Review: The War of Art

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Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity, personal development, or entrepreneurship book.

war of artRemember the movie The Legend of Bagger Vance? It came out several years ago and starred Matt Damon as a drunken golfer who was wasting his skills and Will Smith as his mystical caddy/mentor. The movie was middling, but a close friend of mine who is an avid golfer swore up and down to me that I needed to read the book instead, as it was far, far better than the movie. And my friend was right – The Legend of Bagger Vance is actually an excellent novel that was turned into a middling movie.

So why do I bring this up now? Steven Pressfield, the fellow who wrote the novel The Legend of Bagger Vance, has actually written a ton of books, both fictional and nonfictional – Bagger Vance is just one in the pile.

Independent of my enjoyment of Bagger Vance, another acquaintance of mine, upon hearing that I had decided to make a sincere attempt at a writing career, pressed The War of Art into my hands. This acquaintance told me repeatedly that this book was simply the best thing he’d ever read on how to be productive in creative work and that I needed to read it. Since I truly enjoyed Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, which focused on more or less the same topic, I accepted the book with interest, fully intending to read it, but it eventually wound up in the nether regions of my “to be read” pile.

One day, though, it all clicked. I was glancing through my “to be read” books when I noticed the author name on The War of Art … and it rang a faint bell. A bit of research later and I quickly realized that this was a book well worth my time to read – a book on productive creative work by someone whose creative works had affected me in the past.

The War of Art, more than anything else, is about resistance – the resistance we feel whenever we take on something that truly challenges us. On first glance, one might think that he’s just talking about creative endeavors like writing or art, but most everything in the book actually applies to any personal challenge – starting a diet, starting a business, and so on.

The book is divided into three major sections – within each is a collection of twenty five or so very short essays on that particular aspect of resistance. Let’s take a look at a sampling of what the book offers.

Book One: Resistance – Defining the Enemy
Whenever you set a goal for yourself, you meet resistance. Even if the goal is something as simple as cleaning the kitchen, there’s still some resistance – it’s easier to just flop down in a comfortable chair and read a book, isn’t it?

As the goal gets bigger, the resistance gets stronger, and I can speak from personal experience on this one. During the process of writing 365 Ways to Live Cheap (My first book! Only $7.95 on Amazon! Buy it now!), I would often find new and creative ways to avoid digging into the seemingly never-ending task of actually writing a book that totaled almost 60,000 words in the first draft (later edited down to about 46,000 or so). Not only would I convince myself to do other things, I’d also get sucked into a purgatory of rewriting little elements along the way so that I would spend an entire afternoon on the book and not really add to my word count at all.

Resistance applies strongly to non-creative works as well. Ever tried to diet? The first few days go really well, then you hit some resistance. You’re hungry. You can’t stop thinking about that pint of ice cream in the freezer or that big hamburger you can get just down the street. The seeming ease of the diet that you felt in the first few days meets major resistance – and many people eventually can’t break through that resistance, failing in their diet.

I felt resistance simply in starting up The Simple Dollar. There were many, many evenings where I simply didn’t want to check my email. I didn’t want to brainstorm and write new posts. I didn’t want to tweak the site design. I didn’t want to approve comments. It was only by constantly pushing myself hard against that resistance – making myself devote time every single day to these activities come rain or shine – that I was able to eventually break through and make The Simple Dollar into something successful.

I’ve really just scratched the surface when it comes to Pressfield’s insights about resistance – he touches on ego, criticism, procrastination, and many other major aspects of resistance in this section as well.

Book Two: Combating Resistance – Turning Pro
So how do we combat resistance? Pressfield’s advice is something I already alluded to above – you have to treat your creative work like a job. You have to show up every day prepared to work at it, no matter what, and we work hard to master the techniques involved, not just the sheer joy of creation.

For those who want to start in their spare time, that means setting aside time every single day, no matter what else is going on. That means some deliberate practice.

It also means not taking failure to heart. You are going to fail along the way. When you do, don’t quit. Stand up, brush yourself off, and try to understand what went wrong. I tried many different angles for finding success as a writer – submitting short stories all over the place, writing freelance articles for publications, starting different blogs. Virtually all of these were failures. Every single failure taught me something.

Another key aspect: don’t rely on others for validation of your work. There will always be people out there that tell you you’re good and people out there that tell you you’re bad regardless of whether your work actually has merit or not. Ignore them. Focus on always improving, no matter whether you sold three million copies of your last album or you’re selling mix tapes out of your trunk.

Book Three: Beyond Resistance – Higher Realm
The final section of the book takes on something of a more metaphysical feel, with little ideas sprinkled around that complement the second section of the book.

Pressfield clearly thinks of creative work as something of a spiritual process (though not really tied to any religion, per se). He thinks of professional creative work as a process in which you make yourself as open as possible to such ideas – wait for the muse, in other words. To a degree, I understand where he’s coming from here. I find that if I make myself as open as possible to ideas – by doing things like browsing material that’s primed to inspire my ideas and keeping a notebook with me at all times to jot down spare thoughts (Pressfield mentions using a voice recorder for this very purpose).

This happens to be the shortest of the three sections, and for good reason (from my perspective) – it’s the least valuable of the three. Although it does offer up a number of good specific tactics for creative work, much of the section is lost in somewhat directionless talk about metaphysical ideas.

Some Thoughts on The War of Art
Here are three things I think I think about The War of Art.

The anecdotes Pressfield shared throughout this book rang extremely true to me. Pressfield is speaking from the heart here, and I could feel it coming through the words and echoing in my own experiences. With almost every anecdote he had to share about his battles with creative resistance, I could easily recall a similar anecdote from my own life. This made it very easy for me to grasp exactly the points he was trying to make – and made the book feel like a very short and simple read.

Routine, routine, routine. Pressfield’s biggest point seems to be that you should make the creative process a routine part of your life – something you do every day, like clockwork. I agree wholeheartedly. That doesn’t mean that I turn out something great each day – far from it. What it means is that I try each day – and sometimes, the pieces come together and magic happens. Sometimes they don’t, of course, but I’ve found that if I make it part of a routine, magic happens much more often than if I just try things every once in a while (which is how I used to do things during my many years of writing failure).

The metaphysical nature of the third section was a bit much. After two sections of very strong and useful advice and commentary on resistance, Pressfield suddenly veered down a path of deep introspection on metaphysical and spiritual topics that felt really out of tune with the rest of the book. It provided interesting reading, but it almost felt like that section came from a completely different book. Don’t be shocked if, while reading The War of Art, you find an abrupt shift between the second and third sections.

Is The War of Art Worth Reading?
My take on this book is pretty simple. The first two sections (the third section is largely forgettable) are a very approachable and easily readable version of a book I reviewed and loved several months ago – Robert Fritz’s excellent The Path of Least Resistance. Fritz’s book, while loaded with great ideas on the topic of resistance against creative progress, is a bit dense and difficult to get into, whereas Pressfield’s book is very easy to pick up and get into.

The problem is that what it gains in readability, it lacks in depth. The War of Art is a perfect bedside table book, with good ideas processed into bite-sized chunks for easy digestion. Is it easily accessible yet still full of useful information? Yes. Is it as in depth as other books on the same topic? No.

So, should you read this one? I think The War of Art is useful and informative and can be read pretty quickly by someone interested in creative resistance and how to overcome it. However, if you find that there’s not quite enough meat on the bones for you, The Path of Least Resistance is a much more in-depth look at the topic – and I tend to prefer, for my own reading, the more dense works.

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9 thoughts on “Review: The War of Art

  1. I read this book last year and loved it.
    I also agree with you about part Book 3 – it was kind of weird and I felt it didn’t add any value.
    The biggest lesson I learned is, if you want to succeed at something, you have to treat it like a job – work at it 5 days/week and don’t stop.
    Practice, Practice, Practice …
    Sometimes, talent isn’t enough.

  2. Trent,
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    i believe in you and this incredible blog, but the simple truth is The Simple Dollar can do better to earn it’s click-thru profits by a more reputable means.

    Thanks for hearing me! I still love you and your daily delivery of forthright financial wisdom.

  3. Just a few observations….

    I too read this book recently and while it had good nuggets (that you summarize here) I found The Artists Way to be more hands-on-useful around getting the artist unblocked. If you only had the money to buy one, I’d go for The Artist’s Way, and if people wanted to go further with it, Walking in the World.

    The other thing that is quite useful is to try to talk to working writers – either by taking a class or going to a writing group in your area so you see the backstage angst of trying to produce copy. It becomes evident really quickly that you must “turn pro” in your mind in order to get anything done.

    Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Outliers also supports the idea of all this practice…it’s the only way.

  4. First off, I’ve NEVER watched a movie that could hold a candle to the book. Secondly, thank you for these great recommendations! I really needed to hear the encouragement now, and the books you mention sound like they will be a great help.

  5. This is a GREAT book! I read it years ago and reread it every so often. I was so inspired by it that I wrote a letter to Stephen Pressfield and told him so, and was delighted to receive a lengthy personal reply in return.

  6. I agree, “The Art Of War” is a MUST READ…

    Off subject: To Mrs Accountability (comment #5), try “The Name Of The Rose” by Umberto Eco, if you have a chance, the movie with Sean Connery is really very close to the spirit & atmosphere of the book.
    Both describe the struggle for truth and enlightenment… not unlike our present epoch.

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