Thursday, October 13, 2011

The War of Art

Another quick Kindle read, but diametrically opposite to How to Quit Twitter, Steven Pressfield's The War of Art has been sitting unread for a while. I read about it on the Conversion Diary blog (not normally where I get book recommendations, I guess), and then I think I picked it up on deep discount. At any rate, seeing that the book is about overcoming resistance to produce creative work, I figured it was something I should read. Over my years in grad school, I've discovered in greater and greater detail the ideas and problems I find interesting, even as my ability to sit down and focus and work and write seemed to be evaporating. Very worrying, going into the dissertation. So I read The War of Art.

The first part of the book is about Resistance. Yes, it's always capitalized. Pressfield informs you that your self-doubts, your procrastination, your self-sabotage, and your general feeling of despair are all part of Resistance: a negative spiritual force that is actively trying to prevent you accomplishing the things that will help you better yourself and the world. Pressfield catalogs all the forms and characteristics of Resistance and throughout this, I was like the Samaritan woman of the Gospel.
"Come and see a man who has told me all things whatsoever I have done." (John 4:29 - the rest of the verse is "Is he not the Christ," but note that in the interests of not blaspheming I have cut that out)
Pressfield just nails it. The "chapters" aren't even chapters, they're sort of zen-like blurbs, little nuggets of all the troubles and anxieties and whatnot you've been feeling but unable to articulate for ages. By the time I finished this first section, I was pretty much sold.

In part two, Pressfield argues that the one way to defeat Resistance (however temporarily) is to "be a pro", and again he catalogs the traits of the professional and how these counteract Resistance. Although "being a pro" is an act of the will, something you have to decide to do, in part three, Pressfield describes the angelic forces, the muses, the inspiration that will start to help you once you decide to put your head down and do the work. The third part gets a little... out there... but it still has plenty of good concepts.

The most prominent metaphor Pressfield uses is that of warfare, and even before he talks about his time in the Marine Corps, you can tell the guy's a Marine. This is more a slap-in-the-face sort of self-help book than a healing circle, and the bottom line is: you need to get to work. As I read this, I could feel myself becoming more energized. My problems felt more concrete, and I felt more motivated to address them. I felt harder, meaner, ready to fight. I draw the veil over whether any concrete action or productiveness results (but you'll know if you see me announcing my graduation in fall 2013).

What I definitely take away, though, is my further conviction that "being a writer" is a tough, unpleasant, terrible vocation. As a kid, I always said I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, and my parents took me to various writing workshops and local how-to-be-a-published-author events. What I took away from these was that (1) the vast majority of aspiring writers suck in a completely irredeemable way, and (2) writing is a path full of grotesque levels of suffering. By the time I got to high school, I was telling people I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. Pressfield only confirms that impression, but I think he does a valuable thing in arguing that the suffering is there to be fought.


  1. I love Pressfield! I read his book, "The Afghan Campaign" that was about Alexander the Great's invasion of Afghanistan, and after years of guerrilla warfare, the Greek Army left, largely in defeat. The parallels to the situation today with the U.S. Army and NATO forces in Afghanistan are undeniable. I sent the book to my son when he was in Afghanistan with the Army, he and fellow-soldiers were blown away by it. I am going to find a copy of this book that you're recommending, it sounds fascinating. Thanks! Chris

  2. Christopher - If you like Pressfield, you'll find this very interesting. He gives a lot of anecdotes about his own life; they're just illustrations so nothing comprehensive, but I think this book is really an insight into the way the guy's mind works.