February: Book of the Month – The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

5 minute read

“The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.”

― Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles

Upon not playing or writing any music for about 3 months straight: feelings of distress, anxiety, resentment, self-doubt, self-pity and discontentment were seeping into my psyche. I couldn’t believe that this was due to not playing the guitar. So, I sought out some help. 

Stephen Pressfield’s ‘The Art of War.’ This was a book that had been on a lot of recommended lists of writers that I follow and admire. After a friend then recommended the book to me during my rough period, it was hard to ignore any longer. I read the entire thing in one sitting.

This illustration by sunnibrown.com  shows the core of what the book is about.

This mind map gives us an overview of Pressfield’s ideas and how he perceives an enemy called Resistance.

Resistance is anything that is holding us back from actually performing or working on our art. It is the bane of artists that slowly creeps into our habit systems and cunningly disguises itself as a fad or an innocent shirking.

A common example of this is the way artists in particular use procrastination as an excuse for waiting for the muse. I am a repeat offender of this! When you say things like ‘I’m just not in the mood’, ‘You can’t force good art’, ‘I’m waiting for some inspiration to hit before I do anything.’ This is a dangerous habit to entertain.

Pressfield notes that Resistance “plays for keeps, it wants to annihilate you.” Procrastination is not innocent, it is not a mild form of laziness. It is defeat.

Why Do Creative People Need to Create?

I find myself pondering this question often. Plato believed that the act of creativity – creating something from nothing was a representation of the power of god.

He associated the act of performance and the practice of creativity as a transcendent experience that deeply connected us with a higher power. Note that creativity here was seen as a ‘Practice.’ Not a theoretical mind exercise or a thought experiment. Creativity requires massive action, it needs movement, it frivolously requires time and energy in the physical dimension.

However heavy your burden of creativity is, the personal payoff is huge when you stumble on something that sits just right or when you have availed yourself of your burning inner ideals – the relief is orgasmic.

The drug, creativity, is the most unrelenting mistress. She will have you on your knees begging for another hit. There is nothing more you want to do than to invite her back and do everything in your power to make her stay.

There are many stories of musicians and artists who have sacrificed relationships, jobs, health and sanity to prioritize their creative endeavours. In the end, if you are a serious artist you are inevitably a creativity drug addict.

How can you not be a creativity drug abuser when your high consists of; personal expression, deep communication, and connection with people in an inherent and fundamental state of being. So why do we need to create? Because we have no choice. Why do birds need to fly? Why do lions need to hunt? It is our natural and primal instinct that makes up a vital part of our humanity.

“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything” – Plato

What is Resistance?

Resistance is the bane of creativity. Generally, it is defined as anything that pushes back or exerts a force in order to keep you from advancing. The problem with us artists is that we tend to make friends with our own resistance.

We never question it ever, we just accept it. Then we become accustomed to having it in our lives because it has become the norm over time. Never in my journey as a musician has any colleague or teacher spoken to me about how to handle Resistance, let alone how to acknowledge it as an issue. Before we can fight Resistance, we need to be able to identify where and when it surfaces in our lives.

Some Examples of Resistance in Art:

* Irregular/sporadic practice
* No goals or structure
* Can only practice if you are inspired
* You think your work sucks
* Can’t practice when you are sad or insecure
* Fear of failure and embarrassment
* Not wanting to tell anyone about your work

I could go on. This kind of thing is something that never gets addressed in the artist community. Unfortunately, the barriers that hold us back are constructs of fear in our own mind. Fortunately, we can change this if we choose to specifically and honestly identify our own personal fears.

We have to understand that overcoming Resistance is a daily feat and we must remain steadfast and diligent to this purpose. One tactic used by Pressfield is to treat your craft like a regular job. He wakes up in the morning, clocks in 4 hours of writing and goes home to perform the rest of his daily duties.

Should inspiration strike at any point, he is ready and willing to sit back down again and let the muse woo him into the seductive lull of nirvana. But if the muse should not visit that day, he has done his due diligence in fighting resistance and winning.

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

That’s the key you see. Doing the work. If Resistance is the enemy, we have to fight it every day. The way to fight hard and WIN is to sit down and practice. DO THE WORK. I find consolation in the fact that I am not the only one that has to fight resistance. Even the very best of the best still struggle with this cunning fiend.

How has resistance affected you? What forms of resistance in your creative journey keeps coming up? When do they come up? Be specific and identify your own forms of resistance. It’s the first step in winning the day and freeing your inner creativity. 

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