O Divine Poesy ...
OK, I'm stumped … I know that somebody
out in social media land strongly recommended this book … I was thinking it might have been Chris Brogan
, but I wasn't able to find the thing that said “this is the basic stuff” (or something along those lines) making Steven Pressfield's The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles
something that I had to pick up.
Now, I'd not been familiar with Pressfield previously, but he appears to be a very successful writer in what seems to be mainly historical fiction, having come out of screenwriting (where he had at least one major success after a lot of failure). On a surface level, this book is about the inner workings necessary to be
a successful writer, with a special focus on doing battle against what he calls “the resistance”. Frankly, his description of this is very
similar to a concept (perhaps going by the same name) that I read in some other book, and for the life of me, I can't recall what that was either
, so you're getting me writing this at perhaps at maximum frustration.
I really didn't have any particular expectations going into this other than it had been highly
recommended by somebody whose opinions I trust. This is
an odd book … it's sort of autobiographical in a scattered way, with musings twisting around remembrances, interspersed with hard-won advice. There are lots of clichés about writers, and Pressfield embodies a lot of them … from living in a van, and cranking out material on an old manual typewriter, to allusions to ideal relationships gone bad because the work for the muse trumped the work on the girl. The echoes of Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson hang suggestively over this as well, although, having read this, I have not much more knowledge of the person
Pressfield is, beyond small biographical tidbits like “He is a former Marine. In 2003, he was made an honorary citizen by the city of Sparta in Greece.”
This is split into three “books”: RESISTANCE - Defining the Enemy
, COMBATTING RESISTANCE - Turning Pro
, and BEYOND RESISTANCE - The Higher Realm
. These are broken into dozens of pieces that range from a couple of sentences to several pages. He starts things out pretty straight-forwardly, with an introductory section titled “What I Know”, which reads:
There is a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don't, and the secret is this: It's not the writing part that's hard. What's hard is sitting down to write.
What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.
So … that's what the writer (and other artists, or anybody trying to achieve anything worthwhile) is up against. On one level this is a “spiritual” book – the Resistance is somewhat personalized, and the Muse is certainly a real entity to the author … before he begins writing he says “a prayer” which is the Invocation of the Muse from Homer's The Odyssey
in the T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) translation
. The third part of this gets deeper into that zone.
When reading this, I ended up putting in more than my usual number of little bookmarks, but going back to them, the bits I flagged seem hard to extract from the flow of the book … they were highlights in the process, but in several cases I can't really pull them out to bring to you here. I will make an effort, though. In a section “How To Be Miserable” he talks about being in the Marines, and how the Marines love misery, which he notes “This is invaluable for an artist.”
The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.
Fair warning, I suppose … this is very similar to the amazing introduction to the Best Screenplay nominees at the last Academy Awards, where Robert DeNiro described
the inner state of writers, and I wonder if whoever scripted those remarks was drawing from Pressfield's work, at least in spirit.
The concept of “genius” shifts back and forth in the book, between the Greek concept of the spirit which provides the individual's abilities, and the more modern sense of advanced competency (in contrast to mundane or “hack” work). This comes up in this discussion of mastering technique:
The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come. The professional is sly. He knows that by toiling beside the front door of technique, he leaves room for genius to enter by the back.
One of the subtler themes here is that of evolution, not so much on the physical plane, but in the spiritual realms. A key conflict is the “Ego” vs. the “Self”, with the Ego being an ally of the Resistance. The author puts it: “I think angels make their home in the Self, while Resistance has its seat in the Ego.”
. He goes on to define the Self more in this part:
The margins of the Self touch upon Divine Ground. Meaning the Mystery, the Void, the souce of Infinite Wisdom and Consciousness.
Dreams come from the Self. Ideas come from the Self. When we meditate we access the Self. When we fast, when we pray, when we go on a vision quest, it's the Self we're seeking. When the dervish whirls, when the yogi chants, when the sadhu mutilates his flesh; when Native Americans pierce themselves in the Sun Dance, when suburban kids take Ecstasy and dance all night at a rave, they're seeking the Self. When we deliberately alter out consciousness in any way, we're trying to find the Self. When the alcoholic collapses in the gutter, that voice that tells him, “I'll save you,” comes from the Self.
The Self is our deepest being.
The book winds up in an interesting discussion of “hierarchy” vs. “territory”, with the former being the playground of the Resistance, and the latter being the field of the Self.
You might well wonder what The War of Art
has to do with writing … but there are, in fits and starts, a lot of direct-from-the-trenches advice on that level as well … but it's more a spirit of fighting through the Resistance and staying true to the Muse than being a practical manual about being a writer. Perhaps the most telling thing I can say about this is that I suspect I will re-read it … and reasonably soon … something that only very
rarely happens in my book consumption. This lacks linearity in the way Zen koans do … and I suspect it will reveal more on subsequent reads.
This is still in print in the paperback, and it is quite
reasonably priced in the Kindle format. While it might not be “for everybody”, I'd recommend it to those who self-identify as writers, as you'll find it poking around in your head more than everything else you've read of late.