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Two Books to Galvanize Creativity

— “As artists and professionals it is our obligation to enact our own internal revolution, a private insurrection inside our own skulls.”

war_of_art_cvr.jpgThe War of Art by Steven Pressfield dispenses no-nonsense, read-it-in-a-day advice for anybody striving to channel their creative juices into a floodtide of productivity. In brief, snappy chapters titled clearly for easy reference, Pressfield calls it like he sees it:

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

“Resistance” becomes Pressfield’s keynote. You’ll get his drift if you’ve ever wished to finish a creative project (or start one, for that matter) only to succumb to procrastination and self-inflicted guilt. Resistance is the nattering, excuse-making voice in our heads that keeps us from quieting down, focusing, and getting to work.

Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. …To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius.

Here lies my one significant quibble with Pressfield’s book. I find his terms, though helpful in a wake-up-call kind of way, to be a bit extreme.

For isn’t Resistance sort of … necessary to creativity? Rather than seeking to wholly suppress and kill Resistance, isn’t the artist’s task to tame it and train it to one’s service? (“Resistance sparks the flame,” goes the old adage.)

For me, the edict “You must declare Resistance evil” sets up a false duality that seems a little Manichean. I personally favor John Dewey’s more nuanced outlook on the very same subject (Resistance and the Artist) in his 1933 book Art As Experience:

Since the artist cares in a peculiar way for the phase of experience in which union is achieved, he does not shun moments of resistance and tension. He rather cultivates them, not for their own sake but because of their potentialities, bringing to living consciousness an experience that is unified and total. … The moment of passage from disturbance into harmony is that of intensest life.

In other words, without Resistance, how could we know artistic success?

Nevertheless Pressfield’s central point is sound. “It’s not the writing part that’s hard,” he observes, “What’s hard is sitting down to write.” And the perspectives of The War of Art are frequently salutary. For instance, I love this bit:

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.

The War of Art gets somewhat New Agey for my tastes toward its close, but it nevertheless serves like all good books of the “Inspiration” genre to affirm creative expression.

Creative work is not a selfish act nor a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.

true_and_false_cvr.jpgThat is a message of inestimable value to artists striving in a culture that all too often instills shame in answer to creative enterprise. Even those entities that ostensibly nurture the fledgling artist (e.g., university MFA-programs) can be tacit accomplices in this shame game, for they inadvertently suggest that only a degree, or firm “career track,” can dignify the artistic attempt.

Iconoclastic playwright David Mamet, in his wonderful 1997 book True & False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, excoriates such sham authority, and extols artistic self-reliance. (True & False is a resource of wisdom and solace for any kind of artist, actor or not.)

It is not childish to live with uncertainty, to devote oneself to craft rather than a career, to an idea rather than an institution. It’s courageous and requires a courage of the order that the institutionally co-opted are ill-equipped to perceive. They are so unequipped to perceive it that they can only call it childish, and so excuse their exploitation of you.

If the value in The War of Art is how it galvanizes the artist to get working and keep at it, the value of True & False lies in its authoritative philosophy about the creative life. Mamet continually vindicates the artist in his or her headlong impracticality. I’ll leave you with the following passage which does just that.

Read Pressfield and Mamet and be inspired. Work and be well.

The best advice one can give an aspiring artist is ‘Have something to fall back on.’ The merit of the instruction is this: those who adopt it spare themselves the rigor of the artistic life. … Those with ‘something to fall back on’ invariably fall back on it. They intended to all along. That is why they provided themselves with it. But those with no alternative see the world differently. The old story has the mother say to the sea captain, ‘Take special care of my son, he cannot swim,’ to which the captain responds, ‘Well, then, he’d better stay in the boat.’ … Those of you with nothing to fall back on, you will find, are home.

(Thanks to Chris at the The Art of Non-Conformity for alerting me to Pressfield’s book)

(This post comes to you from the Soul Shelter archives)

You may also enjoy:

Knuckling Down to the Hard Work of Writing

You’ve Got to Jump

Opting Out of the Deferred Life Plan

Born Ready

A Song for the Unsung

You Don’t Have to Be an Insider

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