By turning the title of Sun Tzu’s ancient battle strategy The Art of War neatly on its head with The War of Art author Steven Pressfield is making a bold statement. But it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that the book is every bit as fundamental and essential a read for creative people as the Chinese text has long been for the military (and the cunning business types who later adopted it).
Now a well respected historical novelist and screenwriter, his background as a US marine suggests that the word ‘war’ is not one that Pressfield takes lightly. But this is an internal battle, against the forces within us which keep us from moving forward.
Here’s how he describes his beliefs on writing and creativity on his website:
My writing philosophy is a kind of warrior code—internal rather than external—in which the enemy is identified as those forms of self-sabotage that I call “Resistance” with a capital R. The technique for combating these foes can be described as “turning pro.”
Now I’ve read a lot of books on creativity, and indeed many other topics, but I can say that none have had the dramatic effect on me that Pressfield’s book has. It was an instant wake-up call, making me realise that every day that went by that I wasn’t being creative was a wasted day because for whatever reason, I need to do it to feel good about myself.
It made me realise that the best way to stop being my usual miserable self was to get to work and practice my writing (and other creative skills) as often as possible. Now there has been the odd relapse, but I have written for approximately half an hour most days during the last six months and the effect on my confidence has been enormous.
What Pressfield is saying is, if you really want to conquer resistance to doing your creative work (or any other major thing that you want to achieve, whether it be run a marathon or start a business) you have to get serious about it. You have to accept that this is a daily battle against the forces within you which would rather take the easy way out and keep you firmly within your comfort zone. Deciding that you will do whatever it takes to win that battle is what Pressfield refers to when he talks about “turning pro”.
Whilst viewing things from this perspective may seem daunting at first, it’s actually a great relief to realise that you no longer need to blame or criticise yourself for your lack of progress in the past. Resistance is a fundamental aspect of human nature, and you’ve simply been lacking the correct strategy to overcome it. By identifying it and committing to fighting it, the book offers you the means to conquer the internal forces that seems determined to stop you achieving your goals.
The Daily Battle
The War of Art unfolds over various short passages exploring different aspects of what constitutes resistance and ways of combating it by committing to being a pro. One of the most affecting for me is ‘What a Writer’s Day Feels Like’. Nothing I’ve ever read before has so accurately captured the feeling of frustration I have if I go for very long without being creative:
I wake up with a gnawing feeling of dissatisfaction. Already I feel fear. Already the loved ones around me are starting to fade. I interact, I’m present. But I’m not.
(–)What I’m aware of is Resistance. I feel it in my guts. I afford it the utmost respect, because I know it can defeat me on any given day as easily as the need for a drink can overcome an alcoholic.
As long as he can get his creative work done each day, Pressfield describes how he can then relax and enjoy life and spending time with his family. Beating the resistance within himself feels literally like a weight off his shoulders:
The tension drains from my neck and back. What I feel and say and do this night will not be coming from any disowned or unresolved part of me, any part corrupted by Resistance.
In the final section Pressfield explores the spiritual aspect of creativity, what he calls the Muse. Again from his website, here’s a summary of what he believes:
I believe in previous lives and the Muse—and that books and music exist before they are written and that they are propelled into material being by their own imperative to be born, via the offices of those willing servants of discipline, imagination and inspiration, whom we call artists.
My conception of the artist’s role is a combination of reverence for the unknowable nature of “where it all comes from” and a no-nonsense, blue-collar demystification of the process by which this mystery is approached. In other words, a paradox.
I can understand how this latter section might put some people off if they don’t share the same views, but most creative people at least acknowledge the mysterious nature of inspiration – even if it is only 1% of the creative process, as per Thomas Edison’s famous quote that ”genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration”.
The War of Art is essential reading for anyone who has ever procrastinated and delayed doing something that they know will improve their life, whether it be creative or not, because it lets you identify resistance and gives you tactics to defeat it. I also recommend following Pressfield’s Writing Wednesdays series in which he shares his continued battle against resistance – he is also currently sharing some of the processes involved in the publication of his latest book.
Have you encountered resistance to being creative or to achieving other goals in your life? Have you read the War of Art? Let me know in the comments.
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