Book review: The War of Art

I didn’t like this book. It was just too unintentionally silly to like. Now I know silly books can be meaningful or moving, or just plain fun, but this one is hard to recommend. It’s particularly hard to suggest it to anyone in serious pursuit of writing or making of any kind. It’s too weird, dramatic, and fanciful, and the good advice and thinking it does contain is often buried in indulgence. You can find equivalently good inspiration without these flaws.  The book you should read instead is Art & Fear (more on that shortly). It’s cruel to say, but it’s the book Pressfield should have read first.

There is a fantasy among people who want to write that inspiration is the challenge. If only they had sufficient inspiration, all other problems would fade away. They imagine writers as people who are inspired all the time, which is nonsense.

But it’s a convenient fantasy, and those who buy into it tend to believe two things: a) obtaining passion is the hard part and b) it can be found in a book.  It’s these people who buy books like the War of Art. They prefer mystical, romantic and even supernatural explanations for what writing or art making is. A narrative of WAR is what they want, as it shapes the universe as a battle, with forces of good and evil, and you, the reader, get to imagine yourself as the hero in this epic conflict.

As an exercise, this is fine. As a metaphor, it’s useful. But as a literal way to think about the daily practice of making things it’s absurd. Worse, I think it’s destructive for learning how to write, especially for new writers. There are much better ways to explore why writing is hard, particularly the notion of blocks.

The first half of the War of Art is a reasonable attack on the psychology required to make things, and this much of the book I’d recommend. He writes just a paragraph on most pages. Short notes on the fight and how he fights it, plus anecdotes from famous figures, and his pet theories on psychology. Some of it is good and moving. Other bits are cliche, cheezy or overly dramatic. As a light read for getting psyched, I was often moved and entertained. But the annoyances and wanderings increase as you read. After two of my favorite sections ( How to be miserable, We’re all pros already), which came mid-way through the book, I had an increasingly hard time continuing. It was hard to finish the book’s 165 sparse pages.

The problem is Pressfield (Author of the Legend of Bagger Vance) likes his fantasies. It’s clear he depends on them to work. This may work for for him, but as a model for others? With no offering of alternatives? He gets lost in them in this book and will lose inexperienced writers in them too. As the book progresses his central arguments shift to mystic forces, with the task of creative work scrambling into literal notions of angels and gods and their pivotal role in writers and their work. If you like books like The Secret and find the Law of Attraction useful in your life, and you want to write, you’ll like this book, as it bets on similiar faith in the universe and forces beyond our control as its central, or at least concluding, theme.

Otherwise please go read Art and Fear instead. It achieves all of the aims of The War of Art with more grace, honesty, concision and power than any other book on making there is. Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of writing is also excellent, without any self-indulgence or dependence on mystical metaphors.

Meanwhile, read my post on How to write a book: the short honest truth.

13 Responses to “Book review: The War of Art”

  1. john moore (from Brand Autopsy)

    Pressfield’s book meant a lot to me when I first read it in 2005. Sure, there is powder puff psychology and flaky stuff within the pages. There is also compelling advice. Perhaps you are of different breed that doesn’t need a kick in the ass sometimes. I did in 2005 (and still do today) so when Pressfield writes the following, it speaks to me.

    “Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from a work-in potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from our work. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.”

    When I’m knee deep in finding ways to procrastinate, Pressfield’s words in WAR kickstart me into action.

    Reply
    • Scott Berkun

      John Moore:

      No doubt, everyone gets motivated differently. If this book works for you, that’s awesome.

      But knowing other books of this kind, I can’t recommend it for the reasons I offered.

      Reply
  2. Mark Dykeman

    On one hand, I get what you are saying about Pressfield’s concept of Resistance. I loved the first two books of The War of Art, but my Suspension of Disbelief power was exhausted by the time I got to Book Three (Beyond Resistance: Higher Realm), so that book didn’t appeal too much to me.

    Some of the thinking in Book Three reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk: I didn’t care much for her theories of daemons and the fragile psyches of artists, but I came around a little bit. Whether or not I believe in their methods, I’m not going to say the concept of Resistance or Divine Inspiration is not working for them.

    But you do raise a good point about how seriously these books or ideas should be taken. Seth Godin has basically taken the essence of Pressfield’s Resistance concept, tied it to the vestigial reptile brain that forms part of the overall human thinking apparatus, and has come up with the Lizard Brain. Godin’s context is broader than writing, but it’s a similar use of concept and he pretty much cites Pressfield as an influence in this respect.

    One of the parts of Pressfield’s book that I found most interesting was the ritual he describes in What I Do. Is his writing ritual kooky? It might seem to be to some people. Athletes and musicians may have weird rituals, too. And so on.

    Is Pressfield a good role model? In the sense that he found a way to dig his life out of the gutter and Resistance was something he used as an adversary to help give himself the strength to get writing and clean up his life, yes. Plus, you know, he’s published and sold a few books, etc. I’m not a fan of The Secret, so there’s a limit as to how far I’ll follow his lead. By the way, he does seem like quite a nice guy.

    Now I want to check out Art & Fear and Bradbury’s book, though: I’m curious. So thank you, Scott, for pointing them out.

    Reply
  3. Sean Crawford

    Like you Scott I was moved, and I got in gear and was doing art before I got to the second half. In terms of action, I haven’t taken any notice of the second half of the book, and I certainly haven’t considered any literal mystic muse. But the first half really mattered to me and I’ve been steadily doing my art without avoidance since reading it a few years ago. (I forget when) In fact, in 2009 I took it to a summer toastmasters retreat to briefly talk about it.

    Perhaps for me the value of the book was the timing of when I read it.

    Before that life changing read (in terms of measurable output, and practical concepts) I had “Art and Fear” on the shelf but didn’t get very far into it. But now that I am regularly producing and feel the right to call myself an artist, instead of referring to artists as “they” (And I have just pulled “Art and Fear” off the shelf and peeked inside) I am looking forward to reading it. Thank you, Scott.

    Reply
  4. Dorian Taylor

    Thanks, Scott, for taking the time to look at this.

    I don’t buy creative blocks. I don’t think they exist. It’s an antiquated metaphor that reeks of the Romantic period. It invokes a notion of internal struggle and creative fortitude, willpower, sacrifice, strife etc. If only I was strong enough to overcome this obstacle, that kind of thing. I really think it is incumbent on any creative professional to work to extinguish this idea.

    Consider instead that a creative block might not be a block but a vacuum, a gap in the information required to express a certain concept in a concrete form. Information comes from recreating the circumstances that yield it, and therefore it is hidden across space and time, and demands an arbitrary stock of resources to acquire it. (If this was not the case, we would never need to experiment.)

    In this configuration, fortitude doesn’t matter. Just as we can’t expect to fly no matter how hard we flap our arms, we shouldn’t expect to perform any task of any kind successfully without the appropriate tools and materials at our behest.

    Reply
  5. Scott Berkun

    Sean:

    Timing counts for a great deal – If I hadn’t read Art & Fear I might have felt differently about this book.

    Reply
  6. Scott Berkun

    Mark: Yes – part 3 reminded me of Gilbert’s talk as well. It’s a wonderful talk – she’s an excellent speaker – even if I disagree with some of her premise.

    Reply
  7. Scott Berkun

    Dorian wrote:

    > Consider instead that a creative block might not be
    > a block but a vacuum, a gap in the information required
    > to express a certain concept in a concrete form

    Fascinating – Need to think about that more, but I think I dig it.

    For most people who talk about being blocked it’s about a fixed outcome that they desire and won’t let go of. This could be the project being “good” or “having a happy ending” or some abstract idea they’re insisting is the only acceptable way to complete the work or take the next step.

    If you are willing to accept writing a shitty novel, or a stupid poem, or an ugly painting, the blocks go away. And often when you accept these things as possibilities, in that acceptance you find a way, through working, to make something good – just not in the way you initially intended. But the letting go is very hard for many people to do, especially after putting weeks or months of work into something.

    I know many writers, myself included, who put work away from awhile – weeks, months.. hoping that when I come back to it I’ll see it differently and find a way to continue. But that’s not a block – that’s recognizing some ideas need longer to bake than my ego might want.

    Reply
    • Andrew Rowe

      This book, like a few of the other commenters, inspired me to get to work. Art and Fear worked for you. I think you may be right about timing. I haven’t read Art and Fear, but I expect the message is the same. I found the metaphysical aspects of The War of Art quite appealing, but I thought The Secret was a crock of shit. I think everyone is saying the same thing about art – DO THE WORK – it’s just that some people find some ways of putting it more attractive.

      On Writing by Stephen King was the other big one for me. That book provided a little more inspiration and boot to the ass than the War of Art, but they were close.

      If you get a creative block that you can’t seem to figure out, don’t stop writing. Just start something else or go back to work on another project you abandoned. The answer will come.

      I fully agree with Pressfield’s ideas about addiction and art. If you aren’t doing your work, you’re going to become unhappy and fill your time with Resistance and its going to suck your life down into a horrible place. Writing got me out of there and I’m never going back. 5:30 every morning, even weekends now. I get my bare minimum of 2,000 words – no exceptions.

      I’m as free as a bird.

      Reply
  8. Jim McGee

    While I think that part 3 of the book goes a bit gooey, I did find the first sections helpful. For me, the main takeaway was not the mystical elements, but the notion that it ultimately boils down to simply doing the work and not waiting for some magical inspiration.

    I will certainly take a look at the other books you recommended. In the meantime, I suppose I had better get back to some applying fingers to keyboard and stringing words together.

    Reply

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