Book Review: “Do the Work” by Steven Pressfield (2011)

Steven Pressfield is a novelist akin to Conn Iggulden or Bernard Cornwell, fixated on individuals or events from the distant past and able to bring those experiences and stories to life in a tangible, sense-pleasing way. This short piece of non-fiction is his step back, his breather from the daily grind of creating fiction to teach aspiring writers around him a little bit about how it’s done. The information he shares, however, isn’t geared only to writers: he focuses on anyone seeking to begin a new venture, for it’s the newness of the venture itself (whether a novel or a start-up) that invites creativity’s worst enemy, Resistance. When all’s said and done, Do the Work is really a manifesto against Resistance, and as such, it should be catalogued with other sappy “inspirational” books rather than the meatier “how-to”s of writing.

Pressfield fills his pages with pithy lines against Resistance and towards Action. Sometimes these lines are helpful, and other times they’re merely psychobabble. It’s really up to the reader to decide which is which, though he should also be prepared for the occasional bit of vulgarity, albeit “inspirational vulgarity.”

Two of the more helpful lines about writing that I’ve added to my list of quotations are these:

“We can always revise and revisit once we’ve acted. But we can accomplish nothing until we act.” (10)

“You’re allowed to read three books on your subject. No more. No underlining, no highlighting, no thinking or talking about the documents later. Let the ideas percolate. Let the unconscious do its work.” (13)

This second line goes against my normal inclination in preparing to write a new novel, for the research stage is one of the most exciting for me. Attempting to limit my reading and, even worse, my record-keeping would be a challenge that could drastically affect the way I write. It’s at least worth considering.

While I do not know much about Pressfield’s background, he makes one statement about his religion that I’ve reread a number of times and still cannot quite understand. Describing a popular improv exercise, he writes:

“Here’s the exercise: Imagine a box with a lid. Hold the box in your hand. Now open it. What’s inside? It might be a frog, a silk scarf, a gold coin of Persia. But here’s the trick: no matter how many times you open the box, there is always something in it. Ask me my religion. That’s it. I believe with unshakeable faith that there will always be something in the box.” (11)

If anyone can describe what in the world that means, I’d be interested in hearing an interpretation. Because if one’s own imagination is that into which he can place his “unshakeable faith,” it doesn’t offer much hope for anything beyond the here-and-now, and as such sounds like a pretty hopeless religion!

This tiny book might prove helpful for anyone suffering from a “brain burp” or “writer’s block,” as it forcefully attacks Resistance with the weapons of inspiration and perspective. Overall, though, I figure you could get the same type of prodding from reading Tweets from your favorite author or hero, so Do the Work isn’t really worth acquiring, especially if it costs you any money.

©2016 E.T.

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