Battling the demons of Resistance

Steven Pressfield's 'War of Art'

4 minute read

I once lamented to a friend that I didn’t compose more, couldn’t get into the flow of things and finish a composition.

“You just have to go into that place, man,” he said. Every Wednesday night, he told me, he shuts the rest of the world out and paints. That’s when he told me about The War of Art, a little book on how to break through creative blocks and finish projects.

The title is apt because author Steven Pressfield doesn’t pull any punches. He begins by discussing Resistance, a repelling force that keeps us away from the projects we should be doing. Creative work, business ventures, relationships, overcoming harmful habits, and many other activities elicit Resistance. The more we ought to be engaged in something, he says, the more Resistance we feel, so Resistance can be used as a compass, telling us what to do.

Oddly, I’ve noticed that the more directly Resistance is confronted, the more easily flow is achieved and creative ideas come pouring out. This is not to say that Resistance is easily defeated. I’ve discovered that the more willing I am to confront it, the uncannier the distractions become, making Pressfield’s personification of Resistance as if it were a demon seem perfectly sensible. But the exorcism is contained in the simplest act of faith: sitting down and doing the work.

Letting off pressure

Steven Pressfield would probably agree with Arnold Schoenberg’s statement that a composer needs to write to let off pressure. If this is true, there’s little wonder what happens when we cave to Resistance and avoid our work. Procrastination, promiscuity, drama, and gossip are all deleterious activities we engage in to avoid what we’re supposed to be doing.

Pressfield goes a little too far when he says that many branches of the medical industry would be out of business if people stopped bowing to Resistance, and his contention that everyone is creative seems questionable, but I will say that several recent changes in my routine that allow me to get creative work done first thing in the morning have left me feeling a lot less irritable.

Opportunities to create

Consumerism is the opposite of creativity. Instead of deriving joy from wholesome activities, Pressfield says, we dull our minds with distractions, concealing the vague sense of dissatisfaction that the movie American Beauty dared to put out into the open. My father and George Carlin both lament how boring people are these days, and I wonder if it’s because most people don’t make anything anymore. This concerns more than just “the arts.” When I was a kid, you could find tons of model cars and airplanes at a local shop that doesn’t even exist now. This is not likely to get any better as long as the education system is fixated on standardized tests rather than personality development.

The mark of a pro

Pressfield begins his prescription for battling Resistance with a stark distinction between professionals and amateurs. Amateurs engage in an activity out of love but do not love it enough, so they play only for fun and not for keeps; they wait for inspiration to strike instead of sitting down and battling through Resistance. One must know the difference between what’s urgent and what’s important, he says, and then do what’s important. I had a mentor years ago who said the same and observed that most people spend their days getting stuck in correspondence and phone calls. This is Resistance.

Most artists will find their consciences pricked and discover that, however much money they’ve made from their endeavors, they are amateurs in some respect that needs to be addressed. Pressfield observes that, paradoxically, the amateur gets carried away with love and therefore becomes impatient and unwise in decision making, whereas a pro keeps enough distance from the work to avoid boondoggles — but actually loves the work more. A pro also demystifies, understanding that art is sacred, but not getting carried away with empty jargon that inspires garbage.

Gung ho

Pressfield was a Marine and still thinks like one. There are too many military stories in this book, but he usefully observes that an artist is volunteering for hell just as a Marine takes pride in confronting the worst possible circumstances. It is easy to forget how difficult it is to be an artist when we see performers only in their glamorous moments, or when watching a movie about Mozart or Beethoven that is riddled with inspiring background music. It’s also easy to forget that when we least want to work is likely when we must. The more difficult life is, the truer we should be to our vocations.

My friend shared the basic advice of this excellent book with me a year and a half ago: You have to sit down and get started. I keep The War of Art on my nightstand, as a test of conscience. I refer to it constantly. It is broken up into bite-sized sections, perfect for quick reading in the morning or evening, and it even fits in my coat pocket, so that I can take it with me. I’m fighting a battle, and this war manual is just what I need.

What, When, Where

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield. Black Irish Entertainment, 2012. Available in print, e-book, and audio editions at Amazon.

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