I just finished The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield. I got my copy on loan from my writer friend Melissa Birkle. She said the book was good, but it just didn’t quite gel with her. She thought it was more of a ‘guy’s book’ and said I might like it. She was right on the money.
When reviewing a book, I don’t normally comment on its published format, but my initial impression was that this book felt thin; what I mean is that the layout is very open, and chapters are done in a page or two, with lots of white space. The book is 165 pages, but could easily have been done in 120 or even fewer. This is not a matter of wordiness on Pressfield’s part, but a matter of layout. The cynic in me wondered if the publisher were trying to make the book feel thicker so it would seem worth its $12.95 cover price. However, as I settled in to read the book, I began to see the wisdom of its layout. Pressfield doles out his ideas in small, compact little tidbits, almost anecdotes, and this “open” layout makes it easy to read his work in short bursts, or to slow down and read more reflectively, slowly digesting the content of the last chapter before moving on to the next.
Pressfield divides his work into three “books:” Book One defines the challenge set before all artists and writers, that he terms “Resistance.” Book Two outlines the battle plan to combat Resistance, and Book Three details the allies writers and artist may come to depend on, and lays out a hopeful vision for victory.
Book one begins by defining Resistance. Resistance is, essentially, a combination of inertia and fear. Pressfield covers fear later, but spends most of his time on the inertia here. It’s easier (and safer) to plan great things than to do them, and Resistance is our inner procrastinator. Pressfield quickly aligns the artist with the warrior, which is perhaps why my friend Melissa thought it more of a guy’s book. He begins with the assertion that “the warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day” (14), and it is here that he seals his metaphor - the artist, like the warrior, must fight for his Muse and his creation; it won’t come easily, and every painting or chapter will represent hard-won territory. Pressfield asserts “when we fight [resistance] we are in a war to the death” (15).
Book Two begins to offer a plan of action; having defined Resistance in Book One, Pressfield now suggests how to address the problem. In short, Pressfield’s advice reads like an old Nike ad: Just Do It. Action is the salve that will aid the artistic soul - and perhaps not unlike the physical action of the warrior, who trains his body, the artist must train his mind and creative outlet in a similar way. Pressfield compares the artist to a Marine, saying that “The Marine Corps teaches you how to be miserable. This is invaluable for an artist.” (68) He makes his case for action most clear when he notes that “The concept . . . seems to be that one needs to complete his healing before he is ready to do his work. This way of thinking . . . is a form of resistance” (48). Waiting until everything is ready, or perfect, is the ultimate procrastination. Here we get the Nike slogan again (though Pressfield himself deftly avoids this): Just Do It. Action is the cure.
Book Three gets even a bit more optimistic, and here Pressfield goes just a touch “woo-woo” in asserting that there are forces in the universe conspiring to assist the artist/author - angels, he calls them, or the Muses, though he’s quick to say that you could call them anything you like, as long as you call on them. I’m good with angels. This section follows up on his exhortation to action, as he says “when we conceive an enterprise and commit to it in the face of our fears, something wonderful happens” (123), but nothing wonderful will happen until the artist takes that first step. No angel or Muse is going to drag you out of bed, or off the couch, and make you write, or paint, or whatever it is that you feel called to do. But once begun, they’ll pitch in and help you. The artist avails himself of the Muse, because he understands that his inspiration is in part divine. Pressfield points out that, “the artist and the mother are vehicles, not originators. They don’t create the new life, they only bear it (156).
But giving credit to otherworldly inspiration doesn’t relieve the artist of their responsibility. They must take ownership of their work, and “when the artist works territorially, she . . . aligns herself with the mysterious forces that power the universe and that seek, through her, to bring forth new life. By doing her work for its own sake, she sets herself at the service of these forces. (156). The artist can’t work for an external reward - fame, money, or film residuals. The artist must do the work for its own sake, embracing the struggle and finding reward in the process itself. As Pressfield ends his work finally concedes the Nike connection:
“Do it or don’t do it” (165).
My friend Melissa Birkle is a Reiki Master and writer who has her own blog. Check it out here: https://www.essenceawakened.com/blog