REVIEW: The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield (Black Irish Books, 2012).
Resistance is the name that best-selling author Steven Pressfield gives to writer’s block and those things, both internal and external, that rise up and stand in the way of our creative aspirations. The goal of his book The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, is simple: To identify the enemy so that we can start fighting it.
Pressfield’s book is basically a metacognitive exploration of the creative mind. It is divided into three parts:
- Resistance: Defining the Enemy
- Combating Resistance: Turning Pro
- Beyond Resistance: The Higher Realm
Whereas psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (groundbreaking author of Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention and Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience) focuses on us when we’re at our best, Pressfield takes the opposite approach and looks at us when we’re our worst–when we are full of self-doubt, discouraged, hopeless, and most vulnerable to Resistance in its various forms, whether it be self-inflicted writer’s block or a discouraging spouse. Pressfield’s goal, though, isn’t to dwell on the negative, but to subvert the “mysterious power” of Resistance by examining it as a normal part of the creative process.
What Pressfield offers is less a psychological study than a blue collar, brass-tacks approach to overcoming writer’s block, the fear of failure, and the myriad of other forms that Resistance takes. What he offers, in his own words, is “hard knocks wisdom and a few tricks of the trade.”
Like Sun Tzu in The Art of War, Pressfield emphasizes the importance of knowing the enemy. According to Pressfield, while Resistance seems to manifest itself in physical reality, Resistance is ultimately internal. It is something we allow to exist. It is the war waged by the rule-following, status-quo Ego (and its minions) against the pursuits of the Higher Self. If this sounds New Agey, it isn’t. All Pressfield is saying is that we’re our own worst enemies.
“Resistance is self-sabotage and letting yourself be sabotaged by others.” Steven Pressfield
By naming and identifying the causes and forms of Resistance, Pressfield brings it under control and then charts a practical course for overcoming it. At the same time, he reminds us that Resistance is a common characteristic of all creative pursuits. It is something that all artists experience, regardless of where they are in their career.
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This is the metacognitive aspect of Pressfield’s book–we think about our thought processes and identify those that are negatively affecting us so that we can change our attitudes. For anyone that is familiar with self-hypnosis or Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), you’ll recognize that the core assumption is the same–by changing our responses to certain stimuli, we are able to change our behaviors as well.
But it all starts with knowing who you are fighting. And that’s what he does in this first chapter—he identifies the enemy so we can fight it.
As Pressfield writes, “It is one thing to study war, and another to live the warriors life.” Having identified the sources and varieties of Resistance, Pressfield charts a course for overcoming it. His solution is “Turning Pro.”
Turning Pro has nothing to do with contracts or advances or money or degrees or certificates. It is simply the act of adopting a professional attitude towards your creative work, whatever it may be. As he writes, “What I call Professionalism someone else might call the Artist’s Code or the Warrior’s Way.” However you define it, Turning Pro defeats the dragons of Resistance by changing your attitude about and response to, Resistance.
So what does it mean to Turn Pro? According to Pressfield, we are all pros already. We simply have to apply the attitudes we reserve for our “day” jobs to our creative aspirations. We have to show up when we don’t want to be there. We have to stop making excuses. We have to do what needs to be done regardless of our mood, regardless of how tired we are, regardless of whether the moon is full and Venus is in ascension. We show up. We do the work. That’s what makes us professionals.
Pressfield’s list of what a professional is, is as much a diagnosis as it is a prescription. Here’s a partial list.
- Are patient– “He knows that any job, whether it’s a novel or a kitchen remodel, takes twice as long as he thinks and costs twice as much”
- Act in the face of fear– The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome. He knows there is no such thing as a fearless warrior or a dread-free artist.”
- Dedicate themselves to mastering technique
- Endure adversity– “He reminds himself it’s better to be in the arena, getting stomped by the bull, than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot.”
- Self-validate– “The professional cannot allow the actions of others to define his reality.”
According to Pressfield, there’s no mystery to Turning Pro: “It’s a decision brought about by an act of will. We make up our mind to view ourselves as pros and we do it. Simple as that.”
At the heart of Pressfield’s book is a deeper argument and an important one. It is a belief that creativity itself is a spiritual endeavor. To enter into into a creative life is to go on a hero’s journey. It is to enter the belly of the whale, and it is to encounter the tribulations of Resistance on our way to finding the Golden Fleece. Resistance is our trial by fire.
In the end, the boon we bring back is an extension of our inner self. It takes courage to be a hero. It takes courage to break habits, to know that Resistance will come, to defy the gods, the odds, and the status quo, and to change ourselves and the world. But Pressfield knows that in rising to the challenge of Resistance we find our true, higher Selves for it is only by defeating Resistance that we may bring back from the darkness the light that is the creative act.
“Resistance has no strength of its own; its power derives entirely from our fear of it.” Steven Pressfield
Questions for You
How does “resistance” manifest in your life? Do you believe in writer’s block? Do you have any tricks for overcoming resistance, and/or staying positive? Do you like Pressfield’s ideas? Why or why not?