What I’m Reading – 2.3.16

A professional does it.

Most writing advice boils down to this: sit down and write, every day. There are endless caveats. Read, too. Show, don’t tell. Arrive late to scenes and leave early (the same good advice goes, of course, for parties). But few professions seems to engender procrastination—talking about it, reading about it, thinking about it—more than writing. This goes for novels, articles, sermons, reports. We form the habit in middle school and continue it forward into our adult lives.

Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art is a writing book, yes. His background is writing, and most of his advice seems to be aimed at writers, even if he tries to expand it to anyone involved in creative work. It’s a pep talk in 160 pages, something you could read in a sitting or two.

What he does that is most helpful: he names what we face each day. Resistance. “The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it,” he writes. He lays out the terrain of how Resistance works, where we find it, how it operates. This is why it’s called The War of Art—not only does he invert Sun Tzu’s famous title, but he mimics it, laying out the basics for laying siege against Resistance. He talks about how the more we fear doing the work, the more sure we can be that we are called to it. Resistance and fear go hand-in-hand.

The solution? Turn professional. He doesn’t say to only write for money (though, that’s a different debate waged often today). He says treat your writing, or your creative endeavor, as your vocation. Do it. Do it every day. Avoid excuses.

I think of this and the solitary life of the writer—or the artist, or the entrepreneur, or the pastor, or anyone involved in creating—and the misery that our vocation sometimes calls us to. Rejection, for writers. Slogging away. One of my professors in graduate school said there is a point where the manuscript turns into the “damn manuscript.” Pressfield writes about being miserable.

“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.”

Sometimes, I don’t like to tell people that I’m a writer because I have so little to show for it. A few published short stories. Novels that are repeatedly rejected. I wonder aloud to my wife if I should continue.

I asked a teacher at a workshop this question, once. I took her out for a beer to talk more about a writing career, and I told her of my self-doubt. Really, I expected her to offer me some platitudes, to tell me that I was better than I thought.

She didn’t. She told me I have to decide for myself.

I was surprised in the moment. Aren’t we supposed to just give someone nice words when he’s feeling down? But she gave me more. As Pressfield tells it, we cannot write for the audience—the hierarchy. Writing for the hierarchy is an attempt to get noticed, to be okay in the eyes of others. To move up the hierarchy.

Instead, we must write only if it comes from our center. No one can answer if I ought to keep writing, because, even if I have talent, it must be my answer. Now, a year and a half removed from that conversation, I’m grateful for the answer my instructor gave me. I had to find my own answer. I write because that’s who I am.

I had to get accustomed to the rejection and self-doubt, the isolation, to find out that I needed to do this. I still need to be reminded that this is the war of art: it is often miserable. (I’m sure others want to sign up as writers now, as if they don’t regularly engage in tasks that are uncomfortable and with no guarantee of success. Maybe engaging in such tasks is simply wired into us as humans.)

Should you read The War of Art? Perhaps. It’s not groundbreaking. It’s a simple reminder of the role you have to play, and that the best contribution you can make is to show up, every day, and play your role. We all need that pep talk sometimes. We need someone who can define the enemy and the objective, and call us again to engage.

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