Here’s a review of two recent books on creativity that have done rather well for themselves and their authors. The first is ‘The War of Art‘*, by screenwriter and novelist Stephen Pressfield (the title refers, of course, to the 6th century treatise on military strategy attributed to Sun Tzu, the Art of War); the second is the equally wonderfully-titled ‘Ignore Everybody (and 39 other Keys to Creativity)‘* by Hugh MacLeod, a popular cartoonist, blogger and general man-about-the-net.
While this will not be an entirely glowing review, particularly in one case, I want to start by saying that I consider both of these to be essential reading for the creativity space. Despite some misgivings, I think they are extremely valuable and accessible works and I heartily and unreservedly recommend them both.
There are a number of similarities, which is one reason I have chosen to review them together (another is that I happened to buy them together and read them sequentially). Both are edgy, streetwise and a little curmudgeonly, with short punchy chapters and an unapologetic willingness to take potentially controversial positions. Tough love, as it were, from a couple of guys who have done their time in the trenches – which is a nice change from the frequently more academic treatments of the topic.
Both are also written from the perspective of essentially solo artists, and portray the task at hand and the journey we are on as basically an individual endeavor. This might not ring true for everyone; as discussed in my previous post, collaboration is a deep creative well for many artists, and for some it is literally inseparable from the process; neither of these authors really mentions it at all. They may be more attractive to people working in similarly solitary idioms.
Finally, they are both fairly short books; I read each in a sitting-and-a-half, as it were, and will likely dip into them regularly for a bit of inspiration or a kick in the butt from time to time.
There are also some key differences: Ignore Everybody* is more practical, the War of Art* more psychological. MacLeod includes a selection of his own work in cartoon form, where Pressfield only makes reference to his novels and screenplays, in some cases quite self-effacingly. He also uses a lot more sports metaphors; this is the author of ‘The Legend of Bagger Vance’, after all (subsequent events have cast a different light on his numerous references to Tiger Woods, but I’ll try not to hold that against him).
Ignorance is Bliss
‘Ignore Everybody’ consists of 40 short essays (blog posts, really, as MacLeod admits quite freely) which often have a ‘don’t fall into this particular deadly trap’ vibe about them, e.g. ‘Worrying about “Commercial vs. Artistic” is a complete waste of time.’ Others are more Zen-like, such as ‘The best way to get approval is not to need it’. Wise, but perhaps a little vague.
MacLeod’s title track, ‘Ignore Everybody’, is perhaps his essential and most valuable contribution; it concerns creative sovereignty and the essential ability to trust your creative instinct: “You don’t know if your idea is any good the moment it’s created. Neither does anyone else. The most you can hope for is a strong gut feeling that it is”…
I found little to disagree with in these musings, as far as they go, and many are necessary and solid advice – particularly for less established artists or students considering making their creative work a career. In one chapter, ‘Don’t quit your day job’, he makes it blisteringly clear how much patience and tenacity it really takes to get through to making a living through art, and how helpful it can be to take the pressure off while developing those most essential attributes: a voice and a reputation.
Off to War…
Pressfield’s book was more difficult for me, partly because it takes on more – it’s a deep and powerfully honest journey into the heart of what he calls ‘Resistance’… Essentially, Resistance is the inner blockage that keeps us, in myriad ways, from doing our work. I don’t know for sure if he was the first to coin this term, or to give such a direct and intuitively ‘right’ name to it, but in any case his formulation has touched a nerve and quickly been adopted widely among people who think about such things, myself included.
I also found ‘The War of Art’ more infuriating because it’s far more melodramatic. In fact, before I had actually read the book I made reference to this in a guest post for Lateral Action, ‘Are these two creativity myths holding you back?‘ – where I proposed that perhaps a lighter, less confrontational, more playful attitude might suit some people better; certainly it works for me.
I didn’t want to take a stand against Mr. Pressfield directly in that post, for two reasons: first, I’m really not looking for a confrontation about this, particularly with someone whose credentials are substantially more convincing than my own; and second, because passing judgment without actually reading a book cover-to-cover is rather poor form.
I’m still not looking to pick a fight, but having now removed the second objection I can confirm that the overall tenor of the book is way too negative for my taste. He really lays it on thick in a few places: “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.” Umm, great, where do I sign up?
All Work and No Play?
I found that, true to its title, ‘The War of Art’ generally presents the creative process as a battle, joyless and resolute, rather than exciting and life-affirming. It’s all kind of grit-your-teeth-and-muscle-through-it-somehow, and that simply doesn’t gel with my own experience – at least not all of it, and certainly not the stuff that makes me keep showing up.
Personally, when the creation process is going well, I’m having TONS OF FUN! It’s completely exhilarating, a wild and wonderful adventure, a ‘trip’. Granted, it doesn’t always go well, and I don’t always muscle through it, and doubtless this makes me a lightweight to some, but frankly I don’t really care.
I would really rather create out of love, joy and exuberance than out of some bitter resolve to push through the pain. I honestly think if I didn’t feel that way I wouldn’t have stayed with it as long as I have. If it were always as painful as this book makes it out to be, I would quite frankly probably do something else with my life.
I can imagine Pressfield, in the salty old warrior persona he maintains through much of the book, sitting opposite me and calling me out for this: “The professional knows that if he caves in today… he’ll be twice as likely to cave in tomorrow”. However, I refuse to accept that I am some sort of trifling amateur, just because I don’t happen to see things the same way.
I have no doubt that I fail many of his professionalism tests, and in fact I regularly allow myself significant gaps in productivity. Regardless, I have managed to generate a substantial body of work, much of which has been artistically rewarding and satisfying to me and has connected powerfully with many people. And I’ve done it while being largely gentle and friendly to myself, and quite often having an outright excellent time.
Furthermore, I can see and hear the same spirit of sheer excitement and wonder in the work of many ‘great’ and canonical artists. In fact, I’d be willing to wager good money that when he’s in the flow, Pressfield himself probably feels the same. Quite possibly he did not intend for his book to come off so negatively… But then again, maybe he did; Taking a strong stand has doubtless been good for sales.
the Silver Lining…
Anyway, despite these concerns I think there is a LOT of valuable psychological insight in this book, and it also happens to be gloriously written. One of the reasons I feel so strongly about it is that many passages capture beautifully and passionately the essential mystery of the creative process:
“When we conceive an enterprise and commit to it in the face of our fears, something wonderful happens. A crack appears in the membrane. Angel midwives congregate around us; they assist as we give birth to ourselves, to that person we were born to be, to the one whose destiny was encoded in our soul, our daimon, our genius…”
Now that I can get behind! But while I definitely accept that it takes some work and discipline to get there, I also feel that it’s a disservice to paint the journey as essentially a terrible ordeal, a lonely odyssey through trackless wastes. I have been to that place he is describing, I really have… but you know what? I had some fun along the way.
I should clarify that I generally do agree, on many levels, with his focus on professionalism – or as he puts it, ‘going Pro’ (MacLeod, for his part, exhorts us to ‘Put the hours in’). I do think it’s important to force yourself to sit down and put pen to paper, or fingers to ivory, or whatever you do.
But if it’s only ever sweat and tears and blood, if forcing it makes our life and art feel like something to be endured rather than enjoyed – well, is that really what we’re after here? Is that really the goal?
My own aim, which I hope to transmit with this blog, is to cultivate a mindset that allows me to have more fun, and be more in the element, more in the moment of the creation – rather than positing it as some dread beast we must face down and destroy.
I’m interested in a work ethic to the extent that it helps me to find The Zone more easily and more often; but I’m actually not convinced that pushing through barriers by force and anguish is the best way to achieve this.
(Ok, then, what is? Ah, that’s a bigger question, and you’ll have to wait a little longer for my full answer… as mentioned previously, my own Cliffjump Manifesto is coming together slowly but steadily…)
All in all, and despite my personal predilection for a more positive outlook, I think these are valuable works and should be kept close and re-read from time to time, but taken with a grain or two of salt. And maybe a few drops of honey…
As always, please leave your thoughts in the comments below – and, if you’re new here, have a look around, there’s lots more good stuff in the archives…