“It's about ten-thirty now. I sit down and plunge in. When I start making typos, I know I'm getting tired. That's four hours or so. I've hit the point of diminishing returns. I wrap for the day...How many pages have I produced? I don't care...I have overcome Resistance.”
Steven Pressfield's book The War of Art has had my head spinning the past couple of months. As someone who attempts to do creative work, this text has been full of eye-opening revelations. Pressfield has confirmed and solidified many nagging suspicions I've had, especially relating to the force (“Resistance”) that battles artistic work. He describes Resistance as an internal force that is present during any activity that “rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity.” Pressfield states that we can gauge the importance of an activity to our inner calling by the amount of Resistance we feel towards it. I'd like to share some excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful, and add a bit of my own perspective. I would highly recommend this book to anyone with creative aspirations, or those that have fallen prey to procrastination in other ventures.
“There's a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don't, and the secret is this: It's not the writing part that's hard. What's hard is sitting down to write.”
I've known this feeling for a long time, but never really identified it, or knew how to deal with it. Rather than waiting for motivation to strike, or blaming inaction on some sort of writer's block, Pressfield's approach is hard-headed and direct: get to work, even when you don't feel like it. Lately I've been doing a lot of composing for a new large ensemble. There are no deadlines, meetings, or bosses telling me when the work needs to be done, so it's easy to procrastinate. However, I've found that if I spend the first 3 hours of the day working on this project, then I am focused and productive over a period of weeks/months.
“How many of us have become drunks and drug addicts, developed tumors and neuroses, succumbed to painkillers, gossip, and compulsive cell-phone use, simply because we don't do that thing that our hearts, our inner genius, is calling us to?”
I've never thought about it like this, but I can see what he means. If you are not fulfilling your soul's purpose, you will find other things to fill the void. Luckily I haven't dealt with any harmful addiction issues, but I do fight the urge to allow certain objects have more control over my actions than I like to admit: money, television, food, YouTube. The more work I do towards my creative goals, the less stress I feel, the more content I am, and the less I feel tempted by these indulgences.
“As artists and professionals it is our obligation to enact our own internal revolution, a private insurrection inside our own skulls. In this uprising we free ourselves from the tyranny of consumer culture. We overthrow the programming of advertising, movies, video games, magazines, TV, and MTV by which we have been hypnotized from the cradle. We unplug ourselves from the grid by recognizing that we will never cure our restlessness by contributing our disposable income to the bottom line of Bullshit, Inc., but only by doing our work.”
Pressfield's method to achieving your potential is cut-and-dry: identifying your priorities, cutting everything else out, and getting to work. Luckily, he helps us sort through the cobwebs and break down the barriers that arise during this process.
“Are you paralyzed with fear? That's a good sign...The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
“Resistance feeds on fear. We experience Resistance as fear. But fear of what?...Fear That We Will Succeed...We fear discovering that we are more than we think we are. More than our parents/children/teachers think we are. We fear that we actually possess the talent that our still, small voice tells us. That we actually have the guts, the perseverance, the capacity. We fear that we truly can steer our ship, plant our flag, reach our Promised Land. We fear this because, if it's true, then we become estranged from all we know. We pass through a membrane. We become monsters and monstrous.”
Fear is designed to help keep us alive (we are scared to walk too close to the cliff or stick our hand in the tiger cage). However, if we do not attack our own creative fears head-on, we will not break through these natural mental blocks and complete our work. Composer/bandleader Maria Schneider tells an interesting quote from David Bowie: “David had such a fearless and playful attitude about music. He said 'If the plane goes down, everyone is walking away.'” Personally, I feel lucky that I would consider myself a fairly fearless musician. I've naturally always been excited by the unknown (in a musical situation) and enthralled by the chance to create something new.
“It is a commonplace among artists and children at play that they're not aware of time or solitude while they're chasing their vision. The hours fly.”
Many of us cringe at the solitude necessary to do the required work, however once we commit this “act of courage” Pressfield claims that we gain the support of our “Muse” which are the unknown forces that come to our aid when we do work that benefits the greater good.
“Rationalization...keep(s) us from feeling the shame we would feel if we truly faced what cowards we are for not doing our work.”
Here I feel as though Pressfield is speaking directly to me. Many times without even realizing it, my mind will tell itself tall tales to make itself feel better, and to avoid doing what is necessary. My brain will say things like “I sounded ok on that recording yesterday, I can take it easy for a few days” or “That arrangement isn't due for another week, I can go to the movies instead of starting it.” These seemingly harmless rationalizations ultimately spiral into more and more procrastination.
“I wake up with a gnawing sensation of dissatisfaction...I'm not thinking about the work. I've already consigned that to the Muse. What I am aware of is Resistance...I afford it the utmost respect, because I know it can defeat me on any given day as easily as the need for a drink can overcome an alcoholic.”
Acknowledging the power of Resistance gives us strength and the mindset to be prepared to face it. For myself, the later in the day that I wait to begin my work, the less likely that it will get done. I try to combat this by working out a schedule ahead of time and sticking to it. This helps me to use time as an ally, rather than allowing it to feel like an enemy.
“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.”
This could not be a more apt description of how an improvising instrumentalist (or any musician) must approach their work. A conscious, focus practice of fundamentals gives you foundation and the tools necessary to execute the abstract ideas that start flying around once the music gets going. For example, if I'm playing with a pianist or guitarist, they might play a particular chord that I find interesting, and I may want to react to it. To be able to do this I need to have done the required ear training, study of theory, and technical work to be able to process the sounds I am hearing and formulate a response.
“The professional blows critics off. He doesn't even hear them. Critics, he reminds himself, are the unwitting mouthpieces of Resistance and as such can be truly cunning and pernicious. They can articulate in their reviews the same toxic venom that Resistance itself concocts inside our heads.”
I believe that we all have our own inner artistic GPS. If I follow my own map as close as I can, I will get to my destination, and I will achieve my goal of realizing my vision. If I allow myself to be swayed by outside forces, I may get off track and compromise my true purpose.
“To labor in the arts for any reason other than love is prostitution.”
“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.”
One thing that I know has strengthened my own musicianship is the realization that if I play what moves/interests me, then it will most likely have the same effect on others. It becomes a very shallow and unfulfilling guessing game when I start to play for the audience.
“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.”