I’m going to be reviewing books on this blog from time to time. This post is a review of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art .
If you read a lot of books, you might agree with me that they generally fall into three categories.
- Blah: “It wasn’t for me.”
- Meh: “It was all right, I guess. Got some good stuff out of it.”
- Yeah!: “That was a great book! I should read this again later.”
Very occasionally, I read a book that falls into a fourth category:
- Oh Wow: [Stunned silence]
We’ve all read books that have totally changed how we see our lives and our work, and for me, Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art is one of those books. I recommend this book to anyone who does creative work of any kind (or would like to). Every aspiring writer, artist, musician, entrepreneur, etc. should read this short book.
So, what’s it about?
The voice in our head.
You know the one I mean. The voice that tells us that our work’s no good, that we’re too old or too young, that we can’t do it and we were stupid for ever thinking we could, and that what we should really do is go back to school and get a accounting degree.
Yes, that voice. The good news is, that voice isn’t us.
Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.
– Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
Resistance (with a capital R) is Pressfield’s term for the force that tries to keep us from self-expression.
We usually think of this as a collection of internal problems: writer’s block, low self-esteem, procrastination, you name it.
Nuh-uh, says Pressfield. It’s not internal at all, not something you can fix within yourself. It’s a universal, external force that all humans deal with, and it can’t be reasoned with or analyzed away. It can only be overcome one day at a time: by doing our work.
Resistance is what keeps us from taking risks and putting our work into the world. It’s impersonal; a force of nature. It can take the form of fear of failure, fear of success, various addictions, Facebook, Reddit, etc. It affects everyone, but artists have it the worst. The writer who never actually writes and the musician who doesn’t perform in public have been cowed by Resistance.
The worst part is, Resistance cannot be defeated once and for all, like Sauron in Lord of the Rings. We have to fight the battle anew each day.
So, what’s the solution? how do we deal with Resistance?
Pressfield’s solution is the idea of Turning Pro. (He’s talking about a shift in mindset, not an actual career change, by the way).
Regardless of whether we’re gritty, seasoned professionals or weekend warriors in our creative work, we must have the mindset of the professional, and Pressfield draws a huge list of distinctions between the two attitudes.
A pro shows up every day. An amateur waits for inspiration.
A pro plays hurt (so to speak). An amateur waits until his cold is gone, and he’s had 8 hours of sleep, and a cup of coffee, and . . .
A pro does not over-identify with the work. An amateur lets a rough Monday ruin her week.
A pro does not take success or failure personally. An amateur is euphoric when success visits and miserable when failure stops by.
There are many more, and they’re worth the price of admission alone.
Who is Steven Pressfield, by the way?
Steven Pressfield is a successful writer of mostly historical fiction, though he also writes non-historical fiction (The Legend of Bagger Vance was his first published novel). The War of Art is a rare foray into nonfiction for him.
I read a lot of nonfiction, and one complaint I have with many nonfiction books is that they’re just not written very well. An author may have great ideas about personal development or music or cooking, but if she’s not a skilled writer, the book will be a chore to read. This isn’t an issue with The War of Art. No tortured prose here.
Is The War of Art Worth Reading?
Yes. If you do creative work of any kind, it is a must-read.
At the very least, The War of Art will give you some tips and pointers about getting your music practice, writing, painting, or anything else done when you’re not in the mood.
It may even completely reframe how you think about your work.