Sunday, December 27, 2009

The War of Art: Striking a blow against creative blocks

Anyone who has tried their hand at creative writing knows how daunting it is to face a blank computer screen or an empty notebook. Fear of failure, feelings of inadequacy, and general inertia stop the vast majority of wannabe writers, painters, and other artists dead in their tracks, destroying their best intentions as surely as a spear thrust through the thorax.

Steven Pressfield, author of the excellent novels Gates of Fire and Tides of War, gives this enemy a face and a name. Once identified, he provides tactical advice and strong words of encouragement for beating it in The War of Art, his 2002 non-fiction treatise on the writing process.

The War of Art is not a comprehensive book on the craft of writing. You won’t find rules of grammar, tips on writing first drafts, or help with eliminating passive voice. Rather, it has a singular focus on breaking through writing, painting, or other artistic barriers, the cause of which is a fearsome, implacable foe which Pressfield calls Resistance. Writes Pressfield:

There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.

What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.

To which I say: Amen. I love writing with an unshakeable conviction. But it’s not easy, and in particular I hate (and fear) getting started. To make matters worse, once you’ve started a project of any length and significance, you have to set a regular (preferably daily) writing schedule, or else you risk a hard drive full of half-developed stories that will never see the light of day.

As befits an author who brought the battle of Thermopylae to vivid life in Gates of Fire, Pressfield likens creative writing to a life and death struggle on a battlefield in which the only possible outcomes are total victory or utter defeat. He’s right, of course. Resistance must be fought and beaten every day.

After identifying the root causes and symptoms of Resistance in book one of The War of Art, book two provides advice for defeating the enemy. In “Combating Resistance: Turning Pro,” we get advice on living the warrior’s life, including setting a firm schedule and accepting no excuses. “The pro keeps coming on. He beats Resistance at its own game by being even more resolute and even more implacable than it is,” Pressfield writes.

If this seems like a rather grim depiction of the creative process, well, it’s because writing is hard. But writers write not because they want to, but because they have to. And, as Pressfield explains, the act of writing, once mastered, can produce art beyond the capacity of he or she that sets pen to paper. The moment one commits oneself, Pressfield writes, providence moves too. There is truth in this: Who knows from whence grand ideas like Middle-Earth, Camelot, or The Dark Tower spring? Many authors have stated that their characters and stories seemed to stalk, fully formed, from some recess of their imagination. Robert E. Howard used these words almost exactly to describe his conception of Conan. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in one of his letters that Faramir just appeared in The Lord of the Rings one day, as if from thin air: “A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir.”

From where does this creativity come? Pressfield attributes it to the hand of God, the supreme Muse. Regardless of your beliefs, there is great mystery in the act of writing. It’s undeniable that great things happen if we have the courage to begin writing and to keep at it.

Tapping into the potential that lies within us all is what The War of Art helps artists of all stripes accomplish. It’s otherwise rather airy and light, and if you purchase it in the hopes of getting a comprehensive book on writing, you’re probably better off buying The Elements of Style by Strunk and White or even Stephen King’s On Writing. But if you want advice on waging war against the grim foe of Resistance, The War of Art is a staunch ally.


Atom Kid said...

Interesting ideas! I can relate in some ways, not with writing but in a way with drawing. The beginning is the hardest part. I can stare at a blank canvas or piece of paper sometimes and I just can't draw anything. And other times it just flows from me to my pen to the paper. Almost like it's not really me drawing but some machine.

I'll have to check this book out. Thanks for the recommendation.

Brian Murphy said...

The creative process is rather mysterious, when you think of it.

No problem on the recommendation.

Pericles said...

A fine review, Brian. I've read this book several times, and always find something of value in it.

Eric D. Lehman said...

Thanks for the rec, Brian. But my problem is finding the actual time for all my writing projects. I have too many ideas and too many demands! It's like I've got about 40 muses banging at my door...

However, I'm going to give this book to my wife, who is a poet currently experiencing a six-month writer's block. (crosses fingers)

Falze said...

Interesting. Personally it always took a looming deadline (as in: tomorrow) to get my brain convinced enough to finish writing something for school at any level. Without that...pfft. Guess that's why forcing yourself to obey a 'deadline' of your own making is so key. Seems to me I recall Robert Heinlein saying something about that in one of his books. And I know the guy next door set aside like an hour or two a day, every day, to write his book.

Word Verification: repurgo - to go through the crap you should be throwing away AGAIN after not throwing away enough of it the first time while speaking with a fake italian accent.

Brian Murphy said...

Falze: The deadline, artificial or real, is another good way to get me moving as well. I find that it can work for short pieces or articles, but Pressfield's book is really about creating the good habits and motivational techniques that allow you to complete a sustained book like a novel.