The War of Art

by Darina on January 2, 2014

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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.   – Steven Pressfield from The War of Art

This blog post is about the Steven Pressfield book, but it’s also about me. At the dawn of a new year, I am highly self-reflective. I think deeply about what I have accomplished and set goals (not resolutions) for the year to come. I look for ways to become better–as an artist, a friend, a daughter, a lover. As a human being. I’ve always been aware that the stakes are high, that this life we are given is so short and precious we cannot waste it. To that end, all that really matters to me is growth. I’m not a big believer in destiny or fate. I believe we create our lives, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Each year from 2010 to 2013 was a catalyst for me in its own way. The decade began with a major career change, which I experienced success in very quickly. Yet in late 2011 I found myself back in college, deciding what I really wanted was to be a photographer. Juggling a heavy course load in addition to a new, demanding job, I could feel my health start to deteriorate in early 2013 and decided to take a couple of semesters off before I totally burned out. In the summer I socialized a lot and went on a trip to Europe. I bought a bike and rode it. In the fall I signed up for one course and started writing again. I also delved back into reading, with heavy exploration of a couple of my favourite topics–Jungian analysis and Eastern philosophy.

There is a Buddhist proverb “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear”.  I often look back at the events in my life and find this to be true. Example: when I discovered the foundational reading I had done on Jung this past autumn deeply informed my understanding of The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Creative Battles, which appeared in my mailbox as a surprise gift from my bestie. Somehow this hindsight connecting of dots often involves the right book at the right time.

Modeled on the ancient classic by Sun Tzu, The Art of War, this short but powerful three-part treatise on the psychology of creation showed up when I needed it most. After a period of immense drive and determination, I could feel my belief in myself begin to waver. I was suddenly plagued with pangs of doubt and deep negativity, with liberal doses of procrastination thrown into the mix. Steven Pressfield has a name for what I was experiencing and it’s called Resistance.

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.

According to Pressfield, the pursuit of a calling in the form of writing, painting, music, or any creative art elicits Resistance. But so does a health or exercise regimen, the launching of a new business venture, the pursuit of higher education, or any commitment of the heart, such as marriage or having children. Book One is about defining Resistance, which takes many forms. Resistance is not procrastination, rather procrastination is its most common manifestation. Depression and anxiety are also common forms, as is the need to create drama and turn your life into a soap opera. Resistance feeds on fear and the degree of fear is equal to the strength of the resistance. The deeper the fear, the stronger the Resistance. But fear of what?

Fear of the consequences of following our heart. Fear of bankruptcy, fear of poverty, fear of insolvency. Fear of grovelling when we try to make it on our own, and of grovelling when we give up and come crawling back to where we started. Fear of being selfish, of being rotten wives or disloyal husbands; fear of failing to support our families, of sacrificing their dreams for ours. Fear of failure. Fear of being ridiculous.

Book Two deals with combating Resistance, which I appreciated most. So many books in the self-help genre are prescriptive rather than descriptive; they are very good at describing the problem but don’t offer much usable advice on what to do actually do about it. This is the kick-in-the-ass part. The part that makes the difference between a professional and amateur very clear, and what one needs to do to become that professional. For example, a professional distances herself from her instrument, dedicates herself to mastering technique, and does not take failure personally–or success for that matter.

The professional loves her work. She is invested in it wholeheartedly. But she does not forget that the work is not her. Her artistic self contains many works and many performances. Already the next is percolating inside her. The next will be better, and the one after that better still.

There is much to recommend in Pressfield’s book, however, many readers may be turned off by its more metaphysical aspects. Book Three, which deals more with the “higher realm” of creation, veers into territory that is even a little too flaky for me, with talk of invoking invisible psychic forces such as muses and angels–which Pressfield gives permission to think of in an abstract way if you’re not into that type of thing.

The aspects of Book Three that I enjoyed most were those that supported some of my recent learnings about the ego and the psyche, and the authentic Self as set forth by Carl Jung. In some of the reviews I have read of this book, the writers feel that Pressfield overstates his case. I don’t think so. If I have learned anything from Jung, it’s the power of our subconscious mind, which drives eighty percent of our behaviour. We believe that we are mostly rational human beings, when in actuality our psyche is set at a default of fear, resistance, and damaging patterns. You only have to look at the average person’s love life to know this is true. 

I used to think Resistance was not much of a problem for me. I simply saw myself as a procrastinator. I didn’t think I was afraid of failure, as I’ve always believed that failure is in intrinsic to success. As Samuel Beckett once said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” But this was because I was unaware of the various ways Resistance takes form in my life. Now I pay attention to the ways I shut doors, give up too soon, look for quick fixes. I have read The War of Art once, but I will read it again and again, highlighter in hand, until I have fully absorbed its messages. I have only one goal for 2014 now,  and that is to combat Resistance, in whatever form it shows up.



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