Recently, I read two books about the creative process: Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art and Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. Both books explain the process of creating finished, shipped work out of nothing. Both also believe that human creation is the most important endeavor in the world, and they want you to both want to help and have the tools to do so. From ten thousand feet, they are exactly the same book.
Zoom in a little more, though, and they aren’t at all.
Tharp is a choreographer, and the examples from The Creative Habit come from the dance world. Pressfield is a writer, and The War of Art’s examples are all about writing. There is a larger difference between the attitudes that the two authors have toward the creative process. Tharp’s goal is to leave you comfortable enough in your creative skin that you can be free to make things, and she explains her entire creative experience from beginning to end to ease you into comfort. Pressfield has given up on comfort entirely, and wants you to do the same; rather than tell you what creation is like, he casts it as a war, and says that you should treat it as such. It will never be comfortable, he says, and the sooner you give up on comfort, the better off you’ll be. This distinction, of course, comes through in the books’ titles. Tharp wants you to develop a habit; Pressfield wants you to win a never-ending war.
Why is it good that both books exist?
The top-line message of these books is important for the world to hear. We should all be making and sharing art, in whatever form each of us is inspired to make. Therefore, any increase in the number of ways people can hear that message in the world is an improvement.
Different versions of different ideas can also work better for different people. The Creative Habit is friendly, nurturing, and reminiscent of a conversation with a friend who wants to see you succeed. The War of Art is in-your-face, combative, and feels like getting yelled at by a drill sergeant. The latter tone worked much better for me, but your mileage may vary.
The last reason, and to me the most compelling, is that one of the two books is probably better. As humanity moves forward, it continually keeps the best technology it has access to, throwing out less efficient things. Ideas are no different; we keep the ones that work best and forget the rest.
In mathematics and science, the “best” expression of an idea is the most concise one. Einstein’s e = mc^2 and Euler’s e^i(pi) = -1, for example, are equations that would be very difficult to improve on.
The War of Art is a much more concise work than The Creative Habit on many levels. First, it’s much shorter in total. It has fewer chapters. I would guess that its average sentence length is shorter. This suggests that The War of Art will be the longer-enduring version.
I vastly prefer The War of Art to The Creative Habit. Pressfield is a writer, and his attention to craft shows through. Not a word is wasted, and the whole book buzzes with energy. I also enjoy that the combative tone of the book matches his message. Creation is war; just as there is no room for quarter against the resistance, there is no room for a single wasted word in his work.
Everything worthwhile that you say in your work has already been said by someone else. That’s okay. First, if you and someone else both independently wanted to say it, it’s probably worth saying again. Second, we still want your version. It will probably be different, and it might even be better.