The War of Art | Notes & Review

Posted on November 8, 2010


Steven Pressfield. The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. Grand Central Publishing, 2002. (165 pages)

…golf is a beautifully virulent form of procrastination.

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

Genius is a Latin word; the Romans used it to denote an inner spirit, holy and inviolable, which watches over us, guiding us to our calling. A writer writes with his genius; an artist paints with hers; everyone who creates operates from this sacramental center. It is our soul’s seat, the vessel that holds our being-in-potential, our star’s beacon and Polaris.

Resistance defeats us. If tomorrow morning by some stroke of magic every dazed and benighted soul woke up with the power to take the first step toward pursuing his or her dreams, every shrink in the directory would be out of business.

BOOK ONE: RESISTANCE – Defining the Enemy

The enemy is a very good teacher. – the Dalai Lama

…activities that most commonly elicit Resistance…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. (06)

Resistance is invisible (07), internal [arises from within, self-generated and self-perpetuated.] (08), insidious (09), implacable (10), impersonal (11), infallible [The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.] (12), universal (13)…

Resistance never sleeps (14), plays for keeps (15), is fueled by fear [We feed it with power by our fear of it.] (16), only opposes in one direction (17), is most powerful at the finish line (18), recruits allies [Resistance by definition is self-sabotage. But there’s a parallel peril that must also be guarded against: sabotage by others…The reason is that they are struggling, consciously or unconsciously, against their own Resistance. The awakening writer’s success becomes a reproach to them. If she can beat these demons, why can’t they?] (19).

Procrastination is the most common manifestation of Resistance because it’s the easiest to rationalize. (21) We don’t just put off our lives today; we put them off till our deathbed. (22)

Sometimes Resistance takes the form of sex, or an obsessive preoccupation with sex? Why Sex? Because sex provides immediate and powerful gratification. When someone sleep with us, we feel validated and approved of, even loved. Resistance gets a big kick out of that. It knows it has distracted us with a cheap, easy fix and kept us from doing our work. … The more empty you feel, the more certain you can be that your true motivation was not love or even lust but Resistance. (23)

Resistance and trouble. We get ourselves in trouble because it’s a cheap way to get attention. Trouble is a faux form of fame. … Cruelty to others is a form of Resistance, as is the willing endurance of cruelty from others. (24)

Resistance and self-dramatization. Creating soap opera in our lives is a symptom of Resistance. (25)

Resistance and self-medication. Attention Deficit Disorder, Seasonal Affect Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder. these aren’t diseases, they’re marketing ploys. Doctors didn’t discover them, copywriters did. Marketing departments did. Drug companies did. (26)

Resistance and victimhood. Doctors estimate that seventy to eighty percent of their business is non-health-related. People aren’t sick, they’re self-dramatizing. … The acquisition of a condition lends significance to one’s existence. … A victim act is a form of passive aggression. (27)

What does Resistance feel like? First, unhappiness. We feel like hell. A low-grade misery pervades everything. We’re bored, we’re restless. We can’t get no satisfaction. There’s guilt but we can’t put our finger on the source. We want to go back to bed; we want to get up and party. We feel unloved and unlovable. We’re disgusted. We hate our lives. We hate ourselves. Unalleviated, Resistance mounts to a pitch that becomes unendurable. At this point vices kick in. Dope, adultery, web surfing. Beyond that, Resistance becomes clinical.

As artists and professionals it is our obligation to enact our own internal revolution, a private insurrection inside our own skulls. In this uprising we free ourselves from the tyranny of consumer culture. We overthrow the programming of advertising, movies, video games, magazines, TV, and MTV by which we have been hypnotized from the cradle. We unplug ourselves from the grid by recognizing that we will never cure our restlessness by contributing our disposable income to the bottom line of Bullshit, Inc., but only by doing our work. (32)

Resistance and fundamentalism. These are not easy questions. Who am I? Why am I here? They’re not easy because the human being isn’t wired to function as an individual. We’re wired tribally, to act as part of a group. … What we don’t know is how to be alone. We don’t know how to be free individuals. (33)

Fundamentalism is the philosophy of the powerless, the conquered, the displaced and the dispossessed. …the despair of freedom. (34) The fundamentalist…cannot find his way into the future, so he retreats to the past. … Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive. (35)

The difference is that while the one looks forward, hoping to create a better world, the other looks backward, seeking to return to a purer world from which he and all have fallen. The humanist believes that humankind, as individuals, is called upon to co-create the world with God. (36)

The paradox seems to be, as Socrates demonstrated long ago, that the truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery. While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them. (37)

Resistance and self-doubt. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death. (39)

Resistance and fear. The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it. (40)

Resistance and love. The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference. (42)

Resistance and healing. Resistance loves “healing.” resistance knows that the more psychic energy we expend dredging and re-dredging the tired, boring injustices of our personal lives, the less juice we have to do our work. (50)

Resistance and rationalization. it’s one thing to lie to ourselves. It’s another thing to believe it. (54)

Resistance is fear. (55)

Resistance can be beaten. Defeating Resistance is like giving birth. It seems absolutely impossible until you remember that women have been pulling it off successfully, with support and without, for fifty million years. (57)


It is one thing to study war and another to live the warrior’s life. – Telamond of Arcadia, mercenary of the fifth century B.C.

Professionals and Amateurs. To be clear: When I say professional, I don’t mean doctors and lawyers, those of “the professions.” I mean the Professional as an ideal.

  • The amateur plays for fun. The professional plays for keeps.
  • To the amateur, the game is his avocation. To the pro it’s his vocation.
  • The amateur plays part-time, the professional full-time.
  • The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week.

I’m keenly aware of the Principle of Priority, which states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first. (65)

The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation. (68)

A Professional is patient (75), seeks order (77), demystifies (78), acts in the face of fear (79), accepts no excuses (80), plays it as it lays [The professional conducts his business in the real world. … The field is level, the professional understands, only in heaven.] (81), is prepared (82), does not show off (83), dedicates himself to mastering technique (84), does not hesitate to ask for help [he seeks out the most knowledgeable teacher and listens with both ears.] (85), distances herself from her instrument (86), dos not take failure (or sucess) personally (87), endures adversity [The professional cannot let himself take humiliation personally. Humiliation, like rejection and criticism, is the external reflection of internal Resistance. …The Professional keeps his eye on the doughnut and not on the hole.] (89), self-validates [He takes external criticism to heart, allowing it to trump his own belief in himself and his work. Resistance loves this.] (91) [The professional blows critics off. He doesn’t even hear them. Critics, he reminds himself, are the unwitting mouth-pieces of Resistance and as such can be truly cunning and pernicious. … The professional learns to recognize envy-driven criticism and to take it for what it is: the supreme compliment] (93), recognizes her limitations (94), reinvents himself (95), is recognized by other professionals (96).

You, Inc. Making yourself a corporation (or just thinking of yourself in that way) reinforces the idea of professionalism because it separates the artist-doing-the-work from the will-and-consciousness-running-the-show. (97)

Why does Resistance yield to our turning pro? Because Resistance is a bully. Resistance has no strength of its own; its power derives entirely from our fear of it. A bully will back down before the runtiest twerp who stands his ground. (99)

There is no mystery to turning pro. It’s a decision brought about by an act of will. We make up our mind to view ourselves as pros and we do it. Simple as that. (101)


The first duty is to sacrifice to the gods and pray them to grant you the thoughts, words, and deeds likely to render your command most pleasing to the gods and to bring yourself, your friends, and your city the fullest measure of affection and glory and advantage. – Xenophon, The Cavalry Commander

As Resistance works to keep us from becoming who we were born to be, equal and opposite powers are counter-poised against it. These are our allies and angels. (107)

Approaching the Mystery. …the most important thing about art is to work. …heaven comes to our aid. … 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. … Just as Resistance has its seat in hell, so Creation has its home in heaven. (108)

We’re facing dragons too. Fire-breathing griffins of the soul, whom we must outfight and outwit to reach the treasure of our self-in-potential and to release the maiden who is God’s plan and destiny for ourselves and the answer to why we were put on this planet. (109)

The Muses were nine sisters, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, which means “memory.” Their names are Clio, Erato, Thalia, Terpsichore, Calliope, Polyhymnia, Euterpe, Melpomene, and Urania. their job is to inspire artists.

The third type of possession and madness is possession by the Muses. When this seizes upon a gentle and virgin soul it rouses it to inspired expression in lyric and other sorts of poetry, and glorifies countless deeds of the heroes of old for the instruction of posterity. But if a man comes to th edoor of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, bu are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired mandman.

Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, on the “noble effect of heaven-sent madness”

This alone is denied to God: the power to undo the past. – Agathon.

Eternity is in love with the creations of time. – William Blake.

There is great wisdom to this. There is magic to effacing our human arrogance and humbly entreating help from a source we cannot see, hear, touch or smell. (119)

That’s the felony that calls down soul-destruction: the employment of the sacred for profane means. Prostitution. Selling out. Lastly, the artist’s wish for his work: Make this tale live for us in all its many bearings, O Muse. That’s what we want, isn’t it? More than make it great, make it live. (120-1)

The magic of keeping going. This process of self-revision and self-correction is so common we don’t even notice. But it’s a miracle. And its implications are staggering. (125) Clearly some intelligence is at work, independent of our conscious mind and yet in alliance with it, processing our material for us and alongside us. This is why artists are modest. They know they’re not doing the work; they’re just taking dictation. It’s also why “noncreative people” hate “creative people.” Because they’re jealous. … Of course, this is nonsense. We‘re all creative. We all have the same psyche. (127)

The Ego and the Self. Here’s what I think. I think angels make their home in the Self, while Resistance has its seat in the Ego. the fight is between the two. (136)

Here’s what the Ego believes:

  1. Death is real.
  2. Time and space are real.
  3. Every individual is different and separate from every other.
  4. The predominant impulse of life is self-preservation.
  5. There is no God.

Here’s what the Self believes:

  1. Death is an illusion.
  2. Time and space are illusions.
  3. All beings are one.
  4. The supreme emotion is love.
  5. God is all there is. …is that in which we live and move and have our being. (138)

Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it. (146)

Territory versus Hierarchy. In the animal kingdom, individuals define themselves in one of two ways–by their rank within a hierarchy (a hen in a pecking order, a wolf in a pack) or by their connection to a territory (a home base, a hunting ground, a turf). (147)

For the artist to define himself hierarchically is fatal. (150) The artist must operate territorially. He must do his work for its own sake. To labor in the arts for any reason other than love is prostitution. (151)

In the hierarchy, the artist looks up and down. The one place he can’t look is that place he must: within. (151)

The definition of a hack. When the hack sits down to work, he doesn’t ask himself what’s in his own heart. He asks what the market is looking for. The hack condescends to his audience. …He’s a demagogue. He panders. (152)

What are the qualities of a territory?

  1. A territory provides sustenance.
  2. A territory sustains us without any external input.
  3. A territory can only be claimed alone.
  4. A territory can only be claimed by work.
  5. A territory returns exactly what you put in.

The supreme virtue. For us artists,…contempt for failure is our cardinal virtue. (160)

— VIA —

Okay. No more resistance. Become a Pro. Live in my Territory. Got it.

I’m also very intrigued with the Biblical themes that emerge in this book, and believe that there is something mystically beautiful about our “work,” and the “Resistance” that keeps us from it that resonates with the Biblical story. Read through Genesis again, and see if you can make those correlations.

Now, it’s off to create…

P.S. I think Resistance has another name: “Facebook.”

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