Title: The War of Art
Author: Steven Pressfield
Quoted In: Resistance is futile
Description: The tools to overcome Resistance, the enemy from within that comes between you and any creative endeavor or higher calling.
Want to know how to cure writer’s block? It’s not a trip to your psychiatrist. For as Pressfield wisely points out, seeking “support” is Resistance at its most seductive.
WHAT I DO: I get up, take a shower, have breakfast. I read the paper, brush my teeth. If I have phone calls to make, I make them. I’ve got my coffee now. I put on my lucky work boots and stitch up the lucky laces that my niece Meredith gave me. I head back to my office, crank up the computer. My lucky hooded sweatshirt is draped over the chair, with the lucky charm I got from a gypsy in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for only eight bucks in francs, and my lucky LARGO name tag that came from a dream I once had. I put it on. On my thesaurus is my lucky cannon that my friend Bob Versandi gave me from Morro Castle, Cuba. I point it toward my chair, so it can fire inspiration into me. I say my prayer, which is the Invocation of the Muse from Homer’s Odyssey, translation by T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, which my dear mate Paul Rink gave me and which sits near my shelf with the cuff links that belonged to my father and my lucky acorn from the battlefield at Thermopylae. It’s about ten-thirty now. I sit down and plunge in. When I start making typos, I know I’m getting tired. That’s four hours or so. I’ve hit the point of diminishing returns. I wrap for the day. Copy whatever I’ve done to disk and stash the disk in the glove compartment of my truck in case there’s a fire and I have to run for it. I power down. It’s three, three-thirty. The office is closed. How many pages have I produced? I don’t care. Are they any good? I don’t even think about it. All that matters is I’ve put in my time and hit it with all I’ve got. All that counts is that, for this day, for this session, I have overcome Resistance.
There’s 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.
Quoted In: Resistance is futile
Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.
Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.
Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease, and erectile dysfunction. To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius. Genius is a Latin word; the Romans used it to denote an inner spirit, holy and inviolable, which watches over us, guiding us to our calling. A writer writes with his genius; an artist paints with hers; everyone who creates operates from this sacramental center. It is our soul’s seat, the vessel that holds our being-in-potential, our star’s beacon and Polaris. Every sun casts a shadow, and genius’s shadow is Resistance. As powerful as is our soul’s call to realization, so potent are the forces of Resistance arrayed against it. Resistance is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, harder to kick than crack cocaine. We’re not alone if we’ve been mowed down by Resistance; millions of good men and women have bitten the dust before us. And here’s the biggest bitch: We don’t even know what hit us.
Is that what it takes? Do we have to stare death in the face to make us stand up and confront Resistance? Does Resistance have to cripple and disfigure our lives before we wake up to its existence? How many of us have become drunks and drug addicts, developed tumors and neuroses, succumbed to painkillers, gossip, and compulsive cell-phone use, simply because we don’t do that thing that our hearts, our inner genius, is calling us to? Resistance defeats us. If tomorrow morning by some stroke of magic every dazed and benighted soul woke up with the power to take the first step toward pursuing his or her dreams, every shrink in the directory would be out of business. Prisons would stand empty. The alcohol and tobacco industries would collapse, along with the junk food, cosmetic surgery, and infotainment businesses, not to mention pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and the medical profession from top to bottom. Domestic abuse would become extinct, as would addiction, obesity, migraine headaches, road rage, and dandruff.
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.
The enemy is a very good teacher.—the Dalai Lama
RESISTANCE IS INFALLIBLE: Like a magnetized needle floating on a surface of oil, Resistance will unfailingly point to true North—meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing. We can use this. We can use it as a compass. We can navigate by Resistance, letting it guide us to that calling or action that we must follow before all others. Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.
Henry Fonda was still throwing up before each stage performance, even when he was seventy-five. In other words, fear doesn’t go away. The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.
RESISTANCE IS FUELED BY FEAR Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it. Master that fear and we conquer Resistance.
Resistance obstructs movement only from a lower sphere to a higher. It kicks in when we seek to pursue a calling in the arts, launch an innovative enterprise, or evolve to a higher station morally, ethically, or spiritually. So if you’re in Calcutta working with the Mother Teresa Foundation and you’re thinking of bolting to launch a career in telemarketing. . . relax. Resistance will give you a free pass.
RESISTANCE IS MOST POWERFUL AT THE FINISH LINE Odysseus almost got home years before his actual homecoming. Ithaca was in sight, close enough that the sailors could see the smoke of their families’ fires on shore. Odysseus was so certain he was safe, he actually lay down for a snooze. It was then that his men, believing there was gold in an ox-hide sack among their commander’s possessions, snatched this prize and cut it open. The bag contained the adverse Winds, which King Aeolus had bottled up for Odysseus when the wanderer had touched earlier at his blessed isle. The winds burst forth now in one mad blow, driving Odysseus’ ships back across every league of ocean they had with such difficulty traversed, making him endure further trials and sufferings before, at last and alone, he reached home for good. The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight. At this point, Resistance knows we’re about to beat it. It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it’s got. The professional must be alert for this counterattack. Be wary at the end. Don’t open that bag of wind.
The awakening artist must be ruthless, not only with herself but with others. Once you make your break, you can’t turn around for your buddy who catches his trouser leg on the barbed wire. The best thing you can do for that friend (and he’d tell you this himself, if he really is your friend) is to get over the wall and keep motating. The best and only thing that one artist can do for another is to serve as an example and an inspiration.
Creating soap opera in our lives is a symptom of Resistance. Why put in years of work designing a new software interface when you can get just as much attention by bringing home a boyfriend with a prison record?
I once worked as a writer for a big New York ad agency. Our boss used to tell us: Invent a disease. Come up with the disease, he said, and we can sell the cure. Attention Deficit Disorder, Seasonal Affect Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder. These aren’t diseases, they’re marketing ploys. Doctors didn’t discover them, copywriters did. Marketing departments did. Drug companies did. Depression and anxiety may be real. But they can also be Resistance.
RESISTANCE AND UNHAPPINESS What does Resistance feel like? First, unhappiness. We feel like hell. A low-grade misery pervades everything. We’re bored, we’re restless. We can’t get no satisfaction. There’s guilt but we can’t put our finger on the source. We want to go back to bed; we want to get up and party. We feel unloved and unlovable. We’re disgusted. We hate our lives. We hate ourselves. Unalleviated, Resistance mounts to a pitch that becomes unendurable. At this point vices kick in. Dope, adultery, web surfing. Beyond that, Resistance becomes clinical. Depression, aggression, dysfunction. Then actual crime and physical self-destruction. Sounds like life, I know. It isn’t. It’s Resistance. What makes it tricky is that we live in a consumer culture that’s acutely aware of this unhappiness and has massed all its profit-seeking artillery to exploit it. By selling us a product, a drug, a distraction. John Lennon once wrote: Well, you think you’re so clever and classless and free But you’re all fucking peasants As far as I can see
As artists and professionals it is our obligation to enact our own internal revolution, a private insurrection inside our own skulls. In this uprising we free ourselves from the tyranny of consumer culture. We overthrow the programming of advertising, movies, video games, magazines, TV, and MTV by which we have been hypnotized from the cradle. We unplug ourselves from the grid by recognizing that we will never cure our restlessness by contributing our disposable income to the bottom line of Bullshit, Inc., but only by doing our work.
The humanist believes that humankind, as individuals, is called upon to co-create the world with God. This is why he values human life so highly.
Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.
(Conversely, the professional turns down roles that he’s done before. He’s not afraid of them anymore. Why waste his time?) So if you’re paralyzed with fear, it’s a good sign. It shows you what you have to do.
Grandiose fantasies are a symptom of Resistance. They’re the sign of an amateur. The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work. The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.
Friends sometimes ask, “Don’t you get lonely sitting by yourself all day?” At first it seemed odd to hear myself answer No. Then I realized that I was not alone; I was in the book; I was with the characters. I was with my Self.
If Resistance couldn’t be beaten, there would be no Fifth Symphony, no Romeo and Juliet, no Golden Gate Bridge. Defeating Resistance is like giving birth. It seems absolutely impossible until you remember that women have been pulling it off successfully, with support and without, for fifty million years.
WE’RE ALL PROS ALREADY All of us are pros in one area: our jobs. We get a paycheck. We work for money. We are professionals. Now: Are there principles we can take from what we’re already successfully doing in our workaday lives and apply to our artistic aspirations? What exactly are the qualities that define us as professionals? 1) We show up every day. We might do it only because we have to, to keep from getting fired. But we do it. We show up every day. 2) We show up no matter what. In sickness and in health, come hell or high water, we stagger in to the factory. We might do it only so as not to let down our co-workers, or for other, less noble reasons. But we do it. We show up no matter what. 3) We stay on the job all day. Our minds may wander, but our bodies remain at the wheel. We pick up the phone when it rings, we assist the customer when he seeks our help. We don’t go home till the whistle blows. 4) We are committed over the long haul. Next year we may go to another job, another company, another country. But we’ll still be working. Until we hit the lottery, we are part of the labor force.
5) The stakes for us are high and real. This is about survival, feeding our families, educating our children. It’s about eating. 6) We accept remuneration for our labor. We’re not here for fun. We work for money. 7) We do not overidentify with our jobs. We may take pride in our work, we may stay late and come in on weekends, but we recognize that we are not our job descriptions. The amateur, on the other hand, overidentifies with his avocation, his artistic aspiration. He defines himself by it. He is a musician, a painter, a playwright. Resistance loves this. Resistance knows that the amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in its success and overterrified of its failure. The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyzes him. 8) We master the technique of our jobs. 9) We have a sense of humor about our jobs. 10) We receive praise or blame in the real world. Now consider the amateur: the aspiring painter, the wannabe playwright. How does he pursue his calling? One, he doesn’t show up every day. Two, he doesn’t show up no matter what. Three,he doesn’t stay on the job all day. He is not committed over the long haul; the stakes for him are illusory and fake. He does not get money. And he overidentifies with his art. He does not have a sense of humor about failure. You don’t hear him bitching, “This fucking trilogy is killing me!” Instead, he doesn’t write his trilogy at all. The amateur has not mastered the technique of his art. Nor does he expose himself to judgment in the real world. If we show our poem to our friend and our friend says, “It’s wonderful, I love it,” that’s not real-world feedback, that’s our friend being nice to us. Nothing is as empowering as real-world validation, even if it’s for failure.
I was crushed. Here I was, forty-two years old, divorced, childless, having given up all normal human pursuits to chase the dream of being a writer; now I’ve finally got my name on a big-time Hollywood production starring Linda Hamilton, and what happens? I’m a loser, a phony; my life is worthless, and so am I. My friend Tony Keppelman snapped me out of it by asking if I was gonna quit. Hell, no! “Then be happy. You’re where you wanted to be, aren’t you? So you’retaking a few blows. That’s the price for being in the arena and not on the sidelines. Stop complaining and be grateful.”
Remember what we said about fear, love, and Resistance. The more you love your art/ calling/ enterprise, the more important its accomplishment is to the evolution of your soul, the more you will fear it and the more Resistance you will experience facing it. The payoff of playing-the-game-for-money is not the money (which you may never see anyway, even after you turn pro). The payoff is that playing the game for money produces the proper professional attitude. It inculcates the lunch-pail mentality, the hard-core, hard-head, hard-hat state of mind that shows up for work despite rain or snow or dark of night and slugs it out day after day. The writer is an infantryman. He knows that progress is measured in yards of dirt extracted from the enemy one day, one hour, one minute at a time and paid for in blood. The artist wears combat boots. He looks in the mirror and sees GI Joe. Remember, the Muse favors working stiffs. She hates prima donnas. To the gods the supreme sin is not rape or murder, but pride. To think of yourself as a mercenary, a gun for hire, implants the proper humility. It purges pride and preciousness. Resistance loves pride and preciousness. Resistance says, “Show me a writer who’s too good to take Job X or Assignment Y and I’ll show you a guy I can crack like a walnut.” Technically, the professional takes money. Technically, the pro plays for pay. But in the end, he does it for love.
The professional shuts up. She doesn’t talk about it. She does her work.
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.
A PROFESSIONAL ACCEPTS NO EXCUSES The amateur, underestimating Resistance’s cunning, permits the flu to keep him from his chapters; he believes the serpent’s voice in his head that says mailing off that manuscript is more important than doing the day’s work. The professional has learned better. He respects Resistance. He knows if he caves in today, no matter how plausible the pretext, he’ll be twice as likely to cave in tomorrow. The professional knows that Resistance is like a telemarketer; if you so much as say hello, you’re finished. The pro doesn’t even pick up the phone. He stays at work.
The professional endures adversity. He lets the birdshit splash down on his slicker, remembering that it comes clean with a heavy-duty hosing. He himself, his creative center, cannot beburied, even beneath a mountain of guano. His core is bulletproof. Nothing can touch it unless he lets it.
The professional keeps his eye on the doughnut and not on the hole. He reminds himself it’s better to be in the arena, getting stomped by the bull, than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot.
The professional cannot allow the actions of others to define his reality. Tomorrow morning the critic will be gone, but the writer will still be there facing the blank page. Nothing matters but that he keep working. Short of a family crisis or the outbreak of World War III, the professional shows up, ready to serve the gods.
The professional blows critics off. He doesn’t even hear them. Critics, he reminds himself, are the unwitting mouthpieces of Resistance and as such can be truly cunning and pernicious. They can articulate in their reviews the same toxic venom that Resistance itself concocts inside our heads. That is their real evil. Not that we believe them, but that we believe the Resistance in our own minds, for which critics serve as unconscious spokespersons. The professional learns to recognize envy-driven criticism and to take it for what it is: the supreme compliment. The critic hates most that which he would have done himself if he had had the guts.
The professional does not permit himself to become hidebound within one incarnation, however comfortable or successful. Like a transmigrating soul, he shucks his outworn body and dons a new one. He continues his journey.
Why have I stressed professionalism so heavily in the preceding chapters? Because the most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying. Why is this so important? Because when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose. This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete. Just as Resistance has its seat in hell, so Creation has its home in heaven. And it’s not just a witness, but an eager and active ally.
By Blake’s model, as I understand it, it’s as though the Fifth Symphony existed already in that higher sphere, before Beethoven sat down and played dah-dah-dah-DUM. The catch was this: The work existed only as potential—without a body, so to speak. It wasn’t music yet. You couldn’t play it. You couldn’t hear it. It needed someone. It needed a corporeal being, a human, an artist (or more precisely a genius, in the Latin sense of “soul” or “animating spirit”) to bring it into being on this material plane. So the Muse whispered in Beethoven’s ear. Maybe she hummed a few bars into a million other ears. But no one else heard her. Only Beethoven got it.
“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Begin it now.”
—W. H. Murray, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition
In other words, none of us are born as passive generic blobs waiting for the world to stamp its imprint on us. Instead we show up possessing already a highly refined and individuated soul. Another way of thinking of it is this: We’re not born with unlimited choices. We can’t be anything we want to be. We come into this world with a specific, personal destiny. We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. We are who we are from the cradle, and we’re stuck with it. Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it. If we were born to paint, it’s our job to become a painter. If we were born to raise and nurture children, it’s our job to become a mother. If we were born to overthrow the order of ignorance and injustice of the world, it’s our job to realize it and get down to business.
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.
—Sun Tsu, The Art of War
There’s 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.
—Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
I’ve forgotten about Resistance.
It’s often depicted as a dragon, either slowly circling above in the sky, easy to see approaching, or standing right in front of you, belching flames. It’s the ego, the devil, the toxic thoughts—the obstacle you need to get past to pursue your dreams or whatever. To get something that’s important to you fucking accomplished.
But the dragon is a terrible visualization of Resistance, because it leads to the delusion that it’s an external force or that it’s this big obvious thing you can see coming right away.
Unfortunately it’s all much sneakier than that.
To understand Resistance properly, one needs to understand the mind. Because that’s where all obstacles flow from. And from my experience and experiments, the mind makes things appear bigger or worse than they actually are. Because we perceive reality through our minds, any contrary thought that pops up in opposition to a lofty goal or worthy ideal appears as an insurmountable obstacle.
Hence, our thoughts are the sole reason why we don’t do what we fucking want.
So why haven’t I written anything this month? Because of my bullshit thoughts. Here’s a look at my “dragons” this month:
“I can’t write. I have more inner work to do on myself first before I can keep publicly displaying my thoughts and words. I need to heal more so I don’t accidentally put my trauma on display and make the world a worse place.”
“I can’t write. I’m too tired. I’m probably depressed or have chronic fatigue. I need to hold space for myself and take a break from writing until I feel 100% perfect. It’s just the season I’m in right now.”
“I can’t write. I need to organize all the documents and files of everything I’ve written in the past several years. This will actually really help the process of writing my memoir, so it’s okay if I stop writing while doing this organization project.”
UGH. Gag me.
The mind is so potent that when these thoughts were living rent-free in my head, they felt so practical and justifiable. But seeing them written out like this pisses me off so much, because now I see how stupid they actually are. There’s something about writing a thought down on paper that makes it lose its power (in a good way). You’re able to see it objectively, from a distance. (Of course, there’s a way to infuse your writing with intentional energy to make the thought MORE potent, not less, but that’s a topic for another time;)
I remember a couple years ago when I was still on social media, a writer I like named Amie McNee posted that one of her limiting beliefs she had to overcome was that she couldn’t be a writer because she sucked at spelling. At the time I thought that was so fucking lame, like rolling my eyes, thinking, “Some of us have actual real shit to deal with.”
But truly it’s no different, no lamer than my own thoughts. Lame or not, if these thoughts go unchecked, they WILL cripple us.
The thought I struggle with the most when it comes to my writing is all the capital “I’s” that infest my paragraphs. They look like flimsy toothpicks, standing tall but feigning stability. I love memoir and essay style writing, which requires me to talk about myself, or talk about things through the lens of Ally Brennan. And my thoughts love to attack me on this. They call me self-absorbed, shallow, limited, unhelpful, and that I’m not even egoic enough to at least be entertaining. My thoughts say I’ll never be a real writer unless I go back to writing fiction, or that I should be directly helping people solve a specific problem by writing in a topical niche style.
I guarantee that if I actually switched to fiction writing, my brain would tell me, “You’re wasting people’s time with these silly stories. The world doesn’t need them. You should be helping people by writing practical articles, with expert teachings and solutions, not hiding behind these made up fantasies.” Or if I honed in on a specific niche topic and wrote helpful articles on that subject, my brain would accuse me of being a sellout chump just trying to make a buck (because “the riches are in the niches”).
It doesn’t matter which way you turn, Resistance will follow you there. So you might as well do the thing that makes you light up.
And for whatever reason, I love writing sentences that start with the letter “I.”
I guess because I love reading other people’s “I” writing and getting a different perspective on things. I have a lazy eye, like my left eye really sucks and I can’t see shit out of it (no, you can’t tell that I have a lazy eye unless I try to go cross eyed, which I definitely won’t do unless we’re BFF’s). When I was a kid I would walk around the house with a small mirror held up next to my right eye, my good eye, trying to emulate what it would be like to have two normal eyes. I liked the different perspective I saw in this mirror world. I wanted to crawl inside of it. So I like to see different perspectives. The humanness of a stranger. They’re not trying to do anything but tell their story in a meaningful engaging way. I love that I can see pieces of myself in everyone I read, no matter how different they may seem.
And the other thing is that I don’t absorb dry facts unless they’re tied to someone’s personal experience or perspective. It’s why I hated school so much, because I couldn’t make any connections inside of the info dump I was receiving. I couldn’t make the information relevant. If a fact is associated with a person and their story, then I remember it, then the fact makes sense.
These are just small validations I have to give myself sometimes, in order to not freeze up when I want to write about myself. It’s okay, I say.
The thing that REALLY helped me gain some traction on these toxic thoughts was re-reading The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I first read it a few years ago and then re-read it a couple weeks ago. And now I want to recommend it to everyone on the planet because it sort of feels like an instruction manual for life.
One section of his book covers pretty much every excuse I had written at the beginning of this essay for why I couldn’t write. Procrastination due to fear of facing the blank page. Never-ending “healing” as a form of distraction from the work. He even had his own example of almost not writing The War of Art because it was non-fiction and Resistance told him he was solely a fiction author and should be presenting these ideas through story form, rather than practically and overtly.
I’ve known of the phrase “know thine enemy,” popularized by Sun Tsu’s book The Art of War, but it never seemed like a relevant concept to me until now.
When I left Christianity I was all too eager to shed the existence of Satan as well, the admonitions to watch out for his temptations, to stay on the straight and narrow. But now I don’t think it’s such a bad idea, if you reframe it a little bit. If you desire something specific in life, you literally need to follow a straight and narrow (mental) path to get to it. And now I know there actually is a force, whatever you want to call it, that will do whatever it takes to keep you from reaching that specific desire.
Keeping these two thoughts in my head, that I’m actively pursuing the deepest desire in my heart of being a writer and that a toxic force is actively trying to stop me, it makes it easier to face the fears in my head. I don’t have to be caught off guard anymore. I know my enemy.
And even if my fears were actually true, should that be the reason I stop writing? Obviously not. That’s pussy shit. If I have the ability to sit down and write, then I’m going to sit down and write. Resistance is now futile.