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!

The work for which we are fitted

Last night I finished the last book in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s “Emily” trilogy, Emily’s Quest, and was happily struck by the following passage towards its end, which I copied into my notebook. For context, the protagonist, Emily Starr, is a budding writer who had found herself unable to write after a bad injury and difficult convalescence (and an unwise love affair); this diary entry details her feelings upon finding her way back to her work:

“Get leave to work–
In this world ’tis the best you get at all,
For God in cursing gives us better gifts
than men in benediction.”

So wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning — and truly. It is hard to understand why work should be called a curse — until one remembers what bitterness forced or uncongenial labour is. But the work for which we are fitted — which we feel we are sent into the world to do — what a blessing it is and what fulness of joy it holds. I felt this to-day as the old fever burned in my finger-tips and my pen once more seemed a friend.

“Leave to work” — one would think any one could obtain so much. But sometimes anguish and heartbreak forbid us the leave. And then we realise what we have lost and know that it is better to be cursed by God than forgotten by Him. If He had punished Adam and Eve by sending them out to idleness, indeed they would have been outcast and accursed. Not all the dreams of Eden ‘whence the four great rivers flow’ could have been as sweet as those I am dreaming tonight, because the power to work has come back to me.

Oh God, as long as I live give me “leave to work.” Thus pray I. Leave and courage. (Lucy Maud Montgomery, Emily’s Quest, Ch. XII.ii)

This jumped out at me immediately because I wrote my thesis on work — specifically on Dorothy L. Sayers’s theology of ditto. Although Sayers and Montgomery lived on opposite sides of the Atlantic ocean, they were rough contemporaries in age, and it is intriguing to see them working on a common theme — what was it about the inter-war period that made the question of work so pressing? — for Sayers also was adamant that there is no work on earth so worth doing save that for which we are particularly suited. As she wrote in a letter to a young admirer:

“Success”, by the way, is finding yourself engaged in doing the thing you are best fitted to do. Consequently, of course, you can never really know whether other people are successful or not. But you may come to the moment when you say, “I am now doing the job I was made for”. That is success, though nobody will know about it but yourself. (Dorothy L. Sayers, Letter to Hilary F. Page, 10 August 1944)

For both Montgomery and Sayers, the fundamental mark of being successful in work is finding oneself pursuing the job for which one has been made — that is to say, for which one is particularly suited by temperament, inclination, call, and training. In this scheme, there is no value judgement to be made between persons who are each doing the work for which they are best suited; a stay-at-home-mother may be regarded as equally successful to a neurosurgeon, provided that she works in a way that is faithful to her particular calling. Where they disagree, however, is in a subtle (but important!) matter of theology: was work cursed in the Garden of Eden, or is work itself the curse?

Montgomery, following Elizabeth Barrett Browning I suppose, accepts the premise that work is God’s curse upon mankind — though she finds that this does not leave it wholly unredeemable. But this is a misreading of Genesis. In the Creation->Fall narrative, work is present in the garden before the fall; it is part of God’s plan for an unfallen mankind in paradise. As Sayers points out in her essay Vocation in Work, the “new and ominous thing” that the curse brings in Genesis 3 is the fact that work “was [now] to be conditioned by economic necessity” (Dorothy L. Sayers, Vocation in Work).

Work has now become necessary for survival, not just for our flourishing. It is in this way that work has been cursed — but it is not, Sayers strongly asserts, a curse in and of itself. I believe that her interpretation is the correct one. Work is redeemable; one of the ways we can participate in that redemption on a personal level is by seeking out and then faithfully serving the work which seems to have been made for us alone. And when we find it, then we also will rejoice with Emily/Montgomery and Sayers, for the blessing and fulness of joy that it brings.