Book Report: The War of Art

The War of Art“So you’re taking a few blows. that’s the price for being in the arena and not on the sidelines. The professional conducts his business in the real world. Adversity, injustice, bad hops and rotten calls, even good breaks and lucky bounces all comprise the ground over which the campaign must be waged. The field is level, the professional understands, only in heaven.” (The War of Art)

Title: The War of Art – Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles

Author: Steven Pressfield

Publisher: Black Irish

Publication Date: 2002

Origin: The War of Art came to me by way of recommendation from my colleague, Robert Carey. Rob’s our Creative Director, but his skills extend far beyond the professional environment – if you want some sweet shaving gear, check out his Zen Shave business.

Summary: If ever a sub-title summarized a book, it’s The War of Art. Pressfield hits us over the head with lessons, examples, and directives that will help us to “break through the blocks and win (our) inner creative battles”, and in doing so shows us that we are not alone in our fears – fear is a natural emotion when one is exploring and pushing one’s potential.

He’s organized the book into three, um, books:

  • Book I: Resistance – Defining the Enemy
  • Book II: Combating Resistance – Turning Pro
  • Book III: Beyond Resistance – The Higher Realm

Summarizing the content works out roughly to:

  • Book I: Resistance is a dick, and is joined by his jerk friends Rationalization, Procrastination, and a few others; they’ll try all sorts of tricks to screw you over.
  • Book II: You already have what it takes to turn pro, but you have to really commit yourself and there’ll be knocks along the way.
  • Book III: Stick with it and you’ll find yourself

Throughout, Pressfield – despite his critical acclaim and obvious successes – is thoroughly relatable. For instance, he discusses the Resistance (always capitalized, due to the personification) that he had to overcome to write the book: “Resistance also told me I shouldn’t seek to instruct, or put myself forward as a purveyor of wisdom; that this was vain, egotistical… It made a lot of sense.”

He closes things off by reminding us that: “Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”

My Take: Mixed overall, but positive. I usually find it a bit difficult to read books that are essentially a compendium of blog posts, but The War of Art manages to move smoothly along an overall path.

Plus, I found the brutal, exposed honesty to be a powerful element – the lessons wouldn’t be as powerful if they were flatly or eloquently stated.

In truth, when I sat down to write this report (a few weeks after I’d read the book) I was surprised by how many passages I’d marked…because I remembered things as a little bit hippy/drum-circly (that’s cool if you’re into that…but it’s not my scene).

I suppose my only quibbles are that it’s a bit too spiritual – at times – for my taste, but that’s obviously a very personal thing.

Nevertheless, I can see myself coming back to The War of Art, should I find myself running into mental blocks or second-guessing myself in my pursuits, just for a little kick in the bum.

Read This Book If: …you’re your own worst enemy.

Notes and Quotes:

  • From the introduction: “Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”
  • p9: “Resistance has no conscience. It will pledge anything to get a deal, then double-cross you as soon as your back is turned. If you take Resistance at its word, you deserve everything you get . Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.”
  • p19: “The highest treason a crab can commit is to make a leap for the rim of the bucket.” That passage reminded me of a message from, of all places, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. In it, he talks about the commitment it takes to pursue your goals, and the resistance you might face from the people around you. He talks of turning down a night out with his friends because he has a hard workout the next day, and how they would accuse him of being selfish. The way he saw it, they were selfish for trying to convince him not to pursue his goals with such vigour. If you want to see a short, powerful summary of Arnold’s story, then check out the 12-minute documentary Arnold’s Blueprint.
  • p21: “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.'”
  • p22: “The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit.”
  • p22: “There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny.”

“There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny.”

  • p27…this one might cause some debate: “A victim act is a form of passive aggression. It seeks to achieve gratification not by honest work or a contribution made of one’s experience or insight or love, but by the manipulation of others through silent (and not-so-silent) threat. The victim compels others to come to his rescue or to behave as he wishes by holding them hostage to the prospect of his own further illness/meltdown/mental dissolution.”
  • p30, I can relate to this: “Resistance also told me I shouldn’t seek to instruct, or put myself forward as a purveyor of wisdom; that this was vain, egotistical… It made a lot of sense.”
  • p34: “Fundamentalism is the philosophy of the powerless, the conquered, the displaced and the dispossessed.”
  • p50: “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.”
  • p53: “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.”
  • p64: “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.'”
  • p69-72 contains the section We’re All Pros Already, and it has a number of powerful messages to remember
  • p71: “The amateur has not mastered the technique of his art. Nor does he expose himself to judgment in the real world.”
  • p72: “My friend Tony Keppelman snapped me out of it [a particularly bad state of feeling worthless] by asking if I was gonna quit. Hell no! ‘Then be happy. You’re where you wanted to be, aren’t you? So you’re taking a few blows. that’s the price for being in the arena and not on the sidelines. Stop complaining and be grateful.'”

So you’re taking a few blows. that’s the price for being in the arena and not on the sidelines.

  • p79: “The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; that he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome.”
  • p81: “The professional conducts his business in the real world. Adversity, injustice, bad hops and rotten calls, even good breaks and lucky bounces all comprise the ground over which the campaign must be waged. The field is level, the professional understands, only in heaven.”
  • OK, look, there are a whole lot of books written before folks like Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong fell from grace…but those falls don’t render the lessons any less valuable; p85: “Tiger Woods is the consummate professional. It would never occur to him, as it would to an amateur, that he knows everything, or can figure everything out on his own. On the contrary, he seeks out the most knowledgeable teacher and listens with both ears. The student of the game knows that the levels of revelation that can unfold in golf, as in any art, are inexhaustible.”

“The student of the game knows that the levels of revelation that can unfold in … any art, are inexhaustible.”

  • Some real-world gap analysis, p86: “The pro stands at one remove from her instrument – meaning her person, her body, her voice, her talent; the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological being she uses in her work. She does not identify with this instrument. It is simply what God gave her, what she has to work with. She assesses it coolly, impersonally, objectively.”
  • p88 continues the previous sentiment: “The professional self-validates. She is tough-minded. In the face of indifference or adulation, she assesses her stuff coldly and objectively.”
  • p91, after describing how Tiger Woods composed himself after being interrupted during his backswing during the 2001 Masters, and nailed a perfect drive: “First, he didn’t react reflexively… Second, he didn’t take it personally. He could have perceived this shutterbug’s act as a deliberate blow aimed for him individually, with the intention of trowing him off his shot. He could have reacted with outrage or indignation or cast himself as a victim. He didn’t.”
  • p93: “The professional learns to recognize envy-driven criticism and to take it for what it is: the supreme compliment. The critic hates most that which he would have done himself if he had the guts.”

“The professional learns to recognize envy-driven criticism and to take it for what it is: the supreme compliment. The critic hates most that which he would have done himself if he had the guts.”

  • p101: “There’s no mystery to turning pro. It’s a decision brought about by an act of will. We make up our mind to view ourselves as pros and we do it. Simple as that.”
  • p108: “The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.”

“The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.”

  • p122, quoting W. H. Murray in The Scottish Himalayan Expedition: “Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.”
  • p147: “In the animal kingdom, individuals define themselves in one of two ways – by their rank within a hierarchy (a hen in a pecking order, a wolf in a pack) or by their connection to a territory (a home base, a hunting ground, a turf). That is how individuals – humans as well as animals – achieve psychological security. They know where they stand. The world makes sense.”
  • p149 picks up that previous thought but relates it to the modern day: “We have entered Mass Society. The hierarchy is too big. It doesn’t work anymore.”
  • p165: “Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”

“Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”

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