Tyler Durden’s Rules For Writing In The Zone, part 1

“How much can you know about yourself, you’ve never been in a fight? I don’t wanna die without any scars.” (all quotes in bold from the character Tyler Durden in the movie FIGHT CLUB)

We know ‘the zone’ as a state of higher mental consciousness in which we focus so completely on the task at hand that we become one with it. The task itself flows as effortlessly as water.

I think of this as “deep writing” (taking the term from Eric Maisel’s book of the same name). People in the zone are relaxed, calm, and alert. This is when your brain shifts down into the alpha and theta brain waves that release creativity and tap into the treasure chest of the subconscious, filled with the knowledge, skill and benefits of experience that we don’t even know we have.

Steven Pressfield in his book THE WAR OF ART talks about the battles we all must undergo with the enemy he names Resistance (defined as anything that keeps you from writing and mired in creative procrastination).

As Hugh MacLeod put it, we must “fight like hell” to get in the zone and stay in the zone so we can produce our best work.

Observes Pressfield:

The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.

It’s a writer’s private Fight Club and it “exists only when Fight Club begins and ends when Fight Club ends.”


“No fear. No distractions. The ability to let that which does not matter truly slide.”

It appears to take around 15-20 minutes of working to warm ourselves up to maximum productivity and enter the zone.

We can get knocked out of it as quickly as a phone call or a knock on the door. Then it takes another 15-20 min to get back into the zone…and if we’re too tired, stressed, procrastinating, etc., it can be difficult if not impossible to climb into the zone at all.

It’s our responsibility to create a writing environment that enables us to take our writing seriously.

To develop the mental toughness that can withstand interruptions if not screen them out altogether.

To decide what’s important enough to spend our time on – and just as importantly, what isn’t.

In his essay “Relax…Work on the Difficult” Seth Godin points out that our “culture of overwork” doesn’t actually make us any happier or more successful. It just ensures that people keep working hard at the wrong things.

The “ability to let that which does not matter truly slide” means developing the ability – and the balls – to recognize the right things from the time-wasting things and eliminate the time-wasting things (also known as the 80/20 rule, where 80 percent of your results come from 20 percent of your efforts).

If you’re busily engaged in the wrong things, you won’t be writing – or writing well.

“You do not talk about Fight Club.”

It’s also our responsibility to show up, shut up and start working on schedule – or even to have a writing schedule – so that writing ourselves into the zone becomes part of our daily or near-daily routine.

I give you more of the wisdom of Steven Pressfield (just substitute “deep writing” or “writing in the zone” for Pressfield’s references to the inspired-by-the-gods or mystical dimension of writing).

A pro views her work as craft not art. Not because she believes art is devoid of a mystical dimension. On the contrary. She understands that all creative endeavor is holy, but she doesn’t dwell on it.

She knows if she thinks about that too much it will paralyze her.

So she concentrates on technique. The professional masters how, and leaves what and why to the gods…

The professional is acutely aware of the intangibles that go into inspiration. Out of respect for them she lets them work. She grants them their sphere while she concentrates on hers.

The sign of the amateur is overglorification of and preoccupation with the mystery.

The professional shuts up. She doesn’t talk about it. She does her work.

–more tomorrow–


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Filed under the creative life

82 responses to “Tyler Durden’s Rules For Writing In The Zone, part 1

  1. Another great post. I follow a number of blogs, and yours really is a standout.

    I find that I can get into the zone, but staying in it becomes the challenge for me.

    After the warm-up I can usually get between 30-45 minutes of good focused time before another part of my brain starts crying out for stimulation.

    • Thanks! That “standout” comment totally made my morning.

      Isn’t 45 min or so supposed to be the amount of time a person can really concentrate on anything? I will break off at regular intervals when writing or studying something, and I wouldn’t be surprised if those breaks came around every 45 or 50 minutes.

  2. Great concepts here. I really like the idea of “deep writing”, very evocative way to put it. For me, this state occurs when I’ve been writing for awhile-I go straight through with no breaks, and somewhere in there I forget about what I am doing and it’s just automatic writing, straight from my inner self. I’ll left brain it later when I edit, and when that comes, I do shape and cohere content somewhat, but there always seems to be some innovation, some new item that I’ve brought on shore as I dragnetted my subconscious.

    • “automatic writing, straight from my inner self” — yeah, that’s the magical state, the zone, the flow. it sounds like you can access it pretty regularly. kudos.

      i also love the phrase ‘deep writing’ — it’s what i’ve learned to strive for, feels different from the ‘shallower’ kind, whether it’s fiction or a blog post.

  3. The sign of the amateur is overglorification of and preoccupation with the mystery.

    Lawdy, ain’t that a big fat Truth.

    I’ve found that it’s a tough truth for aspiring writers to hear unless they’re ready to understand it, though…it seems that those who loudly rely on the descent of a Muse or three tend to be somewhat less able to receive criticism in a dispassionate and practical way. Which makes a certain amount of sense: if you’re wrapped up in The Mystery of your process, your writing feels like holy writ and is therefore untouchable. (Not that I’ve ever behaved that way, of course…I have always received criticism with gracious equanimity. 😉 )

    I spent too much time over the past couple of months thinking about method and nuts-n-bolts writing type things, and it just about squashed all my short term inspiration…but your recent posts here have served as oddly synchronous touchstones. This is the third time I’ve come here to find that you’ve posted something I’ve been trying to get a handle on. Not frequent enough to be, you know…get out of my miiiind weird…but it’s been a funny little common wave to ride.

    As with many things, it’s about balance…between knowable craft and ineffable process, in this case. Trouble is, I seem to achieve balance through wild pendulum swings instead of minute tightrope-walker style adjustments. Must work on that.

    (BTW, Amazon has finally seen fit to ship me Uninvited, which I ordered in November…looking forward to it!)

    • I think there’s something to be said for wild pendulum swings, especially where creativity is involved…I find myself skeptical of ‘balance’, not so much of the concept (which seems important) but what it actually might look like or how it’s actually attained. Maybe what feels imbalanced when you’re right in the middle of it turns out to be balanced when you’re finally able to step back and look at the bigger picture….All the stuff you feed your mind about ‘knowable craft’ (I really like how you phrased that) manifests itself through process, but sometimes you have to spend a lot of time on the one in order to let yourself loose on the other….We think of ourselves as either writing or not-writing, but maybe there’s a third space called preparing-to-write. I don’t know. Still figuring this out myself, obviously….To everything there is a season, and the intuitive part of you knows exactly what season you should be having. But it’s hard not to second-guess that, interrogate it, inject it with all kinds of doubt, beat it to death.

      Thank you for ordering my book, I really appreciate that.

  4. shellie

    I am so thrilled that I have stumbled upon your blog. Can’t wait to see what else it has to offer!

  5. woke up late this morning. but a pleasant blog to trip on.

    my problem still hasn’t been about warming up but rather about finishing the thought before it disappears.

    • do you carry a notebook & pen around with you, to capture those thoughts? I use — in theory, anyway, I can be pretty lazy about this (or stupidly cocky, assuming I won’t forget anything that is too important to forget) — the app Evernote on my iPhone. It’s cool.

  6. Hi Justine,

    I’m a first-time reader, and I found this post helpful and interesting. I’m going to check out the rest of the “rules” right now. Thanks for your work!


  7. i think that movie its awesome¡¡ Edward Norton realise a magnific character and some things that said about who you are? and about the system let me to think about it.

  8. Jim Hagen

    “The professional shuts up. She doesn’t talk about it. She does her work.”

    You shouldn’t give advice you don’t follow.

  9. Tom

    You got told Mr Hagen.

    Cool blog Justine.

  10. I’m sorry, but i get 2 things from this, 1 you are inspired by great talent, and 2 you are putting the pussy up on a pedestal, so to say. sometimes the “time-wasting things” is just what you need. it is the irrelevance that truly allows us to enjoy ourselves. Just let it flow my friend, throw out everything that paralyzes you, and see life how it truly is, amazing in every unbelievable way. whether it be a strangely beautiful moth, or a tragic taco incident, everything is compelling in its own strange, twisted way. I normally would have passed on this, and feel almost fooled by the picture and quotes of fight club, truly ingenious work, it is for that i actually read all of what you wrote. So in the end, i suppose, salute.

    • Frigs — maybe I should have clarified, but blog posts are so brief that it’s hard to pack everything in — by timewasting I meant doing the stuff you *don’t* enjoy but feel obligated to do — when the truth is that, in the end, the stuff doesn’t serve any real purpose and isn’t worth your extremely valuable time — Tim Ferriss writes about this in The 4-Hour Workweek — his whole point being (more or less) that if you recognize and eliminate that 80 percent, it frees up time that you can do absolutely anything with, including “waste” it.

      If you enjoy it, and get something out of it, it is never a waste. That’s what time is for.

  11. woah, didnt mean to offend, just making a joke, good post though

  12. I was on my way to blog about focusing on what’s important and letting the rest slide when I stumbled upon your blog. Ah, sweet irony!

    I look forward to reading more. (And to watching Fight Club.)

  13. This is it: this IS the experience of creation. You effin nailed it! “People in the zone are relaxed, calm, and alert. This is when your brain shifts down into the alpha and theta brain waves that release creativity and tap into the treasure chest of the subconscious, filled with the knowledge, skill and benefits of experience that we don’t even know we have.”

    • Thanks. I’ve been very influenced by writers Eric Maisel and Kelly Stone, who both write about the creative process — Maisel takes a very Zen approach at times, and Stone talks a lot about the subconscious, what it does, how to access it.

  14. hm lashe

    I enjoyed reading your post, you really get to the heart of it. love the part about the writer needing to concentrate on her own sphere… let the mystery take care of itself. great. looking forward to tomorrow’s.

  15. holy mother of angels. it is so good to read this.

    i love writing but i usually feel REALLY sub-par because i can’t get into it or i get distracted or blah blah blah.

    good to know i might not be alone, and that writing isn’t necessarily something that instantaneously happens to you. amazing to know.

    it’s kind of weird to be relieved that everyone should actually have to WORK at it? that I SHOULD be working hard to get it done?

    • Writing is HARD. Not always — sometimes it really does flow — but a lot of times it’s just struggle, procrastination, more struggle, more procrastination, and the only thing that gets you in the chair sometimes is when the pain of not-writing is greater than the pain of writing.

      The rewards, though, are infinitely worth it — writing, even if it’s just an email, can give me this deep, settled sense of calm. It rounds out my day and adds richness to it. It’s a good way to live.

  16. Suzy Dooley

    All I had to do was substitute “writing” for jewelry design…it works for all creative endevors…thanks for the gem. Some people think that it is always divine and most of the time it is, but the work is still the work, and we all have to focus..nice job!!

    • Thanks. I’m really glad you can relate — I might be talking specifically about writing, but want to explore the creative process in general, creativity & the creative life, etc. Plus I think it’s really important to find inspiration in fields other than our own, to find those relationships and make connections between ideas.

  17. mothtoflame

    I’m learning quite a lot about writing from your blog. And the reference to the film Fight club is just genius. I think that made it easier to comprehend. Thank you for sharing your knowledge of writing. Kudos to you.

  18. There’s a lot of new faces in here which means people have broken the first rule of Fight Club.

  19. Thanks for the great post. I’m a travel writer, tour leader and full-time procrastinator and found this post SO true. I’m adding you to my blogroll now so I can continue to be inspired…though I have the sneaking suspicion that reading your blog (and the fact that I’ve only taken up blogging in the last two weeks) is yet another procrastination technique on my part to avoid working on the travel guidebook I’m supposed to be writing at the moment…opps 🙂

  20. Good post. Here’s another quote that is somewhat relevant, “If you want work to get done, give it to a busy person.” So before we can get stuff done, we need to get busy, in your case “in the zone.” Sometimes starting to work, starting with something small, albeit of less importance, gets the ball rolling and the engine heated up. Then once you are at an efficient enough level, immediately jump into the things you see as important and where your efficiency will be more beneficial.

  21. Fredrik

    There are so many aspects of your blog that I like.
    You can consider me a fan from now on.

    And.. yes… I’d like to make babies with you.

    Be well, and happy new year 🙂

  22. I love this posting!!!
    I think that this – ?In his essay “Relax…Work on the Difficult” Seth Godin points out that our “culture of overwork” doesn’t actually make us any happier or more successful. It just ensures that people keep working hard at the wrong things.” – is the cause of 80% of talented writers not writing, honestly.

  23. Leo

    I really enjoyed this.

  24. Thank you for this post. I found your blog by accident because this post was on WordPress’ homepage when I went to log in. There are some excellent reminders here about avoiding distractions and getting into the zone. And Fight Club is one of my favorite movies (as well as novels). I look forward to reading through your archives.

  25. gregorylent

    the zone is just another name for the self.

    get the shit out of our systems, the zone is 24/7.

    it is what meditation is for.

    no drama needed.

  26. Thats real!
    Sometimes to enter in the zone I use my favourites songs. Here I want to le t u one

    The idea behind the fight club is powerfull. Each time you touch it, you get a new clue!

  27. Your post reminded me of that story (whether factual or not) about Samuel Coleridge’s opium-induced dream, where he – whilst in “the zone”, we might assume – imagined his poem “Kubla Khan” (a.k.a. “A Vision in a Dream”).

    Thing is, when he got to write it down on paper, the now-famous “person from Porlock” knocked at the door. After the visit Coleridge went back to the writing, but he was no longer inspired… no longer in the Zone, I guess.

    Distractions can really unplug you from the creative flow. It’s frustrating when it happens, but hey, that’s life.

    Nice post, cheers and happy New Year.

  28. hey Justine,
    This is my first visit to your blog, but this post resonated with me immediately. I’m a painter, and everything here applies to my experience as well. I guess all creative people who are relatively self-aware recognize “the zone” and the circumstances that surround it. And that “image” and financial rewards are essentially irrelevant to the creative process. Your reference to Hugh MacLeod was right on the mark.
    thanks for writing.

  29. Great post, just the thing I needed to read today! Thanks.

    “If you’re busily engaged in the wrong things, you won’t be writing – or writing well.” – can I get a hell yeah? I think I can.

  30. Is your name really “Musk”? Just askin’.

    This is my first visit to your blog. I can see that I’ll have to set aside some quality time to check it out. You are now officially bookmarked. Thanks!

  31. Really interesting read; thank you for posting. I’m reminded of Stephen King’s timeless advice in his book On Writing:

    “If you want to be a writer there are two things you must do: Read a lot and write a lot. That’s it. There’s not shortcut, no easy way out.”

    Also the classic song by Ned’s Atomic Dustbin comes to mind:

    “Kill Your Television”

    Rock on.

  32. kai

    That is really interesting.
    i draw more than i write but that applies to me as well. Sometimes it is hard to get in the zone, for me. Once I’m in the zone, I’m at full blast.

  33. Great post. In the zone is an interesting concept. A couple of times having been in the zone, I have been startled to the point of almost “jumping out of my skin” when someone came into my office. Look forward to the next post.

  34. Thanks for this fun post. I don’t think I really believe in “the zone,” though. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that when I get into some mystical state of mind where the writing just flows out, it usually ends up sucking and I have to go back and rewrite everything. 🙂

  35. stoffainkorea

    Great Post! In my opinion, the points you make are true for all disciplines. Given the tie in to Fight Club, I will offer physical training as an example where similar rules apply. The first thing most fighters do when working out is grab a jump rope and warm up. This helps start the transition from the outside world to the gym, where focus is necessary for a solid workout. Fifteen minutes with the rope and not only has their body warmed up, but their mind has made the shift to a new environment with new expectations…the outside world stays outside for the next 45 minutes. Now, you are in the world of hard physical work, sweat, blood, and pain. Workouts that flow are few and far between, but when they come, they are magic sometimes even euphoric (fasting/cutting weight and hitting a solid workout puts you in another world altogether). Once you have felt that magic, you want to feel it again. But, you can’t find it without the discipline to show up at the gym. What makes fighters go to the gym…the thought lurking on the edge of awareness that today just might be the day! Sharing rituals that increase the probability of finding that flow state are greatly appreciated. Thanks for this post.

  36. Marla Singer

    Don’t forget about me.

  37. Gabriel Irons

    Wonderful article – and a piercing look into the way that truly creative people view the creative process!

    To outsiders, it seems magical or spontaneous, but to the creator (writer, artist, sculptor, anything) the process is mundane, an everyday occurrence. The magic is in everything.

  38. Great posts. Glad to have found your blog.

  39. Mikey

    Justine, I enjoyed reading your blog. You have lots of interesting things to say. I did, however, find all the white space between sentences and short paragraphs to be distracting. I don’t like having to keep one finger on the scroll bar in order to read. It may have something to do with the fact that I read quickly, but by the end I was a bit dizzy, having to zoop way up or down to re-read a passage.

    Your points are cogent and significant. Would you mind packing them a little closer together?

  40. pmdello

    I blog about my cancer. Yet, I’m in remission so I find myself trying hard to write something about nothing. It’s become a good exercise.

    Your “show up, shut up, and start working…” reminded of the commitment writers must embrace.


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  43. situatistzain

    concentration . the key word that i find sometimes hard to do .

  44. fallingnotflying

    Interesting read, thanks for posting

  45. eva2ava

    I don’t spend my time well. Maybe because I don’t really believe myself to be a writer. It calls to me though. I sneak in time to write in between all of the other things I should be doing. So when I write something, I let myself be distracted by anything, everything, because it’s not real, this writing thing. I need to make better use of my time. It’s valuable. Good advise. Good links. I’m happy I found your blog.

  46. Totally agree with your views on writing.
    Once I read about a lady writer from Spain who would say:”today I have letters”,and that day she would isolate and write furiosly,or other days she would say:”today I have no letters”,and on such days she would enjoy going out with friends,or go shopping;and I also agree on the fact that there is no such thing as a waste of time when you enjoy what you did,what the greeks referred to as “divine leisure”,when the artists relaxes,the creativity comes to the surface.Great reading you.Carlos.

  47. cooper

    As someone who is lagging behind at finishing the final draft of my first novel…..thanx for the kick in the ass…you are on the money….

  48. This is wondrous, and I’m so happy to have found. Thank you!

  49. This is a great post. For me, the biggest struggle—over the past two years of running my design business full-time—has been attaining the focus necessary to “just get the work done, already!”

    I admit, there was a time when I had much more control over my time, what I could do with it, and my general sense of peace and confidence. (Those factors play big into being able to attain that fleeting sense of focus and clarity.)

    But as life progresses and changes, it tends to shake things up—and for me, “getting in the zone” has been a two-year running joke! I hope you are having a better time of it…


  50. Donnie

    Great post. Anyone that cares about creativity can relate to this concept, and benefit from the understanding that you have provided.

    I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks!

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  55. I loved this post, which really struck a chord with me, particularly the concept of “deep writing”. I guess this is why I’m struggling to finish my novel in short bursts; I need to be able to devote enough time to be able to slip into the zone. I need to work without the distraction of flicking through my iPod library and in the words of Tyler Durden, “let go.”

    Thanks for this – I’ll definitely be checking this blog in future.


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