IN Aids to Reflection, Samuel Taylor Coleridge says the following (he often enjoyed employing the use of all-caps):
READER!—You have been bred in a land abounding with men, able in arts, learning, and knowledges manifold, this man in one, this in another, few in many, none in all. But there is one art, of which every man should be master, the art of REFLECTION. If you are not a thinking man, to what purpose are you a man at all?
He then goes on to describe how to reflect on the words you use, hear, or read, their birth, derivation and history. For if words are not THINGS, they are LIVING POWERS by which the things of most importance to mankind are actuated, combined, and humanized. He’s getting at the internalization of the words we encounter whether by book or by any given crook’s break-room aphorisms. To reflect and then weigh things said. Reflecting, then, is the end of reading.
As my recommendations indicate, I have now read The War of Art what my grandfather calls “umteen times,” that is to say more than twelve and less than twenty. It takes doing so to be able to get a book down deep and as my friend Anthony Cirilla wisely texted me recently:
“A sustained, one-on-one intimacy with one text and no other is the work of memorization – not simply to know the words in their order. But to feel the nuances of texture passing beneath the fingertips of the mind. Settling down with one book, and only one book, for a while might do some good.”
Dabbling in books is good but sometimes it’s better to get intimately acquainted with a book, to let it get its claws on your soul. The War of Art is one of those for me — I intend to memorize large swaths of it by the time I’m through.
But reading is not reflecting and no matter how many times I’ve read it — even if I gain the ability to quote it verbatim from memory — I will not have weighed it, will not have reflected on its meaning to myself.
Recently, I began reflecting on The War of Art and its slot in my soul. It’s one thing to be able to quote the passages from Pressfield — his structure that speaks On Resistance, On Professionalism, and then On Divine Inspiration. Because I believe whole heartedly in the muse of Sinai and try to invoke Him every morning before I type, I do believe that the divine honors — or rebukes — the postures we take. The Catholics understand this: they consider how worship affects the whole of man, not only his vocal chords and capacity to eat or nearly drown, but also his time, also his rising and kneeling and lying, also his liturgy — the words he believes most deeply, repeats often and in the company of other men.
So I found myself this year in a situation where the things honored were aimless wandering into other crafts like acting and coding and politicking, social media posting, and other acts unbefitting my personhood. And I began wondering: how does resistance get in the way of my work, truly? And how do the best professionals, not the professionals I would like to use as excuses, but the best ones: how do they beat resistance and invoke the divine?
Well the more I thought about men who get up daily to write something — anything — to maintain inertia and momentum, the more I realized how many bits of artistic resistance get in the way of my work. Even now, eleven years into this journey, I find myself making amateur moves now and again and fighting for professionalism in my own life. And most of that has to do with the things that take up 90% of my effort but only obtain 10% of my results. Things like:
(1) Posting some emotional story on Facebook that will garner the immediate gratification of emotional responses but will ultimately result in zero long term relationships,zero sales, and zero content that I own seeing as how Facebook will sell advertising on my work — even my poor work — and therefore profit even off of my procrastination. I have already deleted Twitter (I actually deactivated it but accidentally didn’t reactivate in 30 days and now it’s gone forever and I don’t really miss it). I followed by deleting Reddit after the Fantasy Author of the day thing. Facebook followed and now I quite all of social media.
(2) Writing articles about writing fiction. Though this makes for good conversation, ultimately it makes me better not at writing fiction but better at writing articles for writers. Luke Wiget wisely asked me when I sold the piece to the Poet’s Market: Is that the kind of writing you want to do? I didn’t quite understand what he meant at the time, but I do now. He meant: do you want to spend your life writing articles about writing? Do you want to be one of these guys who lives out his days being a guru and giving advice rather than building worlds yourself? No. I decidedly do not. If I do that at all, I would rather it be in short posts like this that give me a quick break between projects. It’s not always true, but for me: if I can’t do, I teach. And when I’m teaching, I’m not actively working as a practitioner of the craft.
(3) Reading books multiple times that don’t help me either grow as a person or grow as a writer. The point of reading a finance book is to make me more responsible with household finances and to give me a vision for what a financier’s life might look like, but in no situation should it make me want to go into finance. That’s the problem with an extremely intuitive mind on the Myers-Briggs scale: you extrapolate from everything and have trouble letting something be what it is and nothing more. Sometimes a finance book is just a finance book with no resulting aspirations flowering from it, when sown. The same is true with, for instance, Elon Musk’s biography. I can learn from his life to become a better Lance, but I shouldn’t drop what I’m doing to learn code or to try and accelerate the race to space. That’s Elon’s job, not mine. My job is to write the books that inspire tomorrow’s Elons. This sort of vicarious living is the stuff of amateurs — often I’ll have people tell me, “You should write this.” What they really mean is, “You should make my idea manifest in the world so that I don’t have to put in the hard work to do so myself.” Doing that with other professionals myself both belittles the work of their lives and keeps me from doing the work of my own. The hardest time I have are with those closest to me in the world of theology: I want so badly to be included with them that I often come off like a know-it-all ass, even a dilettante, trying to fit in with their discussions online. Of course, after cutting out resistance #1 from my life, this part of resistance #3 worked itself out.
(4) Checking the internet before checking my heart, the day’s inspiration, my thoughts on paper (journaling = overhearing God), and opening the document to type.
(5) Talking about past successes. Also known as “resting on your laurels.” The makers and artists I respect most do this the least. Robin Williams, for instance, both took the roles that terrified him and kept taking roles. He never rested. He worked. Hard. Morgan Freeman works hard and often. Spielberg, King, Rowling, Sanderson, Burns, Shakespeare, and Degas all put out a ton of work and focused not on the product but the process of becoming a better producer of work.
(6) Talking about past failures. Other than a quick, “Here’s why this failed, folks,” and moving on, there’s no reason to rehash it emotionally over and over and over again. Thankfully, enough rejection and failure has hardened me to my own stumblings and strengthened my resolve and willpower, so I know how to beat this one better than the above.
Which means, of course, that I realize I could go on reflecting on my own personal artistic resistance and listing these.
But I need to write some fiction this morning, so the best thing to do is—
cover image by Charlie NZ