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Chopping Wood with Steven Pressfield

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

Like the writer Steven Pressfield, we must fight The War of Art and never let "Resistance" block our creative pursuits. To blaze our own artistic trail, we must keep chopping wood.

“How many pages have I produced? I don’t care. Are they any good? I don’t even think about it. All that matters is I’ve put in my time and hit it with all I’ve got. All that counts is that, for this day, for this session, I have overcome Resistance.”

- Steven Pressfield, from The War of Art


After a stint in the Marine Corps and years as a bartender, trucker, and cab driver in the ‘all guts, no glory’ mayhem of 1970s New York City, Steven Pressfield dreamed of becoming a writer. One thing stood in his way: Resistance.

As he explains in his ‘get off your ass and do the work’ books on writing, Resistance is a force that favors immediate gratification while blocking your long-term artistic, fitness, or entrepreneurial goals. Resistance is the invisible force that keeps us from writing the novel, starting the workout, or launching the business. Resistance comes in many forms and tries to block us every day. Resistance is fear, procrastination, addiction, distraction, rationalization, and even altruism – anything that keeps you from your creative goals.

In his celebrated masterpiece, The War of Art, Pressfield writes about the day he finally got his shit together and attacked Resistance. Poor and desperate inside a New York City sublet, Steve dragged an ancient Smith-Corona typewriter out of the closet and began, “torturing out some trash that I immediately chucked in the shit can.”

After two hours of typing, Steve stood up from the table, walked into his cramped kitchen and began washing ten days’ worth of dirty dishes. As the running water warmed his hands, he scrubbed, rinsed, and dried each dish. As he did this, Steve noticed he was whistling a happy tune. After years of battling Resistance, Steve reflected, "I had actually sat down and done my work.”

Years later, at 42, Steve finally sold his first screenplay, King Kong Lives. The film failed miserably at the box office. Around this time, Steve completed his first novel; the next day, he started the next one. Neither books were published; yet, Steve never quit. Each day, he sat down and did the work. Each day, he beat back Resistance until finally, ten years after his King Kong flop, Steve’s novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, was published. He was 52 years old and had one book to his name. True to form, Steve kept writing. His next novel, Gates of Fire, not only became a best seller, it’s still studied at the Naval Academy, West Point, and stands tall on the Marine Corps Commandant’s Reading List.

Now 79, Steve has written and published twenty books all together, including his new memoir, Government Cheese. Like any great artist, athlete, or entrepreneur, Steve gained mastery by ‘chopping wood. Each day, he hacked through a forest of Resistance to eventually – after decades of work – blaze his own trail as the world’s premiere writer on the artist’s journey and craft.

Do the Work

Before practice, my college football coach often told the team to “chop wood”; that is, to get in one rep after the next at practice. Because eventually – over the weeks, months, and years – those reps add up to the difference between wins and losses, between you starting or riding the bench. Ever the Marine, Steve sees the writer’s journey in similar tones. “The writer,” he says, “is an infantryman. He knows that progress is measured in yards of dirt extracted from the enemy one day, one hour, one minute at a time…”

That night in his apartment, Steve began chopping wood. Every day since, he’s been swinging the axe. As Steve says over and over again – even entitling a book with its name -- to produce beautiful art you must Do the Work.

Every artist who inspires me is a wood chopper. And every day, new trees of Resistance attempt to block their work. So every day, they start swinging. Every day, they do the work.

  • Barbara Tuchman toiled for 8 hours writing the opening paragraph for The Guns of August. Wood chopper.

  • Bruce Springsteen agonized for an entire year writing the song, Born to Run. Wood chopper.

  • Steven Pressfield wrote draft after draft and book after book for thirty years until one was finally published. Then he wrote nineteen more (and counting). Wood chopper.

The Never-Ending War of Art

When addressing an artist’s retirement, Steve writes, “there is no finish line. No bell ends the bout. Life is the pursuit. Life is the hunt. When our hearts bust… then we’ll go out, and no sooner.”

The Barbarian in You never retires. He inspires. When we pursue activities we’re drawn to do, we will suffer setbacks, bad luck, and failure. Yet, as barbarians, we can never wave the white flag and let Resistance block our creative pursuits. We must show up each day with a sharp axe and chop wood. In doing so, like Steve, we’ll start whistling a happier tune.

To close things out, I’ll give Steve the last word, taken from his last paragraph in The War of Art:

“Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”


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