Book Review, Theology

Steven Pressfield, ‘The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles’ (Review)

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Many of the books I’ve found most helpful on the topic of writing and creativity have a no-nonsense, let’s-get-down-to-brass-tacks style. They aim to demystify the creative process and focus on the practicalities of actually producing work. Of these, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles is one of the most direct treatments I have found. Its author, Steven Pressfield, best known for his novel The Legend of Bagger Vance, intends to diagnose and counteract the powerful internal force which impedes creative work–an enemy he labels Resistance. He writes in an entertainingly punchy style, formatting the book into (largely) page-length thoughts. The result is encouraging, practical, empowering, and–surprisingly–leaves me questioning the theological implications of his argument, which I will expand on below.

The book’s central thesis is that the difficult part of writing is not the writing itself, but the sitting down to write. If we can beat the forces which prevent us from actually getting to our work, we can be set free to produce the art which is our gift to the world. The name of the enemy is Resistance, that pernicious inner tug which takes on any form necessary to keep us from achieving the things we know we should. Split into three sections, the book first defines this enemy, then looks at ways in which to combat it, and finally points towards the elements which sustain creativity once Resistance has been overcome.

Anyone who has attempted to follow a higher calling knows Resistance intimately. It manifests itself any time we try to transcend our path-of-least-resistance, lower-nature mentality to do something of moral and spiritual value. It stops at nothing to prevent this. The difficulty is that it is an extremely subtle, invisible, internal, and often very rational force. Rather than showing its face clearly, it is most often expressed in procrastination, coping mechanisms, addictions, victim mentalities, criticism of others, and rationalisations. Essentially, Pressfield argues, it is fuelled by fear. But in betraying itself by fear, we can know that the more fearful we are, the more significant the task before us.

However, we know that Resistance can certainly be defeated, otherwise there would be no Macbeth, or Don Quijote, or Michelangelo’s Pieta. The way to overcome, as Pressfield puts it, is to “turn pro.” Primarily, the professional possesses a mentality which the amateur lacks. While the common view is that the amateur works for the love and the professional works for money, the author asserts that in reality the amateur does not love the game enough, otherwise he would dedicate his life to it like the professional. A professional stakes it all on his calling, plays for keeps, turns up to work and commits full-time. The basic attributes of what this looks like are to work daily, no matter what, over the long-haul, taking risks, accepting remuneration, mastering one’s craft, having a sense of humour and receiving blame or praise without over-identification with one’s work. Pressfield’s argument is that there is no luck or magic involved, but simply a wilful decision to turn pro and approach one’s work with this relentless perseverance.

The final question pertains to the source of creativity once Resistance has been put in its place. Pressfield opens the book with a prayer from the Odyssey, invoking the Muses, the mythical daughters of the gods, to inspire the poet in his work. The author takes the Muse as representative of that common feeling among artists that the work is not their own, but rather handed to them to ‘enflesh’. Amateurs only work when inspiration happens to hit. Professionals create a regular space where this can happen. Rather than waiting inactively for the Muse to descend, which turns out to continually be ‘mañana’, simply turning up to work daily creates a space into which the Muse can speak. This voice, the author explains, is what the ancients called our “inner genius,” the unique gift of our individual soul. Thus, he exhorts us, “Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”

The practical aspects of this book have been revealing and uplifting, causing me to take my calling more seriously, recognising Resistance when it attacks and resolving to “turn up” to work so that inspiration has a ready vessel to fill. Beyond this, however, the work raises some interesting theological questions in its discussion of the creative Muse. Pressfield, on his part, seems to take this spiritual aspect with absolute seriousness. He states that his daily ritual begins with a prayer to invoke the Muses. But, at least for him, this is not only a method, but a real act of worship. He bows his pride to the Muse and offers his gift back to it. Although he encourages the reader to follow him even if he doesn’t believe in such things as angels or Muses, there is a clear indication that every artist implicitly recognises that there are real, powerful, immaterial forces at work in the act of creation. Although Pressfield takes pains to thoroughly demystify the process of writing, and I think he is successful, in the end he reinforces a spiritual notion of the source of creative inspiration. Ultimately, for the author, the artist’s journey is that of discovering ‘self’, because the Muse is his authentic self, talking to him from a higher plane of existence where “God is all there is.”

What is interesting to me, therefore, is that the book points to sources outside of ourselves as the source of creativity, but on the other hand ends up identifying those external forces with ourselves. What Pressfield espouses, therefore, is a form of Monism or Pantheism. With this in view, the book can almost be seen as a theological treatise, with Resistance playing the role of sin, and invocation of the Muse the salvific act which, through artistic expression, connects us to our estranged inner god. In this framework, both the thing that we are striving for and the thing which holds us back are within us. Thus, Resistance is an illusion caused by fear of our inner divine potential.

But why is it more plausible to think that the Muse is simply our authentic, divine self, than that it is the eternal, immaterial, creator God at work? When taken as a whole, the author seems driven to this conclusion by being unable to deny the spiritual forces at work in his craft, but being unwilling for some reason to admit that this could be God, separate and distinct from his creation. Perhaps there is Resistance to this idea because of its possible moral implications on the artist’s life. Of course, it would also, unfortunately, imply that we ourselves are not God.

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