Absolutely Something: a book review of Steven Pressfield’s,”War of Art”.

 

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“If you count on safety and do not think of danger, if you do not know enough to be wary when enemies arrive, this is called a sparrow nesting on a tent, a fish swimming in a cauldron–you won’t last the day.”    —   Chuko Liang

 
The most surprising thing about this particular book review is how much potential it had to become a 5000-worder when you consider I didn’t even know the book existed until this calendar year.  That’s the definition of a voracious read.  As soon as I put it down, I started to quote it to my writer friends, but then eventually quoting it to people that weren’t even writers and then to people I didn’t even know.  I read the selections that stuck in my mind (selections I’ll show in a few), but then ended up reading the whole thing again.  And I’m a Gemini—I don’t reread things very much since I get bored easy.  But I can’t wait to reread this again (that and Dune, but I’ll review that another time).  This book is more than a craft book, it changes your perspective.  It’s what Stephen Covey calls a paradigm shift—a complete overhaul of how you see something to the point that it changes every other thing affecting you.  On top of that, it does something that not many craft books do—it identifies the enemy and then it tells you how to defeat it.  Simple read?  Yes.  Applying it?  The hardest but most rewarding thing you’ll ever do.

The first thing you’ll notice about this book is its length.  Thin, by any craft book standards (if it’s one thing all writings like to do, it’s to go on and on and on and on…).  The very next thing you notice at a glance is that the book’s pages are mostly half-filled.  One or two stark paragraphs are all that you get under each page’s titles.  In other words, if you filled up every space of this book’s covers, it would fill only half.  I’m seeing 149 pages but it reads like 20.  How is something so small so marvelous?  I press on.

Start reading it, and you are swept away immediately.  Pressfield is not your friend, not at first.  He doesn’t yell at scare you straight like some writers and/or professors like to do out there, but he also doesn’t come at you like a psyche ward nurse, using a quiet, over-friendly tone on how you can do anything you set your mind to.  Pressfield begins by simply telling us what he does every morning—he wakes, takes a shower, brushes his teeth.  Then he goes through his charms and routine, putting on “my lucky boots and stitch up the lucky laces”, along with other superstitious stuff we writers do before a sesh.  He sits down, plunges in, gets his fingers dirty.  Four hours later, he’s done.  He’s overcome Resistance.  He’s won for the day.  And that’s it.  That’s his tone.  It’s almost like listening to Mike from Breaking Bad tell about his day and his experiences–you get the tone that he’s a bit bored with the whole thing.  But exactly like Mike, you trust him because he’s honest and tells it to you straight because he’s been there.  He’s had the blocks and the mindfucks, he’s had the long stretches of doubt and fear and pressure.  He’s written terrible things, corny things, and hopeless things.  But he’s written beautiful things too, and he’s overcome those fears and doubts to write this book (and about a dozen others not including film scripts).  He doesn’t try to scare or sugarcoat.  He knows why you’re here with him.  You want answers.  And he knows you’re gonna go off and do it whether you listen to him or not.  But if you listen to everything he says (which, again, is really only two things), you’ll at least know who the enemy is and how to deal with him (or her, depending on what your gender is).

So shall we?

~

I won’t tell you every single thing about the book.  I’ve said too much to entice and too little to inform BUT I will give you my two favorite passages from each of the three sections.

Section I consists of identifying the enemy as Resistance.  Pressfield goes on naming all of its attributes and characteristics.  One of them is it’s impersonal:

“Resistance is not out to get you personally.  It doesn’t know who you are and doesn’t care…When we marshall our forces to combat Resistance, we must remember that.”

Of all of Resistance’s qualities, this one sticks with me.  We all seem to think that everything against us has some kind of vendetta for us.  It’s easier to tell ourselves this fib instead of realizing that Resistance is a part of nature, and nature don’t give a shit for us, it’s not supposed to.  Like a spider cocooning its stunned victim alive, Resistance is a soldier of Nature—it’s just doing its job.

Another thing Pressfield talks about is Resistance’s relation to Fear:

“Fear is good…The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it…If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.”

This chapter has newly stuck with me since it has recently saved me from throwing myself into a pile of dirty laundry and weeping my eyes out for a month.  The mere fact that I am feeling Resistance for writing my novel means I’ve touched a nerve, that I’m doing my soul’s work.  This Resistance is natural but this Fear is all part of the process.  You have absolutely no idea how comforting this is for me—me: a nervous, overemotional, imaginative kid working on his first book.  Fear is all part of the game and if you don’t feel it, you’re not digging deep enough.  It’s why hack writers can sleep at night (unless they’re worried about their checkbooks), it’s why you only really see a handful of literary geniuses each generation, and it’s why most people quit writing books after their first one.  Writing a novel is one of the most difficult things you can do.  Thankfully, it gets a hell of a lot easier when you know what you’re up against.  Resistance is the enemy.

(Conversely, this idea of Fear also explains why I don’t get mopey for not being able to win a face-off in NHL 15 on the Xbox or not being able to make a good risotto—because these things don’t move me creatively (it also puts to bed one of the most asinine motivators of the century for writers to write through a block: ‘You don’t hear about doctors getting doctor’s block, do you?’.  It’s because doctor’s aren’t questioning the very fibers of our being like any creative person does.).

Section II talks about fighting Resistance by acting like a Professional instead of an Amateur.

My first entry is one of my favorites out of the whole book.  I’ve read it about seven million times.  I’ll only give you excerpts here (because you’re into the whole brevity thing on these blog thingies), but I invite you, if you don’t read a single sentence more of this book, read this chapter in its entirety, ‘What a Writer’s Day Feels Like’:

“I wake up with a gnawing sensation of dissatisfaction.  Already I feel fear…The sun isn’t up yet; it’s cold; the fields are sopping.  Brambles scratch my ankles, branches snap back in my face. The hill is a sonofabitch but what can you do?  Set one foot in front of another and keep climbing.”

He goes on to describe his journey as a hunter in some long-gone native world would simply hunt for his and his family’s dinner.  After hours, he finds the hare, kills it, and brings it home:

“I joke with my kids besides the fire.  They’re happy; the old man has brought home the bacon.  The old lady’s happy; she’s cooking it up.  I’m happy; I’ve earned my keep on the planet, at least for this day.”

But his job is not over:

“I go to sleep content, but my final thought is of Resistance.  I will wake up with it tomorrow.  Already I am steeling myself.”

This is it.  Sisyphus and the stone.  It sticks with me because it shows that I work everyday, good hard work, and sometimes I get the hare and sometimes I don’t.  But I must put myself out there to find it.  In this part of the book, a Professional gets up every day and goes on the hunt, simple as that.

The next chapter is the next page:

“The Marine Corps teaches you how to be miserable.  This is invaluable for an artist…He has to know how to be miserable.  He has to love being miserable…Because this is war, baby.  And war is hell.”

(Can’t you just hear Mike from Breaking Bad here?!  Sorry, I’m just finishing up the last season.)

Here is another revelation—this isn’t all fun and games.  This is hell, this is work, this is Art.  This is a revelation because in this day and age, everyone must be happy, everyone must be free of pain and frustration.  But what if the thing we are paining ourselves over is worth it?  It’s a hard pill to swallow, but it’s also something Professionals do every single day.  You’re sick?  Tough.  Not feeling it?  Then quit, you’re not a Pro.  Embracing your misery makes you proud of it because, like a Marine, you go through it for something bigger than yourself.

The last excerpt (yes, I’m doing three instead of two):

“All of us are pros in one area: our jobs.”

That’s it.  That’s the quote.  But think about it: he’s right.  The things we put up with when we go to work—from showing up every day to being on the job all day, to going there when we don’t want to or when we’re sick or so hungover that we wish we were dead—should be applied to our craft.  He tells you, right there, all the shit you do for The Man but don’t do for your own love and soul.  That’s it, that’s the whole thing.  Resistance will give you every excuse in the book, but if you don’t do your Work the best you can, if you don’t fix your life up to make it easier to do that Work, then you are an Amateur, and what you reap, brother, is what you sow.  It’s quick, swift, and truthful, and it’s exactly what every writer needs to see and hear.  Pros treat it as a job they love, Amateurs treat it as something they occasionally do that they love that they hope will get them paid.

The one thing that really stopped me in my thoughts when I first read this was the fact is that I’ve made so many sacrifices of time, effort, and energy working for a company I sometimes like and have made about half that effort to something I truly love and care for.  Now, you can say, ‘Hey, you get paid by The Man.’  So it’s about money and not love?  No, it’s about love, which will feed my spirit and help grow me as a human and a person and a writer.  Money is money, but if I’m not putting at least that much effort in my writing, Resistance is winning and I am losing.

The last section of the book deals with the higher forms of writing.  It talks about Ego versus Self, about angels and fear, and about Territory versus Hierarchy:

“Hollywood is Hierarchy.  So are Washington, Wall Street, and the Daughter of the American Revolution.  High school is the ultimate hierarchy…There’s a problem with the hierarchical orientation, though.  When the numbers get too big, the thing breaks down…We have entered Mass Society.  The hierarchy is too big.  It doesn’t work anymore.”

He goes on to say that we must think more about Territory thinking a few chapters down:

“We humans have territories…Ours are psychological.  Steve Wonder’s is the piano.  Arnold Schwarzenegger’s is the gym.”

Next few chapters down, he gets to the point:

“When the artist acts hierarchically, she short-circuits the Muse.”

All of this means one thing—quit writing for other people and write for love.  This section of the book is definitely loosest in his ideas, since it talks about angels, Muses, etc; but his point is still crystal clear—don’t write to compete (hierarchical), write for the Muse inside of you (territorial).

Steven Pressfield has written a truly unique book about the inner adventure and perilous danger that confronts writers and every other artist of every kind every day.  We only have to avoid one thing while focusing on following another.  And maybe along the way, if we’re doing what we truly love to do, the Universe (or the Gods or your Muse or the Angels) will help you.

Create and Complete

~D
“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”  —  Joseph Campbell

 

Check out Mr. Pressfield’s book ‘War of Art’ and his other books here.

One thought on “Absolutely Something: a book review of Steven Pressfield’s,”War of Art”.

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Stephen Koch’s ‘The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop’ | LiteratureAdjacent.com

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