Understanding The Creative Battle: Steven Pressfield’s ‘The War of Art’ 


Anybody who works in the arts knows that to create art is to struggle. We must struggle against our medium and ourselves in order to do our best work. There is something about the creative mind that makes it hard to create. This is a conundrum that is inextricably linked to the process.

Some artists, as I described on my post on Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals, understand this struggle and create systems of strict discipline to combat it. Others (I would include myself in this category) are more chaotic and disorganized in their creative habits and while sometimes thriving off of this chaos also know it can be a major hindrance to their ability to do consistent work.


The War of Art:

Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles  is basically a manual, derived from the style of Sun Tzu’s  The Art of War, which is devised to teach those in creative disciplines to overcome their self-made obstacles, what Pressfield refers to as ‘resistance.’  His book investigates this subject in an aggressive, thoughtful, although somewhat flawed way.

The War of Art is divided into three sections. The first deals defining what he calls the enemy or ‘resistance.’ The second deals with combating resistance by ‘turning pro.’ The third and the most problematic is entitled ‘Beyond Resistance: The Higher Realm.’ Here his argument takes on a spiritual dimension, mixing romantic concepts of creation and genius with Christian spirituality and Jungian Psychoanalysis.


Resistance: Defining the Enemey

The best and harshest portion of the book is the first ‘Resistance: Defining the Enemy.’ Here Pressfield lays out how resistance, that is all the ways we sabotage ourselves from reaching our own potential (laziness, rationalization, fear, jealousy, etc) can conspire to stop us from doing our work. By defining the perniciousness of this enemy, Pressfield makes it easier for us to objectify it, recognize it, and so defeat it. As he puts it, “Resistance is the enemy within.”

As Pressfield defines it, the struggle against resistance is one that everyone must contend with, but artists struggle every day, and it is one they must win or die. Pressfield describes the state we are in when we encounter resistance.

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. We want to go back to bed; we want to get up and party. We feel unloved and unlovable. We’re disgusted. We hate our lives. We hate ourselves.

Edvard Munch,Melancholy, 1894-96

While Pressfield does seem to go a bit over the top here (as he often does), he makes a valid point. Giving into resistance can be incredibly self-destructive. Whether it be through procrastination or giving into a negative emotion like fear, he enumerates the dangers. For an artist, Pressfield claims, there is no room to allow fear its ultimate goal of crippling us. But fear is good in other ways. It lets us know what we have to do. “Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more we can be sure we have to do it.”

Pressfield notes the powerful healing effect that breaking through resistance can have and that working, not procrastinating, is what can actually help cure many psychological ills. He tells the story of how by forcing himself to type for two hours and then doing the dishes, he tore himself away from his feelings of depression and distraction.


Combating Resistance: Turning Pro

The second part of the book deals with what Pressfield calls ‘the professional.’ He defines this in opposition to ‘the amateur,’ who he says merely  creates art as a pastime and not with the professional’s level of seriousness. His use of these terms seem a little ill-defined here, as its hard to make clear if he believes that a professional needs to do what they do for a living in order to be considered ‘professional’ or if it is more of a state of mind.

The idea that artists need to do  what they do as their main revenue stream seems dubious, as many important artists had day jobs and did their art in their spare time. It makes much more sense if Pressfield is claiming that the creative person can call himself or herself a professional because they take their work seriously and don’t allow resistance to overcome them or dictate for them. Nonetheless, this discussion of the professional helps us to pinpoint how we can tackle the issue of resistance because it helps us pinpoint the type of state of mind, the kind of seriousness we need to combat resistance.


Beyond Resistance: The Higher Realm

The third section of the book, ‘Beyond Resistance: The Higher Realm’ is in some ways the toughest to deal with because Pressfield turns his attention to a mixture of religious ideas, psychoanalytic theories, and romantic and classical conceptions of artistic inspiration. In this section he breaks down the romantic conception of the ‘muses’ or ‘angels’ that, through hard work, can help us construct a creative vision, almost magically, an almost self-contradictory idea.


He tries to define these terms in an abstract sense for more skeptical readers as “forces we can call our allies,” although it is clear that he thinks of these forces in semi-literal terms (he notes how he prays to the muse every day before he begins to work). This conception seems an awkward and messy metaphor in a book that is otherwise concentrated on practical notions of overcoming resistance, especially as he defines it so loosely as to render it meaningless. He explains that through hard work, the act of sitting down and doing our craft day after day, “heaven comes to our aid,” meaning that we are able to tap into something, some inspiration or font of creativity which allows us to do what we do.

The strong elements of this book are precisely these practical considerations of how to overcome resistance, not Pressfield’s more ephemeral and metaphysical considerations of the problem. As a reader, I want to know what resistance is and how to overcome it in a way that is logical and easy to understand. Where the book falls down is where these straightforward aspects are put aside in favor of vague and arcane metaphor.


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