Book Review: The War of Art

Book Review: The War of Art


Main Points
The War of Art is a masterpiece everyone should read. Buy it!
• We all have to overcome ‘resistance,’ the tendency to resist doing our life’s work.
• We overcome resistance by becoming a pro, treating our art as if it were a professional career.
• We can rely on Muses for inspiration and help, whether that’s something divine or something innate.

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield, is one of my favorite books on creativity. It’s a tiny piece, less than 3 hours on Audible (audio format), and should be a quick read for anyone who wants a motivational kick in the pants. It eschews the technical details of writing and delves into what it means to be an artist/writer. This post will cover his main three sections–how to fight our natural tendencies to not create art, how to turn pro, and how to rely on higher realms for inspiration.

Resistance The problem of getting anything of value done
Pressfield states the number one enemy of anyone with a dream is resistance, the natural urge we all have that keeps us from developing our skills, pursuing our dreams, or engaging in any helpful behavior. Resistance causes us to do ANYTHING but our real work, be it TV, video games, hanging out with friends, procrastinating, overly focusing on ‘healing,’ doing irrelevant research, pretending we’re not good enough, and the list goes on.

Some great quotes from this section (paraphrased): “The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more resistance we feel in pursuing it.” “Fear and resistance can be a great indicator of what we actually want to do. If we face great resistance in creative work, we can know that’s where our heart really wants to be.” “If you find yourself asking, Am I really an artist, a writer? Chances are you are. The counterfeit is wildly overconfident. The real one is scared to death.”

Sometimes, we give into resistance by spending too much time learning our craft. Obviously, there’s merit to that, but I personally can’t count the number of times I’ve not written because I’m learning. If learning is an excuse, it’s not worth it. If learning is actually done to train/improve, it’s worth it.

Pressfield goes on to write, “the only way to cure our restlessness/unhappiness is by doing our work.” I’ve definitely seen that play out in my own life. When I avoid writing (or doing what needs to be done) there’s a hollowness that infects me. And while distraction numbs this restlessness momentarily, it returns as soon as I’m not being distracted. The only way to get over that restlessness is to write (or do whatever I need to be doing). My writing may suck. It may be awful, but actually doing it is the one path that will get me over my slump and into a feeling of success.

Fighting Resistance Becoming a professional misery lover
The best way to fight resistance, according to Pressfield, is to become a pro. This doesn’t mean quitting your day job and selling everything you have so you can focus on your art. What it does mean is treating your art as a professional would, the same way you would a career. “The amateur plays for fun, the professional plays for keeps,” Pressfield relates. It’s the difference between writing as a hobby versus writing as a serious business. According to Pressfield a pro does the following:

  1. Shows up every day.
  2. Shows up no matter what (sickness, emotional health, bad case of the Mondays, doesn’t feel like it, etc.).
  3. Stays at the job all day until it’s done (or at least the correct amount of time).
  4. Is in it for the long haul. Jobs may change (as will what we’re writing) but we’ll continue to work for our living.
  5. Knows the stakes are high and real. Art should be viewed with the same commitment as putting food on the table and a roof over our heads.
  6. Accepts remuneration for labor. The artist works for money. We’re not here to have fun.
  7. Doesn’t over identify with our job. We can take pride in our work but we aren’t defined by it.
  8. Masters the techniques of our job.
  9. Has a sense of humor about our job.
  10. Receives praise or blame in the real world (not just from friends/family).

The amateur is the complete opposite of the pro. She or he doesn’t show up every day, doesn’t show up no matter what, leaves early, doesn’t master the technical aspects of his or her trade, can’t receive real world criticism, etc.

Pressfield’s likens a pro to being a marine, which he became in 1966:
“There’s a myth that Marine training turns baby-faced recruits into bloodthirsty killers. Trust me, the Marine Corps is not that efficient. What it does teach, however, is a lot more useful. The Marine Corps teaches you how to be miserable. This is invaluable for an artist.” Becoming an artist/author is, “signing up for a lifetime of disappointment, rejection, struggle, self-doubt, isolation, and ridicule.”

As such, we have to learn to deal with the miserable times because the nature of writing is struggle. As Pressfield’s friend related to him when his first movie failed, “It’s better to be in the arena getting stomped on by the bulls than in the audience or the parking lot.”

Separating Yourself: Self-Incorporated
Pressfield makes the case to separate one’s personal-self from the art and create an actual division. As an author, you’re a company of one, with one employee that you can hire or fire (you) at will. As an author, you might not be able to take criticism, but as the company of Self-Incorporated, you can! Killing your darlings might be difficult for the writer, but not for the CEO of the company who has to make the bottom line.

Having some sort of physical indication that the switch has been made can be useful. You can wear a different hat, or walk around the block before writing. Pressfield has an entire ritual before he writes: reciting a prayer to the Muses from The Odyssey, wearing a lucky necklace, sitting is a specific position, etc. I followed suit and bought a ring that I wore when I wrote at work. The ring helped get me into a writer’s mode. It was a clear distinction between my actuarial work and my work at lunch as a writer. I’d definitely recommend trying this: include some sort of ritual or token into your writing. But don’t let the rituals become part of your resistance!

Tapping into the Muse Divine help or just good old intuition
Pressfield’s last section details his beliefs in accessing higher realms of inspiration, angels, God, Muses, etc. He’s careful to add that if you don’t believe in those then just believe in innate talent or the mind’s wondrous ability to subconsciously process information.

He draws inspiration through the rituals I mentioned earlier, by being humble about creating art, learning his craft (so that when inspiration does hit he knows what to do with it), taking walks, and letting ideas percolate.

One of his finest points here is that to get the attention of the Muse, we have to write what’s in our heart, not what we think the market wants. For me, whenever I write something I don’t really want, it’s like pulling teeth. But when it’s something I know I want my heart sings. The same applies to sections in my books. Sometimes they don’t feel like they’re working. When that happens, I try a different way. When I get the feeling that it’s exciting, I know it’s right (or at least it’s better than before). To me, that’s more writer’s intuition than a divine Muse, but whatever it is, I’m grateful for it.

This is definitely a book I’d recommend to anyone, not just writers, or people with artistic inclinations. The lessons are invaluable, well thought out, easy to digest, and quick to learn. Pressfield has an amazing way of storytelling, and the book is filled helpful anecdotes, guidelines, and great advice. Highly recommended to read and reread.

So what do you think of Pressfield’s ideas? Do you agree? How is art like war? Have any of you read his work? If so, what do you think?

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