Thursday, March 27, 2008

Steven Pressfield (My favorite books on writing)

Steven Pressfield, The War of Art.

As I mentioned back when I started this series of posts, I’m not a big fan of “inspirational” books on the writing process. I want to hear from real writers talking about writing, not life coaches urging me to follow my bliss.

So Steven Pressfield’s book was initially a bit off-putting to me. In the original hardback edition, the cover (there is no dust-jacket) is made up of silver embossed squares, and a few have been polished to a high gloss so when you pick up the book you see your own reflection. Cute. Add in the title, which puns off Sun Tzu, and it might be too cute altogether. Inside, your worries only multiply: the book is made up of super-short chapters, most only one-to-three pages long, and the layout seems like something Kahlil Gibran might have suggested.

On the other hand, Pressfield is the author of the excellent novel Gates of Fire (which probably spawned the comic book and movie 300, but is, unlike 300, actually good), as well as other fine books set in classical Greece, and he seems like a hard-nosed sort of guy. So I read the first few pages, and I was hooked.

Pressfield’s book is about one thing only, a force of evil he calls “Resistance.”

Most of us have two lives. The life we live and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.

In other words, this is a book about all the ways you can fail to do the work you want to be doing. As Pressfield says, “Every sun casts a shadow, and genius’s shadow is called Resistance.” In other words, Resistance is a form of self-sabotage—though we often explain our failure to do our work in terms of external constraints (job, family, illness, and whatever else seems to get in our way).

Creating soap opera in our lives is a symptom of Resistance. Why put in years of work…when you can get just as much attention by bringing home a boyfriend with a prison record?

Sometimes entire families participate unconsciously in a culture of self-dramatization. The kids fuel the tanks, the grown-ups arm the phasers, the whole starship lurches from one spine-tingling episode to another. And the crew knows how to keep it going. If the level of drama drops below a certain threshold, someone jumps in to amp it up. Dad gets drunk. Mom gets sick, Janie shows up for church with an Oakland Raiders tattoo. It’s more fun than a movie. And it works: Nobody gets a damn thing done.

Pressfield’s book is all about how to get your work done, and, in the end, his real message is “If not now, when?”

Resistance is fear. But Resistance is too cunning to show itself naked in this form. Why? Because if Resistance lets us see clearly that our own fear is preventing us from doing our work, we may feel shame at this. And shame may drive us to act in the face of fear.

Resistance doesn’t want us to do this. So it brings in Rationalization. Rationalization is Resistance’s spin doctor. It’s Resistance’s way of hiding the Big Stick behind its back. Instead of showing us our fear (which might shame us and impel us to do our work), Resistance presents us with a series of plausible, rational justifications for why we shouldn’t do our work.

What’s particularly insidious about the rationalizations that Resistance presents to us is that a lot of them are true. They’re legitimate…What Resistance leaves out, of course, is that all this means diddly.

Although it looks like a book to idly browse through, in fact Pressfield is marshalling an argument that builds from one mini-chapter to the next. And he means it: he really believes that Resistance to our purpose in life is the root of all evil in the world, and that this is a force trying to snuff out our eternal soul. And he believes that the proper response is to act in the face of fear, to gird our loins with faith, and to cultivate the Muse.

Literally? Yep. He believes in the Muse, and inspiration, in the most literal and heroic terms—but the believes the gods only smile upon you if you go forth to do battle. Pressfield’s view of the universe is unapologetically premodern, half-Homeric and half- Zoroastrian. To many, this book may seem absurd or simply beside the point. I think it’s a minor masterpiece; but I'm sure it won't suit everyone's tastebuds.

2 comments:

Usman said...

David Hi,
Thanks for the excerpts on Resistance. I needed that as I have 'rationalized' with myself that I can't finish off revisions on my MS, because...I need time to think it through.
I don't need time to think; I need to write and forget I am trying to ape Tolstoy; ok, it's really Orhan Pamuk, I am aping.

David Isaak said...

Yeah, Pressfield is always a good kick in the ass.