I’ve been a fan of Steven Pressfield’s novels for some time. I first read his Gates of Fire, a novelization of the Battle of Thermopylae in ancient Greece. The topic was recently popularized in the movie “300,” which I liked well enough. The movie makes no attempt to present an accurate version of historical events, while Pressfield’s magnificent novel—now required reading at West Point—is a gritty account based closely on what is known of actual events.
While Gates of Fire is (in my opinion) his best novel, I can strongly recommend this other accounts of people and events in the ancient Greek world, including Tides of War and The Last of the Amazons.
The War of Art is a nonfiction book about the inner struggle to realize a dream. It’s a condensation of what Pressfield learned about how to make art. In his case, that art is writing, but it’s equally applicable to making visual art.
The focus of the book is on overcoming Resistance. Resistance is what stops you from pursuing your art.
Look in your own heart. Unless I’m crazy, right now a still small voice is piping up. telling you as it has ten thousand times, the calling that is yours and your alone. You know it. No one has to tell you. And unless I’m crazy, you’re no closer to taking action on it than you were yesterday or will be tomorrow. You think Resistance isn’t real? Resistance will bury you.
You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study. He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and later to the School of Architecture. Ever see one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.
Pressfield describes Resistance in all of its insidious forms. Then he talks about how to overcome it, as he has overcome it in the process of becoming a successful writer. The way to overcome Resistance is to become a professional. Not a professional in the sense of someone who works for a living, but in the sense of a person who does the work he knows he must do, no matter what.
A PROFESSIONAL ACTS IN THE FACE OF FEAR
The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. 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.
What Henry Fonda does, after puking into the toilet in his dressing room, is to clean up and march out onstage. He’s still terrified but he 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.
The book is structured into little one or two page sections (the quote above is all of one of them). Each section gives brutally honest advice about the reality of pushing yourself to focus on your art, ignore obstacles, and get the work done. It’s a little melodramatic in places, but that’s really what’s needed to make the points he needs to make.
I’ve been struggling with resistance over the last year; my output has gone down significantly. I have excuses for that: busy job, a very active two-year old, the need to spend quality time with my wife. But Resistance is a lot of why I have spent a lot of evenings not painting. This book isn’t going to cure that, but it puts the problem in perspective and points me in the direction I need to go. For that I am grateful.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone struggling to make art and finding that it’s hard to make yourself do the work.