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The War of Art by Steven Pressfield: book review

This book was recommended to me by an actor who was also working on being a writer/director/producer. I was driving him and a few other people in a massive 15 passenger van to set, and while I navigated through construction and New York drivers, we chatted about our work. We initially bonded over the incredible Stephen King book “On Writing,” which was intensely important in my development as a writer. If I liked that book, this actor noted, then I would love “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. It would be like a shot of adrenaline, he promised, and I told him that I would check it out.

Initial review: for me, this book wasn’t very instructive, and it didn’t present a lot of new information, as my own productivity is rarely in question. However, I really enjoyed a lot of the language the author used to describe feelings and thoughts and opinions I already held. It clarified certain assumptions, and put them into a context I could explain to myself and to others, and that was cool. I’m glad I read the introduction, though, because otherwise my initial review would have been considerably less positive.

Here’s the thing you have to understand about this book: it’s basically a productivity guide/artistic self-help book written by a deeply religious man. For the first two parts of the book (we’ll discuss the three parts, or books, in a moment), you don’t see a lot of the religious aspect, which I was glad of, but the final part of the book is saturated in a belief system I can’t really accept. Hence, you should really read the foreword by Robert McKee.

The three parts of this book are “Resistance: Defining the Enemy,”  “Combating Resistance: Turning Pro,” and “Beyond Resistance: The Higher Realm.”

Book 1- Resistance: Defining the Enemy

Essentially, Pressfield defines the enemy of all humans as “Resistance” with a capital R. It takes many forms, which Pressfield defines in the chapters of Book 1 (the first third of the book).

Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled. But it can be felt… It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.

This is the thesis of the book, roughly. Pressfield sets out to teach us what Resistance is and how to spot it, then how to battle it, and finally, what happens and who to thank when you have won that battle.

Pressfield likens the artist (or the entrepreneur, or the person attempting to get in shape, or any person who wishes to do a thing ever) to a warrior, a characterization I admit I enjoyed.

The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.

That there is particularly important to why I feel good about recommending this book. The author doesn’t minimize the struggle of creating by giving you an easy fix, or by pretending that Resistance is a thing that can be ultimately conquered. It is something that you will fight every single day, something that you may occasionally lose to even when you feel your best. Hard work and perseverance, Pressfield’s major focuses, are your only defense, but you must maintain them, otherwise Resistance wins again.

Too often, self-help books and writing advice tell you that there is a finite thing or goal that you must seek in order to achieve success or happiness, but that’s frankly offensive, because there is almost nothing in this world that is unconditionally permanent. Marriages last when you pay attention to your partner every day, careers are maintained by showing up for work, and physical wellness doesn’t stick around after a day or two at the gym.

Pressfield also spends a lot of time talking about how sometimes Resistance isn’t just an internal force, but an external one as well. Sometimes, “Resistance Recruits Allies.” He describes how often, once a person starts to overcome her own Resistance, those around her begin acting strange.

The reason is that [the people around you] are struggling, consciously or unconsciously, against their own Resistance. The awakening writer’s success becomes a reproach to them. If she can beat these demons, why can’t they?

It’s hard to admit this sometimes, because recognizing this trait in others feels a lot like saying “they’re just mad because they’re jealous of how great I am.” But there’s a difference between being so delusional that you think anyone who’s mean to you is a “hater” and noticing that talking of your success, even just a day’s worth of it, makes other people more hostile or passive aggressive than before.

My biggest problem with Book 1 is the chapter entitled “Resistance and Self-Medication. In it, he describes once being a writer for a big NYC advertising agency.

Attention Deficit Disorder, Seasonal Affect Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder. These aren’t diseases, they’re marketing ploys. Doctors didn’t discover them, copywriters did. Marketing departments did. Drug companies did.

Depression and anxiety may be real. But they can also be Resistance.

Ok. There’s a lot to unpack here. I have a theory that our friend Pressfield was bullied into adding a sentiment about how depression and anxiety are real, and out of spite he got the last word with “but they can also be Resistance.” ADD, SAD, and social anxiety are definitely real things. It’s funny to me that Pressfield, a deeply religious man who (and we’ll talk about this in more detail later) is perfectly happy giving credit for his success to the divine, also somehow doesn’t believe in mental illness. He can accept that good things come from God, but he can’t also accept that a person might not be to blame for their mental health. Sure, self-medication is often bad when not paired with a professional diagnosis, and sometimes people like to say they’re depressed or anxious as an excuse not to do things despite the fact that they’re just lazy. But in a book whose solution to problems is “work harder,” this is a dangerous precedent to set. Neurotypical people can’t imagine that hard work isn’t always the solution when there’s another scientific, biological thing at odds with someone’s desired happiness or productivity. This chapter was condescending, and though in general I have a lot of respect for Mr. Pressfield’s theories, I feel it’s important to address this.

Book 2- Combating Resistance: Turning Pro

Now that we’ve defined what Resistance is and the many forms it can take, we move on to the fight itself. For Pressfield, fighting Resistance successfully necessitates “turning pro.” He defines turning pro in opposition to being an amateur. This is largely an ideological sentiment: he doesn’t literally mean you have to be paid or respected in your chosen field to be considered a pro. It’s a mindset, a way of conducting yourself when it comes to your art (or your goals, whatever they may be).

 The amateur plays for fun. The professional plays for keeps… The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. He commits full time.

Again, the thesis of this can be boiled down to “work hard every day, no excuses.”

One of my favorite chapters in Book 2 is titled “A Professional Self-Validates” because it was one of the most important lessons in my developing years, not just as a writer but as a person.

Remember, Resistance wants us to cede sovereignty to others. It wants us to stake our self-worth, our identity, our reason-for-being, on the response of others to our work. Resistance knows we can’t take this. No one can.

This isn’t to say that you’re above criticism, that the opinion of others doesn’t matter. But there is a massive benefit to understanding when criticism is actually constructive, and to maintain confidence and self-worth from within. If you try to please everyone, no one is happy. And if you can only find confidence and self-worth from the opinion of others, you will never actually have either. Those are traits that must come from within.

Sidenote: this chapter, and many other chapters in Book 2, uses Tiger Woods a lot as an example. This book was written back in 2002, mind you, but it’s still kind of awkward. Although I guess golfing-wise Tiger has never been questioned, and since that’s the point of using him as an example, I can let it slide.

Book 3- Beyond Resistance: The Higher Realm

It’s this book that is the basis for why I say you should read the foreword, and also the basis for most of my critiques. Here’s what Mr. McKee, in said foreword, had to say.

…the cause of Inspiration [is where] we see things differently… in Book Three he shifts gears and looks for the cause of Inspiration not in human nature, but on a “higher realm.” … I, on the other hand, believe that the source of creativity is found on the same plane of reality as Resistance. It, too, is genetic. It’s called talent.”

Pressfield acknowledges this occasionally in Book Three, though it’s clear he doesn’t give this more secular interpretation much mind. Essentially, Pressfield claims that muses and angels are the true origin of inspiration and good ideas, and that pros are simply the best vessels to carry these divine fancies. And each vessel is unique in the sense that their destinies determine which fancies they’ll carry if they turn pro. Painters were born to paint, writer’s were born to write.

We’re not born with unlimited choices. We can’t be anything we want to be.

Like McKee, I disagree.

I don’t believe I was born to write. I was born, full stop. I chose to write. I think I’m pretty good at it, and I’m getting better every day, but at no point have I ever believed it was my destiny, because I’m good at plenty of things. I almost studied law, because of my time in speech and debate and my A+ analytical and argumentative stillz. I also almost studied graphic design or web design or communications, because I’ve done a bit of all of them and loved it. I could have been a teacher, a researcher, a paramedic, an anything. But I chose writing, because it makes me the happiest and gives me the most freedom to dip into all those other things I could have been. Maybe I’ll write a law procedural someday, or a book about graphic designers. Who knows? Me. I know. Because I am in control of my own destiny, since destiny is a thing that I alone create.

So the Muse whispered in Beethoven’s ear. Maybe she hummed a few bars into a million other ears. But no one else heard her. Only Beethoven got it… This is why artists are modest. They know they’re not doing the work; they’re just taking dictation.

This is kind of the basis for a lot of critiques I have about religion. It makes our triumphs someone else’s divine plan, rather than our own autonomous ingenuity. Let Beethoven have his OWN symphony! Let me have my OWN book or web series! This brings us back to Book 1, where Pressfield scoffs at mental illness as people succumbing to their own laziness. Why is failure always our fault, and success never credited to us? That seems, if not backwards, wrong.

In between this heavy spiritualism and, occasionally, dream analysis, though, Book 3 has a lot to offer. Here are some of my favorite quotes, in no particular order:

On finishing his first novel (and self-validation):

Nobody knew that I was done. Nobody cared. But I knew. I felt like a dragon I’d been fighting all my life had just dropped dead at my feet and gasped out its last sulfuric breath.

Rest in peace, motherfucker.

On testing your resolve for your craft (and also self-validation):

Of any activity you do, ask yourself: If I were the last person on earth, would I still do it?

On the artist’s life:

Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.

Final thoughts

I really did enjoy reading this book. For all my secular annoyance, Pressfield and I have a lot of similar thought processes when it comes to our work. Like I said before, this book wasn’t exactly the shot of adrenaline or the kick in the pants that the actor who recommended it promised, but that’s not the book’s fault. I don’t think I’m the best, I don’t think I’m better than anyone as a human, but I treat my craft like Pressfield defines a pro. I take it seriously, and practice it as often as I can, not because I want to be the best, but because I want to be better than yesterday.

But maybe if I’d read this book at the same time as I originally read On Writing, I would have gotten there faster.

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