A Second Look: The War of Art – Part 2

My copy
My copy of the War of Art

read Part 1

The last part of The War of Art that stood out on this read was Pressfield’s discussion on the Ego and the Self. Terms I’ve heard a million times but never considered. He describes the Ego as what we think of when we say “I”, the conscious, day-to-day brain. The Self is a greater entity that includes the Ego but also the unconscious, dreams, the collective.

I’m uncomfortable with this thread; I’ve never delved into any Jungian theory. But, and I’m sure this was the intention, if one considers the role of the artist is to listen and accept work from the universe, then only knowing and operating on the Ego isn’t enough. The Self is where the good stuff lives.

The following put this into sharp focus. “Dreams come from the Self. Ideas come from the Self. When we meditate, we access the Self. When we fast, when we pray, when we go on a vision quest, it’s the Self we’re seeking.” I meditate and dream, but did I know why? Is this why creators like Neil Gaiman and his endless production of new and wonderful stories, can tap new ideas so consistently? My big takeaway is to concentrate more on this idea of the Self and how to access it more regularly.

My re-read of The War of Art was incredibly useful. It reaffirmed so many of the practices I already put into place… during a period where I’ve been questioning them. I actually listened to the last part of the book and to the synergies Pressfield describes. The professional artist is open to the world and, through the consistent habits and approaches, can listen and absorb and act as a vessel… by having the requisite skills, honed by the honest feedback of others and by accessing the Self.

A Second Look: The War of Art

The Grand Tetons

The first book in the Second Look (!) series is The War or Art, by Steven Pressfield. I initially read this in late 2017, a couple of years before I actually set an intention to write. It is part of the canon recommended by people that pursued their own creative, non-standard paths, like Ferris, Holiday, Roll, etc. The War of Art is also part of the set of recommended books for new writers, alongside Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way and Stephen King’s On Writing.

I didn’t have a practice or a goal or the tens of thousands of words behind me during my first read. Many of the ideas and habits in this book made their way into my daily routine and how I approach writing. Do work every day. Treat the work seriously. Don’t worry if the work is terrible. Don’t self-edit while creating. Master technique. Finish what you start. I don’t think I gained them straight from the text; this advice went mainstream and if oft repeated. But The War of Art is the source text. And his main thesis is Resistance and its many forms; naming and describing Resistance is the core of the book.

The ideas that stood out in the second read were more subtle. The first is around feedback. Specifically (Pressfield contrasts how amateurs and professionals differ), the amateur does not expose themself to real world feedback. “Nothing is as empowering as real-world validation, even if it’s for failure.” (Pressfield, p. 71). How many times, on this website, have I bemoaned the lack of feedback and criticism for my writing? This part, or lack of part, of my writing is amateur. I need to get my writing out there and elicit more feedback, both from editors/gatekeepers (more than just “Thanks for submitting, your piece isn’t what we’re looking for right now,” etc.) and regular readers. I used to rely on Scibophile for feedback, but it was inconsistent and required so much peer review I had to abandon the platform. Posting more work here will get readers, but not the desired feedback and criticism. Reading this again served as a glorious reminder.

The War of Art has three sections, Defining Resistance, Combating Resistance, and Beyond Resistance, The Higher Realm. On my first read, I just skimmed the last part.
“The next few chapters are going to be about the invisible psychic forces that support and sustain us in our journey toward ourselves. I plan on using terms like muses and angels. Does that make you uncomfortable?” (Pressfield, 106) Yes! At least it did the first time. So I missed Pressfield’s idea that stories and characters and stories are out there, in the ether… or with the angels and muses. I’m not a spiritual or mystical person, but this grabbed me. It is reassuring and hopeful that the primary job of an artist is to open themselves to the world. Not to rely on voodoo for inspiration, but sit every day, get yourself in a consistent habit of preparing and opening up, and a professional will tap into that energy, muse, whatever. And, if they have done the work on their craft, they can take whatever they receive and turn it into art. “…it’s as though the Fifth Symphony existed already in that higher sphere, before Beethoven sat down and played dah-dah-dah-DUM. The catch was this: The work existed only as potential—without a body, so to speak. It wasn’t music yet. You couldn’t play it. You couldn’t hear it…It needed a corporeal being, a human, an artist… to bring it into being on this material plane. So the Muse whispered in Beethoven’s ear.” (Pressfield, p 117)

(part 2 coming soon)

Lost and Found

Gibson Covers

Like many homeowners, we’re renovating our kitchen, and, by extension, flooring for the main floor and re-doing our living room. New floor, paint, bookshelves, furniture, etc. As a result, we’re getting rid of four overstuffed bookcases.

We have a few areas for books in the house; the living room shelves and the shelves in my office. The office shelves are well maintained and I can rattle off what books are here and when I got them, my impression of them, etc. Because of our changing use of the house, I rarely wander past the living room shelves; they became dusty and ornamental.

I sorted through the shelves to decide which books stayed. Most stayed. I can’t bear the thought of getting rid of a book. Some were easy; I had old textbooks from college (in the 90s!), falling apart and wildly dated (Principles of Management? Gantt charts?). Also parted with some below-average novels, especially tech-focused stories from the early aughts. Now I have two boxes full of books, and nowhere to put them.

A few stood out; not just classics, but works I remember fondly and would love to read again. I placed them outside the box and they surround me as I write. So, so many excellent memories. Selected titles:

A Confederacy of Dunces: O’Toole. I first saw this book as a junior-high school student in the East Brunswick Public Library, on a display. The cover and the title enticed me to check it out. I read it, but didn’t particularly enjoy it. A few years back, some famous actors were interested in making it a movie. And they referred to it as a comedy… and I didn’t remember it being funny at all. So I bought and re-read it; hysterical. Big difference between reading it as an adult compared to a teenager. On the short list to read again.

Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition, William Gibson. When I was first starting out in technology, in 1998, the noir world of hackers and techno music and people wearing shades typing in the command line seemed very cool… cyberpunk. Neuromancer isn’t the first cyberpunk novel, but is the best. I’ve read it three or four times. Pattern Recognition is a much later work, part of the trilogy. I only sorta liked these books when I read them the first time, but they are held in such high regard, I want to try them again. They need a careful, slow read, as Gibson purposely doesn’t reveal everything you need to know early in the book; the reader needs to puzzle through early scenes. Intentionally. My father would hate them. As a writer, I want to figure out how he does it.

Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel

Highly recommend Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  I heard of the book via Tyler Cowen’s podcast Conversations with Tyler.  It’s a great read; I couldn’t put it down.    I  noticed the craftwork, with the changing perspectives, narration, time shifting and tiebacks.  Not sure if that’s an endorsement or criticism.  I hadn’t noticed it that strongly in other books I’ve read.
The plot involves an airborne disease that wipes out most of humanity and launches the world (we think) into a post-apocalyptic scenario.  Reading this in the spring of 2020 gives the story extra weight.  St. John Mandel include a lot of typical post-apocalyptic elements, but with a unique twist. Groups wander around this ravaged world and encounter danger and violence; but the travelers are a troupe of actors and musicians that perform in each town, called the Traveling Symphony.  When they find untouched houses, they look for costumes for their plays and parts for their instruments, besides cans of beans.  A great riff on the traditional post-apocalyptic story.  Everything gets tied back, and rewards the reader for learning extraneous details.  Recommended.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

David Mitchell

TLDR; Great read.  An immersive books, requiring fifty pages to settle into this world and the Dutch names.
I picked up “The Thousand Autumns..” after Hugh Howey referred to it here.  Howey’s recommendation focused on Mitchell’s use of sound and smell to set a scene.   Based in Dejima, a Dutch trading settlement outside of Nagasaki at the turn of the nineteenth century, “The Thousand Autumns” features an immersive plot, remarkable characters and brilliant descriptions.  One can imagine the streets and buildings of Dejima and the formalized Japanese settings.  The first chapters of the book require patience, between the Dutch and Japanese names and customs. This is only the second Mitchell book I’ve read.  The other was Ghostwritten, also excellent.  
Highly recommended, immersive, memorable. 

A Little Life

Hanya Yanagihara

TLDR: beautiful story, engrossing, haunting. Long read.  Frustrating characters.  Recommended for patient readers.

A Little Life is not for the faint of heart, or the causal reader looking for a quick page or two before going to bed.  Over 800 pages with long non-linear chapters make A Little Life a bit of a slog.  The hardy reader enjoys an engrossing, haunting story of friendship between 4 college friends and, especially, the remarkable Jude.  Yanagihara creates a narrative that explores the relationship between young friends through success, failure and dealing with the past.  I had a love-hate relationship with most of this book; the writing is beautiful; the characters are engrossing and I reflected on the book long after putting it down for the day.  The topics covered are not light, the narrative gets dark, and I got very frustrated with the limitations of Jude.  This is a book that demands time and reflection while reading and is recommended.  4.5/5. 

Pretty Much Everything

by Aaron James Draplin

TLDR: Fantastic coffee-table style book with excellent narration.  Recommended.

Pretty Much Everything is a coffee table book that covers the career of Aaron James Draplin, a famous artist responsible for several notable designs and for creating Field Notes (the notebook line).  Draplin provides ample narration and examples in his journey as an artist and professional.  He includes sketches from his youth, influences and a healthy dose of his punk ethos.  Besides copious examples of his finished work, Draplin explains the process behind many of his commissions.  This is the most interesting content.  The explanations and drafts show how a professional artist develops an idea.  Draplin has a distinct style that is both repetitive and unique for each campaign.  The book itself is fun and written in an easy to read, conversational manner.  4.5/5. 

Ulysses S. Grant Triumph Over Adversity 1822-1865

Brooks Simpson

TLDR; An in-depth account of Grant’s life from childhood through the end of the Civil War.  Filled with quotes from letters and newspapers which makes it a slow read.  Great content.  Recommended.

Grant has been a favorite historical figure of mine since writing a report on him in sixth grade.  I wrote he was a brilliant general, a drunk and a respected president.  At least 2 of those assertions may be false.  In Ulysses S. Grant Triumph Over Adversity 1822-1865, Brooks Simpson follows the life and career of Grant though the end of the Civil War.  We get an in-depth treatment of his life, including his tough relationship with his father, wife, press, the military, etc.  I selected this book about Grant by recommendations from the Stoic community.  I consider Grant a Stoic figure for the way he overcame obstacles (multiple failures early in his military career and business ventures) and remained calm (facing enemy fire, dealing with the pressures of the press or military officials).  Simpson does a great job in presenting Grant’s challenges and his will to overcome them.  To show the obstacles, Simpson provides ample quotes from letters, and newspaper accounts. These quotes lengthen the text considerably and, most times, belabor the point.  Simpson also examines whether Grant was actually a drunk or if the press and jealous colleagues used it active propaganda against him.  We don’t find a definitive answer but we get a great look at Grant and his remarkable career.  3.5/5. 

goodbye, things on minimalist living

Fumio Sasaki

TLDR; A quick and fun read about one man’s journey and experiences with minimalism.  Inspirational, tied to other ideas and philosophies.  Recommended.

goodbye, things starts as a journey from Sasaki’s cluttered, standard Japanese life to one of an impressive minimalist.  This isn’t a book about how to throw things out.  Sasaki deftly ties other larger ideas into the basic concepts of minimalism.  He first examines the laundry list of negatives associated with today’s consumerist (or as he calls it, maximalist) society; stress, cost, lack of focus, lack of time, unhappiness, etc.  Many of these symptoms have a direct correlation to the constant cycle of buying and owning 300,000+ items.  By eliminating these things, Sasaki contends that we don’t give up anything.  In fact, we gain time, space, happiness, cleanliness and focus.  His themes are very reminiscent of the common threads that run through two recent subjects of study, Stoicism and Essentialism.  Both Stoicism and minimalism refer to similar goals, such as being present in the moment, don’t possessions own you (nod to Tyler D), only focus on the important and that material goods can never truly be owned (they can be taken/lost/destroyed at any moment).  Essentialism and minimalism share some values, namely reducing the noise that overwhelms most people, focusing on what is important and going big on very little.  A quick read, broken into short chapters.  One of the few negatives is repetition from the direct usage of earlier material (parts of the book came from his website).  Inspirational, light with smart connections to larger themes.  4.5/5. 

Intro to Book Reviews

I’ve been an avid reader all of my life.  The velocity of my reading has ebbed and flowed with time and circumstances. I didn’t read much for pleasure in college or while concentrating on a career pivot to programming in my mid-20’s.  I talk about books a lot and am often asked for recommendations.  Here is a list of books I’ve read, in no particular order or organization.  They skew toward books I’ve read recently although this exercise has inspired me to pick up some older books to reread and review.