In retrospect, I should have known from the foreword that this was the wrong book for me: Robert McKee talks about art like it’s a war that Pressfield will help me to win; and while I think art is a struggle, I really don’t think it’s a war; indeed, as I am a pacifist, couching things in warrior’s terms is just going to push me away. He also references golf as evidence that Pressfield is a consummate professional (Pressfield wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance, which I have neither read nor seen; I guess it’s about golf? I guess Pressfield likes the game? But he writes anyway instead of playing, which – I guess is impressive?), and there’s the second best way to alienate me. He talks about tearing up over the Spartans’ death at Thermopylae, which was the subject of Pressfield’s other big book, Gates of Fire, which I did read, and did like quite a lot – but it didn’t make me weepy, and I don’t know what it has to do with inspiration to make art. So I’m really having trouble relating to this foreword author – and then he ends his intro with this:
“When inspiration touches talent, she gives birth to truth and beauty. And when Steven Pressfield was writing The War of Art, she had her hands all over him.”
Creepy sexual metaphors, especially about things that are not remotely sexual – like the act of putting words on a page – that is the number one way to make me say “Nope.” So I should have known.
Let me say this, though: this is a book intended to inspire artists, to help people break through creative blocks and create art they can be proud of. I can’t think of many more noble things to try to do, and I appreciate Pressfield’s earnest and genuine attempt to give people tools to do what they should be doing. So: if you do appreciate sports metaphors, and war metaphors, and you like a good, strong pep talk – or as the cover blurb calls it “A vital gem… a kick in the ass,” (which also should have been a warning sign for me) – then please ignore this review, and go get this book. I hope it helps.
It didn’t help me.
There are moments when I agree with Pressfield. He talks about questioning his writing, and feeling hopeless, and the strength and stamina it requires to push through all that and just keep working. He calls it work, and talks about how important it is to just keep putting in the hours, to keep trying, to keep seeking to hone your craft and do the best you can – but first and foremost, to just put the goddamn letters on the goddamn page, and to never give up. And I agree with that entirely. He talks about how he was in his 40’s before he found success, and how it came from an entirely unlikely source, which was, logical or not, simply the book he had to write at the time; and as a 44-year-old writer who is working on his second novel about a time-traveling Irish pirate, I appreciate everything about that.
But then there are the places where he talks about being a Marine, and how other servicemen in other branches are weaker than Marines because Marines love being miserable (This is a metaphor for how artists should be: willing to suffer and be miserable. I kind of see that. This whole Marines-have-bigger-dicks-than-other-soldiers? Nah.) and the other services are soft. Where he talks about writing and art like it is a war to be fought and won; or an animal to be hunted and then eaten; or a football game where you have to “leave everything on the field.” And I hate all of that. He talks about the urges and habits that get in the way of art as Resistance, and that’s pretty good, but he also talks about how like not cleaning your room is a way to lose to Resistance, and – what? And how golf is an art, and Tiger Woods is the greatest artist of all because he can be interrupted mid-swing, stop his swing, and then refocus and hit a golf ball really hard and – I fail to see the art in that. And he says that mental illness, depression and anxiety, are not real, but only a failure to combat resistance, which can be overcome by determination and the earnest pursuit of one’s true calling, and hey, fuck you, Pressfield.
He’s got a strange (And contradictory) section where he tries to talk about thinking territorially instead of hierarchically, and basically he means you should do what you think is right rather than worry about what other people think is right, and okay, sure – but first, he says elsewhere in the book that he knows he’s written well when his family is pleased and proud of him, which is hierarchical thinking by his own definition and explanation, so either he’s a REALLY bad editor who missed that continuity break, or he’s full of crap in one of these places; and second, his example of someone thinking territorially is Arnold Schwarzenegger going to the gym. Which is both weird and not at all artistically inspiring. It gets really weird in the third section, where the devout Christian Pressfield (Though he also admires the ancient Greeks so damn much that he seems to kinda want to worship Zeus and Apollo. I can’t really disagree with that, though I wouldn’t pick the same gods.) talks about angels who help inspire artists to work, because God wants us to create beautiful things for Him to admire, and how everything an artist is comes from God and we should understand that we contribute nothing, that we are only the vessel through which the divine will is worked. I mean, when we’re not being hardcore fucking Marines. Or hitting 310 yards off the tee. Otherwise, though, we should be all humble before God. It is not quite this Christian – he really does admire and know a lot about the Greeks – but it does read that way, as a repudiation of human accomplishment and a glorification of the eternal Whatever. And as an atheist and a part-time humanist, I am not at all down with that.
This thing reads exactly like what it is: a privileged Baby Boomer looking down on everyone else who doesn’t have all of his privileges; and by the way, he says some interesting and intelligent things that show me he really is an artist like me. Just way more of a shmuck. Hoo rah.