I first heard about Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art through comic book writer, Jonathan Hickman. At the end of his graphic novel, The Nightly News, Hickman includes a section titled “Fully Committed,” in which he describes how he learned to dedicate himself to his craft. He attributes much of his motivation and success to The War of Art. He begins, “It was October 2nd, 2004. I was sitting alone, bawling my eyes out, in a little Greek restaurant about half a block from the hotel where I was attending a Robert McKee seminar. I was reading Steven Pressfield’s book, THE WAR OF ART.” He goes onto detail how the book gave him the kick in the ass he needed to get his comic career going.
If the fact that this self-motivation book brought a grown man to tears isn’t a glowing recommendation, I don’t know what is. As you can imagine, I was intrigued. I did some more investigating into the book, read more reviews online, and knew I had to read it. People were hooked; they swore by this book.
I borrowed it from my local library, read the first section, felt super-motivated, and promptly ignored it until my loan expired. Pressfield would say that this was Resistance keeping me from realizing its existence. I would say it was university. Either way, I let the book go.
This year, as I prepare for my first true attempt at NaNoWriMo, I knew I needed a swift kick in the ass to get myself in gear. Therefore, I decided to pick up Pressfield’s manifesto again and actually finish it. Clearly, I had high expectations from all of the internet hype. Maybe these expectations skewed my reading, maybe not. Either way, I am left with mixed feelings.
Pressfield divides The War of Art into three “books.”
Book One, “Resistance: Defining the Enemy,” describes the forms Resistance takes (basically all the various ways we procrastinate and/or become distracted and discouraged) and the characteristics of these forms. Each section in Book One, and all the books for that matter, is short and punchy. The personification of Resistance is dramatic, but it is effective in making the reader hate it and desire its defeat. Book One also has a surprising amount of humor, and even a dash of anti-capitalist leanings sprinkled in, which make it easier to digest and reminds the reader not to take things too seriously.
In Book Two, “Combating Resistance: Turning Pro,” Pressfield outlines the difference between professionals and amateurs. This book was the most helpful to me, as it properly shamed me into re-evaluating my self-definition in relation to my craft. All I’ll say is, I have some work to do. Overall, I like Pressfield’s definition of a professional, especially how he encourages artists to take themselves seriously enough to become a business and invest in themselves.
I did have some major issues with Book Two. Most notably, I disliked the separation between one’s self and one’s craft that Pressfield mandates. I agree, a person is not her work, and she should not take professional criticism personally. However, Pressfield argues that the artist should entirely separate himself from his work, giving all the credit to a divine, higher realm, and that the artist should never listen to any criticism at all. I strongly disagree. Yes, not all criticism is useful, but most criticism is constructive and is a great learning tool. Moreover, I believe that the artist should take credit for his work, as he does put in great effort to manifest his products.
My other problem with Book Two is that Pressfield defines the professional in very depressing terms. He describes how the craft is difficult and all professionals must suffer for it. Pressfield’s obsession with misery plays into the “starving artist” stereotype that is damaging to creative people and industries. Newsflash: you can enjoy your creative work, and while it may be difficult, you do not have to live your life in constant agony. Misery is not chic.
Finally, in Book Three, “Beyond Resistance: The Higher Realm,” Pressfield takes things to another level, literally. Pressfield describes how there is a divine plane filled with divine entities who reach out to inspire us lowly humans. These divine creatures are the ones who should receive the credit for human art, as all inspiration comes from them. When he does try to use secular terminology, Pressfield maintains that each person is predestined to fulfill certain acts and create certain masterpieces and to deny the world and the creator these predestined gifts is selfish.
If you can’t tell already, I’m not religious, and I’m not very spiritual, either. I will grant that there is some unidentified force that makes humans specially equipped with personalities and allows us produce art unlike other animals or living things. But that’s just it — it’s something within humans. Even if a divine plane and God and angels do exist, I do not believe the artist needs to give every speck of credit to these beings. Maybe I’m a revolutionary, but I believe that humans are capable of independent thought and free will, which makes us capable of making our own, unique art.
My last gripe with Pressfield comes from the introduction of his book. In it, he claims that, if every human could defeat his or her unique Resistance, then all social evils would be cured. In an extreme example, he argues that “it was easier for Hitler [who wanted to be an artist] to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.”
Again, maybe I’m a revolutionary, but I feel like society is a bit more complex than that. But hey, maybe, just maybe, if everyone did beat “Resistance” and fulfill their purposes, then poverty and starvation and sickness and war and everything else bad would disappear. I’d be okay with that if it could really work.
As I said already, I’m left with mixed feelings on Pressfield’s The War of Art. Some of Pressfield’s claims are hyperbolic, and his devotion to the divine is no doubt entirely unrealistic to a large portion of his audience. However, his personification of Resistance is motivating, and his direct calls to action are inspiring and full of useful catchphrases.
If you take this book entirely for what it is: a way to motivate yourself to get off your ass and fulfill your life’s purpose, you’re golden. If you try to evaluate it more deeply, you’ll be left with some serious philosophical questions that will likely ruin the book’s intention. My advice? Enjoy books one and two, and unless you do have some proclivity for the divine or supernatural, skip book three. Also, read fast. If you just read it fast and don’t think too much, you’ll only hear the uplifting battle cry.
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