I hate The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. The main idea presented in this book is that procrastination is harmful to our long-term success. I don’t think anyone can disagree with this statement, but the way the book is written is deeply, deeply flawed and insanely egotistical. The few useful insights it offers are not new ideas and are few and far between.
The War of Art has a lot of fans and had been recommended to me by several people. There are heavy religious themes in the book, and I’m not a religious person. I’m also not the kind of person who believes much in fate, destiny or pre-determined purpose – and a lot of the book’s ideas hinge on this outlook. If you’re more inclined to think about the universe this way, I can see how this book could appeal to you.
Pressfield suggests muses and angels are real beings that act through us. Robert McKee offers a more atheistic stance on this in the foreword, clearly anticipating that not everyone has these beliefs, and suggests that we should take these ideas as ‘poetic fire’ and think instead in terms of talent and creativity coming from the genetics we received from our ancestors. I’m not sure about that, either.
Unfortunately, I struggled to interpret what’s laid out in The War of Art in a metaphorical way, and because of this I found the ideas inaccessible and not very transferable to my own belief system.
But that’s not why I hate this book. Pressfield has some shocking claims that I believe are fundamentally false and potentially psychologically damaging.
We are made to feel divinely shamed
Pressfield is adamant that we have a creative duty to God and that divine forces act through us to create art. He writes:
‘You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gift, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.’
Hmm, where do I start? First of all, we are not all special snowflakes. The sooner we can all get over this idea, the better we’ll be able to deal with reality. Thinking we’re special sets us up to believe special things are destined to happen to us – or that with enough hard work, we deserve something special to happen to us. This simply isn’t the case. Life doesn’t work like that. And if you think this way, you’re going to be disappointed.
If you have a desire to write, this does not necessarily mean you have been given a gift or purpose by God. I can’t think of any statement better equipped to paralyse a writer with shame other than to tell them they are spiting God by not writing. If you believe in God, this is not a healthy message. If you don’t believe in God, how useful is this statement at all?
The War of Art is full of contradictions, too. For example, in contradiction to the above statement, earlier in the book we’re told:
‘The amateur … overidentifies with his avocation, his artistic aspiration. He defines himself by it. He is a musician, a painter, a playwright. Resistance loves this. Resistance knows that the amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in its success and overterrified of its failure. The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyzes him.’
Apparently it’s not serious business to have to fulfil your duty to God and humanity. It’s essential to be able to separate your sense of self from your writing – this is good advice – but what if the burden of pleasing God and bettering humanity rests on the success of your writing? How are you meant to deal with that?
We’re told it’s immoral to write for a living
I fundamentally reject the idea that it is unprofessional to write for a living. The very definition of a professional writer is that of someone who is able to support themselves through their vocation.
‘The professional, though he accepts money, does his work out of love […] Too much love can make him choke. […]To labor in the arts for any reason other than love is prostitution.’
Is it immoral to write for a living? How do we define and balance love and too much love when it comes to our motives for writing? Is it not possible to write authentically and be paid for our efforts? Are writers supposed to make a living by just passively waiting for money to come their way, if and when they deserve it?
I beg to differ. There’s nothing immoral about wanting to be adequately compensated for your writing. Writing is both art and work. It’s hard work. And the fruits of our labour serve a purpose: to entertain, to inform, to inspire. These things enrichen our culture – and are worth paying for. The starving artist is not inherently noble. And when you’re not worrying about whether or not you can put food on the table, clothe your children or pay your rent, I bet there’s more space for creativity in your thoughts.
We’re told creativity cures cancer
Above all, though, Pressfield’s dangerous, incorrect and horrifically judgemental thoughts on what resisting your creativity can do is simply beyond belief, and undermines any credibility he may ever had have:
‘Attention Deficit Disorder, Seasonable Affect [sic] Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder. These aren’t diseases, they’re marketing ploys. Doctors didn’t discover them, copywriters did.’
‘If tomorrow morning by some stroke of magic every dazed and benighted soul woke up with the power to take the first step towards pursuing his or her dreams […] Domestic abuse would become extinct, as would addiction, obesity, migraine headaches, road rage and dandruff.’
I honestly can’t tell if that last one is a joke or not.
‘You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist […] Ever see one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.’
Just … what? Seriously? First of all, Hitler produced hundreds of paintings. He was not creatively blocked. But obviously the bigger issue here is that this is not the reason World War II started. How about the signing of the Treaty of Versailles after World War I that crippled Germany financially and shamed them into eventually electing a leader that fed them a sense of national pride? How about the failure of the League of Nations? How about the fact that clearly Hitler was an inhuman megalomaniac monster? C’mon, Pressfield, this is meant to be non-fiction.
And then there’s this:
‘Miraculously, cancers go into remission. People recover. Is it possible […] that the disease itself evolved as a consequence of actions taken (or not taken) in our lives? Could our unlived lives have exacted their vengeance upon us in the form of cancer? And if they did, can we cure ourselves, now, by living these lives out?’
All those millions we spend on cancer research are clearly going to waste … Suggesting that people who do not answer their creative urges bring cancer upon themselves is, quite frankly, disgusting.
The War of Art is badly written and presented
The War of Art is written in broken, fragmented thoughts. (And the ebook version I read was poorly laid out to the point I thought I had a defective copy.) We get a snippet of information a page at a time; ideas are stretched out thinly, repeated, seemingly in a disjointed and random order, jumping back and forth between themselves, and lacking in analysis. In Pressfield’s latest non-fiction book, Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit, we find out why.
‘I delivered to Shawn [Pressfield’s editor] a pile of pages. The pile was about the me-against-myself battle that’s fought inside the skull of any novelist […] Shawn said, “Lemme think about this.” Then he did what any terrific editor would do. He made that pile of pages into a story.’
In other words, Pressfield didn’t have the understanding to turn his own book into a coherent narrative. His editor took a multitude of short pages containing random thoughts on writing and procrastination, and ordered them into a semblance of logic. But to me, there wasn’t nearly enough cohesion.
However, there are some useful ideas
There are snippets of value buried in this book. As I’ve said before, none of these ideas are that new. Anyone who has read books and blogs on writing and creativity will have come across them, in one shape or another.
These ideas include that the more important the task is to us, the more we’re likely to procrastinate; the writer who waits until they are unafraid to write will never write anything; pace yourself, otherwise you’ll burn out.
Not exactly rocket science.
In short, this book is both absolutist and extremist. It doesn’t take into account the psychological nuances of the human brain, the demands and challenges of life outside of art, nor does it take into account a world in which our lives aren’t predetermined by a divine purpose.
This book might be inspiring to others, but it failed to inspire me. There’s wisdom in this book, if you dig for it with a critical mind, but you’d be much better off reading many of the other more considered guides on creativity and writing such as Monkeys with Typewriters by Scarlet Thomas, The Art of Writing Fiction by Andrew Cowan, The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig, On Writing by Stephen King, and The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp.
Have you read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments.
Hey, let’s stay in touch.
Never miss a post. Sign up to Liminal Letters – fortnightly insight into my life as an editor.
Plus, receive my ‘Project, Profit and Efficiency Tracking’ spreadsheet (and guidelines) to help you run your own editing business. Honestly, it’s one of the most useful tools I use as a professional editor.