The War of Art by Steven Pressfield


It is human to avoid. This trait probably even predates homo sapiens, by about a zillion years. The creatures who stayed in their holes in the ground survived, while the ones who ventured outside were eaten. It ain’t survival of the fittest. It’s survival of the most anxious.

The survival strategy of remaining frozen in your burrow clearly works to a point, but when used willy-nilly, it becomes hard to get anything done. It leads to that old bug-a-boo, procrastination. Freud’s favorite word, neurotic, can be defined as using a survival strategy after its outlived its usefulness. This genetic atavism leads to the number one problem that people present in my psychotherapy office: “I know what I should do – I even know what I wanna do – why don’t I do it?”

This monumental impediment and its fix, especially around creativity, is the subject of Steven Pressfield’s terrific little book, The War of Art.

Pressfield uses another old Freudian word to describe the problem: resistance. This progress-stopper has been called by lots of names: the gremlin, the devil, maleficent, the underminer, the underdog. Like anyone who has encountered the power of the thing that prevents us from writing that novel, inventing that app, working to end sexual abuse, or losing that fifty pounds, Pressfield knows that this is an uncanny force of indomitable strength, that by all appearances has a life of its own.

Pressfield tells us that the first thing we need to do to beat this damn thing is to acknowledge its existence and understand its power. Stay close to your friends, but get closer to your enemies, kind of thing. In pithy, compelling, powerful, and entertaining chapters, Pressfield does as good a job as anyone describing just what this nasty little demon is like. If you want to know what’s getting in your way, you’ll find the answer here.

The author then goes on to give us the solution. It’s also pretty simple: do it anyway. This requires, just in the beginning, feeling fear. Avoidance, or resistance, happens so we don’t feel the fear. Instead, we feel indifference, boredom, tiredness, laziness, or we come up with all kinds of excuses – my toenail itches, it’s too cold outside, my mother wasn’t nice to me – rather than feel the fear that actually doing something involves. So, if you take action, you will be scared. After all, you, in all probability, will screw up and fail. But who cares? It’s not like you are going to get eaten by a saber-toothed tiger.

Once you get through that hard part, and you devote yourself to the daily work come hell-or-high-water, then, Pressfield tells us, a miraculous thing happens. Other forces – benevolent forces – come to our aid. The devil has us if we are sitting on the couch with our fingers up our noses. But the minute we just start and practice, something like God comes to visit.

Here, Pressfield is right on. He tells us not to wait for passion or inspiration, because it isn’t there in the beginning. We don’t get it for free. Inspiration is a gift we receive for hard work. It comes long after we begin.

I’ve watched these powers at work over and over again in my own, and others, lives, and I’ve tried to enlighten my clients about this about every way I could think of. But Pressfield lays it out better than I can manage. The only part I don’t like is when he tells people not to go to therapy! Having tried every technique against this formidable foe, I accept that there’s no magic formula to what is gonna hit the magic button for someone. So I say plunk down the few bucks at Amazon and read this book. It’s worth a try. You never know.

Just buying the book, and even reading it, is no guarantee of getting the message. When that inner critic is in force, he can even snark out Pressfield’s sage advice. But don’t listen to that cigar chomping skeptic that sits on your left shoulder who tells you that Pressfield doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Pressfield isn’t somebody who found it all easy and just gets to lord it over us mortals with his elephant poop wisdom. It took Pressfield seventeen years to have his inner breakthrough. And when he did, at fifty-two, he finally sold something. He wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance, which was turned into a movie directed by Robert Redford, starring Will Smith, Matt Damon, and Charlize Theron. Now, if that’s not a proof that miracles come to those who just keep doing it, I don’t know what is.

One comment

  1. It’s okay to to let yourself take a writing pause to regenerate your mental energy, but not for long. When this happens to me, I read someone else’s work. Sometimes a poem will do for a creative break, or a short story, or a chapter of a non-fiction book. the point is, keep your reading brain engaged while your writing brain takes a break. Watching TV doesn’t cut it.

    Do not wait for inspiration. Begin again to write. If it comes with difficulty, it’s okay. Unblock the flow of words as if they are a clogged pipe. You can edit later. Just begin.

I, and my readers, would love to read your comments

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