do the work behind the work

June 14th, 2012

“Every book, every volume you see, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and the soul of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens…” 

-Carlos Ruiz Zafon

(read the book free online – get a copy for your Kindle – read the Reddit AMA)

Hopefully before too long Steven Pressfield’s newest creative manifesto, Turning Pro, will be bound together and sold part and parcel with The War of Art, his original attempt to bind and deliver exactly what it takes to launch a creative endeavor.  In these two works, Pressfield encourages the prospective artist to push through the roadblocks, both real and perceived, that are keeping him from actually producing the Work that he was put here to create.  The most common form these roadblocks take is Resistance, an umbrella term for everything from classic procrastination to the self-doubt that might prevent someone from tacking their artistic calling:

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. 

Every sun casts a shadow, and genius’ shadow is Resistance. As powerful as is our soul’s call to realization, so potent are the forces of Resistance arrayed against it. Resistance is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, harder to kick than crack cocaine. We’re not alone if we’ve been mown down by Resistance; millions of good men and women have bitten the dust before us. And here’s the biggest bitch: we don’t even know what hit us. I never did. From age twenty-four to thirty-two, Resistance kicked my ass from East Coast to West and back again thirteen times and I never even knew it existed. I looked everywhere for the enemy and failed to see it right in front of my face.

To conquer Resistance we are instructed to simply “do the work,” just sit down each and every day and spend several hours at our labor of love.  In Turning Pro he expands on this process, and explicates precisely what it is that separates the pro from the amateur, laying out exactly what someone needs to do accomplish the book’s eponymous goal:

The Lunch Box on the cover of Turning Pro

The Lunch Pail Manifesto

1. We must find the work that brings our lives meaning.
2. We must strive to make our work purposeful, truthful, and authentic, a pure offering to our Muse and fellow human beings.
3. We must wage a lifelong war with Resistance and accept that instant gratification is an oxymoron.
4. We must not speak of our work with false modesty or braggadocio.
5. We must not debase our work for short term gain nor elevate it above its rightful station to inflate our ego.
6. We must not covet the fruits of our work, or the fruits of others’ work.
7. We must respect others’ work and offer aid to fellow professional laborers.
8. We must accept that our work will never be perfect.
9. We must accept that our work will never be without merit.
10. We must accept that our work will never cease.

Both of these books are essential reads for anyone looking to get into writing, or looking to produce any kind of art at all.  But that said, they miss a crucial factor.  Successfully creating Art isn’t simply a matter of sitting down each day and milling words onto a page or strokes onto a canvas.

The idea that human artists are directly inspired by Muses runs strong throughout both books, as Pressfield cribs the idea that a Muse brings inspiration to the aspiring artist directly from the Greeks.  He believes that there are forces outside of us, and outside of what we can prove exists, that guide anyone who is looking to produce art.  Writers don’t write books, writers are simple the vessels through which our Muse communicates with the world:

They know stuff we don’t. They want to help us. They’re on the other side of a pane of glass, shouting to get our attention. But we can’t hear them. We’re too distracted by our own nonsense.

Whether or not you believe in the mystical element of Pressfield’s claim, anyone who’s been “in the zone,” whether it was athletically or creatively, knows that to perform at your peak you have to turn your conscious off as much as possible and let your unconscious firmly take the wheel. Which brings us to the giant gaping hole that neither book addresses.

Creating worthwhile art isn’t simply a matter of churning out product.  In the same way that religious supplicants prepare themselves for spiritual experiences, be it Buddhist monks shaving their heads and giving away all their shit or everyday Muslims bathing before each and every prayer, prospective artists aren’t going to produce anything of value unless they do the work behind the work.

In the case of writing non-fiction or historical fiction that means doing hundreds of hours of research and annotation. Although he’s never come out with an exact number it’s impossible to imagine Gates of Fire being written without hundreds of hours of research being done first. And the same can be said for any successful work of non or historical fiction – compelling books that are based in the real world do not spring magically from our fingers, they are synthesized from hours and hours of grinding your way through once-forgotten pages.

The work before the work is a little harder to define when it comes to fiction.  But take Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, probably the single most influence novel for this generation of young American men.  Before writing it, Palahniuk spent months bouncing around between dozens of self-help groups, absorbing Desperation and Emptiness in as many different living and breathing examples as possible.  And to continue to pump out novels since then, he’s continued his wanderlust for novel human experience – many of them are documented in Stranger Than Fiction, a compilation of articles written about his journeys.

There are countless examples of one-off hits in fiction, writers who are able to pump-out a single successful book but then everything that follows seems to flop.  A clue as to why this happens is hidden near the end of Turning Pro, where Pressfield confides that his first decent screenplay was set in a prison despite the fact he’d never stepped foot in one in his life.  Pressfield attributes this to his Muse working through him, which he asserts is the only possibly explanation for being able to write so compellingly about prison life despite having never been inside one.

But there’s a simpler, duller explanation.

At the start of the book Pressfield talks about the halfway home he spent an extended amount of time in, and whose residents he spent most of his time telling stories with. Who were these residents? Former psych-ward patients.  Although they’re not totally analogous, it’s not hard to imagine that Pressfield absorbed countless details and vivid feelings about what it’s like to be confined – shared memories which made their way into his screenplay about prison life.

Both The War of Art and Turning Pro are invaluably reads to the aspiring artist. But their central thesis, that all you have to do is sit down everyday and “do the work” is flawed.  Works of literature that leave a lasting impact on the world aren’t created through daily doing the work of writing alone.  Writers must do the research, either literal academic research or investigating the way other people live their lives and see the world, to give their Muse the raw materials to work with.  In a way Pressfield briefly hints at this in The War of Art:

The part we create from can’t be touched by anything our parents did, or society did. That part is unsullied, uncorrupted; soundproof, waterproof, and bulletproof. In fact, the more troubles we’ve got, the better and richer that part becomes.

People who write compelling novels are very rarely happy and well-adjusted, the vast majority of their first works are largely biographical.  But once they’ve shared that side of themselves, unless they go out and seek to understand other people’s demons they’re not going to be able to produce anything else simply by sitting down and rolling their face across a keyboard for a few hours every morning.

The work behind the work isn’t simply a matter of will, artists are required to immerse themselves in worlds that aren’t their own by either pouring through endless stacks of books or walking as closely as possible in as many strangers’ shoes as possible.  It’s possible to sell books without truly breathing life into them, millions of books even.  But those books will ultimately fade away to nothing, and their writers will have left nothing behind.

Writing can be either frivolous or immortal, there is no in-between.  Either you’re breathing life onto the page, or you’re not.  Sitting down just for the sake of slapping sentences onto a page isn’t how you imbue your writing with a soul, if you don’t seek out the information and experiences that your Muse needs to feed off of, your writing will wither out and die along with her.

“The unreal is more powerful than the real.
Because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it.
Because it’s only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last.

Stone crumbles.
Wood rots.
People, well, they die.
But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on.

If you change the way people think, she said. The way they see themselves.
The way they see the world.
If you do that, you can change the way people live their lives.
And that’s the only lasting thing you can create.”

– Chuck Palahniuk

Category: books, do the work, e-books, muse, Steven Pressfield, The War of Art, turning pro One comment »

One Response to “do the work behind the work”

  1. Ham and Beans

    TtD: Dearest Sir, whoever you are I thank your kind words and insight, I would much enjoy continuing our correspondence posthaste, I feel like we may become fast friends!

    Having enjoyed “The War of Art”, I was excited to hear about “Turning Pro.” I have not read Turning Pro, but I still plan on it after I get through a pile of other books. Since I have not read it, I can only focus on Art.

    You have boiled down what I saw as the two holes in Art.

    1) The Muse. I just substituted this with the subconscious, which you have pointed out by being in the zone. I am not one for handing over the credit to mystical forces. “The spirit gave me the strength!” No homey, you are actually that awesome, now do it again.

    2) By simply stating that all you need to do the work. The title of this post hits on how I came to terms with how simply he put it. You sit down at the computer and do the work. You also go to support groups and listen to guys cry about their bitch tits. In its own way, this is sitting down and doing the work. I saw that the research and anything to fight resistance is doing the work. You are right, you have to do the work behind the work of creating something be that robbing a bank or something simple like traveling to different places. This all leads to the final product of the art that you were meant to create.

    Great post and it helped put into words what I was struggling with after reading the first of the two books.

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