From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for any author, so worth looking for.
As with so many books that end up on my shelves I don’t quite remember where or when someone—or multiple someone’s—recommended The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, but I’m glad that recommendation—and finally the book—got to me.
I read books on writing, and I read a fair lot of them, and often I find, as I’m sure you have, that a lot of the advice is more or less the same. That’s because though there is literally infinite variety to creative writing, there are a few craft essentials that get you from weird idea to something strangers at a distance can read and understand. That’s why books that focus on the craft of writing tend to say many of the same things.
But there are also books that focus less on the craft of writing (where to put the quotation marks, why it’s “better” to “show” rather than “tell,” etc.) but on what I like to call the writing life. In The War of Art, successful screenwriter and novelist Steven Pressfield (The Legend of Bagger Vance, Tides of War, etc.) takes on a subject that’s actually lots more complicated, and lots more difficult for any working author (or would-be working author) to get a handle on than the entirely learnable craft stuff. Here we get into how to actually sit down and write. How we get motivated, find time and enthusiasm, to put all that craft knowledge and creative spirit into practice.
I needed this book right now, and I know this is a book a lot of authors will need either now, eventually, or from time to time.
This book tackles procrastination and the fear behind it, in what Pressfield refers to as “Resistance.”
There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.
What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.
The book is split into three parts: Resistance, Combating Resistance, and Beyond Resistance. I’m going to focus mostly on the first two parts, because I think it’s in the third part that Pressfield staggers a bit. Going beyond identifying a common problem then offering some hands on solutions (the first two parts) gets him into a muddy area of talent, faith, metaphysics… and I get it. Now we’re looking for the wellspring of creativity, and that’s as mysterious a place as any ever imagined by tapping into the unknowable wellspring of creativity.
I read the book in three days, in one short sitting (one part) every day. I could easily have read it all in one sitting—and this is a good thing. The text is made up of short “chapters” that are clearly presented and written in a conversational but still authoritative voice I really appreciated. He doesn’t hem and haw, or waste time qualifying his arguments. He has a point to make in each of these short bits of wisdom, and he gets right to that point.
Beginning with the idea that Resistance is essentially the part of our inner monologue that, one way or another, scares us off the act of sitting down and writing (or creating any art), headings include clear statements like:
RESISTANCE NEVER SLEEPS:
The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.
RESISTANCE AND PROCRASTINATION
The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit. We don’t just put off our lives today; we put them off till our deathbed.
RESISTANCE AND CRITICISM
Individuals who are realized in their own lives almost never criticize others. If they speak at all, it is to offer encouragement.
RESISTANCE AND SELF-DOUBT
The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.
RESISTANCE AND FEAR
The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.
RESISTANCE AND SUPPORT
Seeking support from friends and family is like having your people gathered around at your deathbed. It’s nice, but when the ship sails, all they can do is stand on the dock waving goodbye.
In the second part, Combatting Resistance, Pressfield narrows the subject down to the simple concept of professionalism. Is this something you’re going to take on as a profession or as a hobby?
I’m not sure I agree with everything here, especially what I read as him urging us all to quit our day jobs—or else. He also does what I hope we can all start to move away from, which is to reinforce the negative aspects of a career in the arts:
The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.
Personally, I experienced all of these things back when I used to work in retail. This shit’s part of life—the writing life, the record store life, the insurance agent life…
But beyond that, Pressfield gets into the deeper idea of “professionalism” as a mindset, with statements like:
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 or why to the gods.
I get it! Harlan Ellison called writing “a job of work,” while at the same time sucking out the full life-force of a million muses. In order for your words to be infused with the magic of creativity there have to be words.
This section ends with:
There’s no mystery to turning pro. It’s a decision brought about by an act of will. We make up our mind to view ourselves as pros and we do it. Simple as that.
And I know that, if we’re still laboring against what Pressfield calls Resistance, that doesn’t sound so simple at all, but by the time you get this deep into The War of Art, you might just feel differently.
The only way to know for sure is to read it yourself.
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