Friday, May 18, 2007

And, in a More Mystical Vein than Rats and Black Swans...

I bought Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art (with a nod and a wink to Lao Tzu) when it was first published back in 2002 by Rugged Land. It was a book I almost didn’t buy. The shiny little silver hardback had been pressed with crosshatchings, and a few of the resulting squares had been polished so that your own face was reflected back to you from two or three spots. Cute. Too cute.

Inside, I found a profusion of short chapters, many of them only two or three paragraphs long, filled with pronouncements that verged on the proverbial. I’d read Pressfield’s great and moving novel Gates of Fire (the story of the Battle of Thermopylae that was later told so much more poorly by the graphic novel--and now movie--300), so I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But I admit I found the Kahlil-Gibranish layout more than a bit off-putting.

I bought it anyway. (It was later reissued by Warner Books in an even-more-distressing trade paperback form, with cover blurbs that suggest it is a general self-help book that might even help with your diet.) And it turns out to be one of the best books ever written on the topic of being a writer.

What Pressfield does first is to personify the Great Enemy. After Robert McKee’s introduction, the War of Art opens with:

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance…Late at night, have you ever experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a write who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.

Despite the odd, snippety layout, the book is intended to be read in order, not picked up and browsed through. Pressfield is marshalling a complex argument about the nature of that which keeps us from doing our work, and, as it turns out, form is following function in his development of his theme, because Resistance wears many masks. After showing us one facet of how the Enemy works, Pressfield backs away and assaults the problem from yet another angle.

It is no wonder that most of Pressfield’s novels are set in ancient Greece. He has an archaic mindset tempered only slightly by modernity. He believes in the existence and power of Resistance as a literal personified force, and he fears and hates Resistance as surely as a tent preacher abhors Satan. Pressfield also believes in the Muse—again, quite literally. His philosophy is that of the Spartans or the warriors of the Bhaghavad Gita. We are entitled to our labor, but not necessarily to the fruits of our labor. The honor is not in victory, but in being allowed onto the battlefield.

...[t]he most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying. Why is this so important? Because when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious begins 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.

This is about as far from Taleb's world of randomness as imaginable, but I have a writer's mind, so I'm capable of holding two (or more) opposing worldviews in my mind at the same time. Oddly enough, though, Pressfield's conclusion about 'success' matches with Taleb's, though for different reasons:

Grandiose fantasies are a symptom of Resistance. They’re the sign of an amateur. 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 to come, whatever they like.

Taleb would say that there is a large measure of chance at work in determining outward success. Pressfield would probably say the gods are fickle. Take your pick. Me, I believe both.