Book Review: The War of Art

26 Nov 2018, 700 Words

I was a little skeptical of this initially — it’s a self-help book, not one that most people have heard of, and you can tell by the cover that it’s independently published.

The title is what convinced me to give it a chance. The book tackles the challenges of trying to create art. The War of Art is a fitting title, and a great pun on the famous The Art of War. With a title like that, I thought there had to be something to the book.

And there is. The War of Art breaks down the idea of the “creative block” — the resistance that we face when trying to create art — and instructs on how to overcome it. Art, here, means practically anything — art, music, business, bodybuilding, writing, whatever it is that you’re trying to do. Along the way it touches on the creative process, professionals vs amateurs, and some Greek mythology.

If you’re someone who’s ever tried to “pursue a calling in the arts, launch an innovative enterprise, or evolve to a higher station morally, ethically, or spiritually”, then you’ll know what the Resistance feels like. It’s “the voice that tells you anything to keep you from doing your work”.

If you’ve faced this, then I’d recommend just reading the book. It’s really short — probably 1 hour cover to cover — and is $5 on Kindle.

Here are my 3 main takeaways. I think the first is somewhat unique to the book (as far as it’s possible for life advice to be unique). The other two are par for the life advice course, but didn’t hurt me to revisit.

You’re not alone

The most important takeaway for me, by far, is that we’re not alone. Human endeavour is a well-trodden path, and everyone faces the Resistance. The book talks through many of it’s manifestations — as procrastination, as rationalisations, as life drama, as victimhood, and so on. Reading the author’s descriptions of these is jarring — they’re so on point that you’ll have no choice but to accept that the Resistance is universal.

I found this really reassuring and I’m hoping it means that tomorrow morning I’ll be able to overcome the Resistance more easily. I imagine it’s similar to childbirth — painful, for sure, but made a bit easier by the knowledge that people have been doing it forever.

Do the work

Show up every day and do the work. Two quotes from the book:

I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.

- William Faulkner

When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us… we become like a magnetised rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.

Process over outcome

Be patient. Don’t focus on external validation or outcomes. Rely on self-validation from showing up every day and doing the work.

The book’s style is pretty eccentric. It’s a a motivational speech and religious text in one, with dramatic assertions (“Resistance aims to kill.”), pithy soundbites (“The highest treason a crab can commit is to make a leap for the rim of the bucket.”), and invocations of Greek mythology. I actually liked this a lot more than the dry, scientific approach that a lot of non-fiction goes for.

When it comes to self-help, a simple idea wrapped in an emotionally engaging metaphor goes a long way for me, and that’s exactly what The War of Art presents. It gives a name — the Resistance — to something otherwise intangible, and frames the problem as a battle of good versus evil. Unlike a rigorous structured argument, this metaphor is an image we can easily conjure up and use to guide our actions.

Some people might not like this approach. In the past I would have probably taken issue with it, and I may well in the future. But for now, I don’t think it matters whether the book’s message accurately represents how our minds work — I’d rather have the wrong mental model that leads to results than the right one that keeps me pressing the snooze button every morning.

thanks for reading!