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The War of Art

As I mentioned before, I finished Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles.  I would suggest it for anyone, not just artists or craftsmen.  The book is chockfull of wisdom, the kind you return to repeatedly to gain new insight.

Today, I want to share several passages that meant something to me.  I do this because I know if you like these, you’ll like the book…and I’m always looking for things for you to read, right?

Pressfield’s main thrust is that there’s this thing called Resistance.  It’s THE thing that prevents you from doing what you should be doing.  For a writer, this is writing.  For an athlete, it will be doing the workouts.  You can continue this extrapolation for any endeavor.

Are you fearful?

Are you paralyzed with fear?  That’s a good sign.

Fear is good.  Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator.  Fear tells us what we have to do.

Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance.  Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.  That’s why we feel so much Resistance.  If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.

Have you ever watched Inside the Actor’s Studio? The host, James Lipton, invariably asks his guests, “What factors make you decide to take a particular role?”  The actor always answers: “Because I’m afraid of it.”

The professional tackles the project that will make him stretch.  He takes on the assignment that will bear him into uncharted waters, compel him to explore unconscious parts of himself.

Is he scared?  Hell, yes.  He’s petrified.

(Conversely, the professional turns down roles that he’s done before.  He’s not afraid of them anymore.  Why waste his time?)

So if you’re paralyzed with fear, it’s a good sign.  It shows you what you have to do.

If you’re a writer, are you really alone while you’re writing that bestseller?

Friends sometimes ask, “Don’t you get lonely sitting by yourself all day?”  At first it seemed odd to hear myself answer No.  Then I realized that I was not alone; I was in the book; I was with the characters.  I was with my Self.

Not only do I not feel alone with my characters; they are more vivid and interesting to me than the people in my real life.  If you think about it, the case can’t be otherwise.  In order for a book (or any project or enterprise) to hold our attention for the length of time it takes to unfold itself, it has to plug into some internal perplexity or passion that is of paramount importance to us.  That problem becomes the theme of our work, even if we can’t at the start understand or articulate it.  As the characters arise, each embodies infallibly an aspect of that dilemma, that perplexity.  These characters might not be interesting to anyone else but they’re absolutely fascinating to us.  They are us.  Meaner, smarter, sexier version of ourselves.  It’s fun to be with them because they’re wrestling with the same issue that has its hooks into us.  They’re our soul mates, our lovers, our best friends.  Even the villains.  Especially the villains.

Even in a book like this, which has no characters, I don’t feel alone because I’m imagining the reader, whom I conjure as an aspiring artist much like my own younger, less grizzled self, to whom I hope to impart a little starch and inspiration and prime, a little, with some hard-knocks wisdom and a few tricks of the trade.

Stop talking and get to work.

A pro views her work as craft, not art.  Not because she believes art is devoid of a mystical dimension. On the contrary.  She understands that all creative endeavor is holy, but she doesn’t dwell on it.  She knows if she thinks about that too much, it will paralyze her.  So she concentrates on technique. The professional masters how, and leaves what and why to the gods.  Like Somerset Maugham she doesn’t wait for inspiration, she acts in the anticipation of its apparition.  The professional is acutely aware of the intangibles that go into inspiration.  Out of respect for them, she lets them work.  She grants them their sphere while she concentrates on hers.

The sign of the amateur is overglorification of and preoccupation with the mystery.

The professional shuts up.  She doesn’t talk about it.  She does her work.

You are never above learning technique.  No one ever reaches the point of knowing everything.

The professional respects his craft.  He does not consider himself superior to it.  He recognizes the contributions of those who have gone before him.  He apprentices himself to them.

The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come.  The professional is sly.  He knows that by toiling beside the front door of technique, he leaves room for genius to enter by the back.

Stay true to yourself.

I learned this from Robert McKee.  A hack, he says, is a writer who second-guesses his audience.  When the hack sits down to work, he doesn’t ask himself what’s in his own heart.  He asks what the market is looking for.

The hack condescends to his audience.  He thinks he’s superior to them.  The truth is, he’s scared to death of them or, more accurately, scared of being authentic in front of them, scared of writing what he really feels or believes, what he himself thinks is interesting.  He’s afraid it won’t sell.  So he tries to anticipate what the market (a telling word) wants, then gives it to them.

In other words, the hack writes hierarchically.  He writes what he imagines will play well in the eyes of others.  He does not ask himself, What do I myself want to write?  What do I think is important?  Instead he asks, What’s hot, what can I make a deal for?

The hack is like the politician who consults the polls before he takes a position.  He’s a demagogue.  He panders.

It can pay off, being a hack.  Given the depraved state of American culture, a slick dude can make millions being a hack.  But even if you succeed, you lose, because you’ve sold out your Muse, and your Muse is you, the best part of yourself, where your finest and only true work comes from.

I was starving as a screenwriter when the idea for The Legend of Bagger Vance came to me.  It came as a book, not a movie.  I met with my agent to give him the bad news.  We both knew that first novels take forever and sell for nothing.  Worse, a novel about golf, even if we could find a publisher, is a straight shot to the remainder bin.

But the Muse had me.  I had to do it.  To my amazement, the book succeeded critically and commercially better than anything I’d ever done, and others since have been lucky too.  Why?  My best guess is this: I trusted what I wanted, not what I thought would work.  I did what I myself thought was interesting, and left its reception to the gods.

The artist can’t do his work hierarchically.  He has to work territorially.

And this goes along, a little, with the podcast from this past Monday, “What Is Your Wound?” You need to speak from your wound…or as Pressfield puts it, territory.  It’s your passion or your expertise.  Use it.

There’s a three-legged coyote who lives up the hill from me.  All the garbage cans in the neighborhood belong to him.  It’s his territory.  Every now and then some four-legged intruder tries to take over.  They can’t do it.  On his home turf, even a peg-leg critter is invincible.

We humans have territories too.  Ours are psychological.  Stevie Wonder’s territory is the piano.  Arnold Schwarzenegger’s is the gym.  When Bill Gates pulls into the parking lot at Microsoft, he’s on his territory.  When I sit down to write, I’m on mine.

What are the qualities of a territory?

1)    A territory provides sustenance. Runners know what a territory is.  So do rock climbers and kayakers and yogis.  Artists and entrepreneurs know what a territory is.  The swimmer who towels off after finishing her laps feels a helluva lot better then the tired, cranky person who dove into the pool thirty minutes earlier.

2)    A territory sustains us without any external input.  A territory is a closed feedback loop.  Our role is to put in effort and love; the territory absorbs this and gives it back to us in the form of well-being.

When experts tell us that exercise (or any other effort-requiring activity) banishes depression, this is what they mean.

3)    A territory can only be claimed alone.  You can team with a partner, you can work out with a friend, but you only need yourself to soak up your territory’s juices.

4)    A territory can only be claimed by work. When Arnold Schwarzenegger hits the gym, he’s on his own turf.  But what made it his own are the hours and years of sweat he put in to claim it.  A territory doesn’t give, it gives back.

5)    A territory returns exactly what you put in. Territories are fair.  Every erg of energy you put in goes infallibly into your account.  A territory never devalues.  A territory never crashes.  What you deposited, you get back, dollar-for-dollar.

What’s your territory?

And lastly, lest you think that you’re nobody, listen to this.

Are you a born writer?  Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace?  In the end the question can only be answered by action.

Do it or don’t do it.

It may help to think of it this way.  If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself.  You hurt your children.  You hurt me.  You hurt the planet.

You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.

Creative work is not a selfish act or 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.

Energized yet?  Go.  Do what you were meant to do.  If you don’t know what that is, find it.  Now.  You must know in your heart what it is.  If you’re afraid, it’s a good sign.

We’re all waiting for you to give us what you’ve got.

[Post image: Love Graffiti by mikhas on stock.xchng]

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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