Reading Pressfield’s The War of Art (pt. 3: Invoking the Muse)

To me, part three of Pressfield’s book is where things really start to get interesting. Part one looked at overcoming Resistance in our approach to work; part two looked at the idea of “turning pro”; part three is where things get theological. This section, which Pressfield entitles “Beyond Resistance: The Higher Realm” is all about invoking the muse.

Now, Pressfield seems to mean this quite literally. He relates that before he sits down to work, it is his practice to “take a minute and show respect to this unseen Power [the Muse, the daughter of Zeus] who can make or break me” (118). As he shares in the preface, this is how he begins his writing day:

I’ve got my coffee now. I put on my lucky work boots and stitch up the lucky laces that my niece Meredith gave me. I head back to my office, crank up the computer. My lucky hooded sweatshirt is draped over the chair, with the lucky charm I got from a gypsy in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for only eight bucks in francs, and my lucky LARGO nametag that came from a dream I once had. I put it on. On my thesaurus is my lucky cannon that my friend Bob Versandi gave me from Morro Castle, Cuba. I point it toward my chair, so it can fire inspiration into me. I say my prayer, which is the Invocation of the Muse from Homer’s Odyssey, translation by T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, which my dear mate Paul Rink gave me and which sits near my shelf with the cuff links that belonged to my father and my lucky acorn from the battlefield at Thermopylae. It’s about ten-thirty now. I sit down and plunge in.

There are a couple of interesting things here, the first of which is Pressfield’s collection of lucky objects. I wonder if there is a correlation between working in the creative fields and the use of, or belief in, luck and totems and the like? When I was in grad school I kept a number of objects on the shelf of my library carrel: a fist-sized rock from my childhood summer camp, a toy wooden horse (inside the drawer in its side: a tiny seashell, a marble, an unusually shiny penny), and a few other knick-knacks of sentimental and/or aesthetic value. I didn’t think of them as “lucky” — really, I didn’t think of them at all except as decoration. Nevertheless I liked having them present and arranged just so while I worked. Make of that what you will!

Overall, though, all of this has made me wonder whether it’s possible to discern what, exactly, Pressfield’s theology is. As part of his working day, Pressfield prays to the daughter of Zeus — quite sincerely as far as I can tell (see pp. 116-21 for more on this). He has some vaguely Kabbalistic beliefs about angels and their role in our lives:

Angels work for God. It’s their job to help us. Wake us up. Bump us along.

Angels are agents of evolution. The Kabbalah describes angels as bundles of light, meaning intelligence, consciousness. Kabbalists believe that above every blade of grass is an angel crying “Grow! Grow!” I’ll go further. I believe that above the entire human race is one super-angel, crying “Evolve! Evolve!”

Angels are like muses. They know stuff we don’t. They want to help us. They’re on the other side of a pane of glass, shouting to get our attention… (123)

Note the reference to “God” in the first line; Pressfield is clearly not talking about YHWH — possibly he is talking about Zeus. But a later passage clarifies his thinking about the nature of (the) deity:

Everything that is, is God in one form or another. God, the divine ground, is that in which we live and move and have our being. Infinite planes of reality exist, all created by, sustained by and infused by the spirit of God. (138)

“In which we live and move and have our being” is, of course, a quotation from St. Paul in Acts 17, who is himself quoting (most likely) the Greek poet Epimenides of Crete. To further confuse the issue, here is a snippet from Pressfield’s “about” page on his website:

I believe in previous lives and the Muse—and that books and music exist before they are written and that they are propelled into material being by their own imperative to be born, via the offices of those willing servants of discipline, imagination and inspiration, whom we call artists. My conception of the artist’s role is a combination of reverence for the unknowable nature of “where it all comes from” and a no-nonsense, blue-collar demystification of the process by which this mystery is approached. In other words, a paradox.

So, to sum up: reincarnation, Kabbalah, pantheism, the Greek pantheon,the pre-existence and self-inception (for lack of a better term) of the arts, and a sort of Jungian view of the Ego and the Self (which I haven’t touched on but you can find for yourself on pp. 132-41). It’s quite the hodge-podge! But despite the — dare I say it? — complete incoherence of Pressfield’s theology, what makes this section really fascinating for me is how he still manages to put his finger on something really important. He’s so close. Look at this passage (bolded emphasis mine):

… when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.

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. Insights accrete.

Just as Resistance has its seat in hell, so Creation has its home in heaven. And it’s not just a witness, but an eager and active ally. (108)

This is the point at which I would like to change tracks a little bit, and see if we can put Steven Pressfield in dialogue with Dorothy L. Sayers. Sayers is most often remembered for the Lord Peter Wimsey novels she authored in the 1920s and 30s, but in her own day she was a fairly prominent lay theologian with a particular interest in work and creativity. In The Mind of the Maker, her seminal work on creativity and the nature of the Trinity, she traces mankind’s creative ability back to the Genesis account of being made in the image of God:

How then can he be said to resemble God? It is his immortal soul, his rationality, his self-consciousness, his free will, or what, that gives him a claim to this rather startling distinction? A case may be argued for all these elements in the complex nature of man. But had the author of Genesis anything particular in his mind when he wrote? It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the “image” of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, “God created.” The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things. (Sayers, 22)

Like Pressfield, Sayers turns to the mind of the creative writer as a means by which to examine work and creativity in general, and specifically its relation to the divine. But rather than turning to the Jungian Self or the Greek Muses, Sayers finds a pattern in the act of human creation which she ties analogically to the nature of the godhead as expressed in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The Mind of the Maker is her treatise on the subject, but it was “previewed” in the closing doxology of her play The Zeal of Thy House, which had been written a few years prior to the publication of The Mind of the Maker. This is the final speech of the play, given by the archangel Michael and quoted in full in The Mind of the Maker (the bracketed additions are Sayers’s):

For every work [or act] of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly.

First, [not in time, but merely in order of enumeration] there is the Creative Idea, passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work complete at once, the end in the beginning: and this is the image of the Father.

Second, there is the Creative Energy [or Activity] begotten of that idea, working in time from the beginning to the end, with sweat and passion, being incarnate in the bonds of matter: and this is the image of the Word.

Third, there is the Creative Power, the meaning of the work and its response in the lively soul: and this is the image of the indwelling Spirit.

And these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can exist without other: and this is the image of the Trinity. (Sayers, 37-8)

Does this not sound, to some extent, like what Pressfield is moving towards? I think Sayers would agree with Pressfield wholeheartedly when it comes to the lived experience of the creative artist, from the need to be diligent to the curious phenomenon of ideas that seemingly arrive from somewhere Out There. And though her vocabulary is different, her view on “turning pro” and the attitude necessary to do work well is similar to his; she wrote extensively on the idea of “serving the work,” in which she calls the artist to mastery of his or her craft and, above all, integrity and excellence in its pursuit. This pursuit of the craft will breed a new set of values in the artist, “… which are not purely economic; he beholds the end of the work. As a common-or-business man, he requires payment for his work, and is often pretty stiff in his demands; but as an artist, he retains so much of the image of God that he is in love with his creation for its own sake” (Sayers, 221). Here, again, Sayers and Pressfield find themselves in agreement.

Here are two different writers, working from two vastly different theological frameworks, and yet they are each hitting on the same essential kernel of truth — and I do believe that it is truth — about the makeup of the creative artist and the nature of creative work. The War of Art is well worth a read; bringing Sayers alongside can make it even more valuable. I commend them both to you.

Reading Pressfield’s The War of Art (pt. 2: Turning Pro)

The second section of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art looks at overcoming the Resistance he outlined in the first section. The answer to Resistance, he writes, is “turning pro”. It’s worth noting at the beginning that although professionals do their work for compensation, it’s not the money itself that differentiates a pro from a hobbyist; being a “pro” is, rather, a matter of internal attitude toward the work. Pressfield himself wrote for seventeen years before seeing a single dollar for any of it! Early on in the section, he lays out an illustrative example of what turning pro looks like:

Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

That’s a pro.

In terms of Resistance, Maugham was saying, “I despise Resistance; I will not let it faze me; I will sit down and do my work.”

Maugham reckoned another, deeper truth: that by performing the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting to work, he set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that would produce inspiration, as surely as if the goddess had synchronized her watch with his.

He knew if he built it, she would come. (64)

Perhaps the most valuable ability of the pro is simply their ability to put their butt in their chair, day after day after day, so that they can do their work. Pressfield suggests that we treat our creative endeavours the same way that we treat our day jobs: we show up every day, regardless of how we’re feeling; we put in our allotted time; we are committed over the long haul; we master the technique and essential skills of our job; we keep a sense of humour about it all (these and other items, 69-72). We show up. We put our butts in the chair. We do the work.

This is what I found I had to do when I was writing my master’s thesis. The particular logistics of my life at that point meant that I couldn’t write at a regular set time, like Somerset Maugham’s nine o’clock every morning. But what I did try to do was write every day: even if it was only a paragraph. Even if it was only a sentence! Because getting anything written meant that I was moving forward from where I had been the day before. It’s the concept of a “non-zero day” — which originated on reddit about a dozen years after The War of Art was published, but which I think Pressfield would endorse. Here is the principle of a non-zero day (excerpted from a much longer comment which you can read at the link below):

Rule numero uno – There are no more zero days. What’s a zero day? A zero day is when you don’t do a single f–ing thing towards whatever dream or goal or want or whatever that you got going on. No more zeros. I’m not saying you gotta bust an essay out everyday, that’s not the point. The point I’m trying to make is that you have to make yourself, promise yourself, that the new SYSTEM you live in is a NON-ZERO system. Didnt’ do anything all f–ing day and it’s 11:58 PM? Write one sentence. One pushup. Read one page of that chapter. One. Because one is non zero. You feel me? When you’re in the super vortex of being bummed your pattern of behaviour is keeping the vortex goin, that’s what you’re used to. Turning into productivity ultimate master of the universe doesn’t happen from the vortex. It happens from a massive string of CONSISTENT NON ZEROS. That’s rule number one. Do not forget. (ryans01)

The concept of non-zero days has spawned a small movement and now has its own subreddit and even a couple of apps. What the pro knows is that momentum builds motivation, and that discipline produces results. Whether or not inspiration comes when beckoned, the pro is still there putting in their dues.

Turning pro is also a way to make sure that when inspiration strikes, we are ready for it — another part of the mental shift is thinking of ourselves as craftsmen rather than artists. Pressfield writes, “A pro views her work as a craft, not art. […] she concentrates on technique. The professional masters how, and leaves what and why to the gods. Like Somerset Maugham she doesn’t wait for inspiration, she acts in the anticipation of its apparition” (78). This makes sense, doesn’t it? Without a knowledge of craft and technique, it’s awfully hard to fully realise a vision of a work, however inspired you might feel. A pianist has to master their scales before mastering Beethoven. When I sit down and practice different poetic forms or churn out a blog post, that’s how I play my scales. And that practice, and that readiness, is a critical part of turning pro: “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” (84).

Now — what about inspiration? If we are working to overcome Resistance, if we are mastering our technique and putting in our time — how do we know that inspiration will come? Part three of The War of Art looks at Invoking the Muse. Stay tuned!

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”.