Here is an excerpt from Steven Pressfield’s book Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work printed on the back cover:
The passage from ameteur to professional is often achieved via an interior odyssey whose trials are survived only at great cost, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. We pass through a membrane when we turn pro. It’s messy and it’s scary. We tread in blood when we turn pro.
These were the first words I read when I was given this book as an assignment over the weekend. I have never read Pressfield’s work, which includes novels and other nonfiction, but I did see King Kong Lives and it still is one of my favorite terrible movies (Pressfield does regard this screenplay as a failure, which is fair). Given the limited examples I know, I think it’s alright to admit I judged this book by its cover and wasn’t disappointed in my conclusion.
I couldn’t read this book in public because of the faces of disgust I made. Not only at the above quote, which is an absurd metaphor that turns birth into a battle scene, but probably on average once per three pages (the book totals 132). I put sticky notes in the margins to find the worst ones later, and I ran out of sticky notes. I started tearing the squares in halves to increase mileage, then thirds, and I ran out of sticky notes. Steven Pressfield forced me into OfficeMax during finals week.
This is a self-help book trying to disguise itself as nonfiction. Every online bookseller markets it as an educational tool to aspiring writers and entrepreneurs, and I stopped looking at blogs and reviews of teachers who actually used it in their classroom. I think it goes for nonfiction because, like the worst self-help books, it tells the reader all about her personal flaws (whether or not she knew them or even agreed) but gives no practical steps to remedy. If I took it seriously, it would undoubtedly drive me to drink.
According to Pressfield, what is wrong with myself and everyone else is we are “amateurs” in everything we do. Early in the book are “Three Models of Self-Transformation” that say we can either punish ourselves and atone for our sins of personal inadequacy, view ourselves as “ill” and “flawed” and in need of “treatment,” or we can read this book.
I’m disappointed in my choice of action.
The greatest parts of this book are the personal anecdotes — the parts that actually make it nonfiction. Pressfield has lived a varied life, and if he were to write a memoir I would really really think about buying it from the bargain bin. But the three examples of his own life in the whole 132 pages don’t give me much desire to seek it out.
This book is written from the perspective of a bitter Baby Boomer who thinks the root of societal problems are born and bred on the internet. He romanticizes addiction as a side effect (and perhaps requirement) of the artist, and gives the example that alcoholism is a replacement for unsatiated addiction to success. Obviously, he adores the most misogynistic American authors — the very ones that make me, a woman, extremely ashamed to be heterosexual — with no regard to the consequences of their idealized lifestyle: To Pressfield, Jack Kerouac was the leader of a generation and On the Road was inspiration for his vagabond dreams, but he conveniently omitted Kerouac’s regrets for that life years later in Big Sur; he channeled Ernest Hemingway in his search for a tough and manly “shadow career,” and his short, choppy sentences void of prose (see Ursula K Le Guin’s wonderful response to this trend); and he defended Henry Miller’s alcoholism (and, by extension, the other two authors’ as well) and glorified life.
And, in true masculine fashion, he uses the grotesque and the controversial as ethos, because if it sparks emotional response, it must be just what you need to hear (a tactic used by preachers much of my life, and led to my 19-year-old break from religion). Everything about “turning pro” can be inappropriately equated to sex and war.
Do you remember where you were on 9/11? You’ll remember where you are when you turn pro.
I bet he also “rejects PC culture.”
“Turning pro” requires self-examination, to break from the tribe (that Pressfield claims doesn’t exist and is wholly unnecessary; turns out I don’t need friends after all) and accept yourself as “different” to become better. It’s a modern take on Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, though it’s never referenced, where the poet urges Kappus to spend time alone, to fully know the self to become the artist. This is noble advice.
But the artist has to reenter society eventually. It is selfish to believe a person can be disconnected from life as it is, that what we create and consume isn’t a part of our collective culture. It is completely wrong to think any one of us are exempt, yet that’s the trendiest belief of white men who don’t see the privilege of choosing to remove themselves from this narrative. Yes, I did learn this from Twitter.
Despite my glaring opposition to much of this book, there are still points of light in its pages. Late in the book, Pressfield recounts the moment he realized he began to “turn pro.” It was completely mundane, the simple decision to clean dishes that had been piling up, and he catches himself whistling. More accurately, he probably saw himself emerge from depression and turned a corner to change his life. It would be years before he wrote anything worthwhile, but that didn’t matter. “What counted was that I had, after years of running from it, actually sat down and done my work.”
The hit of this was completely unexpected. I wasn’t ready to find any part of this book that was actually for me. But this felt like a description of my own life. I am the master procrastinator, and I dread starting any project; if I’m not immediately excited for it I may never begin. I lack that discipline. I know fully once I make that first step, the rest comes easily and I remember how much I love this work. I become addicted to the work itself, to paraphrase Pressfield. But that first step is a bitch.
We may bring intention and intensity to our practice (in fact we must), but not ego. Dedication, even ferocity, yes. But never arrogance.
The space of the practice is sacred. It belongs to the goddess [Muse]. We take our shoes off before we enter. We press our palms together and we bow.
Do you understand how the mystery can be approached via order?
As I mentioned before, Pressfield’s own stories are enlightening and relatable (even, in an odd way, when he introduces an orange tom cat as his first hero), and if this was an entire book of his life it would be more useful. Instead, it is over 100 pages of preaching without any bible to back it up, only his own lowercase word, whether that’s from his god or muse or whatever addiction and idol worship he wants to romanticize next.