Slaying the Dragon of Resistance
Showing up to do the work is at least half the battle
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Over the course of my life, I have had a handful of dreams about what I wanted to be when I grew up.
For a little while, when I was 5 or 6, I wanted to be a farmer. But only because I thought it would be fun to drive a tractor, so that doesn’t count.
A couple of years after that, I wanted to be an actor. My best friend’s mom was the drama director at the local high school, and starting in first grade, I was an extra in their annual production for five years straight. Although it was kind of terrifying, I found it thrilling to be on stage in front of an audience. I loved the feeling of being part of a production. I loved hanging out with the cast, showing my adorable baby siblings off to the high school senior girls who would gush and fawn over them — and more importantly, over me as the doting big brother — like young women used to do before they stopped caring about kids and started worrying more about racking up body count high scores and talking about their “fur babies.” I never had more than a single line in those plays, but I was funny and I could do accents and I had charisma and I knew it.
Throughout high school, I had teachers tell me I should get into acting or comedy. It felt good to hear it. And I seriously thought about doing it.
But I knew I didn’t want to be the kind of famous that meant I could never go walk around a mall without being recognized and mobbed, and as I grew into a more attentive kind of adolescent Christianity, I worried about the morals of that life, too. I eventually abandoned the dream, but still got a degree in radio and television production because I loved telling stories with media, and enjoyed both being on camera and on the microphone in the studio. Looking back, I can see how the self-recorded skits I did on my boombox as a kid, and the radio show I had in college were all precursors to the podcasts and shows I would later produce for my own business. It felt like a natural extension of the same craft.
I considered psychology and marine biology but they didn’t stick. I’ve worked in PR and Real Estate and Association Management and none of them satisfied.
The singular golden thread, the interwoven theme through my life that I somehow failed to realize was what I really wanted only became clear to me right around the time I was finishing up at university, and I rediscovered something I had known innately as a child:
I am a storyteller.
See, when I was little, I would sit in the back of my parents’ station wagon, in a rear-facing seat — back when they had such things — and I’d create stories on a little notepad I’d bring with me. I would draw page after page of action and adventure images until I made myself desperately car sick. Most of the time, I wouldn’t write any words. What I drew looked more like storyboards, individual scenes, advanced one page at a time, as I would narrate them in my mind, or even out loud.
When my parents finally got our first PC when I was ten, I started writing more in-depth stories — or at least their beginnings — in whatever DOS-based editor we had at the time. I’d print them out on our noisy dot-matrix, with the tear-away perforated margins on the side — the ones with the little round holes that the printer wheel teeth could dig into to advance the page. I have folders with those story fragments in them even now, tucked away in a bin of curated personal effects from my youth.
In the fifth grade, I won an all-school writing contest for a short story called, “The Knight Who Drew Himself.” It was a fairly blatant
ripoff of homage to The Indian in the Cupboard, but with a knight instead of an Indian. (I was obsessed with drawing knights at that age). That book had not yet been made into a movie, though, so it was less well-known than it is today, and every word of what I wrote was original.
Hey, you know what they say: good artists borrow, great artists steal.
In any case, winning that competition came with a prize: a trip to Bantam Books to learn how novels are published.
My dad took me, and I remember sitting in an audience, zoning out during whatever the grownup with the microphone was talking about. It mustn’t have made an impression, because I don’t remember a single word.
What I do remember was the feeling I got when I had a chance to go peruse some of the books they had published, and my dad agreed to buy one for me to take home.
I chose the book that looked most promising. It was called, A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Leguin. I had never heard of it. This was the cover the book had at the time:
So began my initiation to the world of fantasy novels, and many of the concepts therein.
And it was the first time I can remember thinking that I wanted to become a novelist.
I was an avid reader all throughout childhood, and I’d spend countless hours pouring my attention into books that transported me to a different time and place, and into worlds where the rules were different. I read the Hobbit, of course, and the Narnia books, but also authors like Raymond E. Feist, Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, Terry Brooks, Robert Silverberg, Robert Heinlein, William Gibson, and many more.
As a teenager, I thought a lot about writing my own science fiction or fantasy novel, but I couldn’t break through my own apprehension over how to go about writing a story I actually liked. The more I wanted to do it, the more elusive it seemed to become. I would start story after story and abandon them all. I got frustrated, and before long, I found myself in a place of permanent procrastination when it came to writing books. As I began to travel more and transition to the world of young adulthood and going to college, the novelist dream got back-burnered.
Little nudges along the way also changed my course. I recall one particularly deflating conversation with my uncle, a man I respected very much and whom I asked to be my confirmation sponsor because of how earnestly he lived his Catholicism, when I told him (I was probably about 12 or 13) that I wanted to work on developing video games.
He told me he thought I should devote my life to something that mattered more. I really took that to heart, and stopped considering going into game design. I was a very obedient child, and a people-pleaser. Easy to guilt trip. I soon let the idea go. But writing science fiction didn’t feel much more meaningful. After all, it was all just made up entertainment, right?
Before long, through that same uncle, who had a cousin in the Legionaries of Christ, I started going on retreats, then doing summer camps, then living with the Legion in Dallas and going to their school there, traveling around doing missionary work. After graduation, I moved to their house of apostolate in Atlanta, where I led a youth group and taught 7th & 8th grade religion at their academy there. Half way through that year of apostolate, deeply unhappy, I finally got the courage to leave — a story I’ve told many times before. But my time with the Legion had given me a zealous sense of religious mission, and it was something I couldn’t seem to let go of, even after I left them.
During my junior year in university, in the fall of 1999, I had the chance to spend a semester in Europe. When I arrived there in Austria, excited to see the old world I had read so much about for the first time, I had mostly forgotten about the novel-writing dream. Sure, it was always there in the back of my mind, but the more convinced I became about the importance of my religious faith, and my aptitude for sharing it with others, the more I had shifted in the direction of working in some kind of apostolate.
At the time, the Internet was not universally available, so to send emails to the folks back home, we’d have to go into the little computer lab in our 700-year-old Austrian kartause and type up our message as a Word document. We’d then save it to a floppy disk with our name and room number on it, and hand it to the lab assistant to send out during whatever chunk of internet time the school had budgeted for being online, which they paid for by the hour.
But since I wasn’t sitting down to write a conventional email, and since I was on the grandest adventure of my life, I chose not to write conventional correspondence.
I wrote stories.
Stories like I had been writing since I was old enough to know how to put a sentence together. Stories that brought back the joy of writing the kind of descriptive narrative that hooked me on science fiction and fantasy when I was a kid. Before long, I was thinking about writing novels again, and seeing places that were foreign and exotic to me had me brimming with ideas.
Unbeknownst to me, my mother would take those emails and forward them to everyone she knew. When I came home that Christmas, everyone I saw started telling me how much they enjoyed my writing, and how I should keep doing it.
But the evangelist in me wasn’t ready to quit just yet.
My college major was Communication Arts, with the aforementioned concentration on radio and television production. I ended up adding theology as a second major, and when it came time to do my senior thesis, I did a joint-major paper on “Media, Society, and the New E-vangelization.”
I saw the potential for what the Internet could become in service of the crusade I’d been on, at that point, for the better part of a decade. At the time, it was dialup-only, and pretty barebones. Online video was almost non-existent. People were still getting their news from the papers and from cable television — the latter in real time, since DVRs and streaming were still years in the future. Blogs and social media did not yet exist. But I had a feeling about what was coming, and what I thought needed to happen. I wrote:
The Internet’s potential as a social tool against injustice is only one facet of its tremendous potential. The ability of the end-user to decide what information he wants to receive and when, an idea sometimes known as “narrowcasting,” has limited the possibilities of the media elite to use information control to manipulate the thought of society. Instant data transfer of video, text, audio, pictures and other media allow for total information literacy on the part of the user. The greatest difficulty in net usage is that too much information is available at a disproportionately low bandwidth. (Bandwidth is the data transmission capacity of the communications infrastructure that the Internet is based upon.) This means slow wading through vast oceans of data to find what is relevant. But as Internet technologies advance and are refined, as well as with the impending expansion of bandwidth due to new data-transmission applications, the Internet will be the media form du-jour – espousing all other known media forms in one in the proximate future.
It’s a bit eerie to look back and see how prescient this paragraph, written 23 years ago, actually turned out to be.
Of course, I didn’t know where I was going with any of this. I only knew I wanted to go somewhere with it. The technology at the time was not on par with my ambition. Websites still had to be painstakingly hand-coded. Blogs and social media and platforms like Wordpress and Substack did not yet exist. But the Austria missives inadvertently enkindled a fire in me to return to writing, my first and greatest love.
When I went back to our American campus the next semester, I got a column in the student newspaper. It wound up being fairly popular. Although my life had taken some detours, I started to really enjoy writing again.
In December of 2001, just 7 months after graduation, I was at the wedding of one of my best friends. I was shocked when the mother of the bride, an English teacher herself, hugged me near the line of folks saying their goodbyes to the happy couple and spoke into my ear:
“You have a real gift for writing, and you have to use it.”
She looked me in the eyes with her distinctive, piercing gaze, and I could see she really meant it.
I had no idea she had even read anything I’d written, let alone the first clue why she’d mention it as her daughter was about to leave the wedding reception. The unexpectedness of this sudden endorsement, and the forcefulness with which she said it, really made an impression on me.
Her voice, and the voices of others I respected, kept me searching for the right opportunity to really lean in to writing as my main gig. In job after job, I’d do all the writing work I could get my hands on, but it was never the central focus of my work. Most of my writing remained extracurricular, and all of that extracurricular writing was focused on politics and the Church.
Although I could never have predicted it at the time, a dozen years after the wedding where I was admonished to use my gift, I would leave my day job and go on to found what would become one of the most-read online Catholic publications on the planet. I would start a podcast that would grow to over ten thousand subscribers. I would personally write over 1,000 articles, and edit and publish many more. I thought I had finally found “the one,” the career that utilized all the wildly varying skills I had picked up over the years. It was all very serious and important and “meaningful,” and for a while it was pretty exciting.
But we all know how that ended.
So now, here I am, feeling like I’m back at the beginning again. I’ve come to love writing essays and reflections like this one, even though they were never the form of writing that I dreamed about doing. After writing millions of words in this style over the past two decades, it has become second nature, and there’s a certain comfort in that. It’s still work, but it’s work that comes fairly easily through the fruit of constant, sustained practice.
And it’s not enough.
I want to go back to the dream that was always there, right from the beginning. I want to write fiction. I did my tours of duty doing something “meaningful.” I want to do something less “meaningful” and more fun. I want to use my gift for words to delight and entertain and inspire and provoke imagination. I want to stop just beginning stories and actually start finishing them.
And I have almost no idea what I’m doing.
For all intents and purposes, I am eleven years old again, standing in the offices of Bantam Books, knowing I can write, but having no recipe for how to do it at the level that is necessary for an audience to want my book. How to ensure that that book, when it’s finally finished, is the one picked up by some other 5th grader off a folding table to bring home and lose himself in after he won his all-school writing contest, and maybe even be inspired to write his own books.
I have started and stopped countless times. I have a folder open on my PC as I type this with 17 different story starts that never got finished, and that’s just one of a bunch of a different folders that have filled up over the years.
My first attempted full novel draft, Halcyon, which I abandoned at about 60,000 words, was written in 2013. It started as a NaNoWriMo exercise, but fizzled out when I realized I hadn’t done nearly enough work on world building and figuring out the plot. It was a sci-fi story, as most of my stories tend to be. The main character was a young woman who, made techno-kinetic by means of experimental technology implanted by her scientist father who worked for the oppressive regime she lives under, revolted against the Orwellian AI-controlled government.
Fun concept, poor execution. It had some great scenes and themes, but I wrote myself into a corner and never found my way out. After founding 1P5 the following year, I never really came back to it to figure out if it could be fixed. It remains a project for another time — probably after I get better at innately understanding novel-length story structure so I can identify the weaknesses and hopefully sort things out.
Last year, I finally began fiction writing again in earnest. I started a new story about the UFO phenomenon, with the working title, The Alamogordo Incident. It incorporates many of the themes I’ve picked up from the research on the phenomenon that I’ve conducted over the past 7 years since Glowing Auras and ‘Black Money’: The Pentagon’s Mysterious U.F.O. Program was published in the New York Times. That article brought me back to a topic I had studied with great interest as a boy, but had given up on as my life shifted in the direction of those more “meaningful” pursuits.
As of this writing, I am 34,603 words into the first draft of TAI, and every day I procrastinate harder than I have ever procrastinated in my life avoiding the work of just. doing. the writing.
I could have been done three times over by now if I had just been consistent in my daily work. But I really do feel like I’m wrestling a monster.
This thing I’m fighting with has a name, and I know what it is. It’s what author, novelist, and screenwriter Steven J. Pressfield calls “Resistance.” Here’s a screenshot of an actual page from his excellent book, The War of Art, which I am reading for a second time:
That’s it. That’s the whole page. And he’s 100% right.
But even when you know he’s right, it doesn’t get even a tiny bit easier to just sit the hell down to write.
Film critic Roger Ebert was fond of saying, “The Muse visits during the process of creation, not before.” You’re not going to feel inspired before you put your fingers to the keyboard and start pushing the buttons. You think you need to wait for the Muse to show up and prompt you, but she never does if you’re busy doing other things. You must sit in front of the blank screen and sculpt words into discernable shapes. The liminal space between thinking about writing and actually writing is a terrifying place.
Author Neil Gaiman has a rule that forces him to be in this space:
More from Pressfield on Resistance:
Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic? Ever quit a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? Have you ever bailed out on a call to embark upon a spiritual practice, dedicate yourself to a humanitarian calling, commit your life to the service of others? Have you ever wanted to be a mother, a doctor, an advocate for the weak and helpless; to run for office, crusade for the planet, campaign for world peace, or to preserve the environment? Late at night have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.
Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease, and erectile dysfunction. To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius. Genius is a Latin word; the Romans used it to denote an inner spirit, holy and inviolable, which watches over us, guiding us to our calling. A writer writes with his genius; an artist paints with hers; everyone who creates operates from this sacramental center. It is our soul’s seat, the vessel that holds our being-in-potential, our star’s beacon and Polaris.
Every sun casts a shadow, and genius’s shadow is Resistance. As powerful as is our soul’s call to realization, so potent are the forces of Resistance arrayed against it. Resistance is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, harder to kick than crack cocaine. We’re not alone if we’ve been mowed down by Resistance; millions of good men and women have bitten the dust before us. And here’s the biggest bitch: We don’t even know what hit us. I never did. From age twenty-four to thirty-two, Resistance kicked my ass from East Coast to West and back again thirteen times and I never even knew it existed. I looked everywhere for the enemy and failed to see it right in front of my face.
This Substack that I’m writing right now? This is what Resistance looks like for me. Far easier to write this and feel a mild sense of accomplishment than to face the blank page at the beginning of the next chapter of my book and figure out what the hell is supposed to happen next, while the Editor in my head keeps nagging at me about everything I’ve done wrong so far. I say I desperately want to finish, but I drag it out.
I need to conquer this. It’s my personal Mount Everest. I know I have it in me, so why can’t I just do the work??
Of course, Pressfield wasn’t always successful, and didn’t always understand why. Here he is, talking about what he experienced early in his career, and how he learned to do what needed doing:
In my late twenties I rented a little house in Northern California; I had gone there to finish a novel or kill myself trying. By that time I had blown up a marriage to a girl I loved with all my heart, screwed up two careers, blah blah, etc., all because (though I had no understanding of this at the time) I could not handle Resistance. I had one novel nine-tenths of the way through and another at ninety-nine hundredths before I threw them in the trash. I couldn’t finish ’em. I didn’t have the guts. In yielding thusly to Resistance, I fell prey to every vice, evil, distraction, you-name-it mentioned heretofore, all leading nowhere, and finally washed up in this sleepy California town, with my Chevy van, my cat Mo, and my antique Smith-Corona.
A guy named Paul Rink lived down the street. Look him up, he’s in Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. Paul was a writer. He lived in his camper, “Moby Dick.” I started each day over coffee with Paul. He turned me on to all kinds of authors I had never heard of, lectured me on self-discipline, dedication, the evils of the marketplace. But best of all, he shared with me his prayer, the Invocation of the Muse from Homer’s Odyssey, the T. E. Lawrence translation. Paul typed it out for me on his even-more-ancient-than-mine manual Remington. I still have it. It’s yellow and parched as dust; the merest puff would blow it to powder.
In my little house I had no TV. I never read a newspaper or went to a movie. I just worked. One afternoon I was banging away in the little bedroom I had converted to an office, when I heard my neighbor’s radio playing outside. Someone in a loud voice was declaiming “. . . to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” I came out. What’s going on? “Didn’t you hear? Nixon’s out; they got a new guy in there.”
I had missed Watergate completely.
I was determined to keep working. I had failed so many times, and caused myself and people I loved so much pain thereby, that I felt if I crapped out this time I would have to hang myself. I didn’t know what Resistance was then. No one had schooled me in the concept. I felt it though, big-time. I experienced it as a compulsion to self-destruct. I could not finish what I started. The closer I got, the more different ways I’d find to screw it up. I worked for twenty-six months straight, taking only two out for a stint of migrant labor in Washington State, and finally one day I got to the last page and typed out:
I never did find a buyer for the book. Or the next one, either. It was ten years before I got the first check for something I had written and ten more before a novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, was actually published. But that moment when I first hit the keys to spell out THE END was epochal. I remember rolling the last page out and adding it to the stack that was the finished manuscript. Nobody knew I was done. Nobody cared. But I knew. I felt like a dragon I’d been fighting all my life had just dropped dead at my feet and gasped out its last sulfuric breath.
Rest in peace, motherfucker.
Next morning I went over to Paul’s for coffee and told him I had finished. “Good for you,” he said without looking up. “Start the next one today.”
I don’t know a whole lot about who or what I am anymore, which is a terrible thing to experience at my age. I’m 46 and a grandfather twice over. More than half of my life is likely already gone. And now here I am, and it feels like someone pushed the reset button on everything. I am starting over, from scratch.
But I am still a writer. I still have all that writing already under my belt, even if it isn’t the kind I want to do now. It took me many years to feel confident enough to say I was a writer when people asked me what I do. I had so much wanted to say it and it felt amazing when I finally thought I’d earned the right to do so. I had such a bad case of imposter syndrome.
Right now, floundering as I am to start something new and successful with my words, I still have imposter syndrome. But I can’t walk into a Barnes & Noble and see (and smell) all those books without remembering what it was like to be the kid who dreamed of seeing his books on the shelves of any bookstore he walked into.
I’m just starting 20 years later than I thought I would be. Not great, but better late than never.
At the moment, I’m reading a book by the legendary music producer Rick Rubin. The book is called, The Creative Act: A Way of Being, and it has been a revelation to me. The entire thing feels like a meditation to me more than a text. Especially the audiobook, which is read by the author in his characteristically calm, deliberate, soothing voice. I am finding the advice within its pages very applicable to the process I am trying to undertake:
While the emotional undercurrents of self-doubt can serve the art, they can also interfere with the creative process. Beginning a work, completing a work, and sharing a work—these are key moments where many of us become stuck.
How do we move forward, considering the stories we tell ourselves?
One of the best strategies is to lower the stakes.
We tend to think that what we’re making is the most important thing in our lives and that it’s going to define us for all eternity. Consider moving forward with the more accurate point of view that it’s a small work, a beginning. The mission is to complete the project so you can move on to the next. That next one is a stepping-stone to the following work. And so it continues in productive rhythm for the entirety of your creative life.
All art is a work in progress. It’s helpful to see the piece we’re working on as an experiment. One in which we can’t predict the outcome. Whatever the result, we will receive useful information that will benefit the next experiment.
If you start from the position that there is no right or wrong, no good or bad, and creativity is just free play with no rules, it’s easier to submerge yourself joyfully in the process of making things.
We’re not playing to win, we’re playing to play. And ultimately, playing is fun. Perfectionism gets in the way of fun. A more skillful goal might be to find comfort in the process. To make and put out successive works with ease.
Oscar Wilde said that some things are too important to be taken seriously. Art is one of those things. Setting the bar low, especially to get started, frees you to play, explore, and test without attachment to results.
This is not just a path to more supportive thoughts. Active play and experimentation until we’re happily surprised is how the best work reveals itself.
Rubin, Rick. The Creative Act: A Way of Being (pp. 77-78). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Here’s Rubin talking about how it’s important when making art to make the art you want, not the work you think your audience wants:
I am going to be working hard this year at overcoming Resistance.
I am going to be learning how to have better conversations with The Muse.
I am going to remember that my work is an experiment.
I am going to remember that to create things is to play.
I am going to work on the story I want to read, making art for me, and trusting in the fact that if I like it, others probably will too.
I am going to slay the Dragon of Resistance.
I am going to type out “THE END,” and I’m going to do it this year.
Hold me to it.