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Better Read Than Never: THE WAR OF ART

[As with most of my “BRTN” reviews, a more concise version of this review will be published in an ex-patriate’s magazine in my Chinese city, Focus on DalianI can buy a pizza with my fee.]

I finished my third reading of a favourite guide – or was that four? – not long ago, and realized that I haven’t written about The War of Art much. (There are many scribblings and fluorescent highlightings in the pages of Steven Pressfield’s brief 2002 masterpiece on the struggle to be creative, and I have a seminar in mind, but this is my first sustained post, I think.) This is a book to be read and re-read, and is sometimes uncomfortably insistent on cutting through the crap and requiring a response from its reader. I hope you won’t avoid it on THAT account!

Pressfield might be best known for his first novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance (and the Will Smith movie that was based on it), but his main niche is historical fiction. He has written five novels on classic battles and generals, the first being Gates of Fire, a novelistic retelling of the Spartan resistance to the Persian empire at Thermopylae. As described in The War of Art, his approach to writing is rather like the preparation and execution of military campaigns: highly practical, disciplined, full of effort and a resolve that borders on desperation. For there is an enemy, implacable and cunning, and he faces it every day. He calls it Resistance. As his working day comes to a close, Pressfield writes, “How many pages have I produced? I don’t care. Are they any good? I don’t even think about it….All that matters is that I’ve put in my time and hit it with all I’ve got. All that counts is that…I have overcome Resistance.”

Pressfield introduces his book with questions on the unlived life: “Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is…” I love this book and have given it to sons and other friends, its advice and crackling sentences easily overwhelming my one qualm. During my first reading, I balked at this Capital R, the personification of Resistance; it seemed too much like the Satan fetishes of superstitious forms of Christianity. I’ve changed my mind, though. Pressfield is no religious fundamentalist, and is perfectly content for us to view Resistance as our “lower self”, that which causes us to doubt or disparage or fear the things that call us to bring forth the best of what we are, the most noble aspects of our character, our “genius”. He just wants us to know that there are reasons, and really one central Reason, why we don’t do what we intend.

Resistance is real, and life is a challenge, and there is a highly refined and artistic commitment needed to win the daily battles of growth. The War of Art’s first section is about “Defining the Enemy”: Resistance is brought forward by “the pursuit of any calling,” “the launching of any…enterprise”, “any act that entails commitment of the heart,” and “education of every kind”. Resistance is “internal”, “insidious”, “universal”, and it “never sleeps”. It is fuelled by fear, self-doubt, self-medication, self-absorption, and rationalization. It’s a one-way street: “Resistance obstructs movements only from a lower sphere to a higher….So if you’re in Calcutta working with the Mother Teresa Foundation and you’re thinking of bolting to launch a career in telemarketing…relax. Resistance will give you a free pass.”I love that line.

The book’s second section, “Combating Resistance”, is a guidebook to the war of living well, from one bloody but unbowed veteran to the rest of us soldiers. Pressfield’s advice has obvious attractions for those of us trying to write, but he repeatedly points out that “turning pro” – adopting a committed, fantasy-free, do-your-work ethic rather than wishing and dabbling – applies to the carrying out of any difficult aspiration of the heart, like starting a plumbing business. Pressfield is blunt, a piercer of impracticality and airy hopes and pretentions. Get off yourself. Do what you need to do. Put in the hours. For him, a professional (quite apart from the financial definition) is patient, orderly, prepared, resilient, someone who is willing to face her own fear, and “a critter that just keeps coming”, relentlessly. “The pro…beats Resistance at its own game by being even more resolute and even more implacable than it is.”

In going “Beyond Resistance” in his book’s final section, Pressfield echoes ancient Greek artists and philosophers in invoking a Muse. “Just as Resistance can be thought of as personal…the call to growth can be conceptualized as…a daimon or genius, an angel or a muse…” He’s not dogmatic about it, but beyond his hard-bitten practicality is an appealing and deeply grounded belief that, while inertia and all the earthbound forces of habit and neurotic thinking slow us down, there are also uplifting and enlightening forces at our disposal. We have to do the work – there’s no escaping that – but when we do, Pressfield argues, we’re not alone. Ideas come. A changed approach suggests itself seemingly out of nowhere. We find ourselves buzzing with energy we didn’t think we had, or swept along on a wave of thoughts and actions we hadn’t thought possible, or hadn’t thought of at all. The important thing, for him, is to recognize the territory that is most meaningful to us, and then to plough it and seed it and believe in the growth to follow, believe in the spiritual sun and the intellectual rain.

The War of Art is only 165 pages long, and some of them contain mini-essays of only six or eight lines. It’s tightly argued, and can be taken in small doses. Personal development has become something of a secular religion with many gurus and prophets – Pressfield is absolutely withering in his dismissal of some “healing” approaches, which he sees as egocentric exercises in not-getting-our-work-done – and perhaps, like me, you’re a little suspicious of another call to empowerment. Steven Pressfield, though, apart from being a fine and plain-spoken writer, presents the matter of personal growth in a distinctive and distinctly useful direction. He continues to do so as an online presence; it’s no substitute for reading the book itself, but it’s part of a conversation he’s been prompting for ten years now. I recommend a listen. www.stevenpressfield.com is another way to learn more about The War of Art and his other fictional work.

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