An Artist’s Bookshelf – “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield – Skinny Artist

An Artist’s Bookshelf – “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield

This is the fourth book in an ongoing series where we talk about some of our favorite books that deal with art and the creative process.  These books were chosen because they have significantly changed my own perspective as a writer and as a human being

I believe these books will benefit any type of creative artist including writers, musicians, visual artists, photographers, or anyone else whose work is creatively inspired.

I hope that you will enjoy them as much as I have . . .

“The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield

190 pages

Available at your local bookstore and at Amazon.com

Follow Steven Pressfield on Twitter @SPressfield , on his Facebook Page, or you can visit him on his website Steven Pressfield Online.

war of art book review

If you’ve been a creative artist for a while, chances are you know what it’s like to hit the proverbial wall.  There you are working on your latest project and things are just clicking.  The coffee is hot, you’ve got the music cranked up, and everything is rainbows and unicorns — Then suddenly it’s gone.

No more words.  No more notes.  No more colors.  Nothing

Keep in mind we’re not talking about that time when the power went out and you lost your entire college term paper  — this is about that moment when your mind goes completely blank, your inspiration dries up, and for whatever reason, you just can’t seem to find a way to move forward.

It’s gone and you can’t help but wonder if it’s ever coming back.

The War of Art is not a book about becoming a better artist, it’s about what it takes to become (and remain) an artist.  It’s not about developing your talent or your creative vision.  Instead, it’s about the inner battle you are going to have to face every day when you sit down in front of that keyboard, pick up that instrument, or unpack those paints.

It’s about what Steven Pressfield calls “resistance”. In the book, he tells us that, “it’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.” Resistance/procrastination/fear/excuses or whatever you want to call it is what keeps us from creating our life’s work. It is the obstacle in our way that we must overcome. It is our ultimate opponent.
It is ourself.

Resistance is the enemy of creativity

“What does Resistance feel like? First, unhappiness.  We feel like hell. 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 want to go back to bed; we want to get up and party. We feel unloved and unlovable. We’re disgusted. We hate our lives. We hate ourselves.”

“Procrastination is the most common manifestation of Resistance because it’s the easiest to rationalize.  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.”

“Never forget: This very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the poser to alter our destiny. This second, we can turn the tables on Resistance. This second, we can sit down and do our work.”

Fear and self-doubt are part of the creative process

“Fear doesn’t go away. The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.”

“If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “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.”

“Resistance feeds on fear… Fear of failure. Fear of being ridiculous. Fear of throwing away the education, the training, the preparation that those we love have sacrificed so much for, that we ourselves have worked our butts off for.  Fear of launching into the void, of hurtling too far out there; fear of passing some point of no return.”

“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.”

“We fear discovering that we are more than we think we are. More than our parents/children/teachers 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, plant our flag, reach our Promised Land. We fear this because, if it’s true, then we become estranged from all we know.”

“The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome. He knows there is no such thing as a fearless warrior or a dread-free artist.”

If you don’t love it, don’t waste your time.

“We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.”

“The professional, though he accepts money, does his work out of love. He has to love it. Otherwise he wouldn’t devote his life to it of his own free will.”

“To labor in the arts for any reason other than love is prostitution.”

“The professional loves her work. She is invested in it wholeheartedly. But she does not forget that the work is not her. Her artistic self contains many works and many performances. Already the next is percolating inside her. The next will be better, and the one after that better still.”

“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.”

“If we were the last person on earth, would we still show up at the studio, the rehearsal hall, the laboratory?”

“The professional loves her work.  She is invested in it wholeheartedly.  But she does not forget that the work is not her.  Her artistic self contains many works and many performances.  Already the next is percolating inside her.  The next will be better, and the one after that better still.”

Just because it’s art doesn’t mean that it will be easy.

“The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.”

“This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insight accrete.”

“The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come.  The professional is sly.  He knows that by toiling beside the front door of technique, he leaves room for genius to enter by the back.”

Success is becoming what you already are

“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, whatever they like.”

“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.”

“That’s why an artist must be a warrior and, like all warriors, artists over time acquire modesty and humility. They may, some of them, conduct themselves flamboyantly in public. But alone with the work they are chaste and humble. They know they are not the source of the creations they bring into being. They only facilitate. They carry. They are the willing and skilled instruments of the gods and goddesses they serve.”

“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.”

What do you think about “The War of Art”?

  • Do you think Steven Pressfield is right when he says that what holds us back is not our level of talent, but our ability to overcome our fears and self-doubt?
  • Do you agree that when it comes to becoming a successful artist, we are often our own worst enemy?
  • What type of “resistance” do you find yourself dealing with on a daily basis? How do you overcome it?

Tell us about your own creative journey!

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About the Author

Writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist community. His book "Getting Creative: Developing Creative Habits that Work" is all about finding the time (and energy) to live a more creative life.

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(8) comments

Wow, this quote: “We fear discovering that we are more than we think we are. More than our parents/children/teachers 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, plant our flag, reach our Promised Land. We fear this because, if it’s true, then we become estranged from all we know.”

This is the missing piece to (or a better version of!) that famously quoted (again and again) text from Marianne Williamson, on how we fear our own power. The fear of becoming estranged from all we know, that’s so true! And it’s so powerful to have that fear out in the open! (and so much more specific than saying it’s a “fear of the unknown”)

Thanks for sharing this!

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    You’re right Caroline that quote does remind me of Marianne Williamson’s quote. I think this fear of what we might actually find inside of our creative soul is interesting because it is so counter-intuitive. Why would we possibly be afraid to take control of our own life? Is Pressfield right that what we really fear is being separated from the pack. To be called out as “unique” or perhaps even a bit “weird”?

    I find this interesting because it appears to go against everything that we see on reality television and YouTube where seemingly everyone is trying to become famous by virtually any means necessary. However, I suspect that he is right. When we agree to “steer our ship” we begin to accept responsibility for our actions. We are no longer helpless victims floating at the mercy of the wind. We become the authors of our lives and we alone decide our course — and that is exactly what scares the crap out of us.

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Someone once told me this quotation, but I don’t know where it comes from: “If that which is within you is manifest, that which is within you will save you.
If that which is within you is not manifest, that which is within you will destroy you.”
Not wanting to be destroyed, and believing the truth of this, I conquered my fear of creating many years ago. I pass it on in hopes of encouraging all creative people to manifest “that which is within” them.

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    I believe this quote is from the Gospel of Thomas and it seems to be a good fit here because it shares the message that if you don’t choose to use your creative talents they are wasted.

    Having said that, I think this quote can also describe another fear that Steven Pressfield alludes to and one that I think most of us secretly hold inside of us. It seems to echo those critical voices we hear all the time “you either have it or you don’t” especially when it comes to our level of creative “talent”.

    There is of course two sides to this story. For example, if we look inside ourselves and we manage to find creative inspiration, great. But what if we look inside ourselves and find that the proverbial cupboard is bare. What does that say about us? I can’t help but wonder how many of us actually avoid looking too deeply because we are afraid of what we might find — or not find inside of us. People may tell you that “it’s better to try and fail than not to have tried at all” but I can’t help but wonder how many of us secretly cling to the idea, “it’s better not to try and believe that we could have succeeded, than to try and prove that we couldn’t make it after all.”

    As you said, if you want to create art you need to find a way push all of these fears, doubts, and common sense aside and just do what you came here to do.

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This is such an awesome post: the quotes provide such good food for thought. It CAN be hard to make yourself create when so many other things try to distract you – I know for me, the “marketing” of my art takes up so much of my time. But, I still love everything about what I do. :)

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Thanks for great review!
this is what I needed right now, to kick myself and move toward drawting/sketching more often and don’t be afraid.
I definitly into this book. thanks a lot!

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Marc V.

I have not read Pressfields book yet, but I have read over 2 hours of reviews on Amazon alone. And I have read reviews from you and other blogs. I want to start by saying that I am at age 55, just last year went back to school for Anthony Robbins R.M.T. Coaching certification. It is supposed to be a 2-6 month course. I am already on month 8 and can see it could easily take 18 months. I was told if you did not work and did it full time you could do it in two months ,no problem. So already I am seeing that when you are older, things do get harder. Not for everyone, just most of us. I also see everything is a business. But that’s OK. I waited over 20 yrs to do coaching by the way, what is getting blind sided by a few extra months and hundreds of extra hours of studying? As far as Maryanne Williamson’s famous quote about how we are all afraid not of being small but being too magnificent, I think that made her a fortune of money. You see, I in all my years, I never heard anyone ever say: “I’m just so afraid if I succeed as an artist, that my toxic father who has called me a dreamer and a waster of time by constantly journaling, it would really scare me to prove him wrong. Yes, the look of satisfaction of becoming a published author and shoving the 1st copy off the press into my fathers face,who because of his own inadequacies, had to make sure I never surpassed him, oh Gosh,that would be unbearable.” I never heard anyone say….”I just do not know if I could possibly deal with moving out of this tiny apartment, 2 hamsters would find cramped, I just got so used to living small and on a budget, having a house like Sylvester Stallone worth 20 mill, wow, I could never get used to that. And to hear my sisters who poked fun at my love for acting have to eat their words, oh I could not do that to those poor fragile creatures. And the fact that both of my sisters cant pay their rent and would be on their knees for weeks apologizing to me for ruining every party we ever attended with cracks about my acting, Oh No, I couldn’t make that transition!” See what I am saying….it doesn’t fly what Marianne said. That we may be initially uncomfortable with success,yes, but that we would sabotage ourselves to live in poverty and not having the satisfaction of having all the dozens of people who never believed in us say “Im sorry I didnt believe in you”…..no! I cant buy that more than 1 or 2% of the population at most would that be an issue. And even with that 2% if you suddenly walked up to them and said, I will give you a check for a million dollars for whatever is in your latest diary and we will publish it right away, I want you to find me one person that would tell themselves, no, I will pass up the huge check, and kick myself in the butt every day the rest of my life. Ha! See, Marianne sounded good, but….. Now let us look at the 2 camps of success writers. How many people were ever really successful before they started writing how to get that way. Donald Trump and Jack Welch of G.E. come to mind, but not even close to 1% of prosperity self help writers can claim they did not need the money before they started writing how to make it. That should have raised red flags in my life with about 95% of the authors whom I spent years reading their books. After all, getting published is business. I do not ever see anyone (except as a gimmick promise a small percentage) ever say they will donate all the money from this book to help other writers pay their rent. Please tell me when that happens. I want THAT guy’s book.

Now… we have 2 types of writers. The ones who say “You’ll see it when you believe it” not the reverse. Then you have the other camp who are waiting for the millions of readers of those books to fail so they can get you reading another mindset of books for years again called “We are not human doings. We are human beings.” Accomplishment is nothing compared to the love all around you that your family and friends have for you. After all, nobody on their death bed ever says I should have worked more” May I ask how they know this. Were angels taking polls dispatched to death beds to ask? So first you are told to go after your passion with all of your heart, just make sure it is YOUR true passion. And then waiting with the safety net after you run out of energy, money and books to read are those writers cousins and nephews(maybe not cousins and nephews lol) who will teach you to meditate when you wake up so you can ground your true self into just being, teach you how to appreciate every moment by “Being here now”.” And some of them will talk very slowly and constantly sip water to let you think that they are on another plane of existence you can get to if you buy their book.(s). I do not mean to demean the 5-10% of these writers who really have some important things to say, and some of them have changed lives here and there, but in the circus at Barnum and Bailey, do you know the carnivals would “work” a suck- I mean reader, I mean a guy visiting the circus by telling him all he has to do is knock three bowling pins down and he wins a doll for his girlfriend. So with each dollar he forks over they give him 3 balls to try to knock the pyramid of 3 pins down. It looks so easy. After all, the pins are only a few feet away. But after failing 2 or 3 times even this average non spiritual Joe at the circus smells something isn’t “working” right.” Maybe its me” he thinks. So the carny worker”and its funny they call this “working the mooch”. So the man attempts to walk away and then the carny worker tells the man he will give him a break(gag) by moving the pins closer so this time surely he will win. His girlfriend looks at him excitedly and he figures, sure why not. (Now picture each dollar he hands the carny worker represents one book you have bought and maybe even read from the scam- I mean writer. Now remember,all the man has to do is knock all three pins down in one throw but he gets 3 tries for each dollar. So now he keeps knocking 2 pins down except that 3rd one never quite falls. It only sways. But its getting close! But no, he went through almost 20 dollars already (REMEMEBER THIS IS THE 1940’s up to present times) and now its just not even fun any more. He feels like a fool.(Thats because they made one out of him and he has no idea he is being “worked”) So he finally says I have had it and walks away. There are actually a couple of more things they will try to do, special deals and offers like only having to knock 2 or 1 pin down, anything to keep him from walking away and they do not care if he does not have a nickel left to buy his girlfriend an ice cream cone. Pity is not an option when applying for this job. This is all factual as I was once hired to do this and I made a study of carnival workers 30 years ago. But before the guy can walk away, let me tell you just how big of a fool they are going to make out of him….but this can only happen if he believes that every man has some good in him. Those who do not believe this walked away after they lost the first dollar or two. What happens now is that as this guy is sowing signs that he is petering out, he becomes literally ‘marked”. That’s where the word Mark comes from in the con-man industry. What happens is that the man in the booth he was playing at, gives a hand signal to another man who then sends over a guy who has chalk ALL over his hand and this guy walks by this victim, excuse me customer and pats him very, very lightly on the back as if to squeeze by him and goes “excuse me”. What he has done is left his hand print on the back of this guys shirt or jacket marking him a SUCKER. And that every worker should look at him like a bleeding lamb would look to a lion. So as he continues to stroll past the carnival acts, he is now besieged with offers that seem like he was picked by God. Not only does he have to be gullible to get this mark they have to see he has a roll of money on him. no sense being nice to someone who is broke.

Now you might ask what this has to do with buying books on bettering ones self. I will tell you.. In the publishing business I see clearly there is no limit to how close up they can keep moving the bottles for you. You never walk away! There is always a book that has one thing the last one didn’t have and this one is going to make the difference. But then when you do walk away, that chalk mark is always on your back. because now that you are older, less focused, more problems, now another carnival worker(publisher) offers you books about how just learning to be, just becoming one with yourself or God will set you free. And the game starts all over again. Can I ask all of you to be honest. Out of all the authors you have read books about, how many have claimed to have gotten knowledge from some seemingly divine or infinite being or soul outside themselves? I could not even count. That would make an interesting topic for a future blog. :The authors who channel. To close, if the moderator of this blog invites me back, I may go into more detail about the things I have truly gotten from the mounds of books I read. Like I said, 105 has value. But let me say this, why does the same 5-10 authors always appear in Sounds True catalogs, Giam and all the other self help and new age publishers adverts? They keep selling retreads of the same book the author wrote 15 yrs ago or more. and always on Amazons:this person who bought this also bought that list”. Its like a publishing Mafia gets all the Carolyn Myss’s and Wayne Dyers in one place and they just have them pump out book after book after book and they get booked into lecture after lecture after lecture. And 10 people make ALL the money and the rest starve or make a years pay or two by accident and then quit their job thinking they made it.This is not the level playing field we think it is, my fellow artists and writers. The nice thing is… the second tier(hopefully us) besides those 10 can still eat very well too. It almost offends me that the publishing and seminar world make it seem like 10 authors have the secrets to the world. I will tell you what they have…..Huge contracts with these publishers. Doesn’t anyone see how in the past 10 yrs these same authors keep overlapping every single book by a wider and wider margin until I started seeing for the first time only 2 yrs ago “Dont bother buying the authors last 2 books, its just a remake of the original” You never heard reviewers on Amazon say that till fairly recently in such huge numbers.

So far Mr Pressfield has not fallen into that category. But lets start wondering why authors always never are able to give you all the goody’s in one book. If you learn motorcycle repair, you can tell anyone in the world ,how many books he will need to be a master, then a pro, and so on. This topic is the only one where new knowledge keeps mysteriously appearing….or is the right word re-cycled. If anyone would like to know the last great book I read, feel free to ask. HAPPY READING!

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