The War of Art

By

First off, I’ve never had a book change my life so radically as this one. I read it on a flight to Calgary a month ago, and as I devoured Steven Pressfield’s chapters on Resistance, I found myself looking into a mirror of my own procrastination and excuses why I didn’t write songs more often, work on more new banjo tunes, hone my talents more diligently.

Don’t get me wrong – I practice. Especially on the road. My bandmates and crew would attest to the considerable flow of banjo and guitar notes from my dressing room. The road is an entirely different world, and I do decently there in discipline. But many days at home I’d float through without a plan, and sometimes days would flood by, eaten up by all the etceteras of life, in the same way that serious amounts of money can slip through our hands unconsciously with a daily Starbucks or diet Coke or fast food habit.

As I read Pressfield’s book, I saw that my earlier days of constant practicing were more from drivenness, fear, and an all-consuming passion than from actual discipline. People used to tell me I was so disciplined to practice so much. But as the years went by, I developed other passions. Home. Family. Making food. Writing articles. Drivenness fell off me as I learned to trust Christ for my self-worth, as I rejected music as a source of Life. I began making a decent living, one of the more deadly foes of an artist’s output. And my lack of discipline, of boundaries, especially at home, began to show.

A discipline is something you do daily, whether you feel like it or not. Pressfield builds a strong case for turning pro, for fighting against our inner resistance (which is fueled by our fear), for overcoming procrastination, for making our art a daily job where we show up whether or not we feel like it. I like his quote from the writer Somerset Maugham. When asked if he wrote on a schedule or only when inspired, Maugham said, “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” Andrew Peterson gave me L’Engle’s Walking on Water in which she says essentially the same thing. The daily discipline gives a framework for inspiration to show up.

So when I returned from my Calgary trip, everything changed. My schedule changed to one I’d been talking about for months but had never implemented. Go to sleep early. Get up early, long before the kids. Devotional time. Exercise. Schedule my day. Shower. Eat. Get the kids off to school. And then my rear end hits this chair and I start playing. It stays there, with a short break or two, until noon. Lunch. And then after lunch, more playing until five o’clock. Then I’m done. And I feel great, feel I’ve used my time wisely, and then can wash my hands of the whole thing and hang out with the family.

Now, I’ve not stuck to this every day. I’m at about 80 percent, probably, what with all the irregularity of recording this-and-that, a show here-and-there, etcetera. I have to switch my schedule when I go out and play; I can’t be fainting with weariness at nine in the evening. But I have to say that even during the lesser days, I get so much more done than I have in years.

A couple of caveats for those who are offended by certain things. Pressfield is a secular writer; he wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance and several other big novels. This is definitely not a book written from a Christian perspective. Scattered F dash-dash-dash words and some slippery theology come up in places. To those who are offended by such things, or easily led astray through not having a strong Biblical foundation – by all means avoid reading it. But I took the whole thing, dropped what was wrong or irrelevant, and extracted the truth from it. And it works. The War of Art made me repent of wasting my time on trivialities while letting my God-given mission in life mosey along in the slow lane. It made me realize that inspiration shows up when I’m diligent to do my work. “I learned that he that would be a hero will barely be a man; that he that will be nothing but a doer of his work is sure of his manhood.” George MacDonald, Phantastes

Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he's not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin' on audiences around the world, he's taking care of his donkey named "Trash" and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.


12 Comments

  1. Aaron Roughton

    Ron, do you think the book would have applications for someone with a dayjob who only gets to pursue their art in their very limited free time? Or will it just frustrate me…er…that person?

  2. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Aaron,

    The book would be powerful for anyone who is interested in pursuing anything at any level. One of the main points of the book is to get the reader to look at his art as a job. When we’re at our job we’re on top of it. We can’t be idly browsing the internet or ebaying or constantly taking breaks – otherwise we’d get fired. Pressfield has convinced me of the need for daily discipline in my art – music. That means daily practicing, working, and in that I’m finding deeper enjoyment – the more we learn, and learn deeply, the more enjoyment and inspiration can flourish.

    This works at any level. If you have an hour or two a day to work on your art or craft, whatever it may be, make it focused, make it count, have a purpose or end in mind of what you want to accomplish. With guitar, that means not just sitting and watching tv while noodling – it means learning a solo from a recording, or focused improvising on a particular scale, etc. It means to shut off all outside input – tv, internet, email – and do the thing wholeheartedly. By engaging in this focused way we grow a lot faster. Tiger Woods is used as an example in War of Art. He doesn’t just bang out a bucket of balls. It is focused, determined, purposeful practice that has made him what he is.

    So whatever the amount of time available, we can make it count. If I increase my speed on one guitar lick in a day, and do that over the course of two weeks, I’m a lot better player at the end of those two weeks than if I’d just noodled around in my comfort zone for a fortnight. For anyone with any desire or aspiration to do anything – this is a great book to start the engine.

  3. Aaron Roughton

    Aaron is no longer able to receive internet communications here at his former place of employment thanks to his constant interruptions to actual engineering work for frivolous activities. However, I assure you that your well intentioned comments, will be forwarded to him at the Salvation Army where he and his family will now be living.

    Sincerely,
    Human Resources

  4. Chris Slaten

    Oh no Aaron! Say it ain’t so!

    I’ve been meaning to read this book for years. When I worked on the entertainment committee at my college we would take all kinds of artists (comedians, lecturers, musicians, magicians, etc…) out to dinner after their show. I would always ask about what books have inspired their work and discipline and many of them recommended The War of Art. Thanks for bringing it up Ron. I will definitely plan on reading it in 2008.
    I currently fall into the same category as Aaron in that my art has become something that I have to fit into what little free time I have. I hope to continue to learn how to maximize that time.

  5. whipple

    Jack of all trades, master of none.

    This rings true in my life. I have been writing songs, playing instruments, writing poetry, writing prose, taking photographs, cooking, gardening, doing too many things to count. And all this outside an established, bill-paying job.

    Dabbling is something in which I’m prone to dabble. For some reason, I don’t think this is conducive to the focused mastery or scholarship of a particular art. I can’t seem to lay one down though.

    I know some of you guys have multiple endeavors going. Several of you are instrumentalists and lyricists (two different disciplines in my mind). What are your thoughts on this?

  6. John Michalak

    Thanks, Ron. This may be an answer to a prayer. I’m about to graduate and my goal is to hopefully develop a career creating such art. But, I’m on the opposite end that you are. I’m driven, but driven to procrastinate, driven to do nothing, etc. As I have in school, I work hard when I have a deadline or a grade at stake, or when I’ve worked in the real world, when I have a boss down the hall, but I’m scared to death about disciplining myself to produce something in a vacuum that may or may not be heard, published, etc. So, it’s an understatement that I look forward to reading this book. Thanks, again.

  7. Stacy Grubb

    Ron,

    Thank you so much for this book recommendation. Never has such a book been more relevant to me than it is right now. I’m on the cusp of a few things…basically making plans to make plans…and I’m also trying like there’s no tomorrow to learn how to play the guitar well enough to not be an earsore whilst accompanying myself (and anyone who has checked out my You Tube knows that I ain’t there, yet……). I’ve been playing since January and it seems that ever since then, my phone conversations start out like this:

    Me: Hello.
    Caller: Hey, whadderyou doin?
    Me: Just stinkin’ up the house with this guitar.
    Caller: That’s what you’re doin’ every time I call.
    Me: Yep.

    And most people give me the undue credit of being disciplined because of it. Unfortunately, I’m anything but. I require discipline to do something like lay the guitar down for once and actually wash some clothes or feed the dog. I *want* to play. When I’m not playing, I’m thinking about playing. It’s just not something that I need to discipline myself to do.

    MY problem is that I pigeonhole myself by deciding I can’t do something before I even try to do it. My friend was over the other day so we could work up a song to sing in church. Now, he was once a National Champion mandolin player and ranked 3rd in guitar pickin…and he’s a showoff. So, he gets my guitar and just goes to town telling me he wants me to learn this mess of notes he’s strung together (an original tune of his he wanted me to add lyrics to). No way, no how was I going to learn how to do whatever that was he was doing. I couldn’t even wrap my pea brain around what was going on. So, he’s going to teach me Tab so that he can write it down and I can practice it. Whatever, I can’t read Tab and he can’t teach me. My mind doesn’t process stuff like that. But minutes later…I was reading Tab. And a few minutes after that, I was doing his guitar lick (slowed down by about 100 times). I learned a valuable lesson, but those kind of lessons never stick with me and I know the next time he goes to showboating on my guitar and telling me he wants me to learn that, I’ll roll my eyes and say, “You’re an idjit! I can’t play that!”

    It would be oso wonderful if that book addressed that sort of procrastination, as well. I put off doing the “meatier” stuff because I’m just convinced that I’m not ready to give it a try. But sometimes I do try it just to humor someone else only to learn that I can kinda, sorta do it, afterall.

    Stacy

    My

  8. Joshua Keel

    Ron, I took your suggestion a couple of weeks back and read The War of Art. I’m very grateful to you for recommending it. I also saw myself for the procrastinator I am and am working to change that!

  9. John Michalak

    I just read this book today. I’ve rarely finished a book so quickly so that speaks in part to how powerful this was for me (it’s also short). Like many, I’d swear Pressfield was spying on my inner psyche for the perhaps 20 years I’ve struggled with the myriad issues he calls Resistance. I think I should probably read this book every year to remind myself of its lessons. I am deeply encouraged by it and can’t wait for Monday to get started!

    Some signs, after reading this, I plan to put on the front door of my home office:

    NO RESISTANCE ALLOWED!

    and

    WRITE WHAT YOU REALLY BELIEVE.

  10. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    John,

    I have three lists, three pages, on the wall of my studio right where I sit, which I made from The War of Art:

    Characteristics of Resistance – invisible, internal, insidious, etc.

    Professional Qualities – show up every day, show up no matter what, stay on the job all day, etc.

    Turning Pro – a pro is patient, seeks order, demystifies (focus on technique), accepts no excuses, etc.

    These lists are a strong reminder to not waste time. In fact, The War of Art has made me very aware of my time as a precious commodity that ticks away whether or not I accomplish a thing. It’s easy to let it slip through our fingers. War of Art has changed my consciousness to being very aware of time passing, has made me write and stick to a schedule nearly every day – and even if I don’t completely stick to it I’m a lot more aware of time passing and get so much more accomplished.

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