When Steven Pressfield asked Robert McKee to write the foreword to The War of Art, he probably didn’t expect McKee to include a strong disagreement. You know, in the intro of HIS book. But McKee did it.
It makes McKee’s War of Art intro one of my favorite forewords ever, if not the gold standard for all forewords going forward. And I bet most people who have read the book don’t even remember it. Which makes it perfect for revisiting (and studying).
Let’s talk about what McKee is doing. Because it isn’t all diss. And it reveals why Pressfield got even more than what he asked for – in all the best ways.
McKee spends the first 3 quarters or so of the foreword teasing out the book, professing his love for Pressfield’s works, and even relaying his own struggles with “the resistance.” It’s perfectly standard foreword stuff.
And then he gets to the ending.
It’s a quibble, that turns into a logical argument, that lands on a “let’s agree do disagree.”
When he ends it though, the true magic is revealed. The diss just… I don’t want to spoil it. I tried to edit it down, but I just have to copy the whole passage in so you can marvel at this too (McKee’s words start and end with ***):
It’s on this point, however, the cause of Inspiration, that we see things differently. In Book One Steve traces Resistance down its evolutionary roots to the genes. I agree. The case is genetic. That negative force, that dark antagonism to creativity, is embedded deep in our humanity. But in Book Three he shifts gears and looks for the cause of Inspiration not in human nature, but on a “higher realm.” Then with a poetic fire he lays out his belief in muses and angels. The ultimate source of creativity, he argues, is divine. Many, perhaps most readers, will find Book Three profoundly moving.
I, on the other hand, believe that the source of creativity is found on the same plane of reality as Resistance. It, too, is genetic. It’s called talent: the innate power to discover the hidden connection between two things—images, ideas, words—that no one else has ever seen before, link them, and create for the world a third, utterly unique work. Like our IQ, talent is a gift from our ancestors. If we’re lucky we inherit it. In the fortunate talented few, the dark dimension of their natures will first resist the labor that creativity demands, but once they commit to the task, their talented side stirs to action and rewards them with astonishing feats. These flashes of creative genius seem to arrive from out of the blue for the obvious reason: They come from the unconscious mind. In short, if the Muse exists, she does not whisper to the untalented.
So although Steve and I may differ on the cause, we agree on the effect: When inspiration touches talent, she gives birth to truth and beauty. And when Steven Pressfield was writing The War of Art, she had her hands all over him.
Right down to the last paragraph, McKee doesn’t want to budge an inch on angels and muses. But he’s doing this on purpose. He’s doing it to make a point.
He’s starting a war.
By showing how to end a war.
By showing there’s only one way to end the war you’re fighting with yourself, and your resistance, and your art.
Everybody has to make their own peace with their own struggles. And the struggles are real. The dissenting approaches? They’re even realer. Wherever our inspiration comes from, we only need a way to capture it and put it to use. This internal/external muse concept, combined with McKee’s link back to the simplicity of finding multiple causes tied to the same effects, is the root of all individuality in storytelling.
It’s not really a diss after all. It’s a teacher letting a student know he’s become a master. And what is a master, but a fellow teacher.
McKee is working us from the foreword. He’s telling us we’re going to disagree with stuff in the pages ahead. He’s also showing us that the effects are the same. So if he can set his disagreements aside, we can too. Hell, we might even understand our own positions better thanks to the clarity Pressfield wins out.
War is clarifying. Beating resistance is clarifying. The struggle is within us.
And most impressively – McKee never forgets he’s writing a foreword. He’s sucking us in to kick us off – at every level. He’s teasing a whole book in a few pages as a most highly respected soldier who’s survived his fair share of godless-foxholes.
Which is why he even makes sure Pressfield “wins the girl” in the last sentence. McKee sticks his landing and gets out of the way. Because this isn’t his book, and he knows the rules.
We the readers are reminded who the hero is (us!), or at least who our new heroic guide is going to be with our own struggles (Pressfield, for the next 160ish pages!), as readers and writers of our own works (TBD!).
A torch is being passed. We are witnessing a fully formed and perfectly executed setup of a setup. McKee is a master. He has fought and won his own wars. He will fight in them again, with guides like Pressfield to explain the winningest strategies.
McKee closes his opening routine with the crowd chanting, “Pressfield, Pressfield, Pressfield” – hyped up and awaiting the first words of Chapter 1.
Best. Foreword. Ever.