The other day my friend Micah and I were discussing the issues that so many people face when trying to create something new. Both of us have been working on creative projects off and on for years. A majority of them have never seen the light of day (some of those for very good reasons). Collectively we’ve had so many “great” ideas that have never been completed that we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.
Micah seems to have broken through that wall recently and has been producing some great stuff for himself and others. He’s been releasing a steady flow of consistent, quality content for months now. It’s clear he’s made a change, and I wanted to know how.
“You should read this,” he says. Half jokingly he held up a book, cradling it in both hands as if he was passing down a sacred book of knowledge from one handsome bearded shaman to the next much more handsome bearded shaman.
The War of Art:
Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles
by Steven Pressfield.
The War of Art is one of those books that puts into words the concepts that you maybe-thought-you-knew about the creative process, working out, doing good, or any higher calling that requires work. The War of Art is all about defeating the bane of all creators: Resistance. The enemy. The thing that stops you from finishing. That keeps you in the planning phase. The thing that you need to get out of the way in order to work, but you haven’t found the time to eliminate.
Pressfield puts it best:
We don’t tell ourselves “I’m never going to write my symphony,” instead we say “I’m going to write my symphony, I’m just going to start tomorrow.”
So, who is Steven Pressfield? Pressfield is a former marine, former truck driver, former [a lot of things], turned writer who has been banging on keyboards for decades. He’s fought in literal combat, so he’s one of the few people who can legitimately make the association between War and Art without a veteran rolling their eyes. He’s written screenplays for films, both successful and “flops” (which is Pressfield’s own description of King Kong Lives!). In the book, Pressfield describes writing for nearly 20 years before having any “real” success. Arguably Pressfield’s best known work is The Legend of Bagger Vance: A Novel of Golf and the Game of Life, which you may remember was made into a feature film, minus the subtitle, but adding Matt Damon, Will Smith and Charlize Theron.
Another point in the War of Art’s favor is that it offers deconstruction of itself, testing and challenging the ideas from the book, proving that Steven Pressfield has perspective on what he is preaching. In the chapters on defeating Resistance, Pressfield lists all the reasons he should not have written this book. Paraphrased here:
- Trying to advise others is vain, arrogant, and corrupt,
- People think of me as an X, so they wouldn’t listen to me as a Y,
- I shouldn’t say it overtly, I should just incorporate covertly into a novel.
The foreword, by Robert McKee, even has the audacity to challenge Pressfield on the source of creativity. This book is full of practicality and perspective. Pressfield is qualified and he knows what he’s talking about, so here are five key points from the book:
Identify Your Enemy. “I never have time.” “I need to pay the bills.” “I’m focused on my spouse right now.” “I’ve got too many kids.” Some of these excuses are legitimate, but you are the only one who knows if that’s true. It might actually be a busy time at work. You might actually be going blind. Pressfield pulls out a great example in Leo Tolstoy, author of two of the greatest novels of the 19th century (according to Amazon), War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Tolstoy had 13 children, and wasn’t exactly known for being brief, with War and Peace coming in at over 1,200 pages. There’s no way he didn’t have somebody knocking at his door while he tried to write.
I’ll throw in another one: do you remember that joke in Iron Man 2 where Justin Hammer says his smart bomb is so smart that if it were any smarter, it would write a book that made Ulysses look like it was written in crayon? Apparently, the author James Joyce was genuinely going blind while writing Ulysses and wrote out the entire manuscript on massive sheets of white paper and in crayon. For contrast, one time I delayed writing for an entire day because I couldn’t find the right headphones.
Back to the War of Art, the point Pressfield makes about Resistance is not that we need to find tools to manage the forces that keep us from our work.
Resistance seems to come from outside ourselves. We locate it in spouses, jobs, kids. Resistance arises from within. It’s is self-generated and self-perpetuated.
We need to acknowledge that it is not our situation that keeps us from creating. We are the ones responsible for what is keeping us from our work. The only place that all the stoplights will be green and the playing field level is in Heaven, and I don’t think they want you setting up a merchandise table there.
Feed Your Creativity, Not Your Appetites. I get all of my best ideas when I’m busy, sitting at my desk at work. My brain seems to churn harder with ideas that just cannot be ignored when I’m trying to do something else, like writing 15 single-spaced pages of point 12, Times New Roman on the economy of Japan, or sitting in a three hour meeting that should have been an email. But then I get home from my long day of sitting down in an office chair, I need to rest from all that sitting down, so I sit down on a couch and enjoy the work of other creators.
I’ve dedicated more time than I care to admit to Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, tricking myself into thinking it’s a challenge, sitting there for long hours, taking item A to city B while attacking enemy C. I bought it when it first came out, I bought the extra content, I bought the remastered version and did it all over again. Some of that was okay. We all need to unwind, but Skyrim is saved. The war is over. It’s time to pull the troops out and end the occupation. I’m ready to walk away, and now I hear they’re coming out with a virtual reality version of the game. I’m done.
All the while, my ideas are still sitting there in my head, doing nothing for me or anyone else. This is the point at which you have to decide: are you just daydreaming for an escape, or do you truly have the desire to create something?
Finish Your Work, And Move On. This is an extension of the second point. I finally created something. I got it done. I’ve defeated Resistance. If you’ve ever released one of your creations into the world, you know this feeling. You upload. You release. You post the link to your social media website of choice… and then you wait until you inevitably load the website again. You check the number of views, you read the comments, go read something else, maybe enjoy parts of your creation and hit refresh again. It’s as if hitting that refresh key is the mechanism that causes people to suddenly enjoy your work.
By the end of the day you realize you’ve sat there all day accomplishing nothing but a pointless focus on other people’s opinions of you. You’ve been lingering on what you’ve already finished for hours, reveling in the results, or wallowing in the lack of results, instead of starting on your next creation.
Pressfield talks about finally finishing a manuscript and wanting to share in his triumph with his mentor, Paul Rink:
Next morning I went over to Paul’s for coffee and told him I had finished. “Good for you,” he said without looking up. “Start the next one today.”
Use the energy you still have to get the next ball rolling. Build Momentum.
Do Not Cram: Schedule Inspiration. Amateurs are under the false impression that you need inspiration in order to create. The true secret of the professionals? They start working and somewhere between start and finish, inspiration shows up. Pressfield gets up every morning, takes care of the things that he has to take care of, and then starts writing. As for inspiration? Here is what Pressfield recommends:
I write only when inspiration strikes, and fortunately, inspiration strikes every morning at 9:00 AM.
A professional sits down and starts writing. No proof-reading, no editing, no self-criticism. Determining if you have a good idea is not for the moment of creation. In my work on Revenge Method, I’ve found that Pressfield isn’t the only one who creates this way. Stephen King says almost the same thing in his book on writing called, appropriately, On Writing.
Or maybe you’re a Zen master procrastinator? You aren’t inspired now, but you’re counting on the fact that you work well under pressure. You’ll just open up the laptop when you finally feel the ceiling coming down and work like a dog until the job is done. The example Pressfield uses to illustrate this point is the urban legend that Sylvester Stallone stayed up three nights straight to finish the screenplay for Rocky. Professionals might create like this every once in a while, the same way you might down a triple cheeseburger on a 2:00 AM drive-thru run. You might have satisfied a requirement, but do this too often and you’ll be suffering the consequences. A content creator who is in it for the long haul shows up every day, focuses, and works.
In conclusion? That’s it. I’ve covered about four points from a book full of great advice for content creators. With a small warning, I recommend the book for any grown-up content creator who won’t be corrupted by PG-13 level language.
If you want a copy of the book for free, right now you can get a copy of the audiobook (plus one more of your choice) through a 30-Day Free Trial of Audible. The recording, by George Guidall, is pitch perfect.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Do the Work by Steven Pressfield
Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Hello, Revengineers! This book is the first official entry into the “Revenge Method Approved” list of expert advice, tools, and processes to improve your life. One of these days, we’ll fully explain what the Revenge Method project is, but we’d rather do the work now and explain later. Enjoy!