In 2007, I was 21 years old and I was sitting in Philly’s Pizza in Beverly Hills. I was on my lunch break. Every day I would get two slices of pepperoni and olives and read. That day it was a re-read, a chapter in 33 Strategies of War about the Battle of Marathon. There was a line in it that stood out to me, still does in fact. Something about how as the Greek soldiers returned to Athens to fight their second battle, they were “caked in dust and blood”.
I wanted to know everything about it. So I emailed Robert Greene, the author, and I asked him what sources he’d used when he was researching about this famous event. He told me that one of the sources was a book called The Greco-Persian Wars by Peter Green.
A few days later it arrived—Amazon was a little slower then—and that week I began to read it over my pizza at Philly’s as I always did. Finally, I got to the end of the Battle of Marathon. There it was—the soldiers rushing back to Athens, caked in dust and blood. Not nearly as exciting, no explicit lesson, but I could see the source material. I could see how it lead to the final product in Robert’s book.
This is a critical moment in every aspiring artist’s life. When the craft they have long elevated as magic or beyond their grasp suddenly becomes a bit more comprehensible. Not completely so—but the more than it ever was before.
If you’ve ever listened to Brian Koppelman—the screenwriter behind movies like Ocean’s Thirteen, Rounders, The Girlfriend Experience and Solitary Man—interview creatives, they almost all have their own version of this experience. In fact, he calls it The Moment.
For instance, the director John Dahl was watching the movie A Clockwork Orange on a date in a drive-in movie theater. He wasn’t really paying attention—in fact, he had to go back and see the full movie the next day—but in his distracted state he noticed something. It was the way the classical music was contraposed against a violent scene. It hit him: Somebody made that choice. The director chose that, in order to set a mood.
The comedian Bill Hader has a similar experience. He was watching Taxi Driver as an eight year old with his father. In one of the film’s most uncomfortable scenes (it was Robert De Niro, as Travis Bickle, an unstable Vietnam war veteran calling back Betsy, the girl he took out the previous night to a porno theater on their first date), the director had the camera slowly pulling away from De Niro. Bill Hader realized for the first time that someone was deliberately manipulating the camera this way. That the artist behind the scene, just like Bill did as an outside observer, was uncomfortable too—and expressing that exact same emotion through the film.
In a later scene, when De Niro shoots a pimp in the gut, Bill saw the same effect at play—the filmmaker deliberately positioning the camera across the street as if the viewer is sitting right there on a stoop watching the terrible scene unfold. He realized, as an eight year old, how the filmmaker was making their choices and how the camera placement was having a psychological impact on the viewer.
Now for someone who isn’t an artist—or doesn’t quite get it yet—these moments might seem insignificant. In fact, the vast majority of people who watched those movies or read those books missed it entirely. Or rather, didn’t miss it because there wasn’t anything there to see for them.
And now, hearing about those experiences, they might even be a little glad they were able to enjoy the experience without being pulled from it. I hear that a lot from people: Is it annoying they ask? To never be able to consume the same way? Aren’t you ruining part of what makes it special?
But that misses the point. In fact, it’s this moment that you begin to understand the medium in a new way. It’s when you truly fall in love with it. Because you realize that on the other side of the works you admire and love is just another human being. And you’re a human being too—which means that if you work hard enough, you can do the same thing.
That’s why Koppelman calls it THE MOMENT. Because it’s the moment where your perspective becomes fundamentally different. Where you take your first step down your path.
Let me show you for a second, the two lines that were part of my moment:
Here it is in Peter Green.
“The reappearance of the Marathon warriors — grim, indomitable, caked with dust and sweat and dried blood […]”
Here it is in Robert Greene.
“Within a matter of minutes after their arrival, the Persian fleet sailed into the bay to see a most unwelcome sight: thousands of Athenian soldiers, caked in dust and blood, standing shoulder to shoulder to fight the landing.”
One book was an academic text that probably sold a few thousand copies to college professors. The other is considered a classic and is translated in dozens of languages. In Robert’s, the scene is told in the form of a short story, contextualized as a lesson called the “The Divide-and-Conquer Strategy” and then followed by a section titled “Interpretation” which explains how and why to apply the strategy in specific detail. Both Green(e)’s care about the same historical event, but one has innovated the presentation in a way that helps many more people.
It was here that I realized: Hey, this is actually a job. And why can’t I be someone that does it for a living?
This is how I became a writer.
But, wait a second.
In the title of this piece I said I don’t believe in epiphanies. I don’t. I’ve written before that I think they’re bullshit. And how is an epiphany different than a moment?
An epiphany is when suddenly everything changes. We think they’re these bold and brash things.
Believe me, it’d be nice if it worked out that way. I’d love to have a badass epiphany. Wouldn’t you?
Here’s the thing about moments. They’re much more subtle. At least mine was anyway. So much so that I didn’t realize it was a moment until this week. I didn’t realize it until I was driving in my car and heard Bill Hader describe his on Koppelman’s podcast. When he did I realized, “Hey, I had one of those too.”
At the time, all I actually got was a bit of encouragement. It was just a little crack in the previously intimidating craft that I was drawn towards. It was months, a year maybe, before I had a similar experience with another book.
Paradigm shifts, as Thomas Kuhn observed, take time. They are in accumulation of insights and inconsistencies, that over time, make it possible for innovators to confidently propose new theories. This requires putting yourself out there–exposing yourself to all kinds of work and experiences (and apprenticing under great people), knowing that eventually it will coalesce into something.
In this way, it’s less about THE moment and more about moments. Each one getting you a little closer to where you need to be, each one breaking down the medium a little bit more. Until, eventually, you have an understanding that is vastly different than the one you had before.
Until eventually, you’re a creator in your own right.