Some days I think I'd rather walk into a room full of professors and defend my dissertation a second time than sit down in front of the blank computer screen and start a new chapter of my novel. Well okay, maybe not, but when I'm faced with a blinking cursor and no idea on earth what to do with the next 3500 words -- never mind the 80,000 following those -- just about any activity from ironing undershirts to scrubbing toilets to extracting clover, leaf by leaf, from the front lawn appears infinitely more appealing.One of my favorite methods of procrastination involves reading books on craft or creativity,for I can convince myself with little effort that I'm "working," learning skills and tricks that will render that first key-stroke all the easier the next time I do sit down to write. Yesterday, I didn't have to hoodwink myself to justify my dilatory reading, for I devoured a book that has the power to change my (writing) life if I take its message to heart. A short but powerful reflection on resisting creative endeavor, screenwriter and novelist Steven Pressfield's The War of Art (Grand Central 2003) was worth every minute it kept me from producing pages of my own.
The War of Art is divided into three sections. In the first, "Resistance: Defining the Enemy," Pressfield examines the characteristics and operations of Resistance, which he defines as the force that separates the life we live from the unlived life within us. Self-generated, Resistance keeps us from following the calling or action that we must follow before all others; it prevents us from doing the work -- be it artistic, charitable, scientific, spiritual or entreprenurial -- through which we will produce the unique and priceless gift we were put on earth to give. "The more important a call or action to our soul's evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it" (12). Think of Resistance as "self-sabotage" and it is easy to identify the many forms it takes: procrastination, obsessions, self-dramatization, hypochondria, victimhood. Pressfield boils Resistance down to its essence: fear. Fear, however, serves a useful purpose, for "it tells us what we have to do" (40). The extent of our fear indicates the importance of our task: "The more scared we are of a work or a calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it" (40). If a project meant nothing to us and was unimportant to the growth of our soul, we would feel no Resistance towards it.
Yet how does the writer/scientist/entrepreneur over come the fear that paralyzes her? By "Turning Pro," as Book Two explains. Becoming a professional, Pressfield reveals, means nothing more (and nothing less) than sitting down despite one's fear and doing one's work. The professional shows up every day, no matter what, and stays at the job until the whistle blows. She's committed over the long haul, masters the job's techniques, and doesn't over-identify with the work (69-70). The professional acts in the face of fear, unlike the amateur, who believes she has to first overcome her fear before she can do her job: "The professional knows that fear can never be overcome. He knows there is no such thing as a fearless warrior or a dread-free artist.... [H]e forces himself forward in spite of his terror. He knows that once he gets out into the action, his fear will recede and he'll be okay" (79). As for rejection and criticism? The professional refuses to take it personally, for doing so only reinforces Resistance. Resistance is the enemy, not editors and critics; the professional does not allow external criticism fortify her internal foe (88). In contrasting the traits and habits of the amateur with those of the professional, Pressfield encourages the reader to take charge of her situation and implement the changes that will advance her from one state to the other.
The final section of the book, "Beyond Resistance: Higher Realm," situates Pressfield's thoughts on Resistance and professionalism into a spiritual framework. He assures us that when we create, we are in touch with our truest selves and the divine and well along the path to discovering our purpose in life. "We come into the world with a specific, personal destiny. We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become" (146). If we refuse to do this job, we hurt more than ourselves, for we deny others the very thing we were given unique talents to achieve. Far from a selfish act, creative work becomes a gift to the world (165), one that needs to be undertaken with dedication, persistence and love.
Both practical and philosophical, The War of Art is one of the most inspiring books I've read, one that I'm sure I will be turning to often for encouragement. I recommend it to anyone who finds themselves blocked in their creative endeavors or searching to reconcile work with life's larger questions. And although I hate the word, I have to use it in this case: Pressfield's work is empowering for anyone who suspects fear is preventing her from realizing her potential. I'll leave you with this:
Never forget: This very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny. This second, we can turn the tables on Resistance.
This second, we can sit down and work. (22)
That blinking cursor doesn't seem so scary anymore.
[Many thanks to Jennifer Fulwiler at Conversion Diary for bringing this book to my attention.]