Reading Pressfield’s The War of Art (pt. 1: Resistance)

Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles came to me as a kick in the behind — in a good and timely way, I mean. He speaks mostly to writers, which is natural, but The War of Art is directed at anyone who has undertaken or desires to undertake some sort of creative effort, whether it is in the artistic fields or not. The book is divided into three sections. In the first, which this post will examine, Pressfield looks at the driving forces that keep us from our work, naming (and personifying) them as Resistance. He writes in his prologue,

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.

Pressfield characterizes Resistance as an implacable and impersonal evil that works in the universe and in us; its desire is to thwart our efforts toward creative endeavour, education, courage, commitment, and principle — “In other words, any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity. Or, expressed another way, any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower” (6). One might call Resistance sin — or perhaps a potent combination of them: sloth + fear + wrath + lust = Resistance. The way he talks about Resistance put me very much in mind of Kathleen Norris’s book Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life — and although it’s been long enough since I read Norris that I wouldn’t want to compare them too directly (because I can’t), it certainly seems that Pressfield and Norris are working out of the same wheelhouse, albeit with a few significant theological differences.

Anecdotally, Pressfield’s theories about Resistance ring very true for me. Even in just reading the book, I found myself having to deliberately decide to do it, working against a reluctance to pick it up that seemed to increase the further in I got. I wasn’t reluctant because it was a bad or a boring book — just the opposite, in fact. I was reluctant because I knew I had to read what he had written, because I knew he was putting his finger on something important, and that I would have to respond to it. And I didn’t want to, even though I knew that reading and understanding Pressfield’s thesis would challenge me to be a better writer and a better worker. And even though, in theory, those are things I want very much, in practice, I was extremely hesitant to go down this path. And that, I suppose, is Resistance in a nutshell.

Pressfield argues, however, that Resistance can actually be turned on its head and made to serve us as we work, in that we can use it as a means of evaluating the importance and worth of a particular project. “Resistance,” he writes, “obstructs movement only from a lower sphere to a higher. […] So if you’re in Calcutta working with the Mother Theresa Foundation and you’re thinking of bolting to launch a career in telemarketing . . . relax. Resistance will give you a free path” (17). If we are making a choice or beginning a project and encounter no resistance at all, that is a prompt for us to evaluate whether it is really the better thing for us to be doing. So, too, can we use the fear that Resistance engenders as a helpful guidepost: “the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to  us at to the growth of our soul” (40). Resistance is also, he writes, “directly proportional to love” (42), in that the more Resistance we feel, the more love we have for our project, and the more gratifying it will be to actually complete it. So while Resistance works against us, we can work against it in part by using it as part of our own discernment.

Now, I don’t agree with all that Pressfield posits about Resistance. Take this excerpt, for example, from a vignette titled “Resistance and Self-Medication:”

Do you regularly ingest any substance, controlled or otherwise, whose aim is the alleviation of depression, anxiety, etc.? I offer the following experience:

I once worked as a writer for a big New York ad agency. Our boss used to tell us: Invent a disease. Come up with the disease, he said, and we can sell the cure.

Attention Deficit Disorder, Seasonal Affect Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder. These aren’t diseases, they’re marketing ploys. Doctor’s didn’t discover them, copywriters did. Marketing departments did. Drug companies did.

Depression and anxiety may be real. But they can also be Resistance. (26)

I will agree with Pressfield so far as to say that things like depression and Resistance can exacerbate each other’s effects, and that our spiritual state affects our physical bodies (and vice-versa). But to say that things like ADD are entirely imaginary, products of Resistance rather than anything physiological, seems to go rather too far. So I wouldn’t take everything he writes without the proverbial grain of salt. But the meat of his argument in this first section, I think, is sound.

At this point, Pressfield has identified the problem; now what to do with it? Stay tuned for the next post on part two of the book, “Turning Pro”.