I’ve read a lot of books on creativity over the years, and the one that stands out as a hands-down essential read is Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.
It’s a short, succinct, but truly life-changing book.
Anyone who’s ever picked up a pen, paintbrush, lump of clay, or any other creative medium will know there are two factors at play in creative expression.
The first is inspiration — the impulse to create. Inspiration relates to the raw idea and the fascination and the drive to make, do or express something.
We all have ideas, dreams and creative impulses. It’s part of being human. Whether it takes the form of writing books, taking photographs, cooking or doodling on napkins, the impulse to create is hardwired into us.
It’s like an itch, and it feels amazing when we allow ourselves to scratch it and express this side of our nature.
Creativity makes us come alive.
And yet, there’s a counterforce which every single artist on the planet is familiar with.
Wherever there’s creativity, you’re sure to find its ugly bastard cousin — Resistance.
The act of creativity itself isn’t hard. We simply sit down and do the work. However, we often find that’s easier said than done.
No matter what our creative dreams are, whether it’s to write a novel or screenplay, compose a sonnet, paint a masterpiece, start a business or run a marathon, there’s a force within us — a self-defeating aspect within our own psyche — which actively hinders our attempts to actualize that dream and fulfil our potential. Steven Pressfield, himself a hugely successful novelist and screenwriter, is all too familiar with it. He calls it Resistance.
Resistance is an unconscious, destructive inner force; an entropic tendency to self-sabotage.
It’s because of Resistance that we find it so much easier to procrastinate — to spend hours trawling through Facebook or Youtube — than actually get down to any creative work. For me, it was never so much procrastination that was a problem as it was terminal perfectionism; the inability to finish anything because I never felt it was good enough. Both are hallmarks of Resistance.
Why do we sabotage ourselves?
We’re all familiar with Resistance. It’s there whenever we attempt anything that pushes us outside of our comfort zone. Resistance is sure to rear its head when we’re thinking of launching a new business venture, or when we decide to further our education or go on a new diet or a fitness regimen.
“It’s a repelling force,” Pressfield states. “It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.”
Resistance is an internal force, both impersonal and universal. Very often the greater the project before us — and the more it will benefit us and the world — the greater the Resistance we will encounter.
We might think that the more we pursue our art or vocation, the easier it will be overcome Resistance. But it will always be there, waiting in the wings. Complacency can never be afforded.
Resistance must be fought, day by day, and we do that by simply showing up at the page — by doing the work, regardless of how we feel.
Fear, self-doubt, procrastination and the tendency to negatively compare ourselves to others (oh, and distractions like social media!) — are all the tools of Resistance. Its aim is to stop us in our tracks, to do nothing less than cripple us. Yet we can never give into it.
“The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more we can be sure we have to do it,” Pressfield says.
How to Free Ourselves Creatively
According to Pressfield, the only way to kick Resistance’s ass is to turn pro.
This means we no longer adopt the mindset of an amateur. We make a full commitment to sit down every single day and simply do the work.
We become like creative warriors. There’s no such thing as a fearless warrior and no such thing as a dread-free artist.
We do the work in the face of whatever fear, doubt or mindless distraction Resistance is throwing our way. We show up every day, no matter what, and act in spite of it.
That’s the only way to overcome it. It’s the only way we can ever achieve our creative dreams or indeed anything of importance in life.
In addition, the pro spends time mastering his craft. He doesn’t take either success or failure personally. Pressfield references karma yoga from the Bhagavad Gita, specifically Krishna’s advice that we have the right to act in life, but no right to the results of that action. In other words, we do the work as best we can, recognising that the fruits of our actions are never in our hands. This is the perfect advice for living in general.
The professional doesn’t look for validation from others. She self-validates. She follows her heart and always remains true to her own creative vision. She’s also happy to reinvent herself when necessary and learn new skills and avenues of expression when so inspired.
Invoking the Muse
The final section of the book is a little more esoteric, exploring the origin and nature of creativity. Pressfield talks about the ancient concept of the muse — the intangible force that inspires human creative endeavour. This force can be conceptualised as either personal (in the form of angels, guides or muses) or impersonal (like some kind of cosmic gravity).
As Pressfield says:
When we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. […]
When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favour in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetised rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insigts accrue.
He later quotes W.H. Murray who observed that:
The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.
I’ve certainly found this to be true. Often we wait for inspiration to strike and it doesn’t, and it’s usually because we haven’t fully committed ourselves yet. We only have our foot half in the door. It’s not until we make a bold and definite commitment to pursuing our dreams and creating our art that the ideas begin to flow, and almost magically organise themselves.
We have to create the space for that to happen, and we have to be willing to put in the time.
The final pages explore the nature of the self and the artist’s journey. We become artists because we have to be artists. I loved Pressfield’s observation that “we’re not born with unlimited choices”.
Our dharma, our path and the person we were destined to be, was already there from the moment of our birth.
Our only choice in life is whether we’ll be true who and what we are or whether we’ll simply try to live up to some externally-imposed ideal of who we think we should be. The former leads to a life of freedom; the latter a lifetime of misery.
The mantra of the true artist is: to thine own self be true. As Pressfield says:
[The artist] must do his work for its own sake. To labour in the arts for any reason other than love is prostitution.
A hack is an artist who simply makes the art he thinks there’s a market for. Art driven only by market forces is not truly art. It’s product.
I totally agree with his conclusion that the artist is not actually the author of his own work:
The artist and the mother are vehicles, not originators. They don’t create new life, they only bear it. [The artist] aligns herself with the mysterious forces that power the universe and that seek, through her, to bring forth new life.
To do this is to bring a gift to the world; to express the creative impulse of the universe through words, images, dance, song, or whatever medium it happens to be.
The War of Art is a hugely inspiring book. It’s essential reading for anyone in the creative field, and much of it is relevant to life in general. It provides a blueprint for dealing with the self-sabotaging force of Resistance, along with excellent pointers for making our dreams a reality by adopting the mindset of a pro and aligning with the almost primordial essence of creativity.
Anyone who’s ever had writer’s/artist’s block or been held back by fear and self-doubt needs to read this book now!