Outsourced Creativity

I’ve just finished reading the War of Art book by Steven Pressfield and I liked it a lot. The book is split into three parts. My favorite parts are one and two, in which Pressfield first identifies and personifies Resistance–the force that prevents us from breaking through the creative block and actually finishing our work.

Resistance manifests itself in different forms–fear of failure, fear of success, rationalization of why you should be doing something else–all aimed at preventing you from actually sitting down and doing the work you really want to do. But Resistance also acts as a compass–when you feel it towards something then this is something you should probably do. It means you care about it and that it’s important. We don’t feel Resistance towards doing pointless things, which is why it’s so easy to procrastinate.

In the second part Pressfield talks about how to fight resistance, the main idea being that you should graduate from an amateur to a pro. This means turning your passion into a profession. Do the work you love in a setting where you can sit down to work a set number of hours–don’t finish until you’re done. Professionals don’t just work on projects, they finish them. Whether your project will be a success or failure doesn’t matter to a pro, all that matters is you get it done, because that’s the only way you’ll find out anyway.

The last part is quite interesting. Pressfield talks about muses and angels and presents a theory that creativity and ideas don’t really originate inside you–they come from the outside. Invisible muses that live around you want to give you those insights, ideas and revelations and they do it when you’re listening–when you sit down to work, or sometimes at other odd times. The artist thus becomes the conduit through which otherworldly powers manifest their creativity into the physical world. There’s a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert on exactly the same thing.

This is why artists are modest. They know they’re not doing the work; they’re just taking dictation.

Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

I’m not sure this is the right way to look at it. When you create bad stuff that nobody likes–that’s you, that’s your work, right? Angels don’t dictate bad work. But when you create something wonderful that really strikes a chord with your audience–this then is not your work, it’s a work of a higher power that simply used your body as a channel through which to transmit it?

I disagree with this view. Why rob the artist of recognition for their greatest accomplishments while attributing to them all of their failures?

I can see clearly why this philosophy would appeal to many artists. It takes away the responsibility for your work–it takes away the stress and the pressure. You just have to sit down and work, and some day you’ll just produce really good work, whenever the powers decide to dictate it. You don’t have to worry because it’s not under your control, it’s out of your hands. This same outlook can, and is, applied to life in the form of religion. People surrender their lives to God–whatever happens does because this is the wish of a higher power.

This is misleading, and while it might actually work to alleviate stress, it’s not real. Of course the artist is responsible for their work. They’re responsible just as much for their failures as for their success. Breaking through the creative block isn’t easy, but you don’t need muses or angels to do it, you have to develop a stronger work ethic and focus on the stuff that matters, discarding all the meaningless distractions.

Artists have an interest in others’ believing in sudden ideas, so-called inspirations; as if the idea of a work of art, of poetry, the fundamental thought of a philosophy shines down like a merciful light from heaven. In truth, the good artist’s or thinker’s imagination is continually producing things good, mediocre, and bad, but his power of judgement, highly sharpened and practiced, rejects, selects, joins together; thus we now see from Beethoven’s notebooks that he gradually assembled the most glorious melodies and, to a degree, selected them out of disparate beginnings. The artists who separates less religiously, liking to rely on his imitative memory, can in some circumstances become a great improviser; but artistic improvisation stands low in relation to artistic thoughts earnestly and laboriously chosen. All great men were great workers, untiring not only in invention but also in rejecting, sifting, reforming, arranging.

Friedrich Nietzche, Human, All Too Human

October 2009