steven pressfield on learning how to write

How do you become a good writer? There are many paths, but there’s an interesting section in Steven Pressfield’s memoir Govt Cheese. He tells tales from his time in Hollywood, when he still had no wins under his belt and was working under Ronald Shusett. Officially they worked as a team of writers, but Pressfield felt like it was more an apprenticeship where he did the bulk of the actual writing work.

He describes how much work he did, how little credit he got for it over a period of four years, and you just get the sense that it’s not a fair deal. Even considering that Shusett is a filmmaking genius with a big name, it seemed exploitative. But then Pressfield concludes this section of the book as follows:

How do you learn to write? This is how. You toil as a galley slave under the lash. Row us from Venetia to Alexandria.

You do.

You want to.

You learn by being left alone, like me on the road in South Carolina with the fried electric plug in the rainstorm. Life forces you to solve a problem, and when you’ve solved it and gotten it wrong, you are sent back to get it right.

Collaboration works too. You sit in rooms with your partner or your boss, beating your brains out trying to make a story work. I come up with ten ideas. Stanley rejects nine. And he’s right. He has picked the one good one. Each time I ask myself, What did I learn? Why did he pick that one? What is he seeing that I’m not?

And how can I teach myself to find that?

Then there are times when Stanley is wrong. You learn even more from these. You learn that you can be right without the master’s approval.

In essence, you learn how to write through prolific practice, aka working your ass off on the thing you want to get really good at. You produce a lot of output, and if you’re lucky enough to work with someone who is great at the craft and who will give you feedback and mentorship, most of the time you probably won’t have to offer them anything other than the sweat of your labour. I don’t believe that’s necessarily how it must be done, that that’s the only way, but it surely is one way.

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