Resource Review: The War of Art
By Michelle Barker
A fresh coat of paint
Steven Pressfield has written a little gem of a craft book called The War of Art. Craft book is perhaps the wrong way to describe it, though I don’t want to call it motivational or inspirational—even though it’s both. But I feel like that makes it sound like self-help—which it isn’t, but also is.
The war in question is an internal one, and writers (all artists, really) know it well. It’s a war against what Pressfield calls Resistance. Self-sabotage. You know: there’s this book that’s begging you to write it, and you really want to get it done, but somehow you find yourself cleaning the bathroom instead, or rearranging your spice rack, or going out for lunch—or doing just about anything other than the work.
And then you start rationalizing, because rationalization is what Pressfield calls Resistance’s right-hand man. You don’t have time; you can’t; you’re too busy at work, etc.
Pressfield calls bullshit—on all of it. He draws a distinction between amateurs who allow themselves to be drawn into this cycle of procrastination and pros who sit down and get the work done. Turning pro is his term for the decision we all have to make at some point if we’re going to be serious about this vocation.
I find many craft books to be overwhelming in the sheer amount of writing advice they pack into their pages. That’s not the type of book this is. You won’t come away knowing anything more about point of view or the structural elements of the novel. What you will come away with is confidence. Fire. The desire to sit down and get the job done.
Don’t get me wrong: learning the craft is critical, and Pressfield says the same. But all the craft in the world won’t help you if you don’t spend time filling the blank page with words.
The big takeaway
I found some of Pressfield’s comments to be particularly wonderful:
We don’t tell ourselves, "I’m never going to write my symphony." Instead, we say, "I am going to write my symphony; I’m just going to start tomorrow."
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.
I also love how honest he is about his own experience. When he decided to turn pro and take his work seriously, it didn’t mean he suddenly sold all his manuscripts. Quite the contrary. He worked for seventeen years before he finally got a professional job on a movie script—which totally bombed. His takeaway: that’s the price for being in the game.
His advice for writers who want to turn pro: show up every day, no matter how you’re feeling. Don’t cave into Resistance, and don’t wait for inspiration to hit. Pressfield references Somerset Maugham who said inspiration struck him every morning at nine o’clock—when he was already at his desk ready to work. He anticipated it. It knew where to find him.
Some other things he says:
- Be patient.
- Learn and master the craft.
- Know that this vocation includes healthy measures of isolation, rejection, and self-doubt. Accept it.
- You will never not be afraid. Do it anyway.
- If you need help, ask for it.
- Don’t take rejection personally.
- Make weekly plans of what you want to accomplish.
- Do the work for its own sake, not for what you think it will bring you.
If you’re having trouble writing, if you have an active and nasty inner critic (and who doesn’t) who tells you you can’t do it, this is a book worth reading. It’s one you’ll want to own, because you’ll return to it time and again when you need that nudge (or kick) to get you going. It will appeal to both beginners and published authors, because the reality of this profession is that every book you write makes you feel like you’re starting all over again. A blank page remains blank, no matter how many credits you have to your name. Putting those first words down is hard. This book will make it a little easier.
You can buy The War of Art here.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.