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The War of Art

Book notes for “The War of Art”, by Steven Pressfield

Quick review:

I did not like this book. The book is around 100 pages long (if you were to remove the blank half pages), and the useful parts take up maybe 1% of that. It begins as a pretty standard self-help book, and slowly descends into madness.

Artists have invoked the Muse since time immemorial. There is great wisdom to this. There is magic to effacing our human arrogance and humbly entreating help from a source we cannot see, hear, touch, or smell.

No, there is not. That is insanity.

I believe it. I believe there are angels. They’re here, but we can’t see them.

This is not taken out of context, as far as I can tell, this is not metaphorical.

Is it possible, Tom Laughlin asks, that the disease itself evolved as a consequence of actions taken (or not taken) in our lives? Could our unlived lives have exacted their vengeance upon us in the form of cancer? And if they did, can we cure ourselves, now, by living these lives out?

No, cancer is not caused by living an unfulfilled life.


One of the passages I liked (although it was not actually an idea of the author, tellingly):

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.

Questions raised:

Why on earth was this recommended so strongly?

Insights, lessons learnt:

Sometimes you will read bad books, this will make you cherish good books all the more.

Highlights:

If tomorrow morning by some stroke of magic every dazed and benighted soul woke up with the power to take the first step toward pursuing his or her dreams, every shrink in the directory would be out of business. Prisons would stand empty. The alcohol and tobacco industries would collapse, along with the junk food, cosmetic surgery, and infotainment businesses, not to mention pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and the medical profession from top to bottom. Domestic abuse would become extinct, as would addiction, obesity, migraine headaches, road rage, and dandruff. Read more at location 112

Look in your own heart. Unless I’m crazy, right now a still, small voice is piping up, telling you as it has ten thousand times before, the calling that is yours and yours alone. You know it. No one has to tell you. And unless I’m crazy, you’re no closer to taking action on it than you were yesterday or will be tomorrow. You think Resistance isn’t real? Resistance will bury you. Read more at location 116

Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it. Read more at location 167

Often couples or close friends, even entire families, will enter into tacit compacts whereby each individual pledges (unconsciously) to remain mired in the same slough in which she and all her cronies have become so comfortable. The highest treason a crab can commit is to make a leap for the rim of the bucket. Read more at location 200

The acquisition of a condition lends significance to one’s existence. An illness, a cross to bear. Some people go from condition to condition; they cure one, and another pops up to take its place. The condition becomes a work of art in itself, a shadow version of the real creative act the victim is avoiding by expending so much care cultivating his condition. A victim act is a form of passive aggression. It seeks to achieve gratification not by honest work or a contribution made out of one’s experience or insight or love, but by the manipulation of others through silent (and not-so-silent) threat. The victim compels others to come to his rescue or to behave as he wishes by holding them hostage to the prospect of his own further illness/meltdown/mental dissolution, or simply by threatening to make their lives so miserable that they do what he wants. Read more at location 253

Resistance also told me I shouldn’t seek to instruct, or put myself forward as a purveyor of wisdom; that this was vain, egotistical, possibly even corrupt, and that it would work harm to me in the end. That scared me. It made a lot of sense. Read more at location 273

Unalleviated, Resistance mounts to a pitch that becomes unendurable. At this point vices kick in. Dope, adultery, web surfing. Read more at location 281

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. Read more at location 385

Rationalization is Resistance’s right-hand man. Its job is to keep us from feeling the shame we would feel if we truly faced what cowards we are for not doing our work. Read more at location 429

There’s no mystery to turning pro. It’s a decision brought about by an act of will. We make up our minds to view ourselves as pros and we do it. Simple as that. Read more at location 746

Artists have invoked the Muse since time immemorial. There is great wisdom to this. There is magic to effacing our human arrogance and humbly entreating help from a source we cannot see, hear, touch, or smell. Read more at location 857

Note: Artists have invoked the Muse since time immemorial. There is great wisdom to this. There is magic to effacing our human arrogance and humbly entreating help from a source we cannot see, hear, touch, or smell.

no

I believe it. I believe there are angels. They’re here, but we can’t see them. Read more at location 886

Is it possible, Tom Laughlin asks, that the disease itself evolved as a consequence of actions taken (or not taken) in our lives? Could our unlived lives have exacted their vengeance upon us in the form of cancer? And if they did, can we cure ourselves, now, by living these lives out? Read more at location 979

We humans seem to have been wired by our evolutionary past to function most comfortably in a tribe of twenty to, say, eight hundred. We can push it maybe to a few thousand, even to five figures. But at some point it maxes out. Our brains can’t file that many faces. We thrash around, flashing our badges of status (Hey, how do you like my Lincoln Navigator?) and wondering why nobody gives a shit. We have entered Mass Society. The hierarchy is too big. It doesn’t work anymore. Read more at location 1086

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.