The War of Art: An Interview with Steven Pressfield

We are delighted to post an extract from Lateral Action’s interview with best-selling novelist and Hollywood screenwriter Steven Pressfield.

Steve is known for the combination of meticulous research and gripping narrative in his historical novels, several of which focus on ancient military campaigns such as the Battle of Thermopylae (Gates of Fire) and the exploits of Alexander the Great (The Virtues of War and The Afghan Campaign). In his latest book, Killing Rommel, he turns his attention to World War II, narrating the story of an audacious mission against Hitler’s Afrika Korps.

Steve’s military novels are so highly regarded that they are on the curriculum at the US Military Academy at West Point and the US Marine Corps Basic School. They have also achieved cult status among US troops currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

His book on the creative process, The War of Art, has achieved similar status among writers, artists and many others struggling to make the most of their creative talent, in the face of overwhelming odds. And he continues to dispense practical wisdom for creatives of all shades on his website Fans of The War of Art should check out the Writing Wednesdays and Creative Process sections of the site; and if you’ve ever wondered whether Seth Godin was exaggerating the whole ‘tribes’ thing, check out Steve’s video blog “It’s the Tribes, Stupid”.

Two years ago when we were planning the launch of Lateral Action, Brian, Tony and I agreed that The War of Art – with its emphasis on tackling difficult, complex, creative challenges – was a touchstone for what we wanted to achieve with our site. So I jumped at the chance to put some questions to Steve about creativity and the opportunities and challenges confronting creative people in the 21st century.

1. Your classic book on creative work is called The War of Art – yet it’s addressed not just to artists but also to entrepreneurs, athletes, those on a spiritual quest and even dieters. Does that mean you see the potential for ‘art’ in all of these activities?

I wouldn’t say “art” as much as “virtue,” in the ancient Greek sense of “andreia” – manly action – or “arete,” excellence. In my experience, Resistance kicks in any time we try to move ourselves from a lower plane to a higher. In other words, when we try to align with the better parts of our nature. This move can be creative (art) or physical (athletics) or it can be ethical, moral or spiritual. Have you ever tried to meditate? I have and it kicks my butt every time. Spiritual stuff is hard! But so is making “cold calls” if you’re opening a new business. Somehow the principle is the same. We’re trying to overcome our natural laziness, selfishness, sloppiness, etc. So I wouldn’t say “art,” I’d say “virtue.”

2. What is Resistance and how can we recognise it?

Of course the entire first third of The War of Art goes into this in great detail, but here’s one nugget that may say it all. Have you heard the story of Collette, the great French fiction writer, and how she got started? Her lover/mentor recognized her writing talent when she was a young courtesan, but he also saw that she was so undisciplined that she would never write a word on her own. So he locked her in a room every day and wouldn’t let her out (or even give her lunch) until she had produced three pages. Voila! The great Collette was born.

The force that kept Collette from writing unless she was compelled to … that’s Resistance.

3. If you had to pick one action or attitude of mind as the key to overcoming Resistance, what would it be?

In The War of Art, I talk about “turning pro.” That metaphor might not work for everyone, but it works for me. Turning pro is a state of mind; it’s a mental shift from the weekend-warrior attitude of an amateur to the hard-core self-discipline of a professional.

My friend Cathy took up golf at thirty-three. She was absolutely terrible. But she loved the game. One day she said to me, “Steve, I have just turned pro. I mean my attitude toward the game. I may still suck, but every time I go out there, I’m going to dress like a pro, think like a pro, practice like a pro and play like a pro. I will not let myself get away with any excuses or give anything but all I’ve got. I’m a freakin’ pro, baby!”

Within a year, she was a five-handicapper.

4. You’ve been writing for several decades now – do you find that the momentum of such a sustained discipline makes it easier to overcome Resistance, or is it still a daily battle?

It never gets any easier, Mark. At least that’s my experience. That pool is just as freezing every morning and it’s just as hard to get naked and dive in. The only thing that years of work have helped me with is at least I know that I can do it, because I’ve done it before. But for me at least, it never gets easier. You still have to slay the dragon every morning.

5. You’ve embraced the digital age by writing a terrific blog alongside your books, and using video as well as the written word. And in a recent blog post, you floated the idea of writing The War of Art 2.0 for the iPad, incorporating video and links in the text. What opportunities and pitfalls do you see for writers and artists in the digital publishing revolution?

I wish I knew. One insidious influence that I’ve already fallen prey to (and am just now digging myself out of) is that you can get sucked into the world of blogging, branding yourself, “creating a platform,” etc. and find yourself not doing your real work, or doing it at a less-than-all-out level. The world of new media demands that we as artists, writers and entrepreneurs get involved – since the traditional support that we once got from publishers and others is now gone – but getting involved can be a form of Resistance. It can be like doing research. You start studying your subject and the next thing you know, you’ve forgotten to write about it!

6. Do you encounter Resistance in the distractions of the web and social media? If so, how do you deal with it?

Yes! That’s exactly what I meant in the answer above. I’m still struggling with it. One trick I use is to time it. I tell myself, “Okay, we can do this stuff for one hour … then we gotta get to work.” It helps.

7. Thanks to Seth Godin, the word ‘tribes’ is tossed around lightly in social media circles. In your video blog “It’s the Tribes, Stupid”, you delve into the nature of tribalism in modern-day Afghanistan and compare the modern conflict with Alexander the Great’s Afghan campaign. What has this taught you about the real nature of tribalism? How easily does this sit with the ‘tribalism’ espoused by social media enthusiasts?

Mark, that’s a great question – and I really appreciate the depth of reading you’ve done to formulate these queries. Now … whether I can give you a good answer, I don’t know.

One thing: tribes are for real. They’re real in Afghanistan and they’re real on the web. The human psyche is tribal, I believe. It would have to be, because throughout millions of years of evolution the human race has organized itself into tribes and clans. So we’re hard-wired that way. But as artists and entrepreneurs, we have to be anti-tribal. We have to overcome this hard-wiring. What do I mean? I mean that tribes imposed discipline on individuals from the outside. They used social carrots and sticks to make their members behave, act virtuously.

But we, as artists and entrepreneurs, are individuals. Our discipline has to come from within. It has to be self-discipline, self-motivation – and self-validation. In other words, we have to be a Tribe Of One. We have to kick our own ass and make our own selves work hard … and we have to praise and reward our own selves when we do.

I’m not sure that answers the question, but it’s my story and I’m sticking with it!

8. Any final words of advice for Lateral Action readers who are striving to create something remarkable?

The most important mental breakthrough in my career was simply the recognition that there is such a thing as Resistance. Once I realized that those lazy, whiny, insidious voices in my head were not “me,” but Resistance masquerading as “me” … I could dismiss them and overcome them. I could turn pro.

The other axiom I would put forward is that this shit is HARD. That’s all there is to it. There’s no royal road, no short cut, no way we can trick, cajole, pay or sleep with anyone else to get them to do our work for us. As Stevie Nicks once said, “It all comes down to you.” The only way to do it is to do it.

Personally, I find that realization liberating. Because the flip side is: Nobody can stop us. The power is in our hands. It all comes down to you.


Steven Pressfield is a novelist, screenwriter and author of The War of Art. To learn more about his work and the creative process, visit follow him on Twitter @spressfield.

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet, creative coach and co-founder of Lateral Action.

Photo of Steven Pressfield by Nancy Roberts.


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