In Government Cheese, author Steve Pressfield narrates his roller coaster journey of becoming an author, how he dealt with resistance, the multiple jobs he undertook (Marine Corps reservist, truck driver, secretary, orchard picker, copywriter, cab driver, Golf Caddie, Janitor), navigating the challenges of becoming a creative and the mentors that guided him on his path to greatness.
Steve Pressfield’s story is an excellent reminder of what a lot of creatives go through before they eventually get their breakthrough. Pressfield dealt with shame, poverty, resistance, self-doubt and rejection. But in spite of all these challenges, he persevered, endured, kept showing up daily and eventually achieved his goal of becoming a writer.
Pressfield’s story is a testament to what we can all achieve if we stay committed and dedicated to our craft. Each chapter of Government Cheese is themed around mentors that helped him at every junction of his life. He wrote about people that helped him and taught him life lessons knowingly or unknowingly along the way.
Pressfield did anything to achieve his goals, and he worked at some point as a truck driver, typist, marine corp reservist, secretary to a doctor, typist, lived in a mental home and dealt with shame. Each chapter in the book is named after a mentor that guided him on his path to becoming a writer & better human.
If I had to name a favorite assignment when I drove for Burton Lines, it would be delivering surplus food to churches in those little towns along the Carolina coast. Other trucking companies had contracts for the Piedmont and the mountains, but Burton Lines took the loads that were bound for the eastern part of the state.
What I love about these trips is the idea that you’re doing somebody some good. You’re putting food on people’s tables. Some honorable soul, maybe a pastor or minister, possibly an activist or even a state official, came up with the idea. Or it could have been the dairy industry or industrialized agriculture trying to turn a buck from excess production. I don’t know. But the program has a good heart. It helps people.
As a writer I feel sometimes like I have no ego at all. I don’t even possess a physical presence. Bringing food to people, the transaction is between the farm or the dairy and the ultimate recipient. It’s exactly like writing. You, the driver, are just the medium. No one knows your name and you don’t know theirs. You deliver your cargo this Friday and maybe you’ll be back again two Fridays from now. Or maybe you’ll be somewhere else. Maybe another driver will deliver the next load.
That’s writing. That’s any form of art. You feel in service to something, but you’re not sure what. You hope what you do helps your brothers and sisters, but you know it’s not coming from you.
Pressfield’s Typewriter and his battle with resistance
I carried my Smith-Corona in the back of my Chevy van for seven years. I never used it. Not once, not even to write a letter. I hated it. My typewriter was a constant reminder of my failure as a husband, as a writer, and as a man. Half a dozen times, I came this close to heaving the damn thing out to the alligators. Once in north Georgia, I pulled over in the middle of a bridge. I had the typewriter in both hands at the rail, ready to sling it into the Chattahoochee.
Dealing with Self-Doubt
I can’t remember what my pay was, but it was well south of a hundred bucks a week. My mother-in-law thought I was a weak, feckless loser. She was fearful for her daughter’s future for having linked her fate to mine. To motivate me in my search for better work, my mother-in-law, who was actually a good woman who had been through plenty of tough times herself, used to write on a little blackboard in her kitchen the price of everything she had laid out cash for, that I now owed her. Quart of milk twenty-seven cents, that sort of thing.
My own opinion of myself was lower even than my mother- in-law’s. I was totally and utterly ashamed of myself before my wife. It was excruciating just to see her face when she looked at me. A year or so earlier, when she and I had first split up, I worked for a place called Tinsley Oilfield Maintenance in Buras, Louisiana, downriver from New Orleans. It was a bunkhouse operation where all you had to do was show up and they’d put you to work. Every day now at my mother- in-law’s farmhouse outside Raleigh, I was thinking, I’m too ashamed to stay here much longer. If the van will make it to Louisiana, that’s where I’m going, and I’ll never show my face around here again.
First Writing Job: Ed Hannibal.
My first writing job was for $150 a week as a junior copywriter for Benton & Bowles at 666 Fifth Avenue in New York. This was straight out of college—and six months in the Marine Corps Reserve—five years before Burton Lines. My boss was a precociously talented writer named Ed Hannibal. One day Ed came in and announced he had written a novel. The book was called Chocolate Days, Popsicle Weeks. It was a hit. Overnight, Ed became famous. He was a star. He quit the agency to write full-time.
Harold Great Mentor
I don’t know how Harold senses this about me, but he does. He is a great mentor because he never gets mad or impatient. He isn’t a taskmaster; he just does his job without haste and with solid professionalism. If I have left excess slack in a chain, he’ll tug on it, just enough to show me I haven’t ratcheted the binders tightly enough. “These sonsof- bitches’ll come a-loose on you. Y’ever wanna see a mess, son, see that.”
The work is hard. Pickers drop out every day. The orchard has an incentive system to keep you from bolting. For each bin you pick, the of- fice records one bonus dollar in your account, above and beyond the four bucks you’ve officially earned for that bin. If you stay through the end of the season, you get those accumulated dollars in one final bonus.
I have a friend and mentor, a writer named Paul Rink, who lives down River Road in his camper/pickup that he calls “Moby Dick.” Actually, Paul has a house—the camper is parked in the street out front—but he prefers the camper. He only goes into the house to pee.
Paul talks to me about writers. He has known Steinbeck from Salinas. He lived two doors down from Henry Miller on Partington Ridge in Big Sur. Paul turns me on to authors I have never heard of. Or, if I’ve heard of them, I’ve never had the guts to actually read them. The Greeks: Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes. The Romans: Caesar, Livy, Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius.
“I don’t know what you’re writing, Steve. I don’t want to know. I’ll never read it. I’ll never judge it. All I ask of it, and of you, is that it come from that sacred space inside you and that it stay true, as you write it, to the ideals of that hallowed precinct.”
Paul lectures me on self-discipline. Nothing else counts but getting your pages every day. Be ruthless with yourself. This is life or death. Don’t kid yourself that it’s anything else. Paul doesn’t admire writers personally. “The ones I’ve known are mostly self-involved pricks and egomaniacs. I don’t condemn them. It’s the agony of the process. I wouldn’t want a son or daughter of mine to write. I would try to talk you out of it too, Steve, but I can see there’s no chance of that.”
Nothing else counts but getting your pages every day. Be ruthless with yourself. This is life or death. Don’t kid yourself that it’s anything else.
I write all day. I have no idea what I’m doing. I have never heard of narrative structure or theme or concept or act 1, act 2, act 3. I work en- tirely on instinct. I’m writing, as I said, about Burton Lines, about the trucking company. I’m writing about myself.
Doing the Work
I write all day and read all night. The village has a tiny satellite library stocked with a couple of hundred books, mostly chil- dren’s stories and cookbooks. But you can put in an order to the county system with branches in Monterey and Salinas. The books show up three or four days later. It’s a great system.
I read War and Peace, I read Madame Bovary, I read Fathers and Sons, The Red and the Black, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov. I read Hunger, Anna Karenina, Don Quixote. I read Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, Sexus, Nexus, Plexus, Quiet Days in Clichy. I read Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch.
I wish every aspiring writer or artist could have a year or two years like this—a season when you have no responsibilities except to your own Muse and your own daimon, a run of months when you’re invisible to everybody but yourself, when you don’t give a shit about anything except the challenge before you, when you could drop dead on the street and no one would stop except to step over your cold corpse, and you don’t care.
Using Shame – Creative Solitude
Shame drove me through those twenty-two months, as I said, but the inner journey and internal transformation ran far deeper, even though I didn’t know it then and couldn’t have articulated it if my life had de- pended upon it. There are gods who watch over lost souls, particularly those who dream, and when these divinities’ unknowable purposes align with the enterprise of these exiled souls, a force begins to flow that is as unquenchable as it is pure, and as knowing as it is indefatigable.
When you’re alone with your solitary obsession, each day builds upon the one before. Energy concentrates. Your passion and intensity create a planet all your own, like the one the Little Prince lived on in Saint-Exupery’s book. This planet possesses its own gravitational field, and that field draws unto itself like-minded particles from space, from the aether, from the Big Bang. I mean ideas. Ideas for scenes, for dia- logue, for characters, for conflicts. This field draws phrases you have never spoken. It attracts words you never knew you knew.
On my little planet I don’t read the news or listen to the radio. A bomb could go off down the street and I wouldn’t hear it. My life is the world inside my head. Yeah, every now and then the odd female spends the night. But I eject her—nicely—in the morning. The only physical entity permitted on this planet is my cat.
When you’re alone with your solitary obsession, each day builds upon the one before. Energy concentrates. Your passion and intensity create a planet all your own.
The River of Creativity
As I write this now, almost two generations have passed. Yet the weeks and months of that time remain vivid to me. Nothing in my life before or since has penetrated me like those two years. In our society, we erect altars to love. Songs, movies, and even TV commercials tell us love is the answer. I don’t believe it. I believe in a different kind of love. I can’t define it except to say that it has nothing to do with the flesh, nor is it particularly personal.
The goddess is real. Her stream flows inside you and me like an underground river. That river is our life, our real life. During those two years I lived beside that river. Nothing came between me and it. Each morning I entered the river, and I didn’t come out until I was so exhausted I could no longer swim or stand.
The price of entrance to the river is work. Work is the toll of admission. The river can’t turn you away as long as you’re willing to pay. Paul would tell me that, and Bart too, and what they said was true. If you’re willing to pay the freight, the river has to let you in. That’s the law.
ART IS ARTIFICE
I’ve heard that birds sing out of pure joy. I don’t believe it. I don’t believe writers write or painters paint because they’re bursting with the exuberance of life. They write be- cause they’re in pain. They write to exorcise that pain. They write or paint because if they didn’t, the pain would kill them or drive them mad.
What is that pain? Is it specific? Is it really the love you lost or the child who drowned or the friend who burned to death in a Humvee when you were two feet away and couldn’t save him?
FACT AND FICTION
Before, when I tried to write the truth, everything came out false. Only now, when I’ve given up on facts, am I starting to write the truth. Truth is not the truth. Fiction is the truth.
I’m a writer: WHY AM I DOING THIS SHIT?
Why am I living like this? Am I crazy? I’m forty-two years old. I just got the third paying gig of my life—a five-hundred-dollar rewrite on a porn flick.
I should be ashamed of myself. I should be shopping at Safeway in sackcloth and ashes. Yet—can I tell the truth?—I’m happy. I’m a writer. I’ve tried everything else. Nothing works. I can’t write ads, I can’t drive trucks, I can’t dangle from superstructures a hundred and twenty feet above the Gulf of Mexico.
I’m a writer.
This is what I do. It’s the only thing that makes me happy, or at least keeps me from slitting my wrists.I have this. This page in front of me. This white space.This story in my head. That’s all I’ve got and you know what? It’s enough. It’s enough.
All the best in your quest to get better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion
Comments are closed.