5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways from Steven Pressfield's THE WAR OF ART

5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways from Steven Pressfield's THE WAR OF ART

In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield argues that Resistance is the cause of all human suffering. He asks, “How many of us have become drunks and drug addicts, developed 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.” Pressfield will help you define the ways that Resistance manifests in your life so that you can overcome your personal barriers. He will also show you not only how to fight, but how to live beyond Resistance in a higher realm of creative living.  

If you struggle to define and overcome what holds you back from achieving your creative dreams, this book is for you.

NOTE: This book is summarized in a Q&A format; all answers are directly from Steven Pressfield (not lil’ ol’ me).

What is your typical writing schedule?

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 put on my lucky work boots and stitch up the lucky laces that my nice Meredith gave me. I head back to my office, crank up the computer. My lucky hooded sweatshirt is draped over the chair. I put it on. I say my prayer, which is the Invocation of the Muse from Homer’s Odyssey...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. 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.

What is Resistance?

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance. Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic? Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint? Then you know what Resistance is. To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. It prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius.

What triggers Resistance?

Any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity, like:

  1. The pursuit of any calling in writing, painting, music, film, dance, or any creative art.

  2. The launching of any entrepreneurial venture, for profit or otherwise.

  3. Any diet or health regimen.

  4. Any program of spiritual advancement.

  5. Any activity whose aim is tighter abdominals.

  6. Any program designed to overcome an unwholesome habit or addiction.

  7. Education of every kind.

  8. Any act of political, moral, or ethical courage, including the decision to change for the better some unworthy pattern of thought or conduct in ourselves.

  9. The undertaking of any endeavor whose aim is to help others.

  10. Any act that entails commitment of the heart (i.e. get married, have a child)

  11. The taking of any principled stand in the face of adversity.

What are the characteristics of Resistance?

Resistance is invisible, internal, insidious, implacable, impersonal, infallible, and universal. It’s aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify, seduce, anything to keep your from doing your work. It is an engine of destruction. Reduce it to a single cell and that cell would continue to attack. It is not out to get your personally. It doesn’t know who you are and doesn’t care. It will unfailingly point to true North--meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing. The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it. Everyone who has a body experiences Resistance.

Resistance never sleeps. Fear doesn’t go away. The battle must be fought anew every day. It aims to kill. When we fight it, we are in a war to the death. It has no strength of its own but is fueled by fear. Master fear and conquer Resistance. It obstructs movement only from a lower sphere to a higher. It is most powerful at the finish line. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it’s got. It recruits allies. When a writer begins to overcome her Resistance, she may find that those close to her struggling (consciously or unconsciously) against their own Resistance, begin acting strange to sabotage her. The best and only thing that one artist can do for another is to serve as an example and an inspiration.

What does Resistance feel like?

First, unhappiness. 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 feel unloved and unlovable. We hate our lives. We hate ourselves. 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.

As artists and professionals it is our obligation to enact our own internal revolution. In this uprising we free ourselves from the tyranny of consumer culture. We overthrow the programming of advertising, movies, video games, and TV 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.

What are some other symptoms of Resistance?

  • Procrastination: “I’m going to start tomorrow.”

  • Sex: the more empty you feel, the more certain you can be that your true motivation was not love or even lust but Resistance. This principle applies to drugs, shopping, masturbation, TV, gossip, alcohol, and the consumption of all products containing fat, sugar, salt, or chocolate. We drug ourselves to blot out our soul’s call.

  • Cruelty: to others or the willing endurance of cruelty from others.

  • Drama: the working artist will not tolerate trouble in her life because she knows trouble prevents her from doing her work.

  • Victimhood: the antithesis of doing your work.

  • Criticism: when we see others beginning to live their authentic selves, it drives us crazy if we have not lived out our own. Individuals who are realized in their own lives almost never criticize others. If they speak at all, it is to offer encouragement.

  • Self-doubt: however, it can be an ally. It reflects love of something we dream of doing and desire to do it. If you find yourself asking yourself, “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.

  • Fear: like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it and the more gratification we will feel when we finally do it. That enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. The professional tackles the project that will make him stretch.

  • Grandiose fantasies: 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.

  • Fear of isolation: we’re never alone. The act of courage calls forth infallibly that deeper part of ourselves that supports and sustains us.

  • Feeling too wounded: or the concept that one needs to complete his healing before he is ready to do his work. The part we create from can’t be touched by anything our parents or society did. In fact, the more troubles we’ve got, the better and richer that part becomes. We all need healing. But it has nothing to do with doing our work.

  • Seeking support: What better way of avoiding work than going to a workshop? The more energy we spend stoking up on support from colleagues and loved ones, the weaker we become and the less capable of handling our business.

  • Rationalization: plausible, rational justifications for why we shouldn’t do our work (a lot of them are true). It’s one thing to lie to ourselves. It’s another thing to believe it.

What exactly are we afraid of when we experience Resistance?

Fear of the consequences of following our heart, bankruptcy/poverty/insolvency, being selfish, being rotten wives or disloyal husbands, failing to support our families, sacrificing their dreams for ours, betraying our race/our homies, failure, being ridiculous, throwing away the education/the training/the preparation that those we love have sacrificed so much for, launching into the void, passing some point of no return, madness, insanity, death...

These are serious fears. But they’re not the real fear. No the Master Fear is Fear That We Will Succeed. That we can access the powers we secretly know we possess. That we can become the person we sense in our hearts we truly are. This is the most terrifying prospect a human being can face, because it ejects him at one go (he imagines) from all the tribal inclusions his psyche is wired for. We fear discovering we are more than we think we are. We fear that we actually possess the talent that our still, small voice tells us. That we actually have the guts, the perseverance, the capacity.  We fear that we truly can steer our ship, reach our Promised Land. We fear this because, if it’s true, then we become estranged from all we know. We pass through a membrane.

We know that if we embrace our ideals, we must prove worthy of them. And that scares the hell out of us. What will become of us? We will lose our friends and family, who will no longer recognize us. We will wind up alone, in the cold void of starry space, with nothing and no one to hold on to. Of course this is exactly what happens. But here’s the trick. We wind up in space, but not alone. Instead we are tapped into an unquenchable, undepletable, inexhaustible source of wisdom, consciousness, companionship. Yeah, we lose friends. But we find friends too, in places we never thought to look. And they’re better friends, truer friends. And we’re better and truer to them.

Can we ever overcome Resistance?

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. The truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery. While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.  

When have you experienced Resistance and how did you overcome it?

When I began this book, Resistance almost beat me. It told me that I was a writer of fiction, not nonfiction, and I shouldn’t seek to instruct; that this was vain, egotistical, possibly even corrupt, and that it would harm me in the end. What finally convinced me to go ahead was simply that I was so unhappy not going ahead. I was developing symptoms. As soon as I sat down and began, I was okay.

You mention in your book that to overcome Resistance, we have to turn pro. What is the difference between an amateur and a pro?

Aspiring artists defeated by Resistance share one trait. They all think like amateurs. They have not yet turned pro. 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. By performing the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting to work, you set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that will produce inspiration. 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. Resistance hates it when we turn pro.

The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation. The artist must be like a Marine. He has to know how to be miserable. He has to take pride in being more miserable than any soldier or swabbie. Because this is war, baby. And war is hell.

What are the qualities that define a professional?

The essence of professionalism is the focus upon the work and its demands, while we are doing it, to the exclusion of all else. The professional:

  • Shows up every day.

  • Shows up no matter what.

  • Stays on the job all day.

  • Stays committed over the long haul.

  • Feels stakes that are high and real. This is about survival, feeding our families, educating our children. It’s about eating.

  • Accepts remuneration for labor.

  • Does not over identify with the job. We are not our job descriptions. The amateur defines himself by his avocation, his artistic aspiration. Resistance knows that the amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in it success and over terrified of its failure. The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyzes him.

  • Masters the technique of the job.

  • Has a sense of humor about the job.

  • Receives praise or blame in the real world. That’s the price for being in the arena and not on the sidelines. I realized I had become a pro when I had a real failure.

  • Does the work out of love. Too much love can make you choke. The seeming detachment of the professional, the cold-blooded character to his demeanor, is a compensating device to keep him from loving the game so much that he freezes in action. Resistance loves pride and preciousness.

  • Is patient and understands delayed gratification. Resistance gets us to plunge into a project with an overambitious and unrealistic timetable for its completion. It uses the amateur’s own enthusiasm against him. The professional prepares his mind for the long haul.

  • Seeks order. He eliminates chaos from his world in order to banish it from his mind. He wants the carpet vacuumed and the threshold swept, so the Muse may enter and not soil her gown.

  • Views work as craft, not art. She understands that all creative endeavor is holy, but she doesn’t dwell on it or it will paralyze her. So she concentrates on technique. The professional masters how, and leaves what and why to the gods. Out of respect for them, she lets them work. She grants them their sphere while she concentrates on hers.

  • Acts in the face of fear. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome. There is no such thing as a fearless warrior.

  • Accepts no excuses. He knows if he caves in today, no matter how plausible the pretext, he’ll be twice as likely to cave in tomorrow.

  • Plays it as it lays. You’ve got to play golf with the wind. The field is level only in heaven.

  • Is prepared to confront his own self-sabotage each day. He understand Resistance will throw stuff at him that he’s never seen before. His goal is not victory (success will come by itself when it wants to) but to handle himself, his insides, as sturdily and steadily as he can.

  • Does not show off. His work has his distinctive style, but it serves the material.

  • Dedicates himself to mastering technique. He respects his craft. He recognizes the contributions of those who have gone before him. He wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come.

  • Does not hesitate to ask for help. It would never occur to him that he knows everything, or can figure everything out on his own. He seeks out the most knowledgeable teacher and listens with both ears.

  • Distances herself from her instrument. Her gift is simply what God gave her, what she has to work with. She assesses it coolly, impersonally, objectively.

  • Does not take failure (or success) personally. A professional schools herself to stand apart from her performance, even as she gives herself to it heart and soul. We have a right only to our labor, not the fruits for our labor. All the athlete can do is leave everything on the field. She is invested in it wholeheartedly. But she does not forget that the work is not her. The next will be better, and the one after that better still.

  • Endures adversity. His creative center cannot be buried. Nothing can touch it unless he lets it. 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.

  • Self-validates. An amateur lets the negative opinion of others unman him. He takes external criticism to heart, allowing it to trump his own belief in himself and his work. Resistance wants us to stake our self-worth, our identity, our reason-for-being, on the response of others to our work. The professional learns to recognize envy-driven criticism and to take it for what it is: the supreme compliment. He cannot allow the actions of others to define his reality.

  • Recognizes her limitations. She gets an agent, a lawyer, an accountant. She knows she can only professional at one thing. She brings in other pros and treats them with respect.

  • Reinvents himself. The Muse may have more than one job for us over our lifetime.

  • Is recognized by other professionals. The professionals sense who has served his time and who hasn’t.

How do we turn pro?

We make up our mind to view ourselves as pros and we do it. Simple as that.

What are your thoughts on the process of receiving inspiration?

As Resistance works to keep us from becoming who we were born to be, equal and opposite powers are counterpoised against it. These are our allies and angels. 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. Power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication.

The universe, the Greeks believed, was not indifferent. The gods take an interest in human affairs, and intercede for good or ill in our designs. I believe there are angels. They’re here, but we can’t see them. When we conceive an enterprise and commit to it in the face of our fears, something wonderful happens. A crack appears in the membrane. Like the first craze when a chick pecks at the inside of its shell. Angels assist as we give birth to ourselves, to that person we were born to be, to the one whose destiny was encoded in our soul. When we make a beginning, we get out of our own way and allow the angels to come in and do their job. It makes God happy.

So how does this interaction between man and God/the Muse work?

What does it tell us about the architecture of our psyches that, without our exerting effort or even thinking about it, some voice in our head pipes up to counsel us on how to do our work and live our lives? Whose voice is it? Whatever it is, it’s smarter than we are. What exactly is it doing? It’s organizing. The principle of organization is built into nature. When we, like God, set out to create a universe, the same principle kicks in. Our screenplay resolves itself. Our symphony takes shape. How do we experience this? By having ideas. Insights pop into our heads. What can we conclude from this? Clearly some intelligence is at work, independent of our conscious mind and yet in alliance with it, processing our material for us and alongside us. This is why artists are modest. They know they’re not doing the work; they’re just taking dictation.

Do you think anyone can tap into this creative intelligence?

“Noncreative people” hate “creative people” because they’re jealous. They sense that artists and writers are tapped into some grid of energy and inspiration that they themselves cannot connect with. This is nonsense. We’re all creative. The same everyday miracles are happening in all our heads day by day, minute by minute. [Art exists] already in that higher sphere as potential--without a body, so to speak. [It needs] someone, a corporeal being, a human, an artist to bring it into being on this material plane.

How would you describe the interaction between inspiration and Resistance?  

I think angels make their home in the Self, while Resistance has its seat in the Ego. The fight is between the two. The Self wishes to create, to evolve. The Ego likes things just the way they are. The Ego’s job is to take care of business in the real world. It’s an important job. But there are worlds other than the real world, and this is where the Ego runs into trouble. The Ego believes death is final, time and space are real, every individual is different and separate from every other, the predominant impulse of life is self-preservation, and there is no God. The Self believes the soul endures and evolves, time and space are illusions, all beings are one, the supreme emotion is love, and God is all there is. Dreams come from the Self. Ideas come from the Self. When we meditate, fast, pray, it’s the Self we’re seeking. The Self is our deepest being. It is united to God, incapable of falsehood, ever-growing and ever-evolving. It speaks for the future. That’s why the Ego hates it. The Ego doesn’t want us to evolve. The more awake we become, the less we need the Ego. It knows that these souls are awakening to a call, and that call comes from a plane nobler than the material one and from a source deeper and more powerful than the physical. The Ego produces Resistance and attacks the awakening artist.

You mention that artists define themselves either hierarchically or territorially. What’s the difference?

For the artist to define himself hierarchically is fatal. An individual who defines himself by his place in a pecking order will:

  1. Compete against all others in the order, seeking to elevate his station by advancing against those above him, while defending his place against those beneath.

  2. Evaluate his happiness/success/achievement by his rank within the hierarchy, feeling most satisfied when he’s high and most miserable when he’s low.

  3. Act toward others based upon their rank in the hierarchy, to the exclusion of all other factors.

  4. Evaluate his every move solely by the effect it produces on others. He will act for others, dress for others, speak for others, think for others.

But the artist cannot look to others to validate his efforts or his calling. The artist must operate territorially. He must do his work for its own sake. In the hierarchy, the artist faces outward. Meeting someone new he asks himself, What can this person do for me? How can this person advance my standing? In the hierarchy, the artist looks up and looks down. The one place he can’t look is that place he must: within.

How can we tell if we are thinking territorially or hierarchically?

One way is to ask ourselves, If I were feeling really anxious, what would I do? If we would call six friends, reassuring ourselves that they still love us, we’re operating hierarchically. If we enter our territory to bring us back to center, we are operating territorially. Ask yourself: If I were the last person on earth, would I still do it? The sustenance comes from the act itself, not from the impression it makes on others.

There’s a third way to do the work, proffered by the Lord of Discipline, which is beyond both hierarchy and territory. That is to do the work and give it to Him. Do it as an offering to God. To labor in this way is a form of meditation and a supreme species of spiritual devotion. To let the work come through us and give it back freely to its source is as true to reality as it gets.

So what is the ultimate goal of the artist?

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. Are you a born writer? In the end the question can only be answered by action. Do it or don’t do it. 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.

Thanks, Steven Pressfield.

My FREE THE WRITER takeaways:

  1. Yielding to Resistance will keep us from achieving our potential which will diminish our spirit; the fight is worth it.

  2. We can use Resistance to find our life's calling.

  3. To overcome Resistance, we must choose to turn pro by doing the work consistently.

  4. We need to think territorially, doing the work even if we are the last person on earth.

  5. Submit yourself to the creative process, recognizing that it isn’t all you. It is your responsibility to give back to the world what you’ve been given.

To free the writer this week, choose one principle that you want to apply and do it. Let me know how it goes in the comments below.


A writer like you: Eddie Cantrell

A writer like you: Eddie Cantrell

A writer like you: Amanda Luzzader

A writer like you: Amanda Luzzader