I just finished reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. It’s basically a self-help book for creative individuals who find themselves feeling blocked or stuck in their artistic endeavors. As an artist, I know I’ve experience my share of moments (especially lately): writer’s block, lack of motivation to finish a painting or a poem…or a melody on the piano…or a set of song lyrics…. So I figured this book would become my new best friend.
Now, I must admit, if the choice were mine, I probably wouldn’t put Pressfield’s book on the national bestseller list. Considering that it’s a self-help book, I really didn’t find it to be all that helpful (then again, I’m always a bit skeptical of self-helps books so this particular book’s lack of helpfulness didn’t really come as a surprise). I thoroughly enjoy reading but I’ll be honest: there were definitely times where I had to force myself to turn the pages of this one. But every now and then, I would stumble upon a chapter that made me pump my mental fist in the air and yell, “Yes! This guy knows exactly what I’m going through!”
I want to share one of those ‘aha moments’ with you. For those of you who are artists, I hope this encourages you. But first, a little background information:
As I briefly mentioned earlier, I’ve recently been struggling with many of my artistic projects. I feel as though I’ve become a writer who can’t write, a musician who can’t compose a single melody or chord progression, a painter who is too lazy to drag out her paint set, a photographer who is too unmotivated to look at the world through the vibrant eye of her camera lens. So what am I? I’ve somehow convinced myself that I am…incapable. Incapable of creating something thought-provoking or memorable, something that anyone else would find even the least bit interesting.
And then I read this brief chapter in The War of Art. And I found myself going: “Waaaait a second!”
Why do we get to these points? Certainly, I can’t be the only one who gets stuck (if I were, then Steven Pressfield probably would not have written a book on the subject). So, as artists, why do we get to these moments in our lives where we stop doing what we love—which is creating art—because we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that we’re just not good enough? And good enough for whom? Exactly whose expectations are we trying to live up to? Do we even know?
Pressfield has a few things to say about that, and I found his chapter entitled ‘The Definition of a Hack’ particularly enlightening. So I thought I’d post the chapter here. Again, I pray that this encourages you.
THE DEFINITION OF A HACK: (pp. 152-153)
I learned this from Robert McKee. A hack, he says, is a writer who second-guesses his audience. When the hack sits down to work, he doesn’t ask himself what’s in his own heart. He asks what the market is looking for.
The hack condescends to his audience. He thinks he’s superior to them. The truth is, he’s scared to death of them or, more accurately, scared of being authentic in front of them, scared of writing what he really feels or believes, what he himself thinks is interesting. He’s afraid it won’t sell. So he tries to anticipate what the market (a telling word) wants, then gives it to them.
In other words, the hack writes hierarchically. He writes what he imagines will play well in the eyes of others. He does not ask himself, ‘What do I myself want to write? What do I think is important?’ Instead, he asks, ‘What’s hot? What can I make a deal for?’
The hack is like a politician who consults the polls before he takes a position. He’s a demagogue. He panders.
It can pay off, being a hack. Given the depraved state of American culture, a slick dude can make millions being a hack. But even if you succeed, you lose, because you’ve sold out on your Muse, and your Muse is you, the best part of yourself, where your finest and only true work comes from.
I was starving as a screenwriter when the idea for The Legend of Bagger Vance came to me. It came as a book, not as a movie. I met with my agent to give him the bad news. We both knew that first novels take forever and sell for nothing. Worse, a novel about golf, even if we could find a publisher, is a straight shot to the remainder bin.
But the Muse had me. I had to do it. To my amazement, the book succeeded critically and commercially better than anything I’d ever done, and others since have been lucky too. Why? My best guess is this: I trusted what I wanted, not what I thought would work. I did what I myself thought was interesting, and left its reception to the gods.
The artist can’t do his work hierarchically. He has to work territorially.
Motives. I think that’s the heart of what Pressfield is trying to get at in this chapter. As artists, what drives us to make our art? What drives you? Is it the sincere passion and love that you have for art itself? Or is it really just some sort of longing for acceptance that you’re trying to fill via art? I had to ask myself such questions. I had to wonder if my creative ‘stuckness’ was due to the fact that I’d run out of ideas or due to my skewed motives? I ultimately had to ask myself: am I a hack?