Two Short, Clever Books on The Writing Life

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, Black Irish Entertainment, 2002 and Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson, Canon Press, 2011.

Both these books are pamphlets (165 pages and 120 pages respectively). Both have short, punchy chapters that are easy to dip into or re-read as desired. Wilson ends his sections with a takeaway point and recommended reading. Both, as they are written by seasoned pros, have plenty of self-deprecating humor, laugh-out-loud moments, and pithy bits of wisdom. I aim to keep them on hand (as a writer should) as reference books, to be dipped into when I need good quotes about writing or need to have some starch put into me.

The authors are professional writers and also manly men. Pressfield is a former Marine; Wilson, a Presbyterian pastor. Interestingly, it’s Pressfield whose writing-about-writing is more mystical by far.

Pressfield’s The War of Art

The main thrust of The War of Art is that an aspiring writer (or, really, anyone aspiring to do anything good) will encounter Resistance.

The following is a list, in no particular order, of those activities that most commonly elicit Resistance:

1) The pursuit of any calling in writing, painting, music, film, dance, or any creative art, however marginal or unconventional.

2) The launching of any entrepreneurial venture or enterprise, for profit or otherwise.

3) Any diet or health regimen.

4) Any program of spiritual advancement.

5) Any activity whose aim is tighter abdominals …

In other words, any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity.

The War of Art, pp. 5 – 6

Pressfield then discusses the characteristics of Resistance, the fact that everyone experiences it, and ways to combat it. This is extremely helpful, because we tend to think we are the only person experiencing it.

When I began this book, Resistance almost beat me. This is the form it took. It told me (the voice in my head) that I was a writer of fiction, not nonfiction, and that I shouldn’t be exposing these concepts of Resistance literally and overtly …

Resistance also told me that I shouldn’t seek to instruct, or put myself forward as a purveyor of wisdom; that this was vain, egotistical, possibly even corrupt, and that it would work harm to me in the end. That scared me. It made a lot of sense.

Ibid p.30

About two-thirds of the way through the book, you get some Jungian explanations and you find out that according to the author, God, just like Resistance, is Within. Obviously Pressfield can’t develop all these ideas in this little pamphlet, so I’m still not 100% sure precisely what he means by some of his short essays. But you don’t have to completely buy Jung to benefit from this book because it tells us some shrewd psychological truths and confronts us about our character. The things it says are true, whether or not you also think (as I do) that God and Resistance both exist not only within but also outside of us. Some day I may do a post that explores more deeply how my understanding of Resistance compares and contrasts with Pressfield’s.

Doug Wilson’s Wordsmithy

Wordsmithy, being less Jungian than The War of Art, is aimed at a more specific audience. It addresses young people who want to be writers about the various things they need to do in order to become one: read widely, get some life experience in something besides writing, practice, play the long game, accept criticism, familiarize yourself with English grammar, vocabulary, and classics, learn at least one other language and more if you have opportunity, etc. It has much more content than War of Art (which is really just about one topic), despite having a lower page count. War of Art employs a lot of white space, sometimes with only a few sentences on a page. Wordsmithy is packed.

Much of what is in Wordsmithy is stuff that I have already been doing for years, some of it by accident, some of it by design. Some of it is stuff that I do, but not in the exact way that Wilson recommends. (For example, he suggests writers keep a “commonplace book” in which to jot quotes and ideas as they come to you. This is something I’ve done from time to time, but don’t currently feel the need for.) So in some ways, I’ve moved past the need for this book. However, I still plan to keep it around to mine for gems like these:

Read books of complaints about the decline of our language by word fussers and who-whomers, and read the hilarious refutations of those word fussers by word libertines. You can learn a lot from both. Anyone who can’t learn from a word fusser ought to have their head examined. A word fusser is anyone who would have a problem with the previous sentence.

… [perhaps] the reason your query letters are all getting round-filed is because of that apostrophe in the return address. It would violate a decent editor’s conscience to mail anything to “the Smith’s,” even if doing it with a self-addressed, stamped envelope. The Smith’s failed writing career is not stated, merely implied.

Wordsmith, pp. 54, 56

8 thoughts on “Two Short, Clever Books on The Writing Life

  1. I’ve read one or two theological oriented books by Wilson and was impressed. Didn’t agree with everything but he made his arguments clear and compelling.

    It addresses young people who want to be writers about the various things they need to do in order to become one

    Man, I wish more writers would follow the stuff that comes after that sentence. That is pure gold…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you think that small quote is pure gold, you’d really love the book then.

      Yes, completely agree about Wilson. I read a lot him when I was cage-stage Calvinist and was just getting the hang of this whole Reformed thing. The first thing by him that I encountered was a pamphlet he wrote satirizing IVP after they published a couple of books arguing that God is not sovereign. The pamphlet was called “Contours of Postmodern” Somethingorother, it used to margin notes to double up on the punch lines, and I was an instant fan.

      He has advocated a few things that have not worked out so well, such as the courtship model for modern Christian families. Luckily, because of the timing of when I had my kids, I dodged that bullet (only, no doubt, to walk into the path of another one … we’ll see).

      In his arguments, he sometimes paints with such a broad brush that he undermines his own argument. For example, equating all modern worship songs to “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands.” I’m sorry, but Awesome God is just not in the same category. But because he’s a such a gifted polemicist, he always super funny. Case in point, this book by him filled with writing advice I barely even need. It’s just fun to read.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hahahahaa!!!!!!!

        Your second and third paragraphs make me laugh a lot, because those are both concrete examples of where I concur with him πŸ˜€

        I read his courtship book (and own it) and I concur with his sentiments on modern worship songs.

        You couldn’t have picked better examples if you had TRIED! πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Heh, too funny.

        Please, please, please don’t go full courtship model with your kids until you’ve read Courtship in Crisis by Thomas Umstattd Jr., a person who actually tried to implement the courtship model, had a blog about how to do courtship, has interviewed gazillions of people who grew up in the courtship system, and has some keen insights about it.

        Also, Awesome God? Exactly the same as “Give me cheese on my Doritos, God is neato, neato, neato”? Really?

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Oops, so sorry! Foot deeply embedded in mouth, here.

        I am sorry to hear about you and Mrs. B.’s health problems but I am glad that you have each other.

        I still recommend you read Umstattd’s book. It’s interesting, and it might help you support your church friends and their kids when they enter the hellish fray of trying to find a mate in this modern society where there is no agreed-upon set of rules. I’ve thought of doing a post about it, but it’s super controversial and a little off-brand for my blog.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Don’t worry about it. I wouldn’t have mentioned it if it still bothered us.

        It is indeed a hellish fray and I feel nothing but sympathy and a quiet despair for the parents of today.

        Have you thought about doing a series of “off brand” posts and making “off brand” part of your brand? I guess I don’t think about brand beyond books. Everything else is fair game IF I feel like writing about it…

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Thanks for being so gracious, my friend.

        Yeah, there’s probably a way I could shoehorn dating and courtship in to my brand. After all, what’s a good novel without a doomed teenaged romance featuring disapproving parents?

        Liked by 2 people

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