Review: The War of Art

The War of Art – Steven Pressfield

“A Review and Personal, Benevolent Diatribe”

I must admit up front I have not read The Legend of Bagger Vance, Pressfield’s most famous work. I haven’t even watched the movie. If life gets to the point of actually letting us have copious amounts of leisure time (as we hope it will in three-to-five years) then I will read it.

Regardless, I was told to read The War of Art by Ben, my life-long friend. So I bought the book and read it. It was a book about writing books by a guy who wrote books that I had never read. Unfamiliarity-to-no-end was the state of things and that point, but it became a tome I’ve delighted in ever since.

Once I started reading the book I couldn’t not read it. The first few sentences sucked me in with no hope of escape. It is written for any soul that wishes to become a “professional” artist (it doesn’t have to be about writing in particular). Yet I was dumbfounded that a true professional was spilling all the beans. Additionally there was nothing magical about the process; anyone bit by the bug could move forward (note I did not say “succeed”) if she/he was committed.

In his revealing autobiographical history, Pressfield volunteers that he struggled for almost 20 years: from his initial floundering as an artist until his first commercial (i.e. professional) success. His tale of woe instantly gave me hope. We had both lived in a van!

Again, there is no hocus-pocus. He made a choice. He followed through. He didn’t give up when things were hard. Ever. He just kept going. Then one day things actually worked out. Merely “one day” after nearly 20 years of thankless, grueling labor!

It is said it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become accomplished at something. Pressfield did that and now he is tested professional. I hope someday I can be half as effective in my writing as he is.

I’m a guitar player. Not a very good one, but I love it and would like to play more. As I read The War of Art the legends of Eddie Van Halen reverberated through my head. He is one of the few popular musicians that can be arguably described as a virtuoso. I know on the Balance tour (1995-1996) in an interview was published somewhere where he dismissed his ability saying “Technically, I suck.”

[Aside: I believe this was in an interview with the small-town-infamous “musicphile” Michael Deeds in the Idaho Statesman, but I can find no record of it directly. Just a re-published article of a re-hashed statement from Deeds recorded here more than ten years after the fact. The memory is vivid for me because I was a stage hand for the Balance tour in the Boise stop; a formative job for a budding guitar player and a long-time Van Halen fan.]

The stories go: in the early days Alex would head out to party in the evenings. As he left, Eddie would be sitting on his bed playing his guitar. When Alex got home very late/early A.M. after a night of carousing, Eddie would still be on his bed playing his guitar (though solitude does not necessarily imply sobriety).

Eddie Van Halen is not a virtuoso by birthright. He fucking put in his time in. That made him what he was. He stayed focused. The fact that he has uttered  self-deprecating remarks shows that he doesn’t think there’s anything special in his abilities. Inherent talent in his abilities is arguable. What he dismissed offhand, though, is this idea of truly special “talent.” I know have none. Perhaps Eddie thinks he has none.

I have taught probably six or seven kids to play the guitar. Some have talent, some don’t. That never has anything to do with the direction their lives take. Some untalented kids stick with music (I put myself in this camp) and some talented kids give music up. The virtuosos are usually those with talent that continue pursue their dream. As far as I can see they are not coddled and they are not handed golden tickets. They do have a knack and they do pursue their art, usually in the face of competitive life circumstances.

Still some geniuses die unknown and some no-talent ass clowns become multi-millionaires by sheer luck (or, more specifically, by being what Pressfield gratifyingly elucidates through his terminology of a hack).

Therefore, whether you do or whether you don’t have talent is irrelevant in a sense. At the end of the day the question is not whether you have prodigious talent, but do you have tenacity? Do you have dedication? Are you willing to go “all in” and put your heart and soul, and your livelihood – your very survival – on the line? Can you keep paying your dues and moving forward no matter how unfair things seem to be?

Most people – if they answer honestly – will answer “no.” Those are the amateurs: that is those who pursue art for love, not money. PLEASE hear me: that is a sensible place to be. Amateurs should not be impugned and the word “amateur” should never be taken as disparaging. It’s simply one approach to art; a part-time approach. But part time in no way detracts from it being art.

It is unfortunately easy for an amateur to wag finger at a professional because the professional does do it for money. But a professional can fail miserably at the financial side. Ever heard of William Blake? Oscar Wilde certainly wasn’t popular with some desirable, influential folks. Why does the professional do it at all? If you read The War of Art you will know why.

The “professional” loves the art more than the amateur. The professional puts everything on the line, including livelihood. This is why the professional works for money: some money is required to survive.

The hack is a “professional” who chases dollars in an artistic pursuit (think 90% of popular music, movies, television, even novels).  The true professional refines their art in the crucible of honesty and presents it to the world merely hoping to earn enough money to eat. But the art comes first. Better to die in the pursuit of the craft than to become a corporate/cultural shill for a meal ticket. As Macklemore put it so adroitly in Jimmy Iovine:

“I’d rather be a starving artist than succeed at getting fucked.”

Everything that is Ambling Full Tilt/Favorite Day Living exists for one and only one reason: we want to write.

You can’t make a living writing, they say.

“Okay, fine!” we say.

We don’t need to. We’ll learn how to manage finances adeptly, we’ll find a way to buy our land, we’ll learn how to build so we can put a roof over our heads. We’ll learn how to grow 90% of our food, including all the food our animals need. We’ll learn how to preserve our food for the lows in the growing season. We’ll learn how to build off-grid living so that we don’t need on-grid electricity or municipal water supplies and, most importantly, waste disposal systems. We’ll do it ALL ourselves. You know why?

Because, even it if takes us five years to get to that point of self-sufficiency, we want to write.

And we don’t want jobs getting in the way of it. I have at least 10 years of writing projects I want to do. The hardest upward battle in my life to date was college. Four years of intense torture.

[Aside: I hear people speak of college as if it was fun, but I have no idea where they went or what they studied. My experience was brutal. At its worst it was 100-120 (real-time) hour weeks for semesters in a row. But I succeeded.]

This homestead effort might take longer than that to get into “maintenance mode” and we must also find a way to support ourselves monetarily. But by our homesteading efforts we are directly minimizing the monetary requirements of what we consider “The Good Life.”

It took 20 years for Pressfield to hit his stride. I pray to the muses we can be as diligent as he is. And if it takes us five years, fine. Ten years will be very, very hard unless we win the lottery or something.

Regardless, everything we are about is in the pursuit of writing. As I reflect on my own ability, Eddie Van Halen’s words echo in my mind: “Technically, I suck.”

I’m committed. I want to write. My projects are lined up. I just need a home, shelter, food and water. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs strikes again; first things first.

There’s no prescription. But if the arts call you, read Pressfield’s sage words in The War of Art. Take courage. A silly-sounding platitude keeps haunting me: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Try it. Go for it. I know I linked somewhere in a previous post Jim Carrey’s commencement speech for MMU in 2014. It’s brilliant, inspiring and less than 30 minutes long. I can’t recommend it enough! In it he said, reflecting on his father’s example:

You can always fail at what you don’t want [to do], so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.

The other side of that coin is, as Coelho wisely points out in the introduction to The Alchemist, that if you fail at something you love then you are robbed of the excuse “Well I didn’t care about that anyway.”

So what will it be? Can you be satisfied with failing at the project that is the love of your life? I quoted Sunryu Suzuki-roshi‘s (of the famed SFZC) words in another post and they are words to live by in my esteem:

“What is more important… success or finding meaning in your your pursuit of being successful?”

Or, more pointedly, is defeat too much to bear? If it is then you will have to settle for a life of mediocrity.

However, if you do commit and the world still says “no” at least you can die knowing you gave it your best. Not everyone can say that. In all probability it’s likely that very few can say that.

Here’s to being one of the few; even if all of our artistic efforts never earn a dime.

You can’t eat a dime. But I will learn to grow a tomato.

Then I’ll write a book.

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