You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study. He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and later to the School of Architecture. Ever see one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.
– Steve Pressfield in The War of Art
Resistance, according to Steve Pressfield, is the force inhibiting us from pursuing what our genius begs us to reach for. It’s a feeling we’re all familiar with: the sinking fear of failure, the nagging worry that others will judge us, or the greasy panic of not knowing if we’re good enough.
It’s easy to assume that the great minds of the present and past somehow avoided these feelings. That’s bullshit. For me, that’s one of the beauties of social media. I can see the writers and creators I most admire occasionally ooze with the same worries I have. The thing that sets them apart from the rest of us is their ability to overcome those feelings.
I’m in awe every night my wife gets home from an 8, 9, 10, 11-hour shift. She grabs a bite to eat, cracks open her laptop, and continues working. I asked her the other day how she continues to work after a full shift. Her eyes glazed over and her head tilted as she pondered my question. “It’s my routine. I can keep working as long as I don’t stop. It’s when I stop that it’s hard to get going again.” Her dedication to education and her career are so ingrained in her daily routines that she doesn’t even consider the alternative. That’s where genius lives.
As part of my MFA, I’m required to submit monthly writing packets of around 7,500 words. I was a wreck my first month. I’d somehow faked my way into an MFA full of real writers, and it was time to pony up. I wrung my hands, bounced my leg, and pulled at my beard worrying over how I could fake my way through 7,500 words that would end up in the hands of my mentor, a seasoned, published YA author. After a certain point, the pressure of the deadline overwhelmed the pressure of my own Resistance, and I started writing.
I told myself to stay after work each day and just get 50 words on the page, and that’s where I learned my secret. Fifty words is a piece of cake. EASY. That’s 32 words right there. I could do that. Here’s the trick: I never stopped at 50. Never. In fact, more days than not, I’d crank out between 600 and 1,000 words, which brings me to the quote at the top of this post.
Pressfield’s allegory about Hitler might feel hyperbolic, but the subtle truth of it is unavoidable. It’s so easy for us to fill our time with things other than our passions that we eventually obscure our goals with the monotony of our own routines. To break out of our habits, we need to introduce a new one, preferably with a low barrier of entry. Every painting starts with a stroke that, on its own, looks ugly.