Review: The War of Art

Many authors are often asked about how they write, where the ideas come from, how they conceptualize their work, where they like to write, when they like to write, among many other questions.  Interviews with authors abound and those are always interesting but few writers ever write about writing.  Some have done this, such as Stephen King's On Writing, and the results have been very helpful. Steven Pressfield is known for a number of highly acclaimed novels of historical fiction, particularly Gates of Fire, as well as The Legend of Bagger Vance. In The War of Art, Pressfield turns to the task itself but does not limit himself to writing.  Instead, he looks at creative endeavors of any kind and the hard, disciplined work required of it.  As Pressfield himself says the wisdom offered here is useful for anyone trying to write their first book, earn a Ph.D., get fit and healthy, or start a business.  The effort and discipline required to get things done is the same regardless of the domain.

Pressfield divides his work into three parts.  In the first, he tackles the artist's main enemy: resistance.  Pressfield pulls no punches: we as individuals are own worst enemies.  Resistance is deceitful, it seems to come from without, but actually arises within.  It is self-sabotage.  Resistance is personified: "resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work."  And resistance will never stop.  You never get over it or past it except for brief periods when the ideas flood in and the creative juices flow unhindered.  But this kind of flow never arises accidentally, and you can not count it.  Resistance will be there always wooing you to stop your work.  One of the chief manifestations of resistance is procrastination though certainly not the only one.

We don't tell ourselves, "I'm never going to write my symphony." Instead we say, "I am going to write my symphony; I'm just going to start tomorrow." (21)

In the second part, Pressfield turns to combating resistance.  He covers the absolute importance of daily routine, handling failure, limitations, and criticism, as well as adopting an attitude of professionalism.  As long as you consider whatever you're doing as just playing around, you'll never finish what you start.  He opens this section with a soundbyte from the fifth century B.C. attributed to Telamon of Arcadia: "It is one thing to study war and another to live the warrior's life."

In the third part, Pressfield discusses getting beyond resistance.  He points to the experience of so many artists, writers, and thinkers, of experiencing the free flow of work when the ideas flood the mind and the work becomes a joy--for a time.  This experience Pressfield calls the Muse.  Here I must warn you that Pressfield subscribes to a spiritual mysticism of sorts, though certainly not a Christian one.  So beware, there are certainly some bones to pick out.  Nevertheless, what he has to offer on hard work, discipline, and creativity is worth picking through.  Indeed my copy is heavily underlined.

More could be said and a number of great quotes given but the book is short so I don't want to ruin it.  It's a brief book, and very much a swift kick in the seat of the pants.  It won't give quarter to laziness or indolence nor playing the victim or blaming others.  For me this is the necessary counterpart to David Allen's excellent Getting Things Done (GTD).  GTD provides a whole system for tracking your work, organizing your projects, and simplifying your to-do lists, email, and the rest of your work.  But The War of Art is the missing piece.  It is one thing to get organized, simplify, and create a neat system but forward movement is something altogether different.  How many times have you put off that project saying you'll do it after you clean your desk?  So you clean your desk and feel good but quit for the day! No!  You've not yet really begun until you've made forward progress.   This is where Pressfield's little volume is most useful.  Read it and get to work.  Now!

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