Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Artist’s Most Important Skill

By Steven Pressfield | Published: August 5, 2015

What single skill is most critical to the artist?

Can you stop following her?

Is it talent? Imagination? Mastery of her craft?

Is it profundity of insight, depth of compassion, understanding of human nature? A passion for truth? Capacity for hard work? The ability to overcome criticism and negativity?

Or is it something more crass, more commercial? The ability to brand herself? To network, to pitch, to create buzz?

In my opinion it’s none of these.

The single most critical skill for the artist is this:

The ability to sit down and do her work.

It sounds so simple. So obvious. It’s almost embarrassing to state it because it’s so self-apparent.

And yet …

And yet, how many people can do it? I mean really do it. Not in bursts and not on occasion. Not for three days or a week or for the duration of one novel or one screenplay?

How many people can turn off Facebook, close the door, and sit down and focus?

How many can stop drinking, stop partying, stop distracting themselves?

I’ve been in this racket for almost fifty years and I’ve heard every variation on “I’m a writer,” “I will be a writer,” “I know I can be a writer.”

Let’s examine this skill—the ability to sit down and work—which is not really a “skill” at all but something far more elementary and primal. It’s not a skill like carpentry or brain surgery, in the sense that you have to study it and work at it and eventually acquire mastery of it.

A child can do it.

A novice can make it happen the first time out of the box.

Nor is it a skill that requires talent or genius.

You don’t need an IQ of 138 or a degree from Stanford.

This skill has three components:

1. The negative. This is the ability to NOT do what you know you shouldn’t. It’s the capacity to say no. Alcoholics Anonymous is built on this component. “I will NOT take a drink.”

2. The positive. This is the flip side of #1. It’s the ability to take action, to DO what we know we should. This is “Put your ass where your heart wants to be.”

3. Duration. The third component is the ability to enact #1 and #2 over time.

Have you heard of Mussar (pronounced moo-SAHR)? Mussar is a spiritual discipline from Jewish mysticism. It’s like a mental version of yoga or the martial arts.

The first two principles of Mussar are:

1. Identify the sin.

2. Cease engaging in it.

I love this concept. (It’s really the principle behind AA.) Mussar is the opposite of psychotherapy. Adhering to this discipline, we don’t spend years investigating why we can’t stop following the Kardashians.

We identify the sin: keeping up with Kim.

And we stop doing it.

This is the artist’s skill. Nothing could be simpler.

The sin is not doing our work.

The solution is doing it.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

40 Responses to “The Artist’s Most Important Skill”

  1. August 5, 2015 at 4:54 am

    Great post Steve.

    Being able to sit down and do the work seems very easy. I know this. My main struggle is this very issue, and the more I’m paying attention to my resistance, the more I’m noticing how sneaky it is. Even though I know exactly what it is that I must do, the resistance appears as a voice in my head working endlessly to convince me of waiting until a more perfect time to start my mission.

    A very sly form of procrastination I suppose.

    • Angela Baker
      September 2, 2015 at 10:40 am

      “The art of writing (painting etc.) is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

  2. Mary Doyle
    August 5, 2015 at 5:27 am

    I’m guilty of a lot of this Steve, but following the Kardashians has never been one of my sins. Thanks for distilling this important reminder though – “sit down and do the work.”

  3. August 5, 2015 at 6:22 am

    It’s funny, but yesterday I spent quite a bit of time thinking about getting off Facebook. I hate Facebook (since forever) and mostly use it professionally, except for grandkid photos of course! Anyway, I watched myself squirm mentally as I considered deactivation or elimination of my profile. I couldn’t believe the inner resistance going on, even for a stupid time-suck that obsessively, hypnotically eats up chunks of my daily productivity. As you say, identify the sin. OK, I got that far. And then, cease engaging in it. Humm… I’m still thinking about it.

  4. August 5, 2015 at 6:33 am

    Great post. Great insight. Simple and obvious, but still, so hard to do and maintain thanks to sneaky resistance.

  5. Cathy
    August 5, 2015 at 6:36 am

    I appreciate you.

  6. August 5, 2015 at 7:02 am

    I love you. That is all :)

  7. GeorgeH
    August 5, 2015 at 7:15 am

    As usual, brilliant.

  8. August 5, 2015 at 8:07 am

    Thanks for this reminder! I wanted to write more but I have to excuse myself and get back to work!

  9. Fernando Verano
    August 5, 2015 at 8:19 am

    Great post, Steve! Simple and true.

  10. Patrick A Horton
    August 5, 2015 at 8:21 am

    I am guessing this will not be posted, but I lost your email and will respond to this post here, beginning with I agree it is half right, or, rather, a step short in what really works – beginning with your observation on AA and defining anything you do on what you are not going to do. In reality, when AA works, it is not remotely around thinking about or resisting taking that next drink… It is about providing something else to do that also helps provide a new way of being and doing that does not include the use of alcohol or other dependencies. Anything else is doomed to fail. There has to be a next and a something else. So, in your reference to belief systems or the resistance, the first skill for the artist is in recognizing the distraction or opposition. The next is not in just deciding to say no, but in knowing how to sit down and do something else. It is what that something else is that makes art and artists. It is in not knowing how to aim for that that art and artists fail and whole societies become built around distractions and shiny objects. The skill of artists, healers, and change agents is being able to listen differently than others, to go where that calls on them to go, and in finding their way through, capturing and re-presenting something of that journey and its discoveries for themselves and for others. The discipline to sit down to divine and define what that call is about is a crucial step and necessary habit. It requires bringing into relief what you are after, not just avoiding or resisting what you are against.

  11. Sinakhone
    August 5, 2015 at 8:33 am

    Steve – I’m a friend of Bill’s too! No wonder I relate to you and your writing resonates with me, especially as I was reading your book “Do the Work” last week. It’s helped me get back into working on my outline for my current Sci-Fi-War-Disillusionment-Redemption Screenplay (Shawn – This film has two Protagonist. Is it doable to have two internal genres? One for each PT? Like they both start out seeking redemption and one defects and aligns with the Antsgonist cause he starts to go through a disillusionment plot forcing his brother to continue the internal genre of a redemption it.) anyway, I especially appreciate your clarification on theme and figuring out the ending and working backwards confirms my training from ScreenwritingU and my process and let’s me know I’m heading in the right direction. Can’t wait to sink my teeth into “The Authentic Swing.” I just got figure out how to get it out of my kindle in my old phone.

  12. August 5, 2015 at 8:50 am

    Alright. F#@%! Time to get back to work.

  13. BING
    August 5, 2015 at 9:15 am

    On paper this article looks really good. It is linear thinking. Last April I received my 47 year coin from AA for not drinking alcohol. I am a Pro at not drinking. I have mastered two rules. #1 do not take the first drink and you will never get drunk and #2 do not ever think for one second that I can return to alcohol and be OK. If you bring in how long have I been sober an old timer will tell me I have 4 years because I took two hits off a joint back then. If you want to really go nuts discuss what sobriety is. I also have it because I went down on my knees that God removed my desire for alcohol. I KNOW God does not want me to drink. I am an artist and have a resistance habit that is so bad I would have died years ago if it were alcohol. I am not even sure God wants me to be an artist. It is like a story I once read by a Rabbi on the first verse of Genesis. He said,’ there are 900 variations to the first verse of Genesis and there should be’. I think today’s topic is way more complex than presented and it is also dead on. There is probably 900 variations on resistance and there should be.
    Thanks for listening,

  14. Aaron
    August 5, 2015 at 10:30 am

    Now you’ve done it. You’ve boiled it down to one simple thing. How can I come up with an excuse now?

  15. Nick
    August 5, 2015 at 11:35 am

    Great post. I once heard James Cameron state in an interview that he doesn’t consider himself the most talented writer, the best director, or anywhere close to being a great artist. However, what he said he does believe about himself is that he’ll physically outwork anybody, anytime, anywhere to bring his vision to life.

  16. Patrick
    August 5, 2015 at 11:39 am

    I need to hear this today. Everyday. I’m a Tarheel, but I will gladly receive this kick in the nuts from a Duke man.
    Something that seems so doable, five hundred words a day, proves to be so incredibly difficult. In med school, my lab partner called it ASSPOWER. The ability to sit your ass in one place and do the work. Why is it so much more difficult in creative endeavors. I write a chapter, feel so delighted, and it’s a month before I sit down again. Amateur stuff.

    I will not mow the grass and trim the hedges now. I will sit and write. (after I post this…resistance is a deceptive joker).

    • August 5, 2015 at 3:21 pm

      Asspower, that’s great. I love it!

    • August 9, 2015 at 1:55 pm

      I found your question, “Why is it so much more difficult in creative endeavors” interesting.

      I’m going to take a wild guess. I think we like the — -idea —of being a writer.

      • Nick
        August 9, 2015 at 2:02 pm

        True creation takes time and energy. There’s no way around it. Especially if you want it to be any good. And you’re never truly “finished” with it. Like being a parent. You don’t create a baby and are done after 9 months. It’s a lifetime commitment to creating a good human being.

  17. August 5, 2015 at 11:43 am

    Great kick in the pants – I needed this. Thank you and God bless. :)

  18. Rob Ross
    August 5, 2015 at 12:46 pm

    Another “Jewish concept” that applies…..a Yiddish word, “zitsfleisch”. Loosely translated to mean “the ability to sit and do intellectual or artistic work for an extended period of time”…….it was specific to sitting and studying the Torah for hours on end……without looking at Facebook…..

  19. August 5, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    On one hand Steven as always gets to the heart of the problem. On the other like many things putting this into practice either gets bogged down in the less effective questioning of therapy or simply overwhelmed by the intimidation of a blank canvas or screen.

    Recently, I looked at the work of the Heath Brothers who borrowed the concept of the Elephant and the Rider.

    While I absolutely agree that the bottom line is that artists need to do the work, there are details that will help them get on the path to recovering their inner artist as Julia Cameron talks about.

    I write more about this – Master the Dance of Creativity

  20. Brian
    August 5, 2015 at 1:32 pm

    Dear Steve,
    I rarely use “Dear” in my emails. You deserve it today. I’m having a shitty day. My car blew up two hours before and important meeting. Costs could be from $500-$3500. That is not helpful. I retired from the Army National Guard in 25 days. My paycheck is cut in half and I really don’t need additional bills.

    I am not like the other kids on this post. I do not write for a living. I have a folder on my Mac that’s filled with crap that is brilliant and shitty. It really depends on my mood.

    I do create however. My wife and I have failed as a import business, and maybe ( The jury is still out) created an animal rescue that is the sustainable. We do a race up and down stairs to raise money for the rescue. Sunday was our fifth annual event.

    I am familiar with, and comfortable, with physical resistance. As a soldier I have been way too hot, too cold, too tired, too scared, and to operate. And yet, I have delivered.

    Being a soldier, part of the tribe, makes the effort easier. We do not let others down.

    Creation, in any form, is a singular effort. You can only let yourself down. That is so familiar, it looks like Monday.
    I hate that it is so hard. I would prefer for my lungs to scream at me than to face the act of creation. You were right when you said it was easier for Adolf Hitler to start World War II and to paint a f-bomb picture.

    This shit is hard. I have a juvenile believe that at some point, life should be easy.

    I feel alone in this belief, until I read your blog. I prefer to suffer with others. It helps me. Probably more than you know.

    • Mary Doyle
      August 5, 2015 at 5:08 pm

      Brian, I’m sure you’d rather hear from Steve than from some stranger (and maybe you will), but after I read your post I have to tell you that I think you’re the real deal. You’re going through hard times, but you’ll get through them. You’re right – this shit is hard. Resistance is dogging you because it senses your strength so it has to redouble its efforts – I’m pretty sure that if you turn around right now you can kick it squarely in the ass. The followers of Steve’s blog are not all kids who make their living as writers – I’m 63 and still trying to wrestle down my first novel. I’m rooting for you now as well as for myself. Hang in there – God bless!

      • August 6, 2015 at 8:18 am

        Thank you Mary. Your kind words & thoughts help. Have a great day.

  21. August 5, 2015 at 2:13 pm

    Such a simple idea, but when you are self published like I am, tending to the “business side” eats into sitting down & writing. I am deep into book two, but still must find the time to market book one. Excellent post, now back to work!

  22. P...
    August 5, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    So simple! Love the post!

  23. Fran Civile
    August 5, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    Thank you for that article Steven! 1.,then 2. are doable but 3.doing it over time seems to be the problem … and that’s why AA only asks to do it one day at the time!

  24. Mary
    August 5, 2015 at 7:12 pm

    Ah yes… thank you Steve for reminding me of what I already know. Doing the work. Why is it so hard when it comes to drawing, painting, writing, etc.. I’m a late in the game, art student and a former dairy farmer …which means I already know exactly what you talk about. Showing up, milking, every 12 hrs on the minute, every single day. No work week, no vacations no Holidays, just the rhythm of the work in health, sickness, and under every type of weather imaginable. And year after year the magic just happens, a full bulk tank, a healthy herd and fine genetics …the result of showing up every single day without even thinking about it. Thanks for the reminder …I already know how to make this second career successful. And thanks for keeping up the work!

  25. Esther
    August 5, 2015 at 10:18 pm

    “Put your arse where your heart wants to be.” So simple yet bang-on. Thanks Steven for another thought provoking post.

  26. August 6, 2015 at 10:18 am

    In Yiddish (and, I hear, in German) this concept is called sitzfleisch, which means exactly what it sounds like. It’s not always the brains in your head that matter, but the meat on your bottom.

  27. Wila Phillips
    August 6, 2015 at 10:42 am

    God I just hate identifying sin and then having to cease engaging in it. But that’s the Baptist my parents tried to drum in me talking.

    Great article, thanks so much. Now leave me alone, or you two will be leading me into damnation and away from writing.

  28. Becca Jenkins
    August 6, 2015 at 7:12 pm

    But what about when “doing the work” becomes counterproductive to other aspects of your life? Sometimes sitting down every evening and locking yourself in a room is no better than alcohol when it comes to the bigger picture of your life.

  29. August 7, 2015 at 1:40 pm

    As always, you nailed it! Years ago when I was in my real estate days my broker manager told a group of us newbies that the winner’s cup goes to the guy who shows up for work, ready to do business, every day. Not some days, not just when the sun shines, or when it rains and it isn’t nice enough to be doing something else. Every day. Quality of life is also about finding a balance though, since writers draw from our personal well of experience and emotions. Therein lies the crux of the matter; figuring out what to keep, and what to give up. For me, setting a schedule for writing is an important piece of the puzzle that allows me to keep on keeping on, and gives me a focus for what needs to be done.

    I was also reminded back in those real estate days that in order to succeed, you must do at least three things every day that contribute toward your career. For writers, it doesn’t take the place of writing, those are the things you do in addition to writing. I think it was you who once said that research isn’t writing, Facebook and Twitter aren’t writing, and talking about writing isn’t writing. Only writing is writing.

  30. Jose
    August 8, 2015 at 12:57 am

    Well, I don’t know what the fk is wrong with me. I’m brilliant. I produce dramatic change for the good. I win national championships, consecutively. I testify before congress. I help build strategic vision.

    But I am getting my ass kicked by my own life. The lessons of life in family court are that there is nothing to do with justice in family court. I have hovered over suicide the last two plus years, 22 vets a day kill themselves, that number is exorbitantly higher among divorced vets. So each day above ground is a win.

    I’m trying to get my degree, and I just can’t finish the work. When I do the work, I always get A’s, excellent work. But mostly I can’t bear to sit down and do it. WTF do I care about the LGBT culture? What can some hack professor teach me about cultural diversity in the work place? I’ve had co workers from Nigeria, Poland, Saudi Arabia. I’m about to be kicked out of school on Monday, I depend on that VA school money to live and eat, and see my kids. Everything I earn at work goes to lawyer fees, child support, spousal support, bills, etc. So when I get kicked out of school Monday, I will have to find a place to put my things. Sleep in my car. Life will be simpler. I literally lived in a hole in the earth I carved with my own hands for 7 months. I can do life in a car.

    I saw a shrink, actually a couple. I have a TBI, a mild one. I can start, but it takes a team for me to finish things, or a ridiculous amount of ritalin. I am a powerful ship, that is utterly rudderless. Intermittantly I steam ahead, or drift aimlessly on still seas. Mail piles up, I can’t answer it.

    I saw the shrink and she asked me, “Why are you here? Tell me what’s going on with you?” I talked for about 20 minutes, and she started crying. I wasn’t bothered. I was glad that someone was really listening to me. I cried too.

    A few weeks later I had to go meet an investigator to go over my background. It was my turn for the federal government to crawl up my butt and go over every detail of my life, my choices, my assets, my debts, everything. People actually lie on these things! What the hell for? They know everything about you already. Right down to the kind of porn you like. I give em all they ask for, I share every ugly little thing. I spoke to her for most of the day, she cried off and on throughout the day.

    I’ve been done badly by a grateful nation. I accept it. I model the reaction society shows me. If they dont care, it’s not a problem. It would kill me to let the pain overtake me. I accept defeat. I hover there, because it keeps me alive one more day. I don’t know how I am ever going to get out of this hole, it just keeps getting deeper. The courts have a way of digging in on a man it’s relentless. It doesn’t matter how many wrongs the ex does, even admitting them, or how many orders she breaks. If a man can’t pay, he can’t even get a hearing, hire a lawyer, nothing. I am a cash cow. A slave.

    But I still have my decency and dignity. I will not go out another statistic. Another “poor veteran.” Thank me for my service? That’s the worst thing you can do. I don’t spend my day thanking people for paying taxes. It was my job, just like your job. Don’t put me on a pedestal. If you ask me, that’s a big reason why so many guys kill themselves – the hypocrisy of it all. They believe all that “Thank you for your service” stuff. Maybe they thought they could cash in on it. But the reality is people like to associate with veterans by saying thanks because it makes them feel connected, or absolved in some way. But when Johnny comes back looking for a break, a job commensurate with his previous station, well, he simply hasn’t paid the same dues that your mid level manager with their Bachelors degree did. He is shuffled out the door. That service means next to nothing. The country is still locked in WWII in its perception of American figthing men and war. The people that actually do the fighting and the dying are very few. When someone dies, we know a guy that knew him. Americans have no idea aobut the complexities of all facets of the job. It’s humiliating to go from that to this. But whatever. I’ll figure it out.

    Sitzfliesch… I’ll use it.

  31. Jana
    August 9, 2015 at 2:37 pm

    I’ve worked a recovery program for a long time. Stopping a behavior, an addiction at least, was not possible for me to maintain. I needed a strength outside myself. Same with sticking to a healthy habit or goal. I’ve had success surrendering (in my case to Jesus) and being willing to give up personal comfort in exchange for personal growth. I’m at peace now. I tried but couldn’t do it on my own.