I’m not big into motivational/self-help speakers or books. I mean, I appreciate being motivated as much as the next human, but when it comes to what I spend my time consuming media-wise, there is just way too much content for me to commit to that kind of thing. For me, reading a mind-blowing story or gorgeous prose or learning about something really really cool can be just as motivational as…er…that motivational stuff I’m talking about.*
But there are exceptions to everything, aren’t there? For me, the exception in this category is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
Pressfield describes the Artist’s Dilemma** perfectly: an artist, by definition, has some kind of art that he or she needs/wants to create. Pressfield paints this picture with the broadest of strokes, which is an obvious attempt at making the book a bit more marketable, but nevertheless ring true to me. The artist could be a writer agonizing over finishing a novel or a painter creating a painting, but it could also be an entrepreneur starting a business, or a fledgling runner wanting to train for a marathon. Basically, if you have a Thing that you’ve always wanted to do but have never done it, Pressfield’s book addresses why that may be and how that Thing might be accomplished. (That said, Pressfield chiefly frames his narrative from a writer’s perspective, and for obvious reasons I’ll do the same.)
There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.
What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance. (The War of Art xi)
Basically, Pressfield uses the blanket term “Resistance” to define everything that stops a writer from finishing that elusive book—or from sitting down to write at all. The entire first half of The War of Art is devoted to recognizing Resistance in its many forms: from the obvious things, like procrastination, self-doubt, and fear, to the perhaps less obvious, like self-dramatization, victimhood, addiction, and sex. The second half of the book proposes that in in order to defeat Resistance, a writer must make the transition from “amateur” to “professional”; he/she must begin to take writing (and Resistance) seriously.
Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inpsiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
That’s a pro. (The War of Art 64)
I love The War of Art because it embodies the work ethic I’ve been developing for myself over the past few years. I used to be the kind of writer that relied heavily on “the muse.” I was a total writing mystic, all about the flashy stuff and not about the work—because “art” shouldn’t be work! I wrote only when I “felt like it” (aka when “the muse struck”), which was depressingly rare. Well, news flash to my old self, and anyone else out there that may be deluding themselves in like manner: THAT’S THE WRONG WAY TO GO ABOUT WRITING, YA’LL.
Jeff Winger knows what I’m talkin bout.
That’s not to say I didn’t produce anything worthwhile during that period, but I strongly believe now that I did not produce nearly the amount nor the quality of writing that I could have done then. I mean, it worked well enough when I was in college, and couldn’t really devote as much time to writing as I would’ve liked (wrong again—I could’ve, I just didn’t). It started to become less feasible when I started an MFA program in Creative Writing. I pushed up my work ethic slightly when that happened, but I still ended up writing stories by pulling an all-nighter the night before they were due. It’s really kind of embarrassing when I think about it. And, when I graduated with an MFA in 2012 and went to writing full time, my productivity fell apart. I suddenly had so much time to write, and yet was actually sitting down to do it less than I had in years. That is the Artist’s Dilemma, my friends. That is the War of Art. Resistance is real, folks, and it kills dreams. I’m not kidding.
But the thing about Resistance, as Pressfield establishes, is that it isn’t all-powerful. If I sit around and wait for the muse to show up, I may be waiting a while. I may be waiting forever. But if I put in the work every day, a crazy thing happens: the muse starts to show up, and pretty consistently, in fact.
…the most important thing about art is work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.
Why is this so important?
Because when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose. (The War of Art 108)***
I’ve had some real “come-to-Jesus” talks with myself over the past few years (Pressfield’s book was the catalyst of more than one of them). And, slowly, I’m developing a routine and ethic that I think really works, and for which I’m profoundly grateful. It’s all still a work in progress, but it has progressed pretty damn far, and I’m happier for it.
If you’re an artist pining after something that you just haven’t created yet—or just someone who has a Thing they really want to do but for some reason has never made the time to do that Thing—I suggest you read The War of Art. If it helps you even a fraction of the amount it’s helped me, I think you’ll be happier for it, too.
* Of course, sometimes the “motivational stuff” that I’m sort of lumping into one big stereotypical category can teach really interesting things. It can probably tell mind-blowing stories, and for all I know there are some self-help writers who really do have beautiful prose. I recognize I’m maybe drawing lines where lines don’t need to be drawn, but just follow along with me, here. This is all just set up to talk about an awesome book, anyway.
** I’m totally making up that phrase, but, well, it sounds pretty accurate to me.
*** Pressfield’s book is definitely not religions in any specific sense, but it does address the spiritual aspect of creation in some interesting ways. Because, ultimately, artistry and creation are full of mystery and crazy things and feelings and, yes, even spirituality. But I’ve learned that those mysteries and serendipitous things don’t occur on their own—I’ve got to put the work in to see them happen.