Soul-wrenching insight on creative blocks from The War of Art

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warartI was stunned and awed this weekend when I read a great book on creative blocks called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (thanks, Kelly, for suggesting it!)  Best known as a novelist of books such as The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, Tides of War, and The Last of the Amazons, in this non-fiction book, Pressfield writes a short but exquisite analysis of the source, purpose and solution to creative blocks.  It was published in 2002, but is a timeless classic for anyone who feels blocked from starting anything.

In this week’s 7 1/2 minute podcast (listen here), I chose a few key concepts to explore, including:

  1. What is resistance?
  2. What is its aim?
  3. What is a quick way to overcome it?

I share some juicy passages from the book, which REALLY got me fired up to stop procrasinating and get moving on long-stalled creative projects like my book that I have been avoiding writing for ages.  Here is a little taste:

“Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work.  It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole.  Resistance is protean.  It will assume any form, if that’s what it takes to deceive you.  It will reason with you like a lawyer or jam a nine-millimeter in your face like a stickup man.  Resistance has no conscience.  It will pledge anything to get a deal, then double-cross you as soon as your back is turned.  If you take Resistance at its word, you deserve everything you get.  Resistance is always lying, and always full of shit.”

I am very curious what your experience has been with creative blocks, and what you have done to move past them.  Please share them here, as I know that defeating the dragon of resistance is the difference between success or failure for a lot of us.

P.S.  I got so fired up about the book that I invited Steven Pressfield to be a guest on my radio show.  He agreed, but schedule-wise it will be in about a month.  I can’t WAIT for this conversation, as he has an amazing personal story and very profound insight into this topic.

P.P.S.  Yes, if you listened to this podcast, you heard a little bit of 2-year old screaming in the background … I didn’t have the time to re-do or edit the recording, so forgive my imperfection as a sign of DO-ING to slay the dragon.  🙂

13 Responses to “Soul-wrenching insight on creative blocks from The War of Art”

  1. Doug says:

    Interesting pod-cast. That all sounds way too macho fight fight fight ra-ra-ra for me, but the idea is sound.

    For a less testosterone filled way of overcoming resistance, I highly recommend Robert Maurer’s book “One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way”

    The gist of Maurer’s philosophy is to use Kaizen (a Japanese word for an American concept) to bypass resistance by taking steps so small resistance won’t notice. His take on what resistance “is” is a bit different, perhaps, than what you talk about here.

    Regardless of that fine point, the common idea being to get things done.

    I can just hear the type-A’s Resistance saying: No, No, No, Hurry Hurry Hurry, you have to do it all at once, no time to do it in small pieces!

    All at once, of course, is way too big to handle, so Resistance will block that… It is just sending you down a road it knows it can block you from going. Heh.

    Anyways, thought provoking post/pod-cast, wanted to point out that there were other ways to approach that dragon. 🙂

  2. Sue says:

    Pamela,

    You are my rock right now; I just had to write and let you know. My husband wrote you a few days ago about my blocks and like a gift you come back with this.

    Almost every book and inspiration that I’m using right now has come from you in some way! (North Star and others!) You have impeccable taste and are a grace filled channel of insights. It’s always a pleasure to see what you’re sharing next.

    I laughed at myself like I haven’t done for a while, and realized the measure of the beast I’ve been wrestling for so long. I see myself reading this over and over to break the chain. It’s a bona fide life saver!

    Multiple thanks for every insight.

  3. Niels Teunis says:

    That is a hugely important point. But I want to offer an additional option. Sometimes our resistance is in our favor. It tells us that we really shouldn’t be doing what we thought we should be doing. Resistance will let us know when we are following conventional ideas that tell us what we should be doing, even though, deep down, we don’t want to be doing them.

    I know that this is true for me. If something looks to everybody like I should be doing it, but really, it isn’t for me, I will resist it with all my might. Only later will I realize that resistance helped me out and prevented me from doing what I was only trying to do, because it looked like the right thing to do. From a conventional, perhaps convenient point of view.

  4. Mike says:

    Pam,

    Steven’s advice to stand toe-to-toe with Resistance and slug it out, again and again, is right on the money.

    I know from recent experience. I had been letting ‘R’ keep me from writing for a very long time. Always a great excuse not to. Then two weeks ago I decided to just start. At the start of June I began writing an outline. It wasn’t fun but I kept at it. In four days I had rewritten several times something I thought I could fill out.

    Then I started writing the actual text. Sometimes the text flowed naturally, but just as often nothing came out, so I forced myself to write crap I knew I’d cross out the next day. But I kept the pencil moving (it feels good in my hand; what can I say?).

    When I got stuck, if nothing came out, I went onto a section that yielded results. Family strifes and work issues intervened regularly. I was beat and didn’t want to continue. Resistance reared its ugly head nightly (couldn’t abandon my day job for this), but I persisted.

    After two weeks I had something
    to show for my efforts.

    Just pound away and don’t judge. Eventually you’ll find the melody of your song. Note: you may want to wear earplugs at first! 😉

    Mike

    Then sometimes

  5. Duane Benson says:

    Hi Pamela;

    I have to be pretty close to the champion of letting creative blocks get to me. Or, at least I used to be. I got a bit better.

    I write a blog for work (blog.screamingcircuits.com – It’s unlikely to be of value to most folks in your audience, but I hope it’s helpful to mine), I’ve written a couple of screenplays and most of a book. I enjoy writing, but I don’t feel that I have a lot of choice in terms of when I can and cannot write.

    When I’m “on”, I can spit out page after page. When I’m not on, I stare at the screen with an empty head. That part hasn’t changed, but I used to have this debilitating middle-ground when I was somewhat able to write, but wasn’t happy with anything, so I didn’t write.

    A few years ago, before the screenplays and before anything past page three in the book, I had an epiphany. I was sick for a week and used the time to read two books: Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean and Airframe by Michael Crichton.

    Airframe was an awful book. The writing was technically correct but juvenile. It was obviously written for a quick flip to a cheap movie of the week screenplay. The story was predictable and the “evil” wasn’t even really evil. But, Michael Crichton is a very successful writer. He’s made a lot of money and delivered fulfilling entertainment to millions of people.

    Young Men and Fire was written as if by someone that couldn’t construct a coherent thought. It was fragmented and repetitive. It violated just about every rule in the book – and not for artistic purposes – but it was so engaging that I couldn’t put the book down. I read it in two sittings. Mclean’s voice, though chucked at me in blocks of concrete, crafted imagery about a heart-wrenching story that moves me to this day.

    I had been hung up on the idea of producing good writing, yet I was being arrogant enough to think that I was the appropriate person to decide what constitutes good writing. After reading and thinking through those two books, I decided that it doesn’t matter what I think. I can write beautiful verse that I’m thoroughly in love with, but no one else likes. I can write something I can’t stand that resonates with an audience. Or, I can write something that none of us like.

    Today, with the pressure off to write well, I just write and let others decide if it’s quality work or not.

    Beautiful insight Duane, and one that will help all of us creatively blocked writers!

    As basic as it may sound, the advice that struck me in this book as the most profound was simply to WRITE, no matter if it was terrible crap. This is very freeing, and I had a very productive writing session yesterday as a result. Yeah!

    -Pam

  6. Ashwin says:

    Now that you mention it, I think I should overcome the resistance ( Phew, You got me fired up, eh?) and BUY that book atleast this time ! Amen !

    I swear Ashwin, you won’t regret it! It is beautifully written, in addition to being very useful.

    -Pam

  7. Yes it is a great book from cover to cover! This is also an awesome blog! A+++++!

    Elmo

  8. Todd Henry says:

    I interviewed Steven recently for The Accidental Creative podcast and he said something that hit me between the eyes.

    He said that a professional artist can look into another artists’ eyes and know whether they are a professional or an amateur. (According to Steven, not everyone who makes money is a pro. Being a pro is a mindset that requires discipline and perseverance.) He said that with a glance a pro can recognize others who have been in battle for their art.

    Wow.

  9. Kelly says:

    That’s crazy! My name is Kelly and I also recommend this book to just about everyone I meet. The topic of resistance always comes up in one way or another, and this book is the perfect antidote. For a minute there I thought I must have recommended it to you and forgotten about it.

    I am SO excited you’re going to be interviewing him. Can’t wait!

  10. Denise says:

    Man to I ever need to read this book! For three years I could not stop myself from writing creatively. But when my husband and I separated and I had to start making a living, which I do from blogging, I haven’t written so much as a poem. I have lost my creative desire and I hate that! Resistance owns me these days when it comes to being creative.

    Thanks for the heads up on this book and for that great excerpt.

  11. bob says:

    Hi,
    Pam, you do a great job of keeping your site fresh and new.

    I hope this is something folks can relate to on procrastinating.

    “Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
    – Philip Roth, “Everyman”

  12. Resistance really is full of shit – great piece for us Pam. Each and every time I’ve been resistant over something I’ve let it go its course. I’ve surrendered – in ordinary lingo what i mean is: I DO nothing. If I’ve something to write – a chapter, a book [nothing big eh!] I don’t force myself to write 1,000 words a half day or some other rule I make up to trigger me out of whatever is going on. Instead, I stop resisting. The person I most resist is myself. Because in those moments, days, weeks before I write I’m in a process that is critical. Sure it’s not convenient nor does it feel ‘productive’ in a doing way. I’ve learned when I force myself I’m usually resisting something new that’s scarier than simply writing. A tangible example for you: I had a ‘whacking great idea’ about a niche I’m passionate about – I began to build a business on it, it went well. My steam ran out. I’d enrolled lots of eager people with $ to spend on my new services/products. I was blank. Frustrated. Could not believe myself. I wanted to resist my intuition that this was not the business for me to create even though all the signs were present it would be scorching. Finally I accepted resisting was futile. Stopping resisting meant eventually a new and deeper path for me surfaced – in fact, the seeds of the new path – bringing coaching to major TV – were buried in the previous business. I notice raw honesty is needed to discern what is simply a good old dose of gremlin based procrastination and what might lead you to somthing richer.

  13. Lauren Muney says:

    I’ve owned this book for years. It wonderful. I should keep in within reach. I’ve lent it to others and they, too, have been inspired. It even inspired me to rent “The Legend of Bagger Vance” -glad I did. There are few magical movies which feel real yet inspiring.

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