Talking to Resistance: What It Feels Like To Be Stuck in the Middle of Your Novel

Resistance looks at your creative dreams and says: “Ya know, it would be a whole lot easier to eat a box of Girl Scout cookies and binge-watch Cobra Kai.”

Talking to Resistance: What It Feels Like To Be Stuck in the Middle of Your Novel

My morning routine is pretty simple. I wake up, pour a cup of coffee, and then do the following:

  1. Meditate for 15–20 minutes.
  2. Write three pages in my journal.
  3. Do some push-ups.
  4. Plan out my day and make sure that I’ve got everything I need.
  5. Write fiction for 30–60 minutes until it’s time to go to school.

Unfortunately, this routine has started to breakdown in the last few weeks. I keep track of some of these things. I can tell you, for example, that I’ve meditated for four weeks straight without missing a day. I can also tell you that I’ve written in my journal and done push-ups 25 of those 28 days.

The routine has been breaking down when it comes to #5: “Write fiction.”

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting at St. Arnold’s in Houston with my friend Madeline. (We were socially distanced and outdoors, so be cool, internet.) Madeline has recently finished an MFA in Writing at Emerson, and she’s working on edits for her novel because she’s like a real writer with an agent and stuff. Because she’s kind and interested, she asked what I was working on. I told her about the novel that I’d been working on for the last couple of months.

See? Madeline is a real writer.

When I told her that I had kinda stalled out, she asked me how far in I was. I told her that I was 80 or 90 pages in. She said: “Yeah, that’s about the right time.” She went on to describe how there’s a kind of wall that exists at that stage. If you can bust through the wall, then you’re likely to keep going and get things finished up. If, however, you get stymied at this point, you’ll stall out and not make it.

Here we are now, a couple of weeks later, and I can tell you I haven’t written a word of fiction in that time. I’ve got all the right excuses: work, money, my kid’s soccer schedule, etc. But none of those is the real reason. These are all symptoms and excuses. They aren’t the root of the problem.

The root?
The disease?

Easy. This is a manifestation of what Steven Pressfield calls RESISTANCE.

What is resistance?

In The War of Art (definitely an affiliate link, btw), Steven Pressfield describes resistance as a universal force that seeks to stop us from achieving our dreams and becoming the artists we were meant to be. Over the course of about 14 pages, Pressfield defines resistance with these characteristics:

  • Resistance is invisible.
  • Resistance is internal.
  • Resistance is insidious.
  • Resistance is infallible.
  • Resistance is universal.
  • Resistance never sleeps.
  • Resistance plays for keeps.
  • Resistance is fueled by fear.
  • Resistance only opposes in one direction.
  • Resistance is most powerful at the finish line.
  • Resistance recruits allies.

He then goes on to document how resistance crops us and recruits these allies: the self-critic, the mate, the need/desire for procrastination or isolation or any number of other “needs” that we might point to as an excuse.

In short, resistance is that thing that keeps us from doing what we really and truly want to do. It’s a force of nature that kills our progress on the good things in our life. It looks at what’s happening and it says: “Ya know, it would be a whole lot easier if you just ate a box of Girl Scout cookies and binge-watched Cobra Kai.”

Cobra Kai | Netflix Official Site
Decades after the tournament that changed their lives, the rivalry between Johnny and Daniel reignites in this sequel to the “Karate Kid” films.
It's not really about karate. It's an absolutely unapologetic look at the results of toxic masculinity.

To which, of course, you say, “You’re not wrong, resistance. I hear you.”

Before you know it, you’re lying in bed, Thin Mint crumbs scratching at your skin, and the Netflix machine showing you high school kids kicking each other in the cafeteria.

Resistance is a mean business. And it’s utterly real. I even drew a picture of it:

This is resistance, my friends. This is your enemy.

What does resistance sound like?

On this particular novel project, a strange modern fairy tale about a young man who is given the option to resurrect his recently deceased mother, resistance manifests itself as this nagging voice reminding me that I’m not doing anything worthwhile.

“Stephen,” it says, “This really sucks, doesn’t it?”

“I’m sure there’s something in here,” I reply. I pound out a few more sentences on the manuscript. I pause to go back and check something.

“The whole thing’s a mess,” resistance says.

My immediate reaction is to say, “You’re right.” Intellectually, I know it’s true. I buy into Anne Lamott’s notion of shitty first drafts. This is a first draft; ergo, it must be shitty. Typically, that’s fine. We can just fix the draft when we rewrite. We can take this lump of text I’ve built up and sculpt it into something usable.

“But aren’t some drafts just too shitty to be salvaged in the rewrite?”

It’s resistance again. It’s back.

“Yes,” resistance says, “This draft’s shiftiness is most definitely beyond repair.”

Resistance and I continue to have a conversation for the next several minutes. We go back and forth, but mostly I’m just confirming what resistance is telling me. Resistance is saying that I’ve missed opportunities in early parts of the draft. Those missed opportunities have caused me to fork my novel down a certain path, a path that we lead only to flaming wreckage.

“In fact,” resistance says at one point, “You should probably close the laptop and just set it ablaze.”

“Come on, man,” I say.

But resistance is not interested in my opposition. Resistance knows that I’m vulnerable at this point. My inner critic is primed and ready to destroy whatever creative progress I’ve been making.

And it works.

The novel is not finished. I’m still at 80-90 pages. Blürg.

How do we vanquish the foe?

Still working on that...I'm gonna have to reread Pressfield. Let me know if you have ideas!!!