No books have had as much impact on my career as a writer and a photographer as have Steven Pressfield's two small books, The War of Art and Turning Pro. I have read and re-read The War of Art until my copy is falling apart. It is so well read that even my Kindle version of the book is dog-eared.
Back in 2006 and 2007 I suffered from terrible and debilitating anxiety. I tried every imaginable solution and prescription. I talked to a therapist and a psychiatrist until I ran out of words. Then, one day I sat down in a comfortable chair in my bed room and read that thin book cover to cover for the first time.
When I hit the last page and realized that my anxiety was a symptom of my own resistance keeping me from doing exactly what I wanted to be doing; what I knew I should be doing, I stood up, walked into the studio and got to work. My anxiety diminished as a I worked with only a few brief situational flare ups. In the next four years I had written five books about photography, recharged my photography business and gotten back to work on a long side-lined novel. I don't know how life would have been different had I not read The War of Art and I'm not sure I ever want to know. I do know that the book was instrumental in my grabbing the reins again and getting back to work and happiness. It's a cheap fix. About ten minutes worth of a therapist's time. If you are stuck and can't seem to move forward or if your life seems to be engineering in all kinds of seemingly random drama that keeps you off track I suggest you buy and read the book immediately. I've given this advice many times over the last few years, mostly to artist friends, and everyone who has listened has ended up thanking me profusely. But of course it's Steven Pressfield who deserves the thanks.
And that leads me to the next book, Turning Pro. This year I finished up my novel, The Lisbon Portfolio, and decided not to give into perfectionism but to launch an admittedly imperfect book rather than give into resistance and self-doubt and never launch the book at all. It was a big step and one I am grateful I took. But when you've launched something you think is big and scary there's a period in which you can fall into an artistic entropy. You might be waiting to be discovered. You might want to sit back and savor what you've done. You might imagine there are people who want to get together with you, have a beer or coffee and discuss the book. You go back to the same paralysis that most of us had in the first place. Before we launched. Before we pushed forward. Post partum project depression?
I found myself in that place lately and nothing seemed to be exciting or fun. Nothing seemed like a logical next step until I found myself on an airplane with no physical books, no iPad, no magazines, nothing to read....except for the Kindle app on my iPhone 4s (with its tiny screen). Ever hungry for something new to read I remembered that I had downloaded Steven Pressfield's new book and had not yet cracked it open. The idea had been to wait until I had (mythical) free time to read it on my Kindle in a comfy chair; a glass of red wine on the side table and the cool winds of Autumn blowing outside the French doors of my bedroom.
And here I was wedged into a middle seat on a Mesa Airways small jet heading back to Austin from somewhere else. I opened up the book and read it in the three hours while bouncing through the middle atmosphere. The message was simple. At some point you turn pro or you give up and put everything off until tomorrow. The only difference between pros in any field and everyone else is that they get up every day and do the work. Head cold, allergies, appointments, distractions, ego, addictions, love, sex, greed, new equipment, etc. are all secondary to the act of getting up every day and doing the work. Of starting everyday. And of finishing every project without "pulling the pin." (I'll let the book explain that).
I finished the book as we landed in San Antonio. I headed to a book store and bought myself one of the familiar little black journals I use to map out and take notes for all of my writing projects and I sat down at a Whataburger fast food restaurant to have a jalapeño burger and to map out the entirety of my next novel. Two hours or three hours just writing and sipping on a Coke. I don't remember because I was so into the process. Then I drove up IH35 to my home in Austin and started mapping out the timeline for the story. Now I'm refocused.
I know I need to split my attention between the photography that pays the bills and the writing but I've got a book on the stovetop and it's starting to simmer and everything else is settling back down and getting focused in my world.
Some books are amazingly powerful. Especially when they come from people who speak from experience and decades of grappling with these universal issues of artists. But the books aren't just antidotes for artistic failure to launch, they apply to anyone who wants to pursue a passion but cannot get started. The excuse may be the need for long preparation or "just waiting for a part" but the difference between success and failure is starting and finishing. Not just talking about how cool it could be....
There's a resistance to doing the work we most love because in some respects we know it might fall short and disappoint us. But the Pros push through that and create the work. If it's flawed we'll get it right on the next one. And we'll start on that next one the minute we finish with this one.
I remember reading about Steven Pressfield finally finishing the writing on his first real novel. He rushed to his friend's house, a fellow writer. Pressfield asked his friend, "What do I do now?" To which his friend replied, "Tomorrow morning you sit in front of the typewriter and start writing the next one!" And that's just what Pressfield did. Over and over again until he started to get each one just right.
What's on my Kindle? Some good stuff. But none better than those two books.