So a couple of months ago Steven Pressfield and I thought about starting up a War of Art podcast.
I asked Tim Grahl if he’d be willing to host the show for at least the first few episodes and he graciously agreed under one condition…that he be able to ask Steve and I whatever he wanted to about craft, the business, etc.
You see, the original marketing idea for Steve’s new book was to launch the WOA podcast just before we released his new book. That way, we could build up interest in our new product with the podcast and then WHAM! publish the book with a whole slew of people dying to read it. We might be able to get back our production costs six months before we usually do…
So why didn’t we do that?
We didn’t do it because it seemed kind of lame. It felt like something a drug dealer would do. He gives you a free taste of some nefarious product in the hopes that you lose control of yourself and start coming back for more and more. Now, the whole idea behind the book is to explain to writers their core responsibility, what Steve calls the platinum rule of writing…THOU MUST MAKE IT INTERESTING!
So if we were going to somehow entice people into reading a book about writing stuff that’s actually entertaining, we needed to put our money where our mouths were. Instead of giving writers a taste of the new book, we decided to give them the whole damn thing.
So last week, we launched NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T with a freebie eBook giveaway with absolutely no strings attached. You don’t have to sign up for diddly. You don’t even have to give up your email address. If you haven’t downloaded it yet click here. It’s still free…even after 51,956 downloads and counting.
We’re going to pull the plug on this soon, so I recommend you just get it now before we try to soak you for $9.95 for it later.
If you’d like to buy a paperback (sorry they ain’t free) you can check those out here. I’m going to explain how we came up with the packaging in a WHAT IT TAKES post next Friday July 1 over at www.stevenpressfield.com too.
As luck would have it, Steve, Tim and I taped a few episodes before we decided to change our marketing. And we’re very happy to give those zeros and ones and the transcript to you as well. Maybe the free podcast will convince you to download the free book and then maybe that will nudge you into reading the first chapter. And if that first chapter is as irresistible as we think it is…you’ll read chapter two… And maybe if you read the whole thing and love it…in a year when you cousin Bernie tells you he wants to be a writer…you’ll order a copy of NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T to put him in the right frame of mind.
That’s our long-term goal for the book. We simply want it to join The War of Art, Turning Pro, Do The Work, and The Authentic Swing as a must have for the pro writer’s library. And the more people who read it, the better the chances for that happening. Simple as that.
Click the play button below to listen or just read the transcript that follows.
[0:00:00.0] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is the show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. In this episode, I actually have two amazing experts joining me.
First, of course, I have Shawn Coyne. He’s the editor with 25 years’ experience and he is the creator of Story Grid but alongside him is an author, Steven Pressfield, who Shawn has been partnered with for a long time. He’s been editing Steve Pressfield’s work for over 20 years, he’s an amazing author and he’s joining us as well to talk about his brand new book, Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit.
It’s a great book and it’s much more positive than maybe the title suggest and we dive into resistance and how you can become a better writer, how your career track can take and it’s a really great episode. This is part one of a two part series where Steve is joining us. I know you’re going to love it. We’re going to jump in and get started.
[00:01:03.4] TG: So Steve, it was interesting as I was reading just the first few chapters of your new book, you didn’t come from a family of anybody that did creative stuff, is that true?
[00:01:18.4] SP: Yeah, that’s true. So for me, the idea of being a writer was totally from left field and that was probably one of the reason why it took so long for me to embrace it because I came from a family of business people and there just was nobody that was creative at all in the family. No artist or anything like that.
[00:01:39.9] TG: Yeah, so I was taught that I’m a very pragmatic sort of fellow and that was very much taught to me and so I’ve been working with writers now for a while and I have written two books but they’re very non-fiction-y, “this is how to do something practical” books and so as I have started to transition into writing fiction, I have just dealt with so much embarrassment about it. When people ask me about it, I’m like, “Please don’t make me talk about this.” Did you experience a lot of that early on?
[00:02:15.4] SP: Yeah but I think everybody feels that way even somebody that grew up thinking to themselves as an artist, I think. Would you agree Shawn?
[00:02:23.3] SC: Yeah.
[00:02:23.7] SP: It’s like when someone asked you, “What’s it about with this thing that you’re working on?” It’s like, “Can I see your baby while it’s still in the womb?” Let it at least get a chance to get up and walk, in diapers or something like that.
[00:02:38.2] TG: Well I always feel like when I’m trying to explain it I’m like, “This is so lame.” I can’t figure out how to talk about it where it doesn’t just come out like, “Oh man, this is awful, nobody is going to ever read this.”
[00:02:51.1] SP: And yet you know these people, well I hate them, that these writers who can pitch their stuff and you ask them, “You know what is it about?” “Oh, it’s about the Vikings, they land and there’s somebody from Jupiter and it’s a love story.” I’m like, “Oh my gosh, sounds great! Why can’t I tell my story like that?”
[00:03:12.6] TG: Well, it just cracks me up that the name of your book is Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit, because usually if we’re trying to get people to do something creative, we don’t tell them that part, right? We tell them all the — so why are you leading, like your lead as nobody’s ever going to want to read anything you write?
[00:03:36.3] SP: Because that to me is like the single fundamental lesson that any artist or any writer needs to know. That’s the foundation of everything because the [inaudible] to that, as you know Tim, is “that since nobody wants to read your shit, you the writer have got to come up with something brilliant, something original, something that’s so compelling that you can overcome that”.
I think a lot of the bad writing that goes on that really nobody does want to read is because the writer thinks everybody is going to want to read it and they don’t try hard enough and they don’t come up with enough of the original idea. They don’t have the empathy to put themselves in the reader’s shoes and ask themselves, page one, page two, page three, “Is this interesting? Am I hooking them?
Am I giving them something that,” — the reader/writer relationship is a transaction where the reader is giving you the writer a very valuable commodity which is their time and their attention and that’s not free, that’s valuable and you’ve got to be worthy of that. So in Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit, where that idea came from was my first job in advertising where you really know when you’re writing ass.
Nobody wants to read them at all, “Hey, no.” So your whole day is spent thinking, “How can I make Preparation H interesting? How can I make Efferdent denture cleaner compelling? So compelling, that’s something,” — you know? That’s a great training because you actually can do it if you’re good enough. So anyway, that’s where that comes from and the whole book, as you know, is really about a writer’s career.
It talks about writing in five different fields, advertising, fiction, screen writing, non-fiction and self-help which I’ve sort of been into over 45 plus years because I think a lot of writers — I know I’m blabbering on here Tim but we could always edit this stuff — is people start writing and they don’t think of it in terms of a career. They think, “If I could just get one thing, then I’ll die happy.” But it’s a career. It’s your whole life and it does evolve. Anyway, I’ll stop here with that.
[00:06:05.5] SC: Well if I could jump in, Tim it’s Shawn, Steve and I were talking I don’t know 20 minutes ago about some new projects and I off the hand said to Steve, “Well how long was Gates of Fire? Was it 120, 140,000 words?” And his response was, “I have no idea how long it was,” and I think that’s a really important thing to think about.
Is that when you are thinking of the next project and you are focusing on your career and thinking about what is stimulating and making you passionate enough to continue, you don’t think about the novel that you wrote ten years ago. You love it, you think it’s wonderful but you put it in your rearview mirror.
I think a lot of people have this magical idea that if I can just finish this one book and Steve and I know a lot of people like this, then everything is going to come into place for me and everything is going to link together and I think one of the reasons that Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit is so compelling to me is that it tells the writer you need to get beyond your own self.
You need to think beyond what you want to get out of your story. You need to think and be empathetic to the reader primarily. You need to think about what they want and give them that in a way that is unique and refreshing and innovative and you can’t just think, “Oh once my book is done, the skies will clear and the sun will shine.”
[00:07:40.7] TG: Yeah, I have a friend of mine who is in the middle of that right now. I was thinking the other day, he’s three years in to writing his first novel and I’m like, “You’ve got to finish dude.” I remember two and a half years ago, we were at a conference together and he was showing me all his notes.
I haven’t read the book but his idea of the book is extremely compelling and I’m like, “Will you please finish because I would like to read this thing at some point,” but he’s open about this and there’s this pressure on himself that he’s got to write a bestseller or the whole thing is worthless. What would you say to somebody like that?
[00:08:22.7] SP: Well it’s certainly a natural thought and I’ve always thought that too but it’s a certain question, are you looking at this writing racket from the inside out or from the outside in? If you’re looking from the outside in then you’re thinking about how other people are going to respond to your book, right?
“Is it going to sell? am I going to get a bunch of likes?” Or whatever the hell it is they do, but if you’re looking from the inside, you are asking yourself, it’s like, “I’ve got this baby and I want to give birth to it and it’s important to me to produce this thing,” and that to me is the way to do it. It’s the proper attitude because you could write Gone With the Wind and it can get out there and nobody even knows it’s there or nobody buys it or nobody likes it.
Look at Marco Rubio, poor guy, you know? I’m sure a few months ago he was on top of the world. So I am from the school of writing it and looking at it from the inside out because there will be another trolley coming down the track. The muse will have book number two and book number three and I’m sure you’re thinking that way in a way Tim too.
What’s book number two, three, four, five, six, right? But trust me, they are there. They’re all lined up waiting like airplanes in holding patterns circling and your job or any writer’s job is just to do number one and then when that’s done do number two and so if I were talking to your friend I’d say, “It’s great to one, have a bestseller but the odds are long. Just do the best you can with what you got and start the next one right away.”
[00:10:08.7] TG: Yeah and personally, I feel like getting the first book done is just like I just got to get it out of the way almost. But at the same time, I told this to Shawn yesterday, it was around word 8,000, I finished my writing for the day and then I picked up the book, 11/22/63 by Stephen King and I started reading it, and I was just like, “Oh I suck at this,” and there’s just this intense, no matter how much I prepare, no matter whatever, my writing, I’m now 50 years behind Stephen King. I just have a lot of work to do before I’m actually good at this.
[00:10:58.4] SC: Well, we talked about this yesterday too and I think there’s a big element of understanding that beauty imperfect and that you cannot write first draft if it’s going to be perfect and there is going to come a time after you’ve gone through four or five editorial rounds or however maybe when you have to let it go.
There’s a funny story today in New York Times about a woman who published a novel 20 years ago. 20 years ago and she couldn’t let it go so she rewrote the novel and they’re republishing it, a completely different company and that’s a situation where she let that one first novel torment her to the place where she felt that she could make it even better and better and better.
Now, she has written a second first novel and there are probably a lot of books that were circling her, as Steve says, it just never got written because she was so obsessed with perfecting that one story. So with your friend and his inability to lock it down after three years, that happens to just about everybody.
There comes a point where you say to yourself, “It’s done and I’m going to do my best work and see if I can find a home for it. If it doesn’t find a home, we’ll put it in a drawer and I’m going to work on number two.”
[00:12:20.0] SP: But you know Tim further to what you were saying about you read your own stuff over and you say, “It sucks.” That to me is resistance.
[00:12:30.0] TG: It’s mostly while I’m writing. I told Shawn this, it’s like the painter that’s looking at the beautiful landscape and no matter how hard they try, they can’t get the paint to show that. So I’ve got this — I read a lot, I know what good writing sounds like and no matter how much I try I know what I’m writing does not sound like what I, oh who’s the guy that host this American Life?
[00:12:57.0] SP: Ira Glass.
[00:12:58.1] TG: Ira Glass, he did this great little talk on this and he’s like, “Early on, the problem is your taste is so much better than your ability.”
[00:13:07.7] SP: That’s true.
[00:13:09.0] TG: So you know what you’re producing is just not on par with what is actually good and you just have to do that long enough to where you get better.
[00:13:20.1] SC: Yeah, there no other way around it in any field at all and there are very few of us like Bob Dylan where the first thing out of the box was blowing in the wind.
[00:13:32.2] TG: So when it comes to writing in particular, talk a little bit more about writing for other people because what I struggle with it, when I work with writers and I know fiction writers have this idea I think in general where it’s like, “Well it’s easy to write non-fiction because you’re writing 10 ways to lose weight,” or whatever. But fiction is different because it’s just entertainment or whatever. How do you approach fiction versus non-fiction self-help type writing?
[00:14:06.0] SP: That’s a great question. Fiction for me always starts with a compelling idea that is only compelling to me and that’s how I judge it and that works. Every time I tried to project it into the market place, into the idea of, “Is this commercial?” It’s never worked for me whereas my first two books were the Legend of Bagger Vance and Gates of Fire and both of them were successful.
Both of them when I started them and then all the way through them, I was convinced that nobody would be interested, that it was a crazy subject that no one except me could possibly care about and I didn’t care. I was just compelled to do them and to my amazement, they found their audience. I’m not sure what the lesson of that is but I know that other times, I thought, “Oh this is a great book. I really have something here,” and then it would just go out and fizzle. So again, I think for me at least it’s writing from the inside out and what is compelling to me and what hooks me.
[00:15:15.5] TG: But how does that meld for the whole writing for other people and making sure you’re writing something interesting and you said just a few minutes ago, too many people just write for themselves. They don’t think about making it entertaining and making it all these things. So how do you put those together?
[00:15:35.4] SP: That’s a great question, but the answer to that is that within the idea, at least for me, the idea that I think is only interesting to me, I’m trying to structure it in such a way that it’s compelling to other people. I am definitely using every skill that I have asking myself, “How do I start this thing? How do I hook the reader?”
How do I make it school out the information slowly enough to keep the reader hooked but fast enough to know where the hell they are in the story? So I’m saying to myself, “Well probably nobody else is going to be interested in this but goddammit I’m going to make them interested in this or write it as interestingly as I possibly can.” So in other words, I am constantly thinking of, “Is the reader involved? Have I got the story working so the reader’s hooked and is continually drawn to the story?”
[00:16:30.3] SC: If I could just speak to that too Tim, I think craft is so important here. Just a little story from 20 years ago when I was Double Bay, I heard on the street that there was this woman who had written this proposal about some horse. I was like, “Who’s going to buy a book about a horse? Some horse nobody could remember.”
Of course that book turned out to be Seabiscuit and I think that’s a really good example of somebody, Laura Hillenbrand, who was just absolutely passionate and obsessed about the role that a horse played during the great depression and she said to herself, “Man this stuff is great for me. How am I going to bring in other people to see the world the way I see it?”
How does Picasso figure out how to draw a bull in six strokes that everybody is immediately going to recognize that it’s a bull? And so to Steve’s point, it sounds like it’s oxymoronic in a way, like “you have to write for other people but you have to be driven internally”. That doesn’t seem to make sense but it absolutely does because what you need to do is to find the thing that’s passionate to you and translate that passion using story structuring craft in a way that it will compel other people.
That’s what great storytellers do. They could speech writers, they could be advertising executives and so it’s beginning with your own internal love and passion for a particular subject and then with the statement that Steve says on with the title of this book, understanding that nobody wants to read your shit meaning your internal fascination unless you’re able to translate that passion into a story that they can intuit and understand and be compelled by it.
[00:18:38.1] SP: Very well put.
[00:18:41.5] TG: Well there’s this part in Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit, it’s section 22 in the version I have and you say, “Ask not what is a solution, ask what is the problem? The problem in fiction from the thrashing writer’s point of view is almost, always, what is this damn thing about? In other words, what’s the theme?” And this is what I’ve struggled with too.
I’ve read your recent blog post about it and I told Shawn that, “It sounds like he’s talking out of both sides of his mouth,” because on one hand, you’re like, “You’ve got to know your theme. To be able to write, you’ve got to know your theme,” and then you list out all your bestselling books and you’re like, “I don’t know the themes for any of these things.”
And I’m like, “Well, what is it? Then how do you,” — and it’s interesting because that’s what I’ve struggled with in talking to fiction writers because again in the self-help non-fiction or business book or whatever, it’s very much like, “Here is the problem and here’s how to solve that problem.” So what is the problem? When you bring that to the page in fiction like you say you’re still solving a problem in fiction, talk about that a little bit.
[00:19:53.2] SP: Well, let’s see if I could articulate this. Let’s go really deep here Tim. Let’s get into the real meta physical world. I’m a believer that ideas come to you, at least story ideas, come to you from another dimension of reality. From the muse, from your deep unconscious, from something like that and why do they come to you?
Why do they see you? I think in a way it’s a form of the evolution of your soul or self-therapy or something like that and that something in the evolution of your life, your deep internal life is crying out to you to shine a light on it. You need to bring something into consciousness. If you were working with a therapist, the therapist would be compelling you to dig into this thing.
But the way that you, sort of yourself via the unconscious via the muse, operates it’s almost like a dream. The story is like a dream that you’re having in a way. So what I’m trying to say here is, something compels you. You feel you have a story about the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. You don’t know why this grabs you.
You don’t know what’s the reason why it’s hooking you, but it is hooking you and there is a real reason. So you sort of put it down the table almost like a dead body on an autopsy table or a living body that you’re trying to bring to life like Frankenstein. Is this making any sense Tim? Are you with me here?
[00:21:20.4] TG: I’m still listening, yeah.
[00:21:23.1] SP: Then when the question is theme. You’ve got this Frankenstein on the table in front of you and you’re asking yourself, you know it’s for real. You know it’s alive. You see it twitching, it’s eyelids are fluttering, the blood is flowing through it and you’re looking at it and you say, “What the hell is this thing?”
It’s like a dream, it’s like you’re saying of a dream, ”What is this about?” And then, that’s when the writer’s craft comes in. Now you can fake it, you can go on instinct even if you don’t know the theme you’re just so compelled by this Frankenstein device. You say, “Well let me plug the electricity into his left finger here, and whatever it is that the guy will actually come to life and get him to walk.”
But if you’re really a craftsman, if you are Dr. Frankenstein, you’re a genius, you say to yourself, “Ah, this is why the story of the 300 Spartans appeals to me, why I need to bring this out because it’s about such and such, such and such, such and such,” and when you know that, I could go into great detail about this.
When you know the theme, you automatically know the protagonist, you know the antagonist, you have the climax. In other words, like a detective you can unspool us, you can extrapolate them from that and then, you can bring this Frankenstein thing to life and I know that if I look back over the books that I have written and I’m sure if Neil Young were here and he were to look back over his albums.
Or Bruce Springsteen or anybody like that, each one was of incremental step forward in the evolution of their soul, their creative soul and I’m sure that Neil Young can look back and say, “There comes a time” or harvest or whatever they did that was a moment for him where he was dealing with the divorce or something from a previous life or who knows what.
Bob Dylan is probably the greatest example of that because his album is so much like that. You’ll really see him working out stuff in his evolution. So Tim, I don’t know if that made any sense but that’s the answer for theme. Mine took that, even though you don’t know what it is, it will work.
[00:23:33.2] TG: What is the theme of Gates of Fire?
[00:23:36.3] SP: The theme of Gates of Fire is about an exploration of the nature of courage because those 300 Spartans gave their lives and they knew they were giving their lives. It’s one thing to fight in a war and die. It’s another thing to send your allies back to safety while you go forward knowing you’re going to die for a greater cause.
It’s sort of the same theme as Casa Blanca. It’s better to sacrifice yourself for the good of the group than to selfishly cling to life or cling to anything and that’s why in Gates of Fire, you have the two diametrically opposed kings, Leonidas and Xerxes and the one is the bad king and the one is the good king. The one who sacrifices his life for the good of all and the other one who just wants more and more and more for himself.
[00:24:36.4] TG: And so is theme the thing that resonates with the reader?
[00:24:44.7] SP: Yes.
[00:24:44.9] TG: Is that why they’re really reading your story?
[00:24:47.2] SP: Yes, now obviously a great story has great characters and we’re rooting for Rocky or we’re rooting for Rudy or whatever but there’s a guy I know who’s a struggling writer for a long time and he is incredibly prolific. He just bangs out one thing after another with an interesting hooks to them but he has had practically no success and I am convinced the reason is that a lot of his stories are really about nothing.
They’re just a hook and nothing after that. In other words, there’s no real theme. Theme is what the reader experiences or the movie goer experiences it on an unconscious level. That’s what pulls them through even though they couldn’t say it. If you ask them and grill them and hung them by their thumbs, they couldn’t tell you but that’s why they’re being hooked what the story is about. Shawn?
[00:25:52.6] SC: Just to go off on that a little bit is my thinking is that theme is another way of saying universal truths and the reason why I say that is that we as human beings change our behavior based on stories. So Gates of Fire is a story not only about courage, it’s about understanding that the self is best expressed in the larger community of other selves.
So in order for us to truly understand that and I think that’s a universal truth, there is no better feeling than being a member of a football team, win or lose, being a husband or a wife in a magical moment together when you have a child. Being a child in a family, you feel larger than yourself when you are among simpatico people.
This is why people come together, so one of the reasons why I think Gates of Fire is such a wonderful story is that it supports that universal truth that we all truly believe and one of the things about myth, now this is something that Steve had probably, there’s no way he’s thinking of this when he’s writing the book and this is the magic of the muse.
This is the magic of the unconscious, he’s writing the story because he wants to tell that climatic moment when those guys fought in the battle but underneath that is the universal truth that love and being larger than something than purely yourself is more important than selfish acquisition of goods and services or whatever.
So men today, they have difficult time tapping into that universal truth. So this is why Gates of Fire is such a wonderful story for not only men but women but primarily men because you don’t really get to think of that thing all that often. So when a great story like Gates of Fire, it reaffirms a universal truth to the reader or through the viewer if it’s a movie and it makes you feel good about being alive.
[00:28:17.0] SP: I’ve got a question for you Shawn.
[00:28:18.0] SC: Sure.
[00:28:19.0] SP: Tim, like you said I’m right on my writing Wednesdays a lot right now. I think the last eight weeks have been all about theme and I’ve got another five of them stacked up and it’s more after that and ye, I can tell just by the comments coming in on the blog that people are sort of getting it but they’re not getting.
I know talking to my friend that I just was telling you about that his books didn’t quite really hit that as I tried of telling him about, he might tell us, he just doesn’t get it. Why I think is so hard. It’s like people have a blind spot to this. It is there. As an editor, Tim, the thing about working with Shawn which has been so great is a lot of times, I’ll have a book.
Like what we’re saying before that I don’t even know what this is about and then Shawn is my editor. He tells me what it’s about and literary, he will actually write a memo saying, “well this book is about is this” and there will be three or four paragraphs on and go, “Holy shit, that’s what the book is about. I have no idea”. So it’s the editor’s job depending on what is in it to tell it. I think that you should talk about that a little bit.
[00:29:28.4] SC: Well, stories are so wonderful because they’re a way around dealing with your internal shit. There’s a great book that I read and I write about it in Story Grid and on Steve’s side alliance, it’s called The Examined Life and it was written by a psychotherapist who was writing about some of the stories from his patients and how being a psychotherapist, he can look at this people and they would tell him this deep stories about themselves and he would know immediately.
Well, thats to change. You were abandoned as a child. if you were abandoned as a child. So his point in the theme of his book is about you need as a human being whether moon and harness but especially in artists or writer or a film maker, whoever, a painter, you need to examine yourself and you need to examine the stories that drive you to a certain behaviors.
The more you do that, the more you will identify the themes that are often always surfacing in your own life and so when Steve says the muse gives you these certain white whales that you are compelled to bring Frankenstein alive to the table and bring life to, that is your internal engine, soul, whatever that is saying, “Hey, this is something you need to take a look at.”
I will tell you that if you put 80,000 words down and you have a general understanding of what you’re going after, you’re going to come to a deeper truth. So the beauty of understanding story and craft is that there are these great genres that already have built in themes and one of the great things to do is to start with the genre that is attractive to you.
So say you’re interested in writing mysteries or crime stories, what’s the crime story about? It’s about justice and that’s primarily the theme of every mystery and crime story. Will the perpetrator be caught or will they get away with it? Will justice be served and if justice is not served, how deep on the negative spectrum is it going to go.
Will it become a tyranny? If you are attracted to that kind of story, start there and literary do the Paddy Chayefsky theme of saying, “If justice is served, the world will be okay.” That’s your theme. That’s a pretty good theme. Love conquers all, start with that. You don’t have to plumb the depths of your soul immediately but I think this is a good guiding principle. At least you’re going to have one universal theme running throughout your story that you can play off of and it will get deeper the deeper you write.
[00:32:18.3] SP: But let me ask you this, why is it so hard for people to see the theme in their story or even to grasp the idea of theme period? It seems like they want magic.
[00:32:31.6] SC: They want the magic Steve, they want magic.
[00:32:33.0] TG: No, I see. Remember that toy that you grab it and it slips out of your hand? You can hold it but if you squeeze it, it slides out of your hand.
[00:32:45.9] SC: Oh, right.
[00:32:46.3] TG: You know what I’m talking about?
[00:32:47.4] SC: The super glue glob or something, yeah.
[00:32:50.2] TG: Yeah and it’s like this loop thing that has juice in it and you grab it and it slips out. They’re always at Cracker Carrel and so I feel like it’s that kind of thing because there’s this great podcast with Patrick Rothfuss who wrote The Name of the Wind and then this guy names Max Timkey and Max tried to say what his book was about.
What Pat’s book is about, and he came out with this whole theme of his own but there’s ten different themes in that book that you could extract based on what you’re bringing to the page. I was reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and she said she was at this book signing for Eat, Pray, Love and somebody came up to her and talked about how Elizabeth Gilbert sharing her story of being beat by her husband gave her the courage to leave her abusive husband.
But the thing was that was never in Eat, Pray, Love like she never even implied that her husband had ever laid a hand on her and so what it is, is it’s such a squishy thing because I may read Gates of Fire and get encouraged to be more courageous as a man but somebody else might read it and realize they need to do more sacrificial things. I feel like the more you try to grab it, the more it’s just going to slip right out of your hand because it’s always going to be a little squishy for lack of a better word since I’m a writer now apparently.
[00:34:29.1] SC: Well, think that’s valid but I always think, and Steve correct me, you need to just have one. You need to have your own, as a writer, guiding sort of a North Star and that’s what the theme and the universal truth of the story that you’re trying to express. Other people yes, they bring their own stuff to your story and they can take things out of it that you didn’t necessarily put in at the start.
But the problem is, is when people refuse to acknowledge that a theme or controlling idea is important. So you could either fly in blindness and hope that a theme emerges as you’re writing your book but usually what happens is you’ll write 1500 pages. I think Steve wrote something about this on the site today.
So you write 1500 pages and you’ve got something in there but you’re going to have to cut 700 pages to get it down to what it’s really the core focus of what the book really is about to you. So the specificity to the writer becomes the universality to the audience.
[00:35:41.0] TG: See, I like that idea of a controlling, like calling it a controlling — what do you call it? A controlling idea?
[00:35:47.0] SC: Controlling idea. Yeah it’s definitely one of the key.
[00:35:50.0] TG: Because then, what I’m starting to get at with my own writing is it helps me make decisions about what happens next. So if I have this, I’m going to make some assumptions with Gates of Fire. So if there is this controlling idea of what true courage is, when it comes time for his characters to make a decision, it becomes very clear what decision they’re going to make because of this controlling idea. It says from the beginning they have to go from this direction because that’s what the book is all about.
[00:36:22.2] SP: Exactly. The controlling idea in Gates of Fire was one character, the protagonist and unique through the whole book is always troubled of this idea of he knows what fear is but he doesn’t understand what the opposite of fear is. How do you overcome it? Then finally in the end, the answer is “the opposite of fear is love”.
In this case, meaning love for your fellow warriors in that phalanx where everybody can stay together and having that controlling idea determines who the antagonist is, the Persians in this case, and how for them they don’t have that love and their king doesn’t have that love and so knowing that theme guides you and controls you, the controlling idea all the way through the story.
The weird thing Tim is that I think anybody that’s hooked, any writer that’s hooked by a story, the theme is in there. They don’t have to put it in there. It’s there already. The muse, the unconscious has put it in there because you wouldn’t be hooked by it. If it didn’t have some meaning to you on some deep level.
So in a way, the writer is sort of like a detective where you spell out your story. “Well, I’ve got an orphan and she falls into the ocean and a whale swallows her and she winds up at South Hampton and becomes the wife of Brian Grazer, which is a great story. Don’t steal that Tim, I’m working on that.
But if you put that on the table like Frankenstein or thinking of it like a dream, “What does it mean as a dream?” The theme is in there. It’s like the X Files, the truth is out there. It’s just a matter of sort of digging it and once you got it, then you have the key to the whole thing.
[00:38:12.6] TG: So I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about becoming a successful writer.
[00:38:21.8] SP: Oh that.
[00:38:23.5] TG: Yeah, that’s just a small topic, we have 20 minutes left, we should be able to cover that here. You know, when I look at your path, it’s easy because I was like, “Man, his first book” and it’s The Legend of Bagger Vance but of course, you have this screen writing, you have ad writing, you have all these stuff in your history that led up to that moment.
Me working with Shawn through the Story Grid and all of this stuff is basically me trying to find as many short cuts as possible to success or I could say avoid as many pitfalls and speed bumps that most people get stuck on and so if you were talking to a writer that’s just getting started and they’re trying to write their first novel or they’re trying to lay out their first book and they have this dream of becoming a success, whatever that is.
And maybe they have worked through some of the initial stuff like, “Yes, I know I’ve got to stick with it for a while. I know my first book isn’t going to be amazing, but I want to do this and be successful.” What are the top two or three things where you’re like, “Well here’s the things not to do.” Or, “Here’s the things that you’ve got to focus on and don’t get distracted by these other things.”
When I read just the title of the book, it seems so daunting and what I’ve seen in working with writers and in my own writing is that there are so many things for me to get distracted by that keep me from the goal. So what do you tell writers as they’re just getting started to keep them out of those common pitfalls that really undercuts their success?
[00:40:15.0] SP: Well that’s a great question Tim. Here’s my answer to that. The thing that people overlook, when somebody says, “Well I want to be a successful writer.” The question is, to me, “How bad do you want it? Are you willing to sacrifice basically everything else in your life to have that? Because that’s what it’s going to take.”
[00:40:40.0] TG: Well, okay. See I’ve got to stop you right there. I’m going to stop you because most people’s answer should be, “No.” Like, I’m not going to sacrifice my marriage, my kids, making sure my mortgage gets paid. I’m not going to sacrifice everything to be a writer. I feel like what you just said is one of those kind of BS — sorry, I can’t believe I just said that to you. Anyway, it’s like this because that’s the common thing that gets said and I’m like, “That’s not true because you have…”
[00:41:17.3] SP: Well let me say this to you Tim, I beg to differ with you. Think about Henry Miller, think about Mark Twain, think about Ernest Hemingway, think about Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, anybody. Now obviously people have marriages and they have happy marriages and they lived their lives and stuff like that. But if you’re going to really succeed at something at anything, it’s a heart and soul kind of a scenario and it’s not something that can be done by the numbers.
Let me tell you a small story here. I have a friend, his name is Ioannis Melissanidis. He won the gold medal for Greece in gymnastics in the Atlanta Games and when he was eight years old in Greece, he saw gymnastics on TV for the first time and he went straight to his parents and he said, “I want to do that. This is what I want to do with my life and I want you to get me into a class and sponsor me.”
Now his parents came from a family of doctors. His mom was a doctor and dad was a doctor so they said, “No way, you’re going to waste your life in this stupid thing wearing shorts and flopping around in the gym. You’re going to be a doctor.” So he went on a hunger strike and for four days, he didn’t eat and finally, his parents caved in and the interesting version is the true story he said that, “Okay, we’ll let you go to gymnastics but you have to promise you’ll become a doctor too.”
He said, “Okay, I’ll do that.” And he did. He became a doctor and a gold medalist but that, the concept of a daemon of some inhering spirit that we were born with, that was Ioannis daemon and when he saw that gymnastics thing, he said that that wasn’t even him talking. That was this thing inside him saying, “I want to be a gymnast,” and you read stories of people, actors, they see Olivier or whatever they decide.
Dustin Hoffman decides, “That’s it, I’m going to be an actor, I don’t care what,” and so I would say, there are a million ways you can learn to be a writer, you can study this, you can learn A, B, C whatever it is but the bottom line is do you have a daemon in there that’s driving you because the shit that you’re going to have to put up with is unbelievable and nobody is going to make it. This is probably a bad example but Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump or one of these people, how badly do they want? Who else would put up with that stuff, you know? But I digress.
[00:44:01.9] TG: Well, when I started…
[00:44:02.3] SP: It’s — Tim, sorry.
[00:44:05.1] TG: So this month is 10 years since I quit my job to start my own business and I did two months after my first son was born. I had no business doing it but I wanted it but I put parameters on it. I promised my wife everyday I’d come home at five and have dinner with the family and when my dad would say, “You need to put in more hours,” I would say things like, “I just need to get better at working the hours I’m working.”
So I worry that there’s this pressure on it that I have to sacrifice everything in my life to be successful with this thing and what I think yes, you’ve got to sacrifice watching TV, you’ve got to sacrifice sleep but this idea that you’ve got to want it more than being married, that you’ve got to want it more than being a good father, I don’t buy it.
[00:44:55.5] SP: No, I am not saying that. I’m just saying that in the time that you’re doing it, that you’re a pro, the time, those hours in the day then you’ve got to really be there, right? Like a junkyard dog so it sounds like you’re doing it right to me Tim.
[00:44:55.5] TG: Well that’s just — we’d have to go back and replay what you said but I get nervous because that’s the common thing that gets said. It’s like, “You’ve got to want it more than anything.”
[00:45:24.3] SC: Can I just make a distinction here? Because I think I can see Steve’s point of view and your point of view and I think what Steve is talking about isn’t the external life meaning he’s not saying that you cannot be a good father, you cannot be a good mother, you cannot have a job but what he’s saying is your internal commitment must be absolute.
The internal commitment is the thing that most of us really have problems with and the internal commitment to be a writer or an artist requires that you give up certain things that the culture and your parents and everybody around you is striving for. So if you’re a writer, the notion of ever being able to control whether or not your book is a bestseller, you have to give that up.
You have to give up your dreams of being Stephen King. Stephen King doesn’t dream of being Stephen King because Stephen King is a writer. He doesn’t sit around thinking about all of the things that he has because he’s a successful writer nor does Steve. What they do is they’re committed to their art in such a way that they get their ass in a chair every single day and they give themselves to their craft full bore without any distractions.
Now, I’ve witnessed the way that you’ve deal with your work Tim and it’s very similar. You turn off your e-mail and you do your work when you have to do your work. This is the kind of commitment we’re talking about. It’s an internal commitment that we’re not allow texting or social networking or, “Oh, I’m just going to get a grapefruit out of the kitchen so that I’ll have some citrus while I’m working.” No, it means doing your work with a very clear intention every single day knowing that resistance is out to bite you in the ass every chance it gets.
[00:47:40.2] SP: Let me ask you this Shawn, as an editor, and I know that hundreds of writers have come to you or pitched you stuff or had you read stuff and can you tell almost by looking them in the eye whether they’re going to succeed or not?
[00:47:59.1] SC: No.
[00:48:00.1] SP: Ah.
[00:48:01.5] SC: No, because people are wonderful actors. Think of the masks that we wear every single day and some people, I have wasted — not wasted but I have worked with a lot of people who have been tremendously disappointing because I see it’s like sort of seeing a child and knowing that they’re just a wonderful presence and that they would be a wonderful teacher or a great skier or seeing a greatly talented athlete under four years old.
It’s like seeing Tiger Woods on the Mike Douglas show, when he was four he was hitting drives of a 150 yards and you know that he’s got his daemon, it’s clear. When you see that in somebody and you see that they got the daemon inside, they have it and then they just — resistance destroys them and they come up with excuses and they say, “I don’t work that way and what you’re saying is bullshit.”
[00:49:03.9] SP: You’re the editor and you’re advising.
[00:49:06.7] SC: Yeah, as I am advising them saying the things that I am saying over and over again.
[00:49:11.0] SP: “Find out what the theme is!”
[00:49:13.2] SC: Right. So no, you can’t tell by looking at somebody. That’s why we need to help everybody because you don’t know tomorrow that guy who’s a pain in the ass, he might say, what happened to you in New York in the 1970’s, one day you said, “Oh my gosh, okay, now I know. I’ve got to clean up my shit and I’ve got to do my work and I’ve got to stop worrying and sabotaging myself.” So that’s the thing, you’ve got to allow people to change and so no, you’ never know when somebody is great.
[END OF EPISODE]
[00:49:51.3] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, you can see that at storygrid.com. If you want to see any past episodes or show notes for this podcast, you can see that at Storygrid.com/podcast and then of course, you’re going to be want to pick up your copy of Steven Pressfield’s new book, Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit.
You can buy that at Blackirishbooks.com or of course, you can buy that at Amazon.com as well so make sure you go and pick up a copy of that book. I know you’re going to love it. As always thanks for sharing the show with your friends, rating it on iTunes. It means a lot, and we will be back next week with part two with Steven Pressfield.
We’ll see you then.