39 pages • 1 hour readSteven Pressfield
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The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle (2002) is a self-help book by American author and screenplay writer Steven Pressfield. This work aims to motivate the reader to overcome their “Resistance” to creative work, and to develop their relationship with their craft with discipline and confidence. With a colloquial tone and tough-love attitude, Pressfield examines the different manifestations that “Resistance” can take in artists’ lives, such as self-doubt and procrastination, and urges the reader to overcome it through discipline and self-mastery. Pressfield believes that angels and muses help hard-working artists, and argues that when creative people repress their talents and give in to Resistance that they hurt themselves, and deprive the world of their creative works.
This guide refers to the Google Books edition of the text.
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Content Warning: The author of The War of Art discusses substance use disorders, alcoholism, and mental health conditions.
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Pressfield divides his work into three parts, or “books.” Each book contains numerous brief chapters, with 104 in total. In Book 1, Pressfield defines Resistance as a “repelling force” (7). He explains: “It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work” (7). Pressfield admits that Resistance was a powerful force in his life until the age of 32, and he claims that it causes deep unhappiness in many people.
Pressfield analyzes the different ways Resistance can manifest in people’s lives. He identifies escapist addictions such as compulsive shopping, sex, overeating, or drugs and alcohol as typical examples of Resistance-motivated behavior. He even claims that some mental health conditions are not really diseases, but manifestations of Resistance. By taking medication to lessen these symptoms people ignore the meaning of their symptoms and do not fulfill their creative potential.
Using humor and hyperbole, he repeatedly emphasizes how powerful Resistance can be, labeling it a natural force in the universe that seeks to distract and demotivate people from their goals. Pressfield juxtaposes fundamentalists and artists, claiming that fundamentalists must cling to rigid identities because they are afraid of freedom and individuality. He uses this claim to show the importance of self-knowledge and self-mastery. He tells the reader that their only hope of overcoming Resistance is by becoming disciplined and practicing their craft. He warns against seemingly constructive pursuits such as healing retreats, workshops, and soliciting emotional support from family and friends, all of which he claims can be manifestations of Resistance.
In Book 2, “Combating Resistance: Turning Pro,” Pressfield contrasts amateur artists with professionals. According to Pressfield, amateurs are not fully committed to their craft, pursuing it only when convenient. Conversely, professionals pursue their craft every day, and develop the discipline to overcome Resistance on a daily basis. While amateurs are frightened of failure and criticism, professionals understand that this is a part of the job, and accept failure as a tool for learning and improvement. Professionals know that their only enemy is Resistance, not critics or editors.
Pressfield argues that while professionals love their craft, they are able to balance this with realism and an expectation that they will work for money. On the other hand, he characterizes amateurs as overly perfectionistic and idealistic, terrified of failure and uncertain of how to support themselves through their craft. Professionals are able to withstand rejection and criticism from industry professionals such as producers, editors, and critics because they “self-validate” their efforts (88). While they may be hurt by criticism, they recover quickly and do not allow it to stop their creative efforts. Pressfield concludes Book 2 by reiterating that artists must defeat Resistance by overcoming their fear of it and stubbornly resisting its various manifestations.
In Book 3, Pressfield argues that angels or muses are real forces in the world, and that they help artists feel inspired and complete their work. He concedes that some will feel uncomfortable with this idea, and encourages the reader to consider these forces to be their inherent “talent” if that helps them. He links Resistance to the Ego, since the Ego is fear-based and functions to shield people from vulnerability and failure. On the other hand, angels and muses speak to the “Self,” the more creative and intuitive side of people that promotes connectedness and sharing. Pressfield claims that artists call the angels to them simply by starting projects, since these forces respect the initiative it takes to begin a creative work and feel invested in its completion.
Pressfield reiterates that fear and Resistance are closely linked, arguing that all Resistance is fear-based. He discusses people’s common fears that pertain to creative expression, namely that it will result in failure, poverty, or disappointment for them and their family. He argues that, ironically, many people are also subconsciously afraid of being successful, since this would change their life, identity, and relationships. He acknowledges that people’s relationships do change after they find success, but insists that these changes can be positive.
Pressfield argues that each person is born with a “highly refined and individuated soul,” and a particular destiny to fulfill on earth (146). Pressfield believes that people can’t pursue whatever they want, but must use their natural talents and overcome Resistance to fulfill their destiny. He observes that humans and animals can define themselves in two ways: their place in a hierarchy, or their ownership of a territory. When the artist tries to operate hierarchically, it corrupts their art, since they will try to compete with others and worry too much about what others think. Artists should base their identity on connection to their “territory”—their craft. Pressfield argues that in doing so, artists maintain a genuine relationship with their craft and create art that comes from their real interests and inspiration, rather than their perception of what will perform well in the market.
In the ancient Hindu scripture the Bhagavad-Gita, the God Krishna tells the warrior Arjuna that he only has a right to do his work, but not to the rewards of that work. Pressfield argues that artists must behave like warriors; they must be ready to confront challenges with humility, always serving a force greater than themselves. This humility stands in contrast to the Ego, which is the origin of Resistance. Pressfield concludes his work by insisting that the reader act on their creative impulses, since whatever they create will benefit them and the world. He warns that if they repress their creative gifts, they hurt themselves and others, and disrespect the angels and deity that gave them their talents. He urges the reader to see their abilities as a “gift to the world,” and to get working (165).
By Steven Pressfield