A great book for people looking to hone in and sharpen their work ethic. Here are some notes I took:
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 not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.
It will assume any form, if that’s what it takes to deceive you. It will reason with you like a lawyer or jam a nine-millimeter in your face like a stickup man. It cannot be reasoned with. It understands nothing but power. It doesn’t know who you are and doesn’t care. It acts objectively. Everybody who has a body experiences Resistance.
The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day. When we fight it, we are in a war to the death.
The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight. At this point, Resistance knows we’re about to beat it. It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it’s got.
Symptoms of resistance: - Procrastination, the easiest to rationalize. The most insidious habit - Obsession with sex. “Of course not all sex is a manifestation of Resistance. In my experience, you can tell by the measure of hollowness you feel afterward. The more empty you feel, the more certain you can be that your true motivation was not love or even lust but Resistance. It goes without saying that this principle applies to drugs, shopping, masturbation, TV, gossip, alcohol, and the consumption of all products containing fat, sugar, salt, or chocolate.”
Getting in trouble, getting that cheap attention and faux fame, and cruelty to others. “The working artist banishes from her world all sources of trouble. She harnesses the urge for trouble and transforms it in her work.”
Self-dramatization and creating a soap opera.
Self-medication. Depression and anxiety may be real. But they can also be Resistance. “When we drug ourselves to blot out our soul’s call, we are being good Americans and exemplary consumers. We’re doing exactly what TV commercials and pop materialist culture have been brainwashing us to do from birth. Instead of applying self-knowledge, self-discipline, delayed gratification and hard work, we simply consume a product. Many pedestrians have been maimed or killed at the intersection of Resistance and Commerce.”
Victimhood. “Doctors estimate that seventy to eighty percent of their business is non-health-related. People aren’t sick, they’re self-dramatizing.”
“What does resistance feel like?” A steady progression. Dissatisfaction. Boredom. Restlessness. Unhappiness. Low-grade ever-pervasive misery. Disgust.Depression. Agression. We unplug ourselves from the grid by recognizing that we will never cure our restlessness by contributing our disposable income to the bottom line of Bullshit, Inc., but only by doing our work.
The Artist: His culture possesses affluence, stability, enough excess of resource to permit the luxury of self-examination. The artist is grounded in freedom. He is not afraid of it. He is lucky. He was born in the right place. He has a core of self-confidence, of hope for the future. He believes in progress and evolution. His faith is that humankind is advancing, however haltingly and imperfectly, toward a better world.
If you find yourself criticizing other people, you’re probably doing it out of Resistance. When we see others beginning to live their authentic selves, it drives us crazy if we have not lived out our own. Individuals who are realized in their own lives almost never criticize others. If they speak at all, it is to offer encouragement. Watch yourself. Of all the manifestations of Resistance, most only harm ourselves. Criticism and cruelty harm others as well.
The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.
Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.
The professional tackles the project that will make him stretch. He takes on the assignment that will bear him into uncharted waters, compel him to explore unconscious parts of himself. The more Resistance you experience, the more important your unmanifested art/project/enterprise is to you—and the more gratification you will feel when you finally do it. Grandiose fantasies are a symptom of Resistance. They’re the sign of an amateur. The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work.
The Muse and Isolation
Have you seen interviews with the young John Lennon or Bob Dylan, when the reporter tries to ask about their personal selves? The boys deflect these queries with withering sarcasm. Why? Because Lennon and Dylan know that the part of them that writes the songs is not “them,” not the personal self that is of such surpassing fascination to their boneheaded interrogators. Lennon and Dylan also know that the part of themselves that does the writing is too sacred, too precious, too fragile to be redacted into sound bites for the titillation of would-be idolators (who are themselves caught up in their own Resistance). So they put them on and blow them off.
Not only do I not feel alone with my characters; they are more vivid and interesting to me than the people in my real life. If you think about it, the case can’t be otherwise. In order for a book (or any project or enterprise) to hold our attention for the length of time it takes to unfold itself, it has to plug into some internal perplexity or passion that is of paramount importance to us. That problem becomes the theme of our work, even if we can’t at the start understand or articulate it. As the characters arise, each embodies infallibly an aspect of that dilemma, that perplexity. These characters might not be interesting to anyone else but they’re absolutely fascinating to us. They are us. Meaner, smarter, sexier versions of ourselves. It’s fun to be with them because they’re wrestling with the same issue that has its hooks into us. They’re our soul mates, our lovers, our best friends. Even the villains. Especially the villains.
Any support we get from persons of flesh and blood is like Monopoly money; it’s not legal tender in that sphere where we have to do our work. In fact, the more energy we spend stoking up on support from colleagues and loved ones, the weaker we become and the less capable of handling our business. It’s one thing to lie to ourselves. It’s another thing to believe it.
Resistance is fear. But Resistance is too cunning to show itself naked in this form. Why? Because if Resistance lets us see clearly that our own fear is preventing us from doing our work, we may feel shame at this. And shame may drive us to act in the face of fear.
Resistance doesn’t want us to do this. So it brings in Rationalization. Rationalization is Resistance’s spin doctor. It’s Resistance’s way of hiding the Big Stick behind its back. Instead of showing us our fear (which might shame us and impel us to do our work), Resistance presents us with a series of plausible, rational justifications for why we shouldn’t do our work.
If Resistance couldn’t be beaten, there would be no Fifth Symphony, no Romeo and Juliet, no Golden Gate Bridge. Defeating Resistance is like giving birth. It seems absolutely impossible until you remember that women have been pulling it off successfully, with support and without, for fifty million years.
The moment an artist turns pro is as epochal as the birth of his first child. With one stroke, everything changes. I can state absolutely that the term of my life can be divided into two parts: before turning pro, and after.
The amateur plays for fun. The professional plays for keeps. The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week.
The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. He commits full-time.
Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
I’m keenly aware of the Principle of Priority, which states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first.
What’s important is the work. That’s the game I have to suit up for. That’s the field on which I have to leave everything I’ve got.
The artist must be like that Marine. He has to know how to be miserable. He has to love being miserable. He has to take pride in being more miserable than any soldier or swabbie or jet jockey. Because this is war, baby. And war is hell.
We show up every day We show up no matter what We stay on the job all day We are committed over the long haul The stakes for us are high and real We accept remuneration for our labor We do not over identify with our jobs We master the techniques of our jobs We have a sense of humor about our jobs We receive praise or blame in the real world. We remain patient (and understand delayed gratification). We do not take failure (or success) personally. We endure adversity (humiliation, rejection, criticism. All treated as external manifestations of Resistance). We recognize our limitations. (Master the craft, outsource the rest to other pros). The professional steels himself at the start of a project, reminding himself it is the Iditarod, not the sixty-yard dash.
He conserves his energy.
He prepares his mind for the long haul. He is on a mission. He will not tolerate disorder. He eliminates chaos from his world in order to banish it from his mind. He wants the carpet vacuumed and the threshold swept, so the Muse may enter and not soil her gown. The sign of the amateur is overglorification of and preoccupation with the mystery. The professional shuts up. She doesn’t talk about it. She does her work.
The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome. He knows there is no such thing as a fearless warrior or a dread-free artist.
A Professional Accepts no excuses. The professional has learned better.
He respects Resistance.
He knows if he caves in today, no matter how plausible the pretext, he’ll be twice as likely to cave in tomorrow. The professional knows that Resistance is like a telemarketer; if you so much as say hello, you’re finished. The pro doesn’t even pick up the phone. He stays at work.
The professional conducts his business in the real world. Adversity, injustice, bad hops and rotten calls, even good breaks and lucky bounces all comprise the ground over which the campaign must be waged. The field is level, the professional understands, only in heaven.
The professional prepares mentally to absorb blows and to deliver them. His aim is to take what the day gives him.
He is prepared to be prudent and prepared to be reckless, to take a beating when he has to, and to go for the throat when he can.
He understands that the field alters every day. His goal is not victory (success will come by itself when it wants to) but to handle himself, his insides, as sturdily and steadily as he can.
A Professional does not show off. A professional’s work has style; it is distinctively his own. But he doesn’t let his signature grandstand for him. His style serves the material. He does not impose it as a means of drawing attention to himself.
The professional respects his craft. He does not consider himself superior to it. He recognizes the contributions of those who have gone before him. He apprentices himself to them.
The pro stands at one remove from her instrument— meaning her person, her body, her voice, her talent; the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological being she uses in her work. She does not identify with this instrument. It is simply what God gave her, what she has to work with. She assesses it coolly, impersonally, objectively.
The professional loves her work. She is invested in it wholeheartedly. But she does not forget that the work is not her. Her artistic self contains many works and many performances. Already the next is percolating inside her. The next will be better, and the one after that better still. The professional cannot allow the actions of others to define his reality. Tomorrow morning the critic will be gone, but the writer will still be there facing the blank page. Nothing matters but that he keep working.
The professional does not permit himself to become hidebound within one incarnation, however comfortable or successful. Like a transmigrating soul, he shucks his outworn body and dons a new one. He continues his journey.
Making yourself a corporation (or just thinking of yourself in that way) reinforces the idea of professionalism because it separates the artist-doing-the-work from the will-and-consciousness-running-the-show. No matter how much abuse is heaped on the head of the former, the latter takes it in stride and keeps on trucking. Conversely with success: You-the-writer may get a swelled head, but you-the-boss remember how to take yourself down a peg.
The pro keeps coming on. He beats Resistance at its own game by being even more resolute and even more implacable than it is. There’s no mystery to turning pro. It’s a decision brought about by an act of will. We make up our minds to view ourselves as pros and we do it. Simple as that.
This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.
By Blake’s model, as I understand it, it’s as though the Fifth Symphony existed already in that higher sphere, before Beethoven sat down and played dah-dah-dah-DUM. The catch was this: The work existed only as potential–without a body, so to speak. It wasn’t music yet. You couldn’t play it. You couldn’t hear it. When we conceive an enterprise and commit to it in the face of our fears, something wonderful happens. A crack appears in the membrane. Like the first craze when a chick pecks at the inside of its shell. Angel midwives congregate around us; they assist as we give birth to ourselves, to that person we were born to be, to the one whose destiny was encoded in our soul, our daimon, our genius.
The Ego is that part of the psyche that believes in material existence. The Self (on the other hand) believes: Death is an illusion Time and Space are illusions All beings are one The supreme emotion is love God is all there is (everything that is). The Ego hates the Self because when we seat our consciousness in the Self, we put the ego out of business. The instinct that pulls us toward art is the impulse to evolve, to learn, to heighten and elevate our consciousness. The Ego hates this. Because the more awake we become, the less we need the Ego.
We know that if we embrace our ideals, we must prove worthy of them. And that scares the hell out of us. What will become of us? We will lose our friends and family, who will no longer recognize us. We will wind up alone, in the cold void of starry space, with nothing and no one to hold on to. Of course this is exactly what happens. But here’s the trick. We wind up in space, but not alone. Instead we are tapped into an unquenchable, undepletable, inexhaustible source of wisdom, consciousness, companionship. Yeah, we lose friends. But we find friends too, in places we never thought to look. And they’re better friends, truer friends. And we’re better and truer to them. Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it. If we were born to overthrow the order of ignorance and injustice of the world, it’s our job to realize it and get down to business.
Most of us define ourselves hierarchically and don’t even know it. It’s hard not to. School, advertising, the entire materialist culture drills us from birth to define ourselves by others’ opinions. Drink this beer, get this job, look this way and everyone will love you.
We have entered Mass Society. The hierarchy is too big. It doesn’t work anymore. The artist must operate territorially. He must do his work for its own sake.
To labor in the arts for any reason other than love is prostitution.
A territory provides sustenance A territory sustains us without any external input A territory can only be claimed alone A territory can only be claimed by work A territory returns exactly what you put in What’s your territory?
The artist and the mother are vehicles, not originators. They don’t create the new life, they only bear it. This is why birth is such a humbling experience. The new mom weeps in awe at the little miracle in her arms. She knows it came out of her but not from her, through her but not of her.
Here’s another test. Of any activity you do, ask yourself: If I were the last person on earth, would I still do it?
Contempt for failure is our cardinal virtue. By confining our attention territorially to our own thoughts and actions—in other words, to the work and its demands—we cut the earth from beneath the blue-painted, shield-banging, spear-brandishing foe.
In the end, we arrive at a kind of model of the artist’s world, and that model is that there exist other, higher planes of reality, about which we can prove nothing, but from which arise our lives, our work and our art. These spheres are trying to communicate with ours.
When Blake said Eternity is in love with the creations of time, he was referring to those planes of pure potential, which are timeless, placeless, spaceless, but which long to bring their visions into being here, in this time-bound, space-defined world. Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.