I read a lot of books on the craft of writing and making art. It started with Stephen King’s On Writing when I was 21. It had a lot of useful information and was interesting in a sort of pseudo-biographical way and over the years I’ve continued the practice of picking up these kinds of books when they come from authors I admire or recommendations from friends who are also writers.
One of the best I’ve ever read is Stephen Pressfield‘s The War of Art. It’s a beautifully written book that resonates like a tuning fork with me on every page. Most of these texts are generally practical, showering the reader with knowledge like:
1. To write, one must read.
2. To write, one must cultivate a habit of writing.
To sum up, they approach writing as a craft. What makes Pressfield’s book different is that he approaches the work as art. As a spiritual endeavor. A holy calling. He addresses the practical stuff, but frames it in a way that I always understood but never could articulate. One of my favorite passages talks about what keeps artists from doing their art.
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.
What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.
Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.
Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease and erectile dysfunction. To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius. Genius is a Latin word; the Romans used it to denote an inner spirit, holy and inviolable, which watches over us, guiding us to our calling.. A writer writes with his genius; an artist paints with hers; everyone who creates operates from this sacramental center. It is our soul’s seat, the vessel that holds our being-in-potential, our star’s beacon and Polaris.
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, 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.
Pressfield gives a face and a name to a thing that slowly kills all dreams. I believe that to know your enemy is to rob him of his power. At least in part. I plan to read The War of Art twice a year for the rest of my life. That’s the kind of impact it’s had on me. Pressfield has given me the power to fight the enemy of the artist. For that I’m eternally grateful.
Another book I recently picked up is John Scalzi’s You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing. I’m not very far into it yet, but I can already tell that Scalzi’s approach to imparting knowledge is radically different from Pressfield’s. In Star Wars terms, if Pressfield is a Jedi Knight, then Scalzi is Boba Fett. His book definitely falls into the “craftsman” category, as he approaches writing as a business, but he takes it a step further than others I’ve read in the past. He manages to convey the stark differences between a writer and, say, a novelist or a poet. A writer is a professional who fulfills a contract. His practices should be pragmatic, even mercenary, in that he should be able to give the client what they want. This may take some of the glorification and fantasy out of being a writer, but it’s not bad advice for anyone whose goal is to make a living hammering out words on a keyboard. This isn’t to say that the writer can’t also be an artist, but the reality is that if you want to write full-time, then you have to write to pay the bills. The ultimate goal may to write for the sake of the art, to only accept projects that excite and challenge that side of yourself, but you have to get there first and the road to that goal is arduous. In the short bit of the book I’ve read, Scalzi has opened my mind to ideas and my eyes to realities of writing that I hadn’t considered before. He’s funny and his tone is a bit irreverent, which are characteristics I’ve come to expect from Scalzi as a long-time reader of his blog.
Ultimately, while it may not speak to me spiritually as Pressfield’s work it definitely enriches me intellectually. The juxtaposition of these two books is interesting, and I feel both are essential reads for anyone who writes as they both offer essential tools to the trade.
You can pick these books up from Amazon from the links below.