Do The Work Wednesdays

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The Artist and the Addict

By Steven Pressfield | Published: May 18, 2011

The artist and the addict are not very far apart, are they? Often they’re one and the same. A blues musician or a painter can be an addict one minute and an artist the next. He can be an artist and an addict at the same time. On Tuesday you’re rocking the casbah; on Wednesday you’re checking in to Betty Ford. Why is that?

Bob Dylan

“It may be the devil or it may be the Lord,

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

If Bob Dylan is right in Gotta Serve Somebody (and I think he is), we all do have to pick our masters. The question is whom.

The artist and the addict (or the artist/addict) both face the same dilemma each morning. Will they serve their higher nature or their lower? Between the two stands Resistance. Like gravity, Resistance exerts a pull back to earth. Its object is inertia. Resistance doesn’t want you to do something evil. It wants you to do nothing.

Resistance wants you to go back to sleep, meaning remain unconscious. Resistance is always selling the easy way, the shortcut, the cheap shot. Resistance urges the artist/addict to slack off from, to sidestep, to avoid, to run away from, to not do. It wants you and me to stay shallow, to remain superficial, to continue unfocussed and uncommitted; to accept mediocrity, to avoid pain, to back away from the fight.

The addictive substance is Resistance’s ally. The addictive substance wants the same thing Resistance does. The addictive substance is the free ride to unconsciousness and to surcease from pain.

We’re all human, and the human condition hurts. How do we make that pain go away? How do we get to that place where we can set down our burden, close our eyes, draw an easy breath?

I’m no expert; I could be wrong. But it seems to me that the road turns two ways. If you serve the devil, the ride is free. Serve the Lord and you have to work.

The thing about the Muse is, when she gifts you with inspiration—the idea for a new album, a ballet, the impetus for an act of love or commitment—she dumps the job in your lap and says, “Jane, take over.” The Muse doesn’t do the work for you. She can’t; she’s not here in this material dimension.

You and I are the only ones here. We have to work. That’s the sign. That’s how we know the inspiration is real.

But to say we have to work is only half of it. Not only do we have to work, but we have to perform that work in the teeth of fear, isolation, self-doubt and self-sabotage. Often we have to labor in the face of opposition—fierce opposition—from the people closest to us, who love us the most and whom we love and whose approval we seek. We have to fight our bosses, our mentors, our religions, our pasts and our beliefs about ourselves and what we’re capable of.

The addictive substance is different. When we take that airline, we fly for free. Not only is no work required (other than the labor of acquiring the addictive substance itself), but there’s no imperative to wake up or to elevate our consciousness. On the contrary, the payoff is lack of consciousness. Oblivion is quick, visceral and gratifying. The pain goes away.

We’ve all done it. We can be addicted to crack cocaine or Haagen-Dazs, to love or hate, to our husband, our cause, ourselves. It all works. It’s all easy.

The addict and the artist are both struggling to emancipate themselves from the tyranny of the ego. The petty, piss-ant ego that devalues and undercuts and holds us earthbound. The addict gets off one way, the artist another. The addict/artist yo-yo’s back and forth. When she’s an artist (or reaching by any means toward her higher self) she somehow finds the courage to take the slow, hard, unglamorous path. When she’s an addict she grabs the EZ-Pass.

We all bounce from one form of service to the other, don’t we? I know I do. And none of us is really fooling himself. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but we all know which master we’re in servitude to—and we can’t hide from the knowledge that no one has made the choice but us.

Posted in Do The Work Wednesdays, Writing Wednesdays

33 Responses to “The Artist and the Addict”

  1. May 18, 2011 at 3:00 am

    I think it is important that we never loose sight of the fact that, as Steven King says: We drink because we are alcoholics. It’s that simple.
    Everyone who set their sights on a higher calling experience resistance. It’s only a select few that are predisposed to have it manifest as substance abuse. Substance abuse certainly is an effective tool for resistance, but if we kick the addiction, we will have to deal with the next thing resistance employs against us.
    Also, there is a passage in The War of Art that complicates the picture, namely about substances sometimes providing a door into the realm of possibility. When I drink, I sometimes have a vision of the other life, my unlived life, and how close it is. Everything seems clear and straightforward. I think non-alcoholics can safely use alcohol or pot to unlock the door to their dreams and actually weaken resistance from time to time.

    • joann bennett
      June 15, 2011 at 11:50 am

      Stephen King is wrong…Alcoholics drink because they LIKE it. They same with resistance. You gravitate towards it because You Like it.

      Joann.

    • etl
      June 7, 2013 at 6:44 pm

      I also disagree with Stephen King or the idea of an “alcoholic” as propagated by AA and the popular culture who accepts it as the only way of thinking about alcohol and drug abuse. There are other ways of thinking about it and solutions, like those suggested by SMART recovery. The idea that certain people have no control over a substance is hogwash, we all have a choice, like battling resistance, to do the work of staying sober. After making that choice it can get much easier and we can get deeper into enjoying the results of a life without drinking or drugs.

      I agree with most of what Steven says above except that I don’t believe that the drugs and alcohol are a totally free ride; sure, they get one to a different consciousness easily, but with the junk, the pain accumulates more deeply and alters our willingness, self trust and actual time in purgatory much more than if we stay sober and do our work.

      I’ve almost finished the War of Art and have found it an auspicious gift that I really needed at this time, thank you.

  2. May 18, 2011 at 4:44 am

    I just want to say, although it’s not very witty or novel, that you have made a monumental difference in my life by continuing to write about this subject. I invoke my own muse (almost) everyday and otherwise do everything I can to show up, do the work and fight Resistance. It’s not easy and it’s not glamorous and, so far, it hasn’t been particularly lucrative, but it is a whole hell of a lot better than the alternative route that I chose for myself for more years than I care to admit.

    So, yes, this is a fan letter. You rock. PLEASE, for the love of God, keep doing what you do.

    • May 22, 2011 at 11:40 am

      Amen, Sister!! What she said. I completely agree with and relate to every word….so add my vote to the encouragement to keep writing about this. It truly helps us all every day as we collectively battle the resistance.

  3. May 18, 2011 at 4:54 am

    Lots of wisdom here, Steven. Congrats and thank you very much!

    I think I just can’t put in words the good things I’m becoming able to see (and, yes, do) since I read The War of Art, Do the Work (from you) and Poke the Box (from Seth Godin).

    It’s nearly impossible not become a “man of action” (or Man in the Arena, as Roosevelt have said) after reading and understanding you message.

    Thank you very much!

    Best regards,

    Douglas

  4. Paul C
    May 18, 2011 at 5:07 am

    The addiction/resistance battle is also expressed in Steve Winwood’s “Can’t Find My Way Home”

    Here are the lyrics:

    Come down off your throne and leave your body alone – somebody must change
    You are the reason I’ve been waiting so long – somebody holds the key
    Well, I’m near the end and I just ain’t got the time
    And I’m wasted and I can’t find my way home

    Come down on your own and leave your body alone – somebody must change
    You are the reason I’ve been waiting all these years – somebody holds the key
    Well, I’m near the end and I just ain’t got the time
    And I’m wasted and I can’t find my way home

    Winwood had a “Can’t Find My Way Home” Contest and he sings it here beautifully on YouTube:

    http://youtu.be/eoSn2Y-b6wI

  5. May 18, 2011 at 5:45 am

    Every comment (thus far) has
    been posted between 3-5am.

    Do Artists/Addicts
    need to be nocturnal?

    Thanks for the insights,
    and the inspirations.

    • May 18, 2011 at 10:54 pm

      I live in Denmark, so no, I keep very sensible hours :-D

      • May 19, 2011 at 10:22 am

        Thanks, John and Ulla. That is the greatest exchange we’ve ever had on the Comments page. And without a wasted word!

        • May 20, 2011 at 10:05 am

          If I didn’t know you to be a very kind man, I’d think you were mocking us.
          Thank you for this very timely and interesting series.

  6. May 18, 2011 at 6:34 am

    Excellent post. I heard it put another way last week that also made sense:

    All of us are growing all the time. Growth is painful. Change is painful. Addiction is our means to keeps from growing and changing, to keep the pain away. Addiction intentionally stunts us.

  7. May 18, 2011 at 6:56 am

    Stunning post.

    Addiction is like a quest for God turned inside out. Like you said, addicts and artists both crave that sense of — transcendence and meaning and fullness — it’s a question of whether you’re willing to work for it or submit to the illusion that someone or something else can do that work for you.

    And how many of us are absolutely, 100% willing to work for it all of the time?

    We get so tired. We get so discouraged.

    We all have a way of finding that road to our vices, the ‘little’ addictions as well as the hard stuff. I know when I’m reaching for the EZ pass, even if it’s never going to land me in a twelve-step program.

    But maybe the addict and the artist feed each other: the empowerment and self-awareness that we must cultivate to navigate and stare down and dance with those addictions brings a new depth to our work (and to our willingness to get it done).

    The culture so often muses on why so many creatives are also addicts on one level or another. What would happen it we flipped that question around, asking why are so many addicts so talented and creative?

  8. skip
    May 18, 2011 at 7:18 am

    without passion, inspiration probably is wasted. i think first comes the passion. then you receive the gift from the Muse. the Muse serves those who have the passion, and no one else can hear her.

    • June 2, 2011 at 4:05 am

      This response makes the most sense to me. It’s all about “Passion” when the artist is in the creation spirit. I live it.

  9. May 18, 2011 at 7:50 am

    Thank you, Steven.

  10. May 18, 2011 at 10:13 am

    Wow, Steve this is so deep!

    I loved this:
    “I’m no expert; I could be wrong. But it seems to me that the road turns two ways. If you serve the devil, the ride is free. Serve the Lord and you have to work.”

    It’s true all of us have two choices and it boils down to whether we’re going to take the easy way out or actually do the work. The muse is no joke…she’ll give it to you, but you have to put in the elbow grease.

    Thank you for the reminder.

  11. May 18, 2011 at 11:57 am

    Thanks and thanks again!
    The resistance had been kicking my ass, it kept me off track for most of 4 months. I’ve finally got it under control over the weekend and I’ve written 3 blog posts with another one coming today.

    The most insidious thing about The Resistance is that most people don’t believe in it. It’s stealthy and uses guerrilla tactics. It’s from the oldest part of our brains, perhaps one day, the process of natural selection will weed it out!

  12. May 18, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    Hello,

    This is my first time here. Through a post that CopyBlogger sent out this morning, I was introduced to you and have downloaded Do The Work. I’m really looking forward to it.

    I don’t want to take up too much space here with my own “stuff”, but when I did work with Archetypes via Caroline Myss’ “Sacred Contracts” work, I chose both the Addict and the Artist as 2 of my personal 12. What you have said here certainly adds another dimension to that (especially since “Saboteur” is also one of those 12 – one that we all share in common, with Child, Victim and Prostitute).

    I’m looking forward to learning more about your work, and from your work. Thank you very much for making this available.

    Maybe it’s not too late to have the Life I’ve Dreamt of Living afterall ;-)

  13. May 18, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    …OK…so it was you lurking in the other room when I was swinging between the whom and/or what I’m serving today…rather tumultuous…outside in Colorado weather…and inside on facing some decisions. Thanks for exposing my posing. And thank you for all you blog…continue please.

  14. May 18, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    Addicted to resistance. The ultimate of all evils. Before I was Unconscious of my decisions, I couldn’t articulate the feeling, but your simple poignant words have given me the awareness and armor i need to destroy all resistance.

    THANK YOU!!!

  15. Sonja
    May 18, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    Wow! And wow, again. Thank you, Steven.

  16. marianne
    May 18, 2011 at 11:51 pm

    Busted!

  17. Craig
    May 20, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    Brilliant analysis. This little essay says more about addiction than many a book has. Art + addiction, as Mr. Pressfield says, is not either/or but both/and. We can choose instantaneous gratification or long-term projects and spiritual growth. The spiritual dimension is of course central to the effectiveness of AA, satisfying the alcoholic’s spiritual “thirst.”
    Years ago I worked on a NIDA research project on opiate abuse, and interviewed many heroin addicts. One said something I have not forgotten: “I would do ANYTHING for my lady.” The lady, of course, was heroin. That remark made it so clear how the simple, predictable, physical gratification of the opiates took the place of a human relationship.
    We feel pain, and reach for something to “fix” us. Junkies used to call a shot of heroin a “fix,” with great accuracy. A drink, a slice of cheesecake, a cigarette, or any other addictive substance or act can fix us…temporarily. These are palliatives, but they are reliable.
    Junkies often looked much younger, and acted much younger emotionally, than their calendar age would suggest. I think it is because they avoided doing the difficult, messy, challenging work of emotional engagement and growth—with human relationship(s) or with an art, craft, or any kind of work that involved a commitment to something larger than one’s own interests. It’s a much easier path to reach for a fix. The fix does make you feel better fast. But taking that short cut means you don’t grow up.

  18. May 21, 2011 at 6:47 am

    Resistance is those looking for the EZ pass for you thinking they are helping you.

  19. May 24, 2011 at 10:10 am

    I love the Dylan quote.

    It’s easy to get caught up focusing your passion, creativity and intelligence on a project that distracts you from your true calling. Satan doesn’t always appear as a hand-wringing imp. Sometimes he comes as an angel of light.

    Either way it’s still the easy way out.

  20. May 26, 2011 at 6:23 am

    Such true words. And the switch between the two is the challenge. It is always so hard to switch from the devil to the muse. But the opposite always seems so easy.

  21. June 2, 2011 at 6:16 am

    I would also like to add that when one follows their creative passion, it tends to be a lonely road. Aside from necessary rest, time away from one’s creative Passion is pure annoyance. Few artists are willing to risk abandoning themselves to their creative passion.

  22. July 3, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    Resistance has been there from as far back as i can remember. giving way to its influence resulted in pain, mostly a kind of psychic pain that was a little below consciousness, and almost impossible to connect with its source. Addictions are a psychic pain killer, and like other pain killers they just delay the suffering and eventually creates new kinds of pain to pile on top. Genetics lend a hand too. In my case addicts and alcoholics on both sides of the family. I’ve been a full time artist for 20 years now (with lots of odd jobbing to pay bills with wife and kids) and the last 15 of those have been living clean, but addiction is always there in subtler ways: internet, books, household repairs, chocolate, you name it. War of art threw me a life line in 2003, and my productivity in the studio doubled within a year (I’m a painter). But whenever I’m on a roll, I have “resistance relapse”. It gets subtler and subtler the damn stuff, I’ll give an example: I finally got into a pattern of getting up and starting work in the morning, I even got a punch clock for the studio so I could see in black and white how much or how little i was working, so instead of hitting me in the morning, resistance starts hitting me at night, nudging me more and more to delay getting to bed on time. So even if I get up and work early, I’m too tired and useless to perform -and on and on it goes. I’m not complaining -I decided to be an artist, no one forced me (actually people tried to talk me out of it) and thanks to Steven Pressfield I can at least see the battlefield. Has it all been worth it? Maybe someone can see from the outside: http://www.williamdowney.ca
    I enter the world of work tomorrow, at least for a few years to help get my family into the black -I’ll be driving a dump truck. But I will be painting evenings and week-ends. God willing, I will have some professional breakthroughs along the way, and I will jump back into the fray full time at the earliest possible moment. Thanks to SP for War of Art, looking forward to the new one too.
    W.D.

  23. Callan
    February 27, 2012 at 3:24 am

    Wow… this is brilliant. Thank you!

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