The War of Art – Pressfield

Writer.s block. Ever get that? Even if you.re not a writer, you.ve had it if you.ve had a great idea that.s been hard to follow up. The last couple of days, writer.s block has hit me. Here.s the scoop: writing the last chapter of a book on tragic art theory, Paying Melpomene’s Price. There.s a section on the quarrel between four genres: tragedy, comedy, philosophy, and history. They each hold a different worldview. Philosophy is reason based. Tragedy and comedy are emotion based. And history features the active life of statesmen rather than the contemplative life of the arts. In philosophy, Plato bans tragedy from his Republic. In comedy, Socrates gets burned alive in Aristophanes’ Clouds (and it.s considered to be rip roaring funny!). In tragedy, Marlowe.s Faust declares philosophy to be odious. And so on. But finding examples from historiography which disparages the other genres is harder. The last couple of days, I.ve been reading Tacitus, Machiavelli, Livy, and others trying to find references. I haven.t been writing. I.ve debated whether I should just keep writing and leave that section blank. Or stop and do the proper research to go step-by-step. But it could take a loooooooong time to go through the history books in the bookcase: Spengler, Ammianus Marcellinus, Livy, Herodotus, etc.,

Pressfield to the Rescue

Chatting with talented graphic designer and Etsy proprietor EA a few weeks ago, I had asked how she had been able to get all her enterprises to where they are now. She said that the hardest thing was to take action on an idea. I had to agree and saw similar obstacles in my own life. Then she said, ‘There.s a book I.ll lend you, give it a shot!’. The book was The Art of War: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield. As MT had recently been reading Sun Tzu.s The Art of War in preparation for business negotiations (‘always negotiate from a position of power’ and other such fine advice), the Pressfield title–obviously a play on Sun Tzu–intrigued me. ‘The book is really short, you can read it in a sitting’, added EA. Well, I.m in! Nice cover design. The flower growing out of the harsh concrete slab gives readers an idea of what the book will recommend:

The War of Art Cover Illustration

The War of Art Cover Illustration

Favourite Quotes from The War of Art

Resistance Only Opposes in One Direction: Resistance obstructs movement only from 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 with a capital ‘R’ is Pressfield.s public enemy number one. It.s the force that holds people back from writing novels, finishing paintings, starting charities (or businesses), getting in shape, or running a marathon. Each of the sections (they.re far too short to be called chapters) focusses on an element of the Resistance and how to overcome it. Pressfield.s thoughts on how Resistance only opposes in one direction left its mark on me because its so true yet so full of mystery. If a telemarketer were debating whether to quit telemarketing and work with the Mother Teresa foundation, Resistance would rear its head. But not the other way around. Is it part of human nature to come up with excuses to do things we.re not happy doing? Strange.

Professionals and Amateurs: Aspiring artists defeated by Resistance share one trait. They all think like amateurs. They have not yet turned pro. The moment an artist turns pro is an epochal as the birth of his first child. With one stroke, everything changes. I can state absolutely that the term of my life can be divided into two parts: before turning pro, and after. To be clear: When I say professional, I don’t mean doctors and lawyers, those of ‘the professions’. I mean the Professional as an ideal. The professional in contrast to the amateur. Consider the differences. The amateur plays for fun. The professional plays for keeps. To the amateur, the game is his avocation. To the pro it’s his vocation. The amateur plays part-time, the professional full-time. The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week. The word amateur comes from the Latin root meaning ‘to love’. The conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love, while the pro does it for money. Not the way I see it. In my view, the amateur does not love the game enough. If he did, he would not pursue it as a sideline, distinct from his ‘real’ vocation. The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. He commits full-time. That’s what I mean when I say turning pro. Resistance hates it when we turn pro.

Assiduous reader LH was wondering in a prior post if I.ve left my job. Blogging, after all, requires a bit of time and it would be interesting to see how one could hold down a full time job, commute 2-1/2 hours, and still have the energy left to write for a couple of hours. He.s right: I.ve put a career in the construction industry as an estimator/project manager with Bayside Mechanical behind me to pursue work on writing Paying Melpomene’s Price full time. The blog you.re reading, Doing Melpomene’s Work is meant to be a journal of the writing of the book. This segues into a most interesting topic that will tie back into Pressfield.s quote above.

During the Bayside years, whenever the question came up in conversation, ‘What do you do?’, I could always say, ‘Project Manager’. I experimented for awhile with saying, ‘As little as possible’ but for the most part in the scripted social exchange, you give your occupation and your interlocutor does the same. Since I.ve left Bayside, it.s gotten a little trickier. I see myself as writing full-time and also do some odds and ends in my condo building: sweeping, vacuuming, and helping people out. I also manage an investment portfolio. So I.m a writer (which is not revenue generating), janitor (which is very part time), and a rentier. How do I answer the question, ‘What do you do?’? (wow, I like that double question mark, groovy).

I didn.t really feel like introducing myself as a janitor or a building manager, since the work was so part time that it couldn.t really be considered a position. It.s more like helping out. To call myself a rentier is just bad in today.s ‘Occupy Wall Street’ milieu. We.ve come a long way from 18th century novels like Bronte.s Jane Eyre or Mann.s Magic Mountain or Balzac.s Father Goriot (or even the sitcom Cheers) where the main characters never work and never explain really why they don.t work. That was just the way things were. It was just right. But no longer today. So I was saying I retired. But I feel like that didn.t really cut it either. No one ever said so much, but I felt some people were resentful. I was too young to retire. I hadn.t ‘paid my dues’ so to speak. A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with an old work colleague, GF. We were chatting about the transition and I mentioned some of the things I.m putting to words on this post. I said, ‘I think some people resent it’. He said, ‘I know you.re not showing off or anything, but sometimes it can come across that way’. Well, GF.s one of the most straight up and good guys, so if he says it I trust him. So no more, ‘I retired’. But that still leaves the question: how to answer people asking, ‘What do you do?’?

Back to Pressfield.s quote. I.m going to say from now on that I.m a writer. I.ve gone pro. I.m playing for keeps. And when people ask, ‘Who.s going to read your book’, I.m going to say, ‘Everyone’. Before I used to say, ‘Well, probably no one because who.s really interested in tragic art theory?’. But that.s gotta stop. If I don.t believe in it, who will? I.m writing the book because it.s the most important thing in the whole world. I can say that because I truly believe: tragedy is the art that allows us to value human life, to understand the greatness of its worth. It.s my job to get the message out. Boy I.m glad Pressfield set me straight!

Fear: Resistance feeds on fear. We experience Resistance as fear. 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 betraying our race, our ‘hood, our homies. Fear of failure. Fear of being ridiculous. Fear of throwing away the education, the training, the preparation that those we love have sacrificed so much for, that we ourselves have worked our butts off for. Fear of launching into the void, of hurtling too far out there; fear of passing some point of no return, beyond which we cannot recant, cannot reverse, cannot rescind, but must live with this cocked-up choice for the rest of our lives. Fear of madness. Fear of insanity. Fear of death. These are serious fears. But they’re not the real fear. Not the Master Fear, the Mother of all Fears that’s so close to us that even when we verbalize it we don’t believe it. Fear That We Will Succeed.

Wow, did that hit a nerve with you? Pressfield nailed it on the head with that one. I.ve felt and have been destroyed by a lot of those fears: dangerous images flashed into my mind reading the passage. But the last line is true as well. The fear of success. Perhaps the fear of success is that if we do succeed, what.s next?

It.s been a long post, thanks for reading it through. Pressfield.s The Art of War is a thought provoking book. Coming full circle back to the original problem of writer.s block: I had been thinking of reading more and writing less in my book since I had gotten ‘stuck’. But now I know that that.s just the Resistance talking. I.m going to press on. When the solution occurs, I.ll fill that gap in at that time. Thanks for the tip, Pressfield!

Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong, and in Doing Melpomene’s Work, I.m also winning the fight against the Resistance. You can too!

2 thoughts on “The War of Art – Pressfield

  1. Pingback: Memory and Writing | Doing Melpomene's Work

  2. Pingback: Finish Line Psychology | Doing Melpomene's Work

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