What I’m reading: The War of Art, Steven Pressfield

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

So I’m talking to this other guy who writes. And we’re lamenting this and that, commiserating, comparing notes, talking the trade — group therapy for two. He asks if I’ve read The War of Art, and I must look puzzled because he says the title is a play on the classic, The Art of War.

He recommends it — the one whose subtitle is Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (not the ancient Chinese military treatise).

The War of Art, Pressfield

Now I’m not a fan of how-to books or self-help books. Actually I’m not too hot on self-improvement at all. While I occasionally learn some interesting perspectives in books about moving cheese and finding strength, I — as a minor league writer — look askance at those making vast profits by stating the obvious. But authoritatively. And aimed at readers who seek wisdom at airport bookshops and audiences looking for life-changing advice at self-realization workshops in motel meeting rooms.

But I like this friend-writer and trust him, and took his advice. Besides, the book was short and came in very brief nuggets. I thumbed through it, randomly reading this page and that for a few days before settling into the long course from beginning to end — all of it engaging and easy to digest.

While the book’s approach is about fighting your way through all those reasons and excuses and personal failures that prevent you from writing creatively and well, the theme I liked most was more spiritual in nature. It focused essentially on all of us determining our gifts, our callings, and then acting on those not only for personal fulfillment but also for enriching the world.

Pressfield, whose most obvious credential is The Legend of Bagger Vance but who has almost a dozen other books to his credit, writes: “If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.

“You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.

“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.”

And yes, the author talks about God and angels and Muses and other invisible forces that some of us still believe in. That’s what I liked about the book. It’s not simply about “self-actualization” and it’s not just professional advice and it’s not soaked with New Age or cloying religious spiritualism. But it loosely melds all that together.

The book is divided into three main sections, the first addressing the concept of resistance and those influences that weigh us down and prevent us from fulfilling our hopes. In the second Pressfield talks about what a pro does to overcome the enemy within — the hard work and discipline necessary. And the third is about going beyond resistance to “the higher realm.” That’s where the angels, the Muses come in.

Some stuff is pragmatic, some refreshingly insightful (like the section on the difference between hierarchy and territory), some motivating and some affirming of those life qualities and ineffable qualities that do haunt the creative act.

I’m not much for self-help and how-to books, but I ended up buying additional copies of this book to give away to others. It’s an easy read, and the narrator is likable. And there are lots of us who could use the lift.

Kerry Temple is the editor of this magazine.