Reading The War of Art was the best kick-in-the-ass I’ve had in a decade. It was written for creatives, but it applies to everybody who has a calling – whether it be teaching, helping others, cooking, or starting a business.
Have you ever bailed out on a call to embark upon a spiritual practice, dedicate yourself to a humanitarian calling, commit your life to the service of others? Have you ever wanted to be a mother, a doctor, an advocate for the weak and helpless; to run for office, crusade for the planet, campaign for world peace, or to preserve the environment? Late at night have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.
Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease, and erectile dysfunction. To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius. Genius is a Latin word; the Romans used it to denote an inner spirit, holy and inviolable, which watches over us, guiding us to our calling. A writer writes with his genius; an artist paints with hers; everyone who creates operates from this sacramental center. It is our soul’s seat, the vessel that holds our being-in-potential, our star’s beacon and Polaris.
I’ve felt the Resistance for years. It kept me anonymous my first year of blogging. It’s made me question the wisdom of maintaining this site dozens of times. Pressfield recounts his own battle with The Resistance. From his About page:
[After graduating from Duke University and serving in the United States Marines], I’ve worked as an advertising copywriter, schoolteacher, tractor-trailer driver, bartender, oilfield roustabout and attendant in a mental hospital. I’ve picked fruit in Washington state, written screenplays in Tinseltown, and was homeless, living out of the back of my car with my typewriter.
He was miserable. When he finally faced his calling – writing – he threw himself into his work in a never-ending battle with the Resistance. In 1995 he wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance, which put him on the map. Since then he’s written Gates of Fire (which is taught at West Point, Annapolis, Quantico, and is on the Reading List of the Commandant of the Marine Corps), Tides of War (taught at the Naval War College), and others. After decades of drifting aimlessly, Steven Pressfield became a master of his craft, his true calling.
He answered his calling by declaring war on the Resistance. The War of Art diagnoses and describes the Resistance beautifully.
Resistance feeds on fear. We experience Resistance as fear. But fear of what?
Fear of the consequences of following our heart. Fear of bankruptcy, fear of poverty, fear of insolvency. Fear of groveling when we try to make it on our own, and of groveling when we give up and come crawling back to where we started. Fear of being selfish, of being rotten wives or disloyal husbands; fear of failing to support our families, of sacrificing their dreams for ours. Fear of betraying our race, our ‘hood, our homies. Fear of failure. Fear of being ridiculous. Fear of throwing away the education, the training, the preparation that those we love have sacrificed so much for, that we ourselves have worked our butts off for. Fear of launching into the void, of hurtling too far out there; fear of passing some point of no return, beyond which we cannot recant, cannot reverse, cannot rescind, but must live with this cocked-up choice for the rest of our lives. Fear of madness. Fear of insanity. Fear of death.
What does Resistance feel like?
First, unhappiness. We feel like hell. A low-grade misery pervades everything. We’re bored, we’re restless. We can’t get no satisfaction. There’s guilt but we can’t put our finger on the source …
Unalleviated, Resistance mounts to a pitch that becomes unendurable. At this point vice kicks in. Dope, adultery, web surfing.
Pressfield details various manifestations of Resistance:
RESISTANCE AND SEX
Sometimes Resistance takes the form of sex, or an obsessive preoccupation with sex. Why sex? Because sex provides immediate and powerful gratification. When someone sleeps with us, we feel validated and approved of, even loved. Resistance gets a big kick out of that. It knows it has distracted us with a cheap, easy fix and kept us from doing our work.
Of course not all sex is a manifestation of Resistance. In my experience, you can tell by the measure of hollowness you feel afterward. The more empty you feel, the more certain you can be that your true motivation was not love or even lust but Resistance.
It goes without saying that this principle applies to drugs, shopping, masturbation, TV, gossip, alcohol, and the consumption of all products containing fat, sugar, salt, or chocolate.
RESISTANCE AND TROUBLE
We get ourselves in trouble because it’s a cheap way to get attention. Trouble is a faux form of fame. It’s easier to get busted in the bedroom with the faculty chairman’s wife than it is to finish that dissertation on the metaphysics of motley in the novellas of Joseph Conrad.
Ill health is a form of trouble, as are alcoholism and drug addiction, proneness to accidents, all neurosis including compulsive screwing up, and such seemingly benign foibles as jealousy, chronic lateness, and the blasting of rap music at 110 dB from your smoked-glass ’95 Supra. 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.
This really struck a chord with me. When I reached this point in the book, thinking about my deadline, I imagined my life without the blog, without writing, without storytelling. I’d manage to stay self-employed, but it wouldn’t be a healthy life. In five years I’d be in sweat pants and house shoes every day, hitting the bottle at lunch. Maybe with breakfast. Writing is what keeps me sane. It’s the only thing that gives a better rush than all those distractions.
Another manifestations of Resistance, trouble, from Turning Pro:
There are more than two million people behind bars in the United States and another 5M on probation or parole. How may millions more are self-imprisoned in cycles of abuse (of others or of themselves) or habituated to other forms of vice, corruption, and depravity?
Why is trouble so intoxicating? Because its payoff is incapacity.
The scars and tattoos of the convict are his shadow symphony, his displaced epic, his unpainted masterpiece. The individual addicted to trouble will never get out of jail, because he is safer behind bars than free out in the world. Each time he is released, he will find a way to get sent back.
The payoff for the prisoner is release from the agonizing imperative of identifying, embracing and bringing into material existence the dreams and visions of his own deepest, noblest, and most honorable heart.
THREE MODELS OF SELF-TRANSFORMATION
When we hate our lives and ourselves, two models present themselves as modes of salvation.
The first is the therapeutic model. In the therapeutic model, we are told (or we tell ourselves) that we are “sick.” What ails us is a “condition” or a “disease.”
A condition or a disease may be remedied by “treatment.” Right now we are “ill.” After treatment, we will be “well.”
The second way is the moralistic model. The moralistic model is about good and evil. The reason we are unhappy, we are told (or tell ourselves) is that we have done something “wrong.” We have committed a “crime” or a “sin.”
The answer to the condition of wrongness is punishment and penance. When we have “served our sentence” and “atoned for our sins,” we will be “pardoned” and “released.” Then we will be happy …
This book proposes a third model … the amateur and the professional … What ails us is that we are living our lives as amateurs.
The solution … is that we turn pro.
Turning pro is free, but it’s not without cost. When we turn pro, we give up a life with which we may have become extremely comfortable …
Turning pro is free, but it demands sacrifice. The passage is often accompanied by an interior odyssey whose trials are survived only at great cost, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. We pass through a membrane when we turn pro. It hurts. It’s messy and it’s scary. We tread in blood when we turn pro.
Turning pro is not for everyone. We have to be a little crazy to do it, or even to want to. In many ways the passage chooses us; we don’t choose it. We simply have no alternative.
What we get when we turn pro is, we find our power. We find our will and our voice and we find our self-respect. We become who we always were but had, until then, been afraid to embrace and to live out.
Do you remember where you were on 9/11? You’ll remember where you were when you turn pro.
I believe in God and angels. I believe the Resistance I feel is a manifestation of the devil, of evil, of cowardice.
Art is Work
Pressfield’s philosophy appeals to me because it’s a “no-nonsense, blue-collar demystification” of art. Here are some of his rules for professionals:
- The professional does not overidentify with his job.
- The professional demystifies.
- The professional does not identify with his or her instrument.
Aspiring writers are especially prone to being guilty of these rules. Many people who aspire to be or call themselves “writers” want to be seen as writers more than anything else. They want to “live the life of a writer” – whatever that means – but they don’t work as journalists or even have a blog.
Overidentifying with the job or instrument of writing can be wearing glasses or growing beards, using Moleskine notebooks, going to Starbucks with the laptop, and other outward signs of being seen as a writer. There are examples from every profession, an obvious one being the popularity of TapouT clothing and other brands associated with cagefighting among people who aren’t professional cagefighters. Overidentifying is amateur.
- The professional shows up every day.
- The professional stays on the job all day.
- The professional does not wait for inspiration.
This illustrates Pressfield’s emphasis on work. He writes every day at the same time, and keeps writing until he starts making typos and can’t see straight. Maybe what he’s produced is shit, maybe it’s gold. But he’s done the work. He’s defeated the Resistance for the day. He’s survived to fight the next day.
Waiting for inspiration is easy. I procrastinated writing Classism: The Spanish Legacy in Latin America for over three years from when I first got the idea. I only wrote it because of a deadline for a Spanish tourism ad, which demanded content on Spain (I’ve never been there). They decided against advertising on that article, but it was a good article. Don’t wait for inspiration. Do the work and inspiration will manifest itself.
- The professional dedicates himself to mastering his technique.
This is better illustrated in painters, sculptors, or musicians – artists whose technique and mechanics to produce their product are easier visualized. But it applies to writers as well. Especially in the blogging era, “technique” includes WordPress, HTML, CSS, linking, embedding video or images in addition to classic skills like grammar, punctuation, word economy, research, and storytelling.
I’ve been blogging since April 2008. I consider myself good, but I won’t call myself a master of my craft until I’m 100% sure I’ve spent over 10,000 hours practicing.
- The professional has a sense of humor about his job.
- The professional receives praise or blame in the real world.
- The professional does not take failure or success personally.
- The professional self-validates.
From Turning Pro:
The professional blows critics off. He doesn’t even hear them. Critics, he reminds himself, are the unwitting mouthpieces of Resistance and as such can be truly cunning and pernicious. They can articulate in their reviews the same toxic venom that Resistance itself concocts inside our heads. That is their real evil. Not that we believe them, but that we believe the Resistance in our own minds, for which critics serve as unconscious spokespersons.
Negative comments used to bother me. And as much as I deny it, they still do sometimes. But the more vitriol I get, the less it stings. A pro is desensitized. Keep creating product. Don’t take it personally if somebody doesn’t like it. Somebody else does.
Pressfield talks a lot about “hierarchical thinking.” A professional “self-validates,” but the amateur pays attention to the hierarchy. Hierarchy indicators for blogs include number of pageviews, unique visitors, comments, subscribers, Facebook “Likes,” Twitter followers, etc. Pay no attention to the hierarchy. I was guilty of that. But I’m turning pro.
Other Gems from Pressfield
For thousands of years, Resistance wasn’t a big deal. Men didn’t need a ‘calling’ when mere survival was the priority. For over half the world’s population, life remains that way. Pressfield on “the artist” in The War of Art:
The artist is the advanced model. His culture possesses affluence, stability, enough excess of resource to permit the luxury of self-examination. The artist is grounded in freedom. He is not afraid of it. He is lucky. He was born in the right place. He has a core of self-confidence, of hope for the future. He believes in progress and evolution. His faith is that humankind is advancing, however haltingly and imperfectly, toward a better world.
Pressfield admits the paradoxes throughout his theories. Most obviously, treating your love as a business:
The professional has learned, however, that too much love can be a bad thing. Too much love can make him choke. The seeming detachment of the professional, the cold-blooded character to his demeanor, is a compensating device to keep him from loving the game so much that he freezes in action. Playing for money, or adopting the attitude of one who plays for money, lowers the fever.
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. The artist wears combat boots. He looks in the mirror and sees GI Joe.
Technically, the professional takes money. Technically, the pro plays for pay. But in the end, he does it for love.
Eminem – Till I Collapse
Marshall Mathers is a master of his craft. When I heard the above track, I always thought he was talking about external pressure. Only after reading Pressfield did I realize he’s talking about internal pressure. The entire song is about battling Resistance.
‘Cause sometimes you just feel tired,
Feel weak, and when you feel weak, you feel like you wanna just give up.
But you gotta search within you, you gotta find that inner strength,
And just pull that shit out of you and get that motivation to not give up,
And not be a quitter, no matter how bad you wanna just fall flat on your face and collapse.
Instead of literally falling on your face or collapsing, it’s more likely you get drunk, get laid, get high, get a bag of chips or chocolate, get on FB and Twitter, get in front of the TV.
Don’t do that. Identify your calling. Do the work.