The War of Art: Q&A with writer Steven Pressfield

I first heard the name Steven Pressfield when a friend and I - both Ancient Greek history and mythology enthusiasts - were discussing the Battle of Thermopylae, where a small force of 300 Spartans, and a few thousand allies, valiantly held off a massive, supposedly million-strong, invading force of Persians.

Most people will probably be familiar with this slice of history thanks to the film 300, which was based on Frank Miller's graphic novel. 300, however, never pretended to be an accurate account of historical events. It is told through the filter of a storytelling character after all, who is trying to inspire the Greek soldiers at his campfire. As a result 300's Spartan heroes are thong-wearing models of machismo: handsome, muscled and utterly fearless (their only armor is helmet and shield). Meanwhile the Persian villains are queer, lecherous monstrosities. For a reader and filmgoer it's jolly good entertainment but hardly realistic.

For a "proper" fictionalised account of the Battle of Thermopylae, my friend suggested I read Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire, which I did. And loved. These Spartans are the real deal: believable flesh-and-blood men who put themselves through hell to be the best warriors they can be, and every day strive to overcome fear and weakness. The book immerses you in the Spartan world, exposing you to their culture, values and ingenious combat strategies.

After reading Gates of Fire it was no surprise to learn that the novel is required reading at the U.S. Military Academy and the Virginia Military Institute, and has developed an ardent following among military types and (in my personal experience) martial artists. It also earned Pressfield honourary citizenship in Sparta.

Pressfield's other works of historical fiction include Tides of War, Last of the Amazons, The Virtues of War, The Afghan Campaign, Killing Rommel, and The Legend of Bagger Vance, which was turned into a film starring Will Smith, Matt Damon and Charlize Theron.

While browsing around on Steven Pressfield's official site, I happened to come across a piece of non-fiction he had written, entitled The War of Art. Strong, clever title, of course, but it was the accompanying cover descriptor that really caught my attention: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. As a great procrastinator and cowardly dream avoider it was essential that I read it. (And you can read an extract here).

I suppose you could classify The War of Art as a self-help or motivational text, without the usual waffle. It cuts straight to the point and is a brisk, inspiring read - possible to complete in a single evening.

Steven Pressfield is not some smug self-help guru spouting wisdom from a ivory tower built on a mountain of money from gullible readers. He is a humble man, a writer with a get-on-and-do-it workman's attitude, who every day begins his process with a prayer to the Muse. Despite his success today, he still battles Resistance on a daily basis - with Resistance being all those negative psychological forces that paralyse you; preventing you from achieving your dreams (whether they be related to writing, the creation of visual art, a new business venture, a life-changing exercise regime, etc).

The War of Art is divided into 3 parts: The first book presents Resistance and its many insidious forms. The second book outlines a strategy to counter Resistance. And the third and final book is an exploration of the creative process and its relationship to inspiration. I thoroughly enjoyed The War of Art, agreed with its philosophies, and writing about it now makes me think I should read it again before I succumb completely to festive season malaise.

Anyway, Steven Pressfield is a writer who has embraced social media and its potential to build a stronger relationship with readers. He has a blog and is active on Twitter. And a little while ago I received a message from Steven asking if I would be keen to run a short little interview, a Q&A session, on my blog.

What follows is my 3 questions and Steven's answers, for which I am exceptionally grateful. Thank you, Steven.

1) In the War of Art, you speak of the directly proportionate relationship between Resistance and Love (pg. 42: "The more Resistance you experience, the more important your unmanifested art/project/enterprise is to you"). You then go on to state that "The opposite of love isn't hate; it's indifference." My question then, is what is indifference? When we feel indifference is it an indicator that we're not doing what we should be pursuing? Or, when we start a creative project and find our enthusiasm waning over time - as I so often do - is this indifference just Resistance taking yet another form?

I was just interviewing Seth Godin, the marketing guru and author of "Tribes" and "Linchpin," and he said a really interesting thing. I asked him what he did when he got stuck or hit plateaus. Here's his answer:

"Fortunately for me, the voice of the resistance is almost always drowned out by the voice of the other guy... not sure he has a name yet. That’s the guy in search of intellectual thrills, ego rides and most of all, the joy of watching people grow. I’ve been hooked on that for forty (!) years and I don’t see it going away any time soon."

I would define that as Love. I really should have talked more about this in "The War of Art." It's the real force of enthusiasm for a project-in-the-works. It's our locomotive, it's what powers us; it's the opposing force to Resistance. Indifference is what we feel when a potential project just isn't calling to us. It's just not important to our soul. BUT, as you say, Noelle, when we feel an initial enthusiasm waning ... that, I would say, is Resistance being diabolically subtle and trying to sabotage us by disquising itself as indifference. It gets devilishly insidious, doesn't it? The thing to do then, in my opinion, is to go back to the original enthusiasm and test it, kind of like falling in love. Was it real love? Were we really head over heels? If the answer is yes, then power through that bad patch of faux, Resistance-spawned indifference!

2) You've been a copywriter, a screenwriter, a novelist and, now, a blogger. They're all very different mediums of creative expression. What is the most important lesson you've learned from each of them that you could apply to your writing as a whole?

Wow, that's a great question. The greatest lesson from copywriting was that "nobody wants to read your sh*t." Meaning that everybody hates reading ads or watching commercials ... so, if you want your stuff to break through that obstacle, you have to really work hard on it and really make it compelling and "sticky." Many writers (particularly students, whose papers MUST be read by their teachers) believe that all they have to do is put something on paper and people will want to read it. Not so!

The greatest lesson from screenwriting was to think of everything I write in terms of three acts -- Act One, Act Two, Act Three ... beginning, middle and end. Even a letter, even a blog post has to start, go through complications, and finish with a satisfying climax. True of love-making too.

The novel-writing lesson? That's it possible to write a character who is smarter than you are. In other words, to trust inspiration. Trust the Muse and let it rip. Real writing comes from such a deep and mysterious place that we have to guard against self-limiting conceptions. Just because we are an "ordinary housewife" or "a guy in an office" doesn't mean we can't produce amazing stuff. Be brave, my timorous heart!

The lesson of blogging is that it's a group activity, in the sense that you write, people respond, you respond to people. All the above lessons also apply--make it good, give it a beginning and middle and end, and be brave. Then interact with people and bring them in. Publish their stuff. It's tribal.

3) I think many people who would like to write fiction set against a specific historical backdrop are intimidated by the process - whether it be by the amount of research required, or by the fear that their story will be bogged down by long descriptive passages that feel like they've been lifted straight from a textbook. As someone who masterfully combines engaging, fast paced narratives with pertinent historical fact, what tips can you give these aspiring historical fiction writers? Where do you start?

First, a love for the period. This can't be faked. You have to really feel it--and feel the desire to bring other people, your readers, into that period. I'm sure James Cameron was in love with the fictional world of the planet Pandora in "Avatar" and couldn't wait to share it with movie-goers, couldn't wait to show them what he was seeing in his head.

Then total immersion in that period in imagination. Read everything. For me, this is great fun. It shouldn't be hard at all. If it is, something's wrong.

Then, and this is the most important thing: details. The more details you can bring to the page, the realer a depiction of an alien time will seem. When I was writing about WWII tanks for "Killing Rommel," I wanted the reader to feel what it was like to be inside one of these steel monsters in 100-degree heat in the Libyan desert. Every detail helps. The rolling terrain, the heat of the steel in the sun, the way the tank commander has to press the small of his back against the rim of the turrent to keep his balance, the little racks inside the turret where he keeps his binoculars, his boiled sweets, the three books he's reading during the boring periods. Details make a piece come alive.


Now here's a little something special for my loyal blog readers, and Steven Pressfield fans out there. I have a Christmas present for you! I'm giving away a copy of The War of Art.

It doesn't matter where you are in the world. All you have to do to enter the giveaway is email me at and put "The War of Art Giveaway" in your message header. Please include your full name and postal address in the body of the message. Entries will close on 8 January, when I will be choosing the winner via lucky draw, to be announced on Monday, 11 January. Good luck!


I refuse to read Pressfield's works until after I've finished with my current story. It's kind of like how Neil Gaiman wouldn't read The Good Fairies until after he finished American Gods.

Speaking of, I should finish my story before I pick up American Gods...
Oh, and Mr. Pressfield, if you read this...your short, three question interview here has reinvigorated me to not only finish my current work but to also push forward on the other books I've got sitting on my hard drive waiting to be published.

Thanks, Noelle, for putting this all together.
Pfangirl said…
MJenks, when I saw on your blog that you were working on an Ancient Greece-set story I thought immediately of Steven Pressfield's historical fiction. And yeah, I'd probably suggest not reading those books until after you've finished. This said, there's certainly no harm in seeking out The War of Art in the meantime:)

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