« The War of Art
Steven Pressfield and Shawn Coyne
June 7, 2020 • 6 min read
The War of Art aims to inspire the writer or the artist within you to get started by overcoming “Resistance”. It’s a manifesto to kick you into action after days, months, or even years of uninspired sloth. Below are my highlights/notes from the book:
There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.
Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.
Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it. Master that fear and we conquer Resistance.
The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight. At this point, Resistance knows we’re about to beat it. It hits the panic button.
Procrastination is the most common manifestation of Resistance because it’s the easiest to rationalize. 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.” The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit. We don’t just put off our lives today; we put them off till our deathbed.
We get ourselves in trouble because it’s a cheap way to get attention. Trouble is a faux form of fame. Anything that draws attention to ourselves through pain-free or artificial means is a manifestation of Resistance.
Cruelty to others is a form of Resistance, as is the willing endurance of cruelty from others.
Creating soap opera in our lives is a symptom of Resistance. Why put in years of work designing a new software interface when you can get just as much attention by bringing home a boyfriend with a prison record? Sometimes entire families participate unconsciously in a culture of self-dramatization.
Doctors estimate that seventy to eighty percent of their business is non-health-related. People aren’t sick, they’re self- dramatizing. Sometimes the hardest part of a medical job is keeping a straight face. As Jerry Seinfeld observed of his twenty years of dating: “That’s a lot of acting fascinated.”
As artists and professionals it is our obligation to enact our own internal revolution, a private insurrection inside our own skulls. In this uprising we free ourselves from the tyranny of consumer culture. We overthrow the programming of advertising, movies, video games, magazines, TV, and MTV by which we have been hypnotized from the cradle. We unplug ourselves from the grid by recognizing that we will never cure our restlessness by contributing our disposable income to the bottom line of Bullshit, Inc., but only by doing our work.
Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive. There is no such thing as fundamentalist art. This does not mean that the fundamentalist is not creative. Rather, his creativity is inverted. He creates destruction.
Individuals who are realized in their own lives almost never criticize others. If they speak at all, it is to offer encouragement. Watch yourself. Of all the manifestations of Resistance, most only harm ourselves. Criticism and cruelty harm others as well.
The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.
Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.
Resistance is directly proportional to love. If you’re feeling massive Resistance, the good news is, it means there’s tremendous love there too.
Grandiose fantasies are a symptom of Resistance. They’re the sign of an amateur. The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work.
Resistance loves “healing.” Resistance knows that the more psychic energy we expend dredging and re-dredging the tired, boring injustices of our personal lives, the less juice we have to do our work.
Rationalization is Resistance’s right-hand man. Its job is to keep us from feeling the shame we would feel if we truly faced what cowards we are for not doing our work. Rationalization is Resistance’s spin doctor. It’s Resistance’s way of hiding the Big Stick behind its back.
Tolstoy had thirteen kids and wrote War and Peace.
Defeating Resistance is like giving birth. It seems absolutely impossible until you remember that women have been pulling it off successfully, with support and without, for fifty million years.
The moment an artist turns pro is as epochal as the birth of his first child. With one stroke, everything changes. I can state absolutely that the term of my life can be divided into two parts: before turning pro, and after.
Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. ”Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” That’s a pro.
The Marine Corps teaches you how to be miserable. This is invaluable for an artist. The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.
We do not overidentify with our jobs. We may take pride in our work, we may stay late and come in on weekends, but we recognize that we are not our job descriptions. The amateur, on the other hand, overidentifies with his avocation, his artistic aspiration. He defines himself by it. He is a musician, a painter, a playwright. Resistance loves this.
The writer is an infantryman. He knows that progress is measured in yards of dirt extracted from the enemy one day, one hour, one minute at a time and paid for in blood.
Resistance outwits the amateur with the oldest trick in the book: It uses his own enthusiasm against him. Resistance gets us to plunge into a project with an overambitious and unrealistic timetable for its completion. It knows we can’t sustain that level of intensity. We will hit the wall. We will crash.
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.
The field is level, the professional understands, only in heaven.
When people say an artist has a thick skin, what they mean is not that the person is dense or numb, but that he has seated his professional consciousness in a place other than his personal ego. It takes tremendous strength of character to do this, because our deepest instincts run counter to it.
The professional cannot take rejection personally because to do so reinforces Resistance. Editors are not the enemy; critics are not the enemy. Resistance is the enemy. The battle is inside our own heads. We cannot let external criticism, even if it’s true, fortify our internal foe. That foe is strong enough already.
Sometimes, as Joe Blow himself, I’m too mild-mannered to go out and sell. But as Joe Blow, Inc., I can pimp the hell out of myself. I’m not me anymore. I’m Me, Inc. I’m a pro.
The ancient Spartans schooled themselves to regard the enemy, any enemy, as nameless and faceless.
There’s no mystery to turning pro. It’s a decision brought about by an act of will. We make up our minds to view ourselves as pros and we do it. Simple as that.
As Resistance works to keep us from becoming who we were born to be, equal and opposite powers are counterpoised against it. These are our allies and angels.
The Muses were nine sisters, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, which means “memory.” Their names are Clio, Erato, Thalia, Terpsichore, Calliope, Polyhymnia, Euterpe, Melpomene, and Urania. Their job is to inspire artists. Each Muse is responsible for a different art. There’s a neighborhood in New Orleans where the streets are named after the Muses.
Here’s what I think. I think angels make their home in the Self, while Resistance has its seat in the Ego. The fight is between the two.
…These are serious fears. But they’re not the real fear. Not the Master Fear, the Mother of all Fears that’s so close to us that even when we verbalize it we don’t believe it. Fear That We Will Succeed.
For the artist to define himself hierarchically is fatal.
But the artist cannot look to others to validate his efforts or his calling. If you don’t believe me, ask Van Gogh, who produced masterpiece after masterpiece and never found a buyer in his whole life. The artist must operate territorially. He must do his work for its own sake.
I learned this from Robert McKee. A hack, he says, is a writer who second-guesses his audience. When the hack sits down to work, he doesn’t ask himself what’s in his own heart. He asks what the market is looking for.
How can we tell if our orientation is territorial or hierarchical? One way is to ask ourselves, If I were feeling really anxious, what would I do? If we would pick up the phone and call six friends, one after the other, with the aim of hearing their voices and reassuring ourselves that they still love us, we’re operating hierarchically.
Here’s another test. Of any activity you do, ask yourself: If I were the last person on earth, would I still do it?
Someone once asked the Spartan king Leonidas to identify the supreme warrior virtue from which all others flowed. He replied: “Contempt for death.”
When Krishna instructed Arjuna that we have a right to our labor but not to the fruits of our labor, he was counseling the warrior to act territorially, not hierarchically. We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.
This is #58 in a series of book reviews published weekly on this site.