Book review: The War of Art

The War of Art & author Steven Pressfield The books I re-read tend to fall into one of two categories: treasured fiction from various stages of my life which I settle into again for comfort and entertainment; and clear-headed non-fiction that serves as guidance and/or a kick in the pants during the dark times.

Steven Pressfield's The War of Art is the rare book that straddles those categories. Because while it's not a piece of fiction, to the contrary, it's pretty much the bitter and often embarrassing truth, it's a story of battling demons and conquering evil that's got more than a whiff of epic myth to it. And it's written in such an entertaining, story-like way, you hardly mind that it's 165pp of someone else's far-better-traveled boot in your very stuck ass.

Pressfield's basic thesis is this: there's a force out there called "Resistance" whose job it is push back against any kind of creative force, and especially when you try to sustain it. In Newtonian terms, it is the equal and opposite reaction to you working on any sort of meaningful generative endeavor. It's what keeps you from sticking to that diet and exercise plan you know will change your life; it's what has you turning on the TV or cracking open another beer or doing any one of a million perfectly reasonable things that push you further and further away from making meaning. (In Lucasian terms, it looks a lot like that scary dude from Episode IV.)

What I love most about Pressfield's characterization of Resistance (0ther than that it is literally laugh-out-loud funny in parts) is that it manages to convey both how fully evil and utterly impartial Resistance is. Is it terrifying and demoralizing to be so gripped with fear or plagued by jealousy you procrastinate yourself into a black hole of nothingness? It is! Don't take it personally, though, Resistance is merely a force, like gravity, to be faced up to and pushed back against. It is what dark is to light, what dry is to wet, what hot is to cold.

And while Resistance cannot exactly be considered benign by anyone serious about art or change, and while it will crush you slowly and without consideration or mercy, Resistance is also, as Pressfield points out, a very useful indicator. Are you scared? Tired? Hungry? Jealous? Bored? Horny? If any of those conditions arises while you're of a mind to really do something, there's an excellent chance that you're headed in the right direction. As the carefully selected quote from the Dalai Lama that opens the first part of the book says, "The enemy is a very good teacher."

That first section of The War of Art introduces Resistance in all its shapes and guises: rationalization; procrastination; addiction; obsession (with sex, with fame, with whatever-your-poison); and so on. Part two is about the necessity of "going pro" in winning the never-ending war with Resistance, about putting your head down and doing the work, both the why and the how. (Okay, mostly the "why", the how hasn't ever really changed much, has it?) Part three ventures slightly into woowoo territory, with its talk of the holy work of creation and invocation of the gods (or whatever you call them) to help you do it, but there's valuable stuff in there about the necessity of humility (plus some really bitchin' stories), so no skipping, skeptics.

I've bought and given away my past copies of the book to various stuck and foundering friends. This one is marked up to the gills, and I'm planning on keeping it. However, Mr. Pressfield has generously sent on some fresh, unmarked copies for me to pass along to needful souls. If that's you, explain what you're working on (or not working on) in the comments, or how otherwise you're stuck and could use a little push, and we'll see what we can do about getting one of them in your hands.

xxx c

Of possible interest: Via a sponsorship by GE, Pressfield's upcoming (April 20) book, Do the Work, the next imprint from Seth Godin's joint publishing venture with Amazon, is available for free in the Kindle format right now. It's a sort of sequel to The War of Art, and delves more into the art/shipping/fear interrelationship. So if you have a Kindle, or don't mind using the Kindle reader on your computer or smartphone, I'd jump on that, stat!

UPDATE 4/13/11: And the winners are...Hillary, Rachel, and Indre! Thank you, everyone, for your wonderful comments. I hope you will find your way to the book on your own.

Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. This particular book was furnished as a review copy. Read my full book review policy here. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.