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The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle

16/07/2002

by Steven Pressfield

I’m unsure now where this recommendation came from. My apologies. I’m sure it came from out there in Diaryland. A recommendation to read this book. The reviews in Amazon were encouraging too. Failure to purchase the thing from the bookstore in the real world that magic set of numbers known as the credit card delivered the book to my door step within 24 hours. The silver hardback cover with its flecks of mirrored glass leave you suspicious – all front and no substance. Its justified though, rather like ‘The Little Book of Calm’ – I’m glad Steven Pressfield didn’t write a Tome, in fact, had he the nerve he may have trimmed out thirty pages of the hundred and sixty five.

I took notes. There are a number of points over which I’d like to dwell, points I’d like to share.

Each of the quotes I’ve grabbed from the book will sit beneath a page title, sometimes there is only a paragraph or two, never much more than two pages per title. The key word through-out to get your head around is ‘Resistance’ – i.e. that which prevents us from doing. The key instruction is to sit down and do it like a pro. Here we go:

What I Do

I sit down and plunge in. When I start making typos, I know I’m getting tired…All that matters is I’ve put in my time and hit it with all I’ve got. All that counts is that, for this day, for this session, I have over come Resistance.

From this I take the point that the hardest thing is to get on with it, to do it, as Steven Pressfield says further down the page, the hardest thing to do is sitting down to write’. This can be all that is required. This is what Roald Dahl did going down to his shed in the garden every morning to work, this is what Frederick Forsyth does going down to his office. This is what I’d like to do. On time, every day, without fail. As if the school bell has gone or the exam has begun,. I got a sense of this (and a kick from it) doing the Twenty Four Hour Writing Marathon at the beginning of May. That was like having to sit down and ‘do it’ on the hour, every hour for twenty four hours. It might have been twenty four days, indeed, it might have produced more words for each of us in a twenty four hour period than we were likely to produce continuing as we had done, over twenty four days. Some seeds were planted then that I am yet to harvest.

Resistance will bury you

Tell me about it. Heh, let’s play Devil’s Advocate, he’s playing the fortune tellers game here, listing characteristics with which I cannot fail to identify. Or is he? He might not embrace human kind but he has a good crack at encapsulating ‘the frustrated creative’. Here’s one. Right through acting, writing (poetry, lyrics, stories, a journal, stories, TV plays and series and screenplays), composing songs, painting and drawing, singing and performing. I have buried myself deep beneath a heap of problems and neurosis. Reading ‘The War of Art’ is like looking in a mirror. It don’t mean to be vane by making the comparison, but as I creep through my fortieth year I leave in my a wake a mess of easily identifiable obstacles, flotsam and jet some I must learn to doge, not manufacture or cling to.

Resistance is infallible

The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.

Why does this sound less encouraging than it should? My problem is this, Steven Pressfield appears to see the soul as a weapon, spear-like, but when I call to my ‘Muse’ I turn out to be a throwing star, I have no single point, I want to perform (to act and sing), I want to paint (draw portraits) as well as to write (and cook, and garden). Which need not be a problem. Come to think of it I am happiest when I indulge a bit of each daily, with a reasonable run or swimming training thrown in.

Resistance is most powerful at the finish line

Here Pressfield gives us the story of Odysseus in a few paragraphs. He then warns us that:

The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight. At this point, Resistance knows we’re about to beat it. It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything its got.

Reading this brings back a most painful recollection. Age sixteen I decided I would join the BBC in London; I even got to visit the place through the daughter of a friend of my mothers. I was told to study hard, which I did, passing through Oxford University five years later with a C.V. listing achievements that said my life was dedicated to T.V. I had my panic after the first interview, I was thrown by my poor general knowledge and quit before I could be told I hadn’t made it. I quit by turning up at my ‘Final Board’ to tell the panel I had taken a job elsewhere. This was arrogance, it was fear. Fear that I had failed to achieve all that I had set out to achieve. Dick Head. I did something similar five years ago. By circumstances I found myself a week away from directing actors in a reconstruction of a bank raid, but I shy away from doing what I had claimed until then that I did (and wanted to do), which was to direct drama. I never acted professionally, though a university like Oxford gave me ample opportunity to audience and secure parts. A recurring dream (that can become like a nightmare) is to find myself on a stage not knowing my lines, not knowing what the play is, not even having a copy of he play to read from. Is it this what I fear as the curtain goes up, just as I am about to take centre stage? It feels like that. It might explain why so many nearly finished and completed pieces (yes, I can finish) sit on shelves on discs. Remind me what happened to: ‘Escape from Alien Zoo’, ‘Rewind’, ‘Sardines’, ‘The Watersprites’, ‘Fortune Photobooth’, ‘The Little Duke’, ‘Bodyguard 943’, ‘Adam & Evie’, ‘The French Test’, ‘Adam’s Camera’ and ‘Excuse My Frenchman’, to name a few screenplays … and what about short stories, ‘The Trap’ and ‘The Cuckoo-Clock’ and all those kids stories, such as ‘Hapless Harry’, ‘CC & Suzi’ …

How else do I respond? I panic and get a job. At least I don’t get ‘Broadcast’ anymore, I would apply to anything I felt remotely suited too. I’ve even stopped looking at the Media Job pages of the Guardian.

Resistance recruits allies

The best and the only thing that one artist can do for another is to serve as an example and an inspiration.

This is what I will say at tonight’s meeting of ‘The Grange Writers’, which in part is why I got up at 3.15 a.m. this morning to finish reading ‘The War of Art’ and to make these notes. The group is meeting to decide how we go forward. I was getting pissed off at amateurishness, failure to complete tasks or to contribute comment, lack of nerve or commitment and the weakness of some of contributions that would embarrass a teenager. I’m glad that I am leaving my mark by saying nothing other than submitting my work. It is surprising how lucid and journal like some of the writers have become (they may be secretly posting diaries in Diaryland by now too).

I think Dale Carnegie in his ‘Golden Book’ from the 1950s has some advice too on how to handle the work of others, as does Naomi Eppel in ‘The Observation Deck’.

Resistance and sex

Sometimes Resistance takes the form of sex, or an obsessive preoccupation with sex. Why sex? Because sex provides immediate and powerful gratification.

I admit it. I go through phases of being obsessed with ‘pleasuring myself’ – when you’re in your twenties and thirties chasing fanny (or pussy as you will say in North America) is attractive and doable. A good marriage is an outcome of this, at first it quenches the pain, feeds it, then children, life, and all the rest of it comes along blah blah … I am guilty of seeking this ‘quick fix’ – like alcohol, like chocolate, like meat and until I ditched the stuff, Ritalin. I think what Steven Pressfield is saying is that the overriding obsession should be one’s art. I can understand why being celibate is in itself a way to guarantee that energy is given a different direction. Turning this on its head though I also reflect the sex, or lust or desire is often for me the greatest drive, the greatest rush that pushes my writing forward. I admit that the idea of ‘inter sex’ or ‘cyber sex’ fuelled me for a while. The first entry I posted in Diaryland, an episode from the twenties, called ‘Lucinda Gets Naked’ is an expression of it too – I feel the fire now, of that sylph like nineteen year old naked in my bedroom as I stood behind an easel in a dressing gown to draw her. I am naked too, beneath a robe, to make her feel more comfortable. Laugh. My hard-on ached for months, at the time it fed my arm the held he charcoal that produced the drawings I recently had framed. I’ve not resolved this one have I? Maybe sex will continue to get in the way, whether or not I consummate any of the many affairs I toy with and fantasize about.

It goes without saying that this principle applies to drugs, shopping, masturbation, TV, gossip, alcohol, and the consumption of all products containing fat, sugar, salt, or chocolate.

Touché.

Resistance and Victomhood

Casting yourself as a victim is the antithesis of doing your work. Don’t do it. If you’re doing it, stop.

I had come of Ritalin and stuck two fingers up at A.D.D. by the time I came to ‘The War of Art’. This little tome helps me accept the blame. I’ve been blaming everything and everyone for too long. I’ve made my father out as some kind of ogre which is cruelly unfair. As if he is to blame for my current circumstances (or those of my older sister). Most recently because he surely has A.D.D, and my sister and I do too (or not). So what! Mark Spitz had asthma but won seven golds at the Mexico Olympics. (He was fishman and my hero from the 1972 Olympics; I was ten). I’m saying I blame myself for making a thing into a problem, it is too easy to latch onto something like alcoholism or A.D.D. and say they are to blame, they are not, I am. In any case, I am not alcoholic and have doubts about the A.D.D. thing too.

Resistance and criticism

If you find yourself criticising other people, you’re probably doing it out of Resistance.

This gives me an excuse to say nothing, however angry it may make me, at future meetings of ‘Grange Writers’ – or does it? IT is how I correct/mark/judge something. I decimated a piece recently because there was a mess of poor English getting in the way of the story. I am struggling to think of any redeeming points even now. What I do think though, and this has come from Pressfield, is how when it comes to swimming, I can offer enthusiasm to someone (a child) who is floundering, even if they are sadly behind in their swimming and are clinging to arm bands. What this writer needed was encouragement, instead I mocked his arm bands, his cockeyed-doggy-paddle that barely kept him afloat, and would have gladly seen him drown. Ooops. My wicked streak again. There comes a point though when you have to say to a guy in his fifties wearing arm bands that he should not be in the ‘big pool’ yet as it is neither good for him or the rest of us.

Resistance and isolation

It is a commonplace amongst artists and children at play that they’re not aware of time or solitude while they’re chasing their vision.

Some months ago I picked up a piece by Terry Gilliam complaining that writers today were afraid of isolation, of being alone. That our being flooded by the same news, same films, same books was producing a predictability and sameness in all that we wrote. Being alone matters. This is timely. Will I be more alone at home next week, at the desk, the family away for a week while I write, or in an attic room at my Mother’s house being fed and allowed out for exercise? I’m worried how much might distract me if I stay here (home), yet worried how distracting it might be to be alone with a keyboard in a spare bedroom.

‘It is one thing to study war and another to live the warrior’s life’.

Telamon of Arcadia, mercenary of the fifth century B.C.

I fancy a Spartan life, the discipline, the attack, the commitment.

Professionals and amateurs

The word amateur from the Latin root meaning ‘to love’. The conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love, while the pro does if for money. Not the way I see it. In my view, the amateur does not love the game enough. If he did, he would pursue it as a sideline, distinct from his real vocation. The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. he commits full-time.

This is familiar territory. I heard it first from Nelson E Bolles in ‘What Color’s Your Parachute?’ You become a professional by behaving like one. Pressfield is derogatory about amateurs who toy with their art and blame the way they toy around for their failure. I’m afraid many of the recently departed members of the Grange Writers group were exactly this – amateur. They were dragging me down; there are still others, three out of the remaining seven, who have to wake up to the reality of their amateurishness. Sorry, must add this statement of fact as a jibe, they are all single women in their forties (even him). Not that being ‘single and a woman in your forties’ implies that you are amateur. But there is bagged there to shake off if you are joining a group of people who wish to be professional.

We’re all Pros already

Resistance knows that the amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in its success and over terrified of its failure. The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyses him.

Yes and no. And yes. I have an excellent track record of sitting down and doing it … I get stuff written. My problem is sending it out. This goes back to a set of songs I composed in my teens and reordered … one mail out, one rejection, stick it on the shelf. Really! The only time anything I have written has been seen by more than one producer (this is back in my TV days) was when I had an agent.

A Professional is patient

Resistance outwits the amateur with the oldest trick in the book: It uses his own enthusiasm against him. Resistance gets us to plunge into a project with an over ambitious and unrealistic timetable for its completion. It knows we can’t sustain that level of intensity. We will hit the wall. We will crash.

Whether or not I have A.D.D. I am learning, now that I have had the chance, to be more patient. A novel does not get written in a week, or a few weeks … especially not when your circumstances require most of your day elsewhere. I got hung up over getting these ‘three chapters’; out when I knew I’d have to write far more than this to feel comfortable about ever completing the entire novel. I’m now at that stage. The goal of this week writing I am about to take is to come out of it convinced I can make it to the end of the novel and with three chapters that when sent out will do their job.

A professional accepts no excuses

He knows if he caves in today, no matter how plausible the pretext, he’ll be twice as likely to cave in tomorrow.

Fiction writing has to take priority over Diaryland, my journal, ‘Morning Pages’ and other excuses that have me sitting here tappy tappy typing away in the belief that this is work, when work is a different folder a glance away. IF I can’t work on that with the distraction of this … then I’ll need to take a tent up a mountain and use a pen and notepad until I finish. (Am I making an excuse again?)

A professional does not take failure (or success) personally

Resistance uses fear of rejection to paralyse us and prevent us, if not from doing our work, then from expositing it to public evaluation.

Touché

Invoking the Muse

Ref: ‘The Invocation of the Muse’ from Homer’s Odyssey, the T.E. Lawrence translation.

It doesn’t do anything for me. Or was I reading something else?

The Magic of Making a start

Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.

W.H. Murray. the Scottish Himalayan Expedition.

I have never found starting a problem. I have made the beginning a t art. I can have an idea and give it a title, write some of it, then have another idea and give it a title. I have a hardback notebook of short stories. There are three or four completed stories, a dozen or more titles with a line or two giving me the gist of the story … and then a book of titles. One per page. Not one of those titles means anything to me, nor do many of the stories. So. Starting can be easy, however hard it might be for some. For me finishing ,,, i.e. sending the fucker out, is, without a deadline and a pay check an extraordinarily hard thing for me to do.

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has a genius, magic, and power in it. Begin it now’.

Goethe.

See above. Starting is not my problem. Starting something else is my problem. Being distracted is my problem.

The hierarchical orientation

A pecking order can hold only so many chickens.

As a new boy at Mowden Hall Preparatory School I had the number 105. Five years later I made it to No. 2. (I should have gone to NO. !, but I won’t dwell on this for now). Public School was similar, in fact, ‘watch your nip’ was the expression that one boy used to put another down if he were in any way ‘senior’ to you … the most junior boys of the year above (who may have been younger than me), were most prone to this. At the Royal Grammar School were I eventually flourished hierarchy was based on academic merit alone. Oddly, I floundered at Oxford because the strictures of hierarchy were taken away. OR I never had the chance to feel them. I was a ‘free lance’ a free operator. So I drifted. Out here in the real world, especially in our circumstances, I feel that I am too beholden to a hierarchy based on income (or total lack of it). I couldn’t attend a reunion of my year group alumni because I know those who will attend are so massively successful. Really. I’m glad that Pressfield invites us to float free of all of this, something I find easy to do as an ‘outsider’ as an ‘observer’.

The artist and the hierarchy

The artist must operate territorially. He must do his work for its own sake.

The definition of a hack

The hack … is scared of being authentic in front of his audience, scared of writing what he really feels or believes, what he himself thinks is interesting.

Whenever I have tried to be a hack I have failed. I can write for a mould, or money, when I am asked to do so … anonymously.

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