall. So, I knew I wanted to talk to those guys. I wanted to find the first guys that got to the Western Wall. So I went for them. And then, I also wanted to be with whoever the first Israelis were to get to the Suez Canal, going across the Sinai Desert. With luck and other things, I found them. And then I also wanted to find one squadron in the Air Force that led an attack, so that was kind of it.
And then serendipity came in, of course, and one person introduces you to another and so on and so forth. And I had a friend, named Danny Grossman, a retired Israeli Air Force Lieutenant-Colonel, who knows everybody – everybody knows everybody in Israel, I never knew that, so he really helped me get in, made a lot of phone calls, introduced me to people. Without him, I could have never done it.
Joanna: I think what obviously runs through the book, and through much of history, I guess, is this theme of triumph and winning, but also great loss, on, on both sides.
How did you get the balance right between winning the war but equally the on-going battle, and also the loss of life?
Steven: It’s funny, Joanna, when I started out, and before I talked to everybody, I really didn’t know what the casualty situation would be, and then, as it began to unfold naturally, a lot of people got killed, and the people I was speaking to – I mean, on the Israeli side, and on the Egyptian side and the Jordanian too, but I was doing it entirely from the Israeli side–the people that I talked to felt the loss of their friends very deeply, and it was very much a part of the story, and they would keep telling me.
Like, for instance, one central character in the story is a guy named “Cheetah” Cohen, who was a helicopter pilot, and his younger brother, Nechemiah, was the most decorated soldier in the Israeli Army. And he was killed on the first day of the war. When I started talking to Cheetah, that became a huge thread of the story, because one of the things—I know you know this—was when Nechemiah was killed, a decision was made not to tell Cheetah, not to tell his brother; this was the first day of the war, because they thought it would upset him, he was too valuable a person, being a Helicopter Squadron Commander. So they kept it from him all through the war, and then he found on the final day, when the, the mood was jubilation and victory, he found out he’d lost his brother. So that was a big, big part of the story, that kind of organically evolved.
Joanna: Yes, and you’ve been blogging about this at StevenPressfield.com, and one of the things you talked about is the concept and I hope I’m pronouncing this right, of en brera.
Steven: Got it, very good.
Joanna: My husband is Jewish, so I try and get a bit of Hebrew pronunciation in!
But, but why did the Israelis have no alternative, which is what the phrase means, for everyone else, and perhaps still don’t necessarily have an alternative?
Steven: That’s another great question. And the answer really is geography. One of the things that really amazed me when I went over there—this was the first time I’d ever been to Israel—was how small it is over there, as you well know. I remember reading before I went there, in Yael Dayan’s book, Moshe Dayan’s daughter, she was on the front lines in Sinai just before the war, with Sharon’s division, and she had a chance to go home, so she just drove home: in two hours she was home.
Israel Tal was one of the great Armored Division Commanders and when he was giving a speech to his troops, he said, “Other nations can afford to lose the first battle and still recover and, and win a war, but we can’t, because the distances are so small. If we lose the first battle, and Nasser’s tanks cross the border, they’ll be in Tel Aviv an hour later.” So that’s the kind of En Brera, no alternative, just built in to Israel. The waist of the nation, as you know, in the pre-67 borders, was only nine miles wide. So, a fighter plane coming from Jordan could literally cross the border and leave in less than a minute. So there was no such thing as a strategy of defense in depth: it just couldn’t work in such a tiny country.
Joanna: It’s amazing, and I’ve been there eleven times now, which I said on my email to you, and I was actually there in 1990 when the Scud missiles were coming in from Iraq, but there was this real sense of how small the place is, and it’s just kind of crazy. But I was going to ask you: the Western Wall is just an amazing place.
What were the places in Israel that really sort of resonated for you?
Steven: Ah, that’s another great question. The Western Wall certainly is a very powerful place, even though today it’s become, as you know, this big, huge plaza and, and not like it was when there was a little, tiny alley in 1967. But actually the countryside was what affected me the most. I went to visit one unit of a Reconnaissance Company on the Golan Heights, which is volcanic, as you know – it’s really wild country, it’s like Scotland in a way, you’re up in the hills there, and there’s a lot of kind of low-lying scrub and everything. And I don’t know why, but that really affected me, there are wrecks of tanks everywhere; you see trenches where there was hand-to-hand fighting, and at the same time, it’s beautiful, with the spring flowers and stuff like that.
And another place was Masada, where the Roman legions besieged the last Jews who had taken refuge on top of this mesa, and that was very powerful, by the Dead Sea, I know you’ve been there, it’s really desert, unbelievable: desert, desert, desert. From the top of Masada, you can see the Roman siege works, where they were building this ramp coming up, and how if you were trying to hold out on the top of that thing, you could just see your time running out, it’s just a matter of time.
Joanna: Yes, and in case people don’t know, the Jews left there committed suicide rather than be captured, which still is reflected in the character, I think, of today’s Israelis, very much. I don’t think they would have given up easily if things had gone the other way during that war!
Joanna: That’s for sure! But I wondered whether you got to Megiddo at all, which is, you know, the Biblical Armageddon?
Steven: I did, but only—it’s a pretty nondescript place—all I did was I drove past it three or four times, and it’s like if somebody points out the window, “Oh, yeah, that’s Armageddon there,” you go, “Oh, really?” Was your experience different, Joanna; did you go there and really feel something?
Joanna: I did go on the dig there, but, I think, you know, the iconic James Michener’s book, “The Source,” which I’m sure you’ve read, was based on that dig. I just love it there, because of course it represents why Israel has always been such a country of blood: it’s because it’s right in the middle of all these trade routes, and, and everybody wants it, basically. But, no, fantastic city.
But anyway, back to the book! I’m going to keep propping it up here!
You’ve referred to “The Lion’s Gate” as the book you’ve avoided writing, and of course, the resistance is one of your key concepts, and we’ll come back to that. But how has resistance manifested in this book for you?
Steven: There’s actually probably two answers, I mean, in a way, I really don’t think it was resistance; we’ll get back to that, we’ll talk about that. But this, for me, I think, was more of a Jewish mid-life crisis. I’m too old for it to be a mid-life. But I sort of felt like, because I was raised, probably like your husband, kind of a non-observant Jew, you know, my Uncle Charlie, Charlie Moses, his company manufactured Christmas tree ornaments. When Christmas came around, we’d go over to his house and he had inflatable Santa Clauses on the roof, and all of it.
So, for me to plunge into this book, knowing I was going to be interviewing seventy people and living over there and everything, I thought, This is really going to make me confront my own feelings about being a Jew and being a secular Jew: should I move to Israel; should I start studying Hebrew; is my life a fake, because I’ve never,” you know, all those kind of things. So that’s kind of why I was avoiding this book, over years. In fact, “Gates of Fire,” my earlier book that was about the Spartans: I was made an honorary citizen of Sparta, I remember thinking at the time, you know, “Why am I doing this for Greeks, why shouldn’t I be with my own people?
So that was kind of why I avoided. But also, it was the reason why I wanted to do it, because I knew it would change me, you know?
Joanna: And then, before we come back to resistance, a question about spirituality.
You’ve gone into Judaism here, but you’ve talked about your classical prayers to the muse, Bagger Vance was based on the Bhagavad Gita, so how has spirituality played this part in your writing life, and has anything changed now?
Steven: I mean, I’m very much a believer, and you probably are, too, that there are two levels of reality, as an artist. And we’re down here on the lower level, and there’s a higher level, which I think of as the muse, or whatever you want to call it, wherever ideas come from. And we writers, we all know, and I know your audience is mostly writers, that ideas don’t really come from us, do they? They come from some other place. And we know how you can get on a roll and you’re just sort of automatically typing, and then you look back and go, “Wow, that’s really good.”
So, for me, just trying to be a professional writer and get a handle on that dynamic has made me very humble in the face of this higher dimension. I always say a prayer to the muse, I did T. E. Lawrence’s prayer from his translation of “The Odyssey,” and so I’m very definitely a believer in that level of spirituality; that we are on a lower plane and there is a higher plane.
And actually—well, this gets into resistance a little bit—but in Jewish mysticism, I didn’t know about this until a couple of years ago, it’s kind of the same concept that we’re on the material plane, and the higher plane is called the Ni Sh’Ma, the soul, and the Ni Sh’Ma is trying to communicate down to us, as we are trying to communicate up to it, and there’s a force, that Jewish mysticism calls the Yesser Hara, its purpose is to block, like a force of evil, to stop us, and definitely, that’s what I call Resistance, with a capital R.
It’s when writers have a hard time working, that’s why. We can talk further about that, so I’ll stop for the moment.
Joanna: Let’s get a bit more into that …
… because is Resistance basically anything that stops us from creating, it’s just a big defining concept, I guess. Can you make that more specific?
Steven: I’ve always experienced—this comes from a book of mine called “The War of Art,” as you know, and I talk about a force that I call Resistance with a capital R. Right now, as we’re talking, you can’t see it, but here’s my keyboard, right here in front of me, where this is, and when I sit down in the morning, I feel this negative force radiating off that keyboard, that’s trying to keep me from doing my work. And, to me, I consider it’s all self-generated. I don’t think it comes from out there. But it’s why we buy a treadmill and bring it home, and then we never use it. Any time we’re trying to access a higher part of ourselves, I think this shadow element enters the picture like an equal and opposite force to the force of creation.
Another analogy I use is if a tree—and that’s our dream or our novel, or whatever creative thing—that tree casts a shadow. And as soon as that tree goes up, the shadow appears, and that shadow is self-sabotage, procrastination, stubbornness, arrogance, fear, fear of failure, fear of success, all of those things that we as writers know. And so to me, a big part of being a writer is learning to deal with that. And people do, everyone finds their own way to deal with it.
To me, I’ve said this many times, writing is the easy part. The hard part is sitting down and actually starting to hit the keys. So, I’m a big believer in professionalism, in being a pro, in the sense that a pro doesn’t allow those negative things to stop her. She sits down and does her work.
Joanna: Absolutely, and I have to show you something now, because it’s right by my desk, you probably can’t read it there, but it’s the quote from “The War of Art” – “On the field of the self stand a knight and a dragon. You are the knight, resistance is the dragon. The battle must be fought anew every day.” And I look at that every day, and it’s so great to hear you talk about this, because, from what you’ve said, you still get that every day. You, you’re still fighting that battle after so many years!
Steven: Absolutely, I don’t think it ever goes away, for anybody: actors, photographers. I mean, when I wrote “The War of Art” originally, I thought it’s only for writers, only writers will be interested in this. But of course, I’ve gotten letters by the hundreds, from people I never would have thought, people who train animals, they have resistance. So, I think any time we’re trying to move from a lower level to a higher level, capital R Resistance will kick in and try to keep us on that lower level.
Joanna: One of the things you talk about in “Turning Pro,” more books, see—I have it here—is “the difference between an amateur and a pro is in their habits.”
Are habits the way to beat resistance, and what are some of the habits of a pro?
Steven: I think that when I was trying to learn to be a writer, and when I was falling on my face over and over and over, the reason, I decided finally, was that I was an amateur, and I had amateur habits, and I thought like an amateur. And what sort of turned the corner for me was just a simple sort of turning a switch, where I just kind of decided, “I’m going to turn professional, I’m going to think like a pro.” And one of the things is, a lot of times I think athletes are great models for this. One of things about a professional athlete is they will play hurt, whereas an amateur, you sprain your ankle or something’s wrong, you say, “Ah, I’m not well, I won’t do it today.” But a pro goes every day.
And I think that a lot of times the model for being a pro is just what we do in our day jobs. In our day jobs, we show up every day, whether we want to or not. We have to get a paycheck, right? And we stay on the job, all day, every day, we don’t go home, we don’t just say, “Oh, it’s ten o’clock, I’m tired of this, I’m going home.” But yet when we go into our works of passion, our novels, our books or whatever, we suddenly become amateurs, and we think, “Wow, this is really hard, I’m going to, go to the beach or whatever.” The kids are making noise and so we go out and play with them. We don’t have that kind of hard-core professional attitude.
Courage plays hurt: it takes a lot of guts to do this. Patience is also very important: to be patient with ourselves, allow ourselves to fall off the wagon sometimes, and taking the long view is another aspect of it. Not imagining that we can write our novel in a week and a half. And also, I like to think of it as a lifelong practice: that it’s not just one book, it’s not three books: this is what we’re going to do for the rest of our lives. This is what we’re going to do, so we are.
And another aspect, I think, of a professional comes from the Bhagavad Vita that you mentioned, the Bhagavad Gita is—sorry if I’m telling you and your audience things they already know—a kind of a mentor-protégé story, a Hindu scripture, really, where the protégé is Arjuna, the great warrior, and the teacher is Krishna, who is his charioteer, in other words, god in human form. So god is teaching men.
And one of the things that Krishna says is “we’re entitled to our labor, but not to the fruits of our labor.”
What he meant by that is, we finished a book, it goes out, it’s published, and then we’re glued to the reviews, you know! Someone gave it a four-star, give us money. And what Krishna’s saying is that’s not the way the world works. The satisfaction needs to come from the work itself, from doing the work itself.
So, good or bad, whatever the response to our work is, that doesn’t matter. Hemingway used to say this, too: if you believe the critics when they tell you you’re great, then you have to believe them when they tell you you stink, you know. He said, “I don’t want to believe anything.” I’m sorry, I’m blathering on here.
Joanna: No, it’s great, and I have that quote down as, again, another favorite quote, because so often we write a book, and everyone expects to get this instant success, and, looking at “The War of Art” is a good example, because didn’t it become a multi-million bestseller years after you actually first put it out, and you got on Oprah years later?
Steven: It was like ten years, and it’s not a multi-million by any means, but it took ten years for it to finally reach a sort of a critical mass and actually have people hear of it.
Joanna: Which is kind of crazy, and, and I know from your work, you had incredibly hard times at the beginning of your career, you were living in a car, I believe?
Steven: I did, well, all writers have hard times!
Joanna: But weren’t you living in your car or something at one point?
Steven: Well, I was living in a van, but I mean, I was couch-surfing as they say, I was visiting friends and that kind of stuff, you know, mooching off friends.
Joanna: But I wanted to ask you there, because the other thing in “Turning Pro” is that a pro doesn’t compare themselves to other people, well, I certainly find this very difficult. And I wonder if you have any tips.
How do we not wake up in the morning, hear about someone else's success and compare ourselves?
Steven: That’s a tough one, I agree with you. I hate those stories. So and so wrote the book in three days and it’s now at the top, I hate this stuff. But I just tell myself, I imagine Krishna floating over in the air and saying to me, “It’s human to be jealous or to compare yourself, but you’ve got to get a handle on that, and just stop yourself, you know.” You’ve got to be, the old analogy from Ancient Greece, in the English school system you still study this, there was the chariot and the charioteer. The horses maybe, that’s our crazy, jealous self. But we have to hang on to the reins and make those horses stay in their lanes and do what we want them to.
Joanna: Fair enough. And another weird thing that I ponder, as a writer is the balance between ego—because we have to have enough ego to want to publish—and self-doubt, the feeling that we’re completely rubbish.
How do you manage the balance between ego and self-doubt?
Steven: Well, I think those, those feelings of self-doubt are Resistance, capital-R Resistance. And I think they’re just false: that’s not true. And for me, when those feelings arise, I just banish them: I don’t allow them. I say, “Well, that’s just, that’s Resistance.” You know, one of the theories of Resistance is, and I said this on Oprah’s show, we hear these voices in our head, self-doubt, and we think those are our thoughts. But they’re not our thoughts. That’s Resistance.
It’s like when you sit down and meditate, and you’re trying to clear your mind, and all this crazy stuff goes through your mind, but if you have a teacher, your teacher tells you, “Just let that thought cross your mind and keep moving.” So, when I have any self-doubt thoughts, I just banish them. I say, “That’s Resistance, that’s not me.”
And also, I think, Joanna, it’s a professional attitude. A professional says, “I’m not going to entertain those thoughts for a minute, because if I do, I’m going to lose.” An athlete says the same thing. If you’re on the starting line of the 100-yard dash, or the 100-meter dash in your place, and you start to think, “Oh, I’m no good compared to these other people,” your race is over right then: you’re finished. So you just have to clear those thoughts out of your head, by an act of will. An act of will to banish them.
Joanna: I guess with, with the athletic metaphor as well, and thinking about how we cultivate that for the long term, what are the ways that you de-stress and clear your mind.
Do you have a meditation practice, or do you go out and play golf, I know you’re a golfer?
Steven: I never de-stress, Joanna! I’m always stressed, 100 percent of the time! But seriously, they say Stephen King writes 365 days a year, and Woody Allen writes 365 days a year, and I’m not that good, but certainly, I’m not really a believer in vacations and stuff like that. I take them, but, I almost always am very happy to get back to work. Maybe I’m just crazy, but that’s where it works for me.
Joanna: I know what you mean. All my, all my trips are research trips. I’m off to Barcelona in a couple of weeks, and, and it’s all research for books!
Steven: Ah! Well, that’s good, that’s a great way to travel!
Joanna: Now, I had another question for you.
You’ve had all kinds of things that people would consider to be successful, but what do you define as success in your career?
Steven: You can’t look to the response of the marketplace as validation for your work, because they’re going to love stuff that stinks, and they’re going to hate stuff that’s great. So, eventually, I think we all have to get to the place where we can be a judge of our own work. And I find that, for me, I can be a judge of my own work. When I look back on something, a book, whatever, I can be pretty objective, and I can say, “Well, that didn’t work, this part wasn’t right, I could do a lot better,” but also, when something good comes out, I can say, “That really worked, and I’m proud of that, glad I did it.”
But it’s an on-going self-teaching process for me, kind of keeping teaching myself to be my own judge of my own stuff. And I think self-validation is another quality of a professional. I mean, that’s a big word, but what, and it’s hard to understand, maybe, at first glance, but what it means is, you judge your own stuff, and you say to yourself, you know, “Good work, Joanna: you did good today. I don’t care what anybody else says. I don’t care if nobody gets it, you did good.” And I do feel like the muse is there, and she’s feeding us stuff—I consider myself a servant of the muse, and I’m just trying to be true to her and bring her stuff down to earth as best I can, as it comes through me.
Joanna: I really like that, I think that’s great. And in that way, being true to the things that we want to write about, I guess the question is about self-censorship. I feel like only recently I’ve stopped self-censoring my writing, because of the fear of judgment, basically, which I guess is Resistance.
Do you still suffer from any fear of judgment in what you write?
Steven: No, I don’t. I mean, I used to, terribly, but again, I think that self-censorship is Resistance. I have a friend who just finished writing his first novel, and he told me that he kind of spewed a lot, he had files, files, files everywhere. And he found that in the end, he used everything. Some of it went into Novel Number Two, so I think in a way, self-censorship is an insult to the muse, to the goddess, because she’s giving you something. There it is on the page, and who are you to say, “This is lousy?” Because a lot of times, as I’m sure you know, Joanna, you look at something on Tuesday, say, “This is terrible,” then you look at it Thursday, and miraculously, it’s become great, two days later. So, that’s Resistance, it’s clouding our judgment and making us see that. So I think self-censorship is the worst. You’ve got to get rid of that: that’s an amateur habit.
Joanna: I realize that.
Steven: I’m not saying that to you, Joanna, just to anybody.
Joanna: I agree.
Steven: One thing. I don’t mean to be proselytizing or whatever, preaching or anything like this, but I think that a lot of writers, even writers who are published and successful, are not tough-minded enough—by which I mean they’re not professional enough in the way they manage their own emotions through the course of things. And I fall prey to this, too, and I have to kind of slap myself across the face. I think you’ve got to be a bit of a warrior to be a writer.
In many ways, it’s harder being an artist than it is being a warrior, because you’re all alone. You don’t have a structure, you don’t have a commanding officer who tells you what to do. I mean, think of the world that we live in, Joanna: nobody makes us stand up in the morning, nobody pays us, nobody pats us on the back, nobody cracks the whip over us, nobody shames us into doing anything, and nobody supports us. I mean, maybe your husband supports you or something, but I don’t care how well-meaning or well-intentioned someone is, it doesn’t help, I’m sure you would agree with that.
Nobody says at the end of the day, “You did great, you really faced that one hard, partner, you really hung in there, you got through it. You made something out of nothing today.” Or, “You only had an hour but you took that hour and you sat down and you did it.” And so, we have to do that for ourselves, and I think it’s much, much harder being a writer or artist than anybody thinks. People think it’s this idyllic life we’re living in the country, or in a cottage in Dorset, we’ll sip tea and it’ll be great, there's sheep outside, it’s beautiful. Instead, it’s hell, you know. You’re all alone, facing your inner demons. And so my hat’s off to any person that does it: anybody that finishes a book and publishes a book, or anything like that, you know, God bless them, I salute you!
Joanna: That’s a good pep talk: thank you for that! I appreciate that. And I know we’ve got to go soon, but just a question about your small press. You’ve got Black Irish Books, and you have a great motto, which is “Get in the ring,” which you say is, “Aiming to inspire those who don’t want to wait for permission, but want to take their destiny in their own fists,” which I love.
Steven: By the way, that’s all from my partner, Shawn Coyne, who’s the Black Irish in the deal.
Joanna: Yes, in the partnership. You’ve seen the publishing industry change so much over the years.
What are your thoughts right now towards, indie authors, towards the changes, and what you guys are doing?
Steven: Well, that’s a really tough question. With “The Lion’s Gate,” the book that we were talking about here, that had to be brought out by a mainstream publisher, it was too big a book, and it needed the push that a publisher could put behind it, getting it in bookstores and having a sales force and all that. But I found, for like smaller books, like “The War of Art,” “Turning Pro,” that they can be independently published. But, as you know, if you’re going to do that, you have to have a presence on the Web, you have to blog or do something, or speak, you have to get a following of people, one way or another, and network around, which is not what authors used to do.
But, when it works, indie publishing, it works great, because you get all the money, and I think from “The War of Art,” it’s been a tenfold increase. Actually, the big controversy right now between Amazon and Hachette, Hachette was the original publisher of “The War of Art,” and I would get 35 cents a copy, that’s all, on a book that was selling for $12.95. And now I get $3.50 a copy, so ten times as much, publishing it under Black Irish. So, there’s a lot to be said for that. You only have to sell one-tenth as many books to make the same amount of money.
So, I don’t know if it’s really the future or not, because can everybody do that, or is the world just going to be flooded with unknown people, where there are no gatekeepers anymore. But I think for certain writers of certain books, it’s a godsend. God bless Amazon and Google and PayPal, that make all this possible.
Joanna: Yes, and just to let you know, I really like your audio versions, which you do yourself and release through Black Irish, don’t you, which is great. Do you enjoy that process of the audio?
Steven: Yeah, and that’s another thing that’s so easy. To record audio costs $500 bucks, that’s all. And then an editor puts it together, it’s all under $500, and you post it on the Web and people buy it, it’s unbelievable!
Joanna: It’s a great business model!
Steven: A great business model!
Joanna: And it’s lovely for me to hear you, because I do also listen to your audiobooks, so it’s nice to hear the voice of the author, I think, and that’s why I think audio’s such a big thing.
But anyway, we, we’ve got to finish, so,
Where can people find you and your books online?
Steven: Just about anywhere, on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.co.uk. Black Irish publishes it in England, so it’s up there. And I’m at a website, as you know, that’s just my name, StevenPressfield.com.
Joanna: You are, you’re everywhere.
Steven: I’m everywhere, just like everybody else is everywhere! You’re everywhere!
Joanna: That is true!
Steven: You have fans everywhere!
Joanna: Well, thanks so much for your time, Steve, that was brilliant.
Steven: And thank you, Joanna, thank you for being so prepared and for asking such great questions. It’s a pleasure to meet you face-to-face over Skype.
Image: Flickr Creative Commons: Western Wall by Stefano Corso,
Thanks for all the great interviews. I am especially thankful for those transcriptions, which are as I know from experience very tedious to write down.
Thanks a lot!
Man of la Book says
My dad fought in the six-days war – I’m on my way to buy the book.
Debra Eve says
This really resonated with me: “I think that a lot of times the model for being a pro is just what we do in our day jobs. In our day jobs, we show up every day, whether we want to or not.”
That’s it, in a nutshell. (I’m still more or less in IT, Joanna, like you were.) Thank you both for a great interview!
Pamela Hegarty says
Great interview. I’ve been giving in too much to Resistance lately, so I pulled out my copy of The War of Art (and recommended it to my writers’ group). I especially appreciate and have been thinking lately of the idea that “we’re entitled to our labor, but not to the fruits of our labor.” Thanks, Joanna, for another reminder to keep fighting that dragon.
Teagan Kearney says
I really enjoyed reading your interview with Steven Pressfield – it’s one of those inspiring interviews, that make you think ‘yes, I can’, or at the very least ‘I’m going to give this writing thing my best effort, and if it doesn’t work out, it won’t be for lack of trying!’
Joanna Penn says
Thanks all – this was a special interview for me, and kicked my butt for sure! Let’s just keep encouraging each other on the journey!
Graham Ride says
Great interview Joanna, I’ve been making excuses to myself for weeks, now I know it’s the Dragon Resistance—just off to get my sword!
Henry Hyde says
Fantastic interview, Joanna. Your podcasts have become part of my routine — you ask brilliant questions and draw the best out of people.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Henry – the podcast is one of my favorite things and keeps me growing as a writer too.
Paul Sean Grieve says
This is amazing. I’ve never read the War of Art, but I’m definitely going to check it out now. The part about comparison with other authors is what resonated most with me. I needed to hear this: “You can’t look to the response of the marketplace as validation for your work, because they’re going to love stuff that stinks, and they’re going to hate stuff that’s great.” I believe this and have even blogged about it, but to hear it from someone like Steven is well, validating. It helps me fight the dragon of resistance.
Joanna Penn says
I think we need to hear these words regularly Paul – that’s why I re-read Turning Pro a lot, as I keep forgetting 🙂 We need to be our own validation, and the job well done is the reward – not accolades or money … although we still need to aim for those IMHO 🙂
Henry Hyde says
See, now look what you made me do – I’ve gone and bought a handful of Steven’s books! Straight into “The Authentic Swing: Notes from the Writing of a First Novel” – great stuff!
Joanna Penn says
You won’t regret the purchases 🙂 worth 100x as much!
Karen Fisher-Alaniz (@karenlalaniz) says
This interview was great on so many levels. But I’d have to say that the one thing that got me to not just “hear” but act, was Steven Pressfield’s advice for and description of Resistance. I seriously need to write myself a note and tack it above my workspace. It’s so easy to forget that there’s a force that doesn’t want you to create, doesn’t want you to finish etc. Somehow, knowing that makes me want to get on my boxing gloves and fight it. You know? Thanks for another great interview, JoAnna!
Lester Patrick says
This was a terrific interview and I learned so much. A couple of quotes really hit home – “courage plays hard” and “self-censorship is resistance.” I am working on my first novel and it is a constant battle against so many odds but Steven’s words of wisdom gave me a lot of encouragement. Keep up the great work!
Antara Man says
I discover this “old” but in all ways evergreen posts and podcasts of you Joanna and they are so amazing! Thank you for this piece! I thought, I was the one who considers the act of writing coming from the Energy or Shakti (the Goddess). I loved the Bhagavad Gita and its interpretations, it reminded me, I didn’t read anything from this modern Bible since years and I’m gonna correct it. Your article gave me a clear idea for a future article on a topic very hot to me: yoga, spirituality and artistry and writing. Last Saturday, I heard my spiritual master saying that all artist must have been yogis in previous lives and that their works are born inside and are sort of a realization, which I totally agree.
Censorship, this topic was also terrific!
Greetings for this interview.
Sam Semako Jinadu says
This was a great, educative read for me! Steven is quiet deep in his thoughts and conceptions.
Of course, prior to reading him here, I have heard his name mentioned in some podcasts, but right until then, I didn’t check up on him. But few weeks ago, I came across him again on nightingale-conant. That was where I came across the concept of RESISITANCE.
Quickly, I googled him up.
Joanna, I am a fan too now!! I respect him so much becuase of his works. Great wisdom exudes from them.
Thanks Joanna for bringing up this interview.
I really love it.
Great work you are doing Joanna on this platform. I will keep coming back. And I want. hesistate to let others know about this site.
Name withheld says
Your interviews are great and though I know that Pressfield is trying to encourage writers, I think he entered the Hot Air Zone with his theory of “Mental Toughness.” Can we banish self doubt? No. What is he really doing to cope with this very human problem? Just like the add that came in while he was talking to you, he read it and tossed it. He did not block it, he recognized it but did not interact with it. Big difference. Please don’t publish my name.