The battle cry of the contemporary writer is: You must discipline yourself to write every single day.
The most often quoted contemporary writer, at least as I’ve seen on social media, is Stephen King.
There’s a paradox happening between those two statements. In King’s book, On Writing, he states that when he writes, he writes. When he’s not writing, he’s not writing.
But, but, but, but how can he do what he does and stand so far at the top if he’s not writing every single day?
From my own experience, and what I’ve gleaned from those I know at the top of the heap, writing isn’t something Mr. King does, it’s who he is. He doesn’t have to be writing to be a writer.
Charles Dickens, one of the most astonishingly prolific writers we’ve ever had, did not write every day. Milton did not write every day (Milton? Yeah, John Milton, that literary giant who came just before Shakespeare and whose shoulders we all stand on). Shakespeare did not write every day. Stephen King does not write every day.
Here’s the part where I could give a grocery list of bestselling contemporary writers who do not write every day, but I’ll spare you the tedious reading and cut to the chase:
I don’t write every day. To do so would be death to my process. Before I explain my process, how I ended up with agents calling me and asking if they could please represent me, and how I ended up on this site, quoted with the likes of Goethe, Proust, C.K. Chesterton, and Betty Edwards, first go to the Mirriam-Webster Online Dictionary and ask yourself how many definitions of “discipline” appeal to you. Are you into being punished, penalized, self-controlled, castigated, or rules that govern your conduct and activity? (If the link doesn’t go directly to the definition of “discipline” you can type it in yourself.)
Is writing, or any other creative endeavor, something so dreadful that force is needed getting you on the job? I understand there are fears and road blocks we all face with our creative cores, and sometimes we must smack them in the face so we can get on about our business, but I think we might have the entire thing backwards and upside down.
We’re slaying the wrong dragons.
I dig writing. I mean dig it down to the bottom of the bowl. When I’m writing, that’s all I’m doing. When my first novel, now long out of print, was surprisingly accepted by 48 publishers and agents after I sent out query letters, I gave that sucker one more edit and didn’t come up for air, sleep, food, or drink for over 36 hours. I loved it. When I was writing the screenplay that won a Gold Medal at Worldfest Houston (the largest screenwriting event of its kind at the time) and had my phone going nuts with agents calling me, I tweaked that thing around the clock, snapping and snarling at any person or responsibility that dared enter my Faustian den of pleasure.
When I write, I write, and I’m a bitch on wheels.
That’s where discipline enters the picture.
We’ve all read The Writers Manifesto, right? No? Then consider reading it. It’s who you are, not what you do, and the book does what Stephen King does in his book. They give you permission. Have at it, kiddo. Rip off your skin and roll in the mud of your bohemian creative selfish self.
Do it. Be aware of what happens when you do. Feel the conflict you’re facing, and I’ll bet you dimes to donuts you’ll find where the need for discipline enters.
Yeah, yeah, there’s fear in creating something, but dig it–you’ve been battling fear your entire life. Remember the first time you got behind the wheel of a car? How about that first kiss, or having a baby, or getting married, or the first day of college. We’re pros at dealing with fears of failure that carry dire consequences, fears of success that will turn our worlds upside down, fears of inadequacy and proof we’re great big losers.
So what’s your problem with your writing or painting or starting a business?
The problem is: This is the Big One. This one belongs to you and only you. Nobody can do it like you do, even if there’s a lot of struggle learning the basics of how it’s done. In the shadows you cast on the cave wall, you see the outlines of something so bitchin’ it makes you ache, and you know your reach is perfect for the grab.
And here it comes. Resistance. Panic. Fear. Holy shit! Gimme some discipline so I can get over this rotten feeling.
Cruise Amazon and you’ll find a whole bunch of cutting edge research into talent and habit and discipline. Read until you’re nearly blind, but do so from the perspective of turning everything upside down. When you look at discipline, don’t think of the practice as it applies to the core of who you are, but rather as all those must-must-must do things in life that get in the way of total abandon to your core self.
Here’s how it’s worked for me. My process. If you recognize yourself in it, great. If not, praise the Lord and pass the mescaline! You’re a hunter looking in every corner and taking away whatever bits and bobs that create your own process. Love it.
My biggest fear with writing is how quickly and deeply I can resent those I love most. Looking back on the first phase of my writing career, I remember getting up at 4 a.m. pumped and ready to hit the keyboard, then the dark cloak of dread as my family woke up one by one, tearing me away from the good time I was having. There was no discipline involved with getting up early, and no conditioning of habit yet in place so I could switch gears and connect with my kids, enjoy them.
I couldn’t see or understand what was happening at the time, but with distance I’m now safe enough to see the shameful dread of hating my family–my little tribe I loved so much–slowly shifting to something safer. The writing. It had to be the writing causing the sick feeling in my stomach, causing the fear, causing the sensation I was going to blow apart at any second. No way in hell the sweet faces of my family rumpled with sleep and the anchor of my sanity could be causing all those nasty feelings. No. Not possible.
I learned to fear writing. It was safer.
I quickly joined the ranks of those with a fear of the creative process, but the real terror lay in being a less-than-perfect mother. Even now as I face down this realization, I’m pausing at the keyboard, feeling shame and regret. Kids are little geniuses at picking up on things we think we’re hiding so well. How much insecurity did I instill in my daughter with those angry eyes she looked into first thing every morning? Is it messing with her life today, years after the fact? Will I do it again? Just how deep is the well of my hedonism? (Probably not at deep as my well of melodrama.)
I now wonder how hurried and impatient was I with my mother during the last years of her life because I really didn’t care if she needed me. There was a WIP back home that needed me more–I needed it. Writing soothes me in troubled times, intensifies the good in good days, perks up the dull days. My mother was dying, and I needed my writing to get through it, but didn’t dare fall into the writing because when I’m writing that’s all I’m doing.
Did I hide my frustration well enough? I sure hid it from myself because I eventually viewed my writing as an interruption on the more important matter of tending to my mother. Everything was packed away and the keyboard retired. She had my full attention. I never understood why she felt so guilty about dominating my time and seeing herself as a burden. She was my mother, she was exiting this world only once. Didn’t she understand how much she meant to me, how much I’d miss her when she was gone, how important it was to spend that time with her?
Looking back, I think I’m the one who didn’t understand the bold brush strokes of resentment that painted my expression during those years.
I hadn’t yet learned how to turn the concept of discipline upside down and apply it, with grace, to the fire inside of me for language and story and thought. I had no self-control, no chaotic balance, no ability to let go of the myth of being the perfect daughter. I had no rules of conduct governing my behavior that let me move in and out of my writing and my need to be with my mother. I loved her then and I love her now. I could have made those last years easier if I’d understood discipline better. I think she would have liked having me sit beside her bed with a keyboard and hearing the clickety-clack. Mothers like hearing the sound of their children constructing an independent life.
But I misunderstood disciplined writing back then. I hadn’t yet learned the balance between two powerful needs and how to control them within my self.
There’s a famous cartoon drawn by James Thurber of him and his wife sitting at the dinner table. He’s quiet and looking at his food without motion. His wife is leaning forward with agitation. The caption reads: “James! Stop writing!”
My husband now walks in the house every day after work, opens his iPad and reads newspapers from around the world. He ignores me completely, and that pisses me off. But I wonder if I’ve taught him that habit. How many years did he come home bursting with enthusiasm after a day of fulfilling work and wanting to share it with me, only to have me look at him as an unwanted Thing intruding on the good times I was having with imaginary people and impossible thoughts.
How long did it take my basic nature of compassion and altruism (I take no credit for those character traits, 100% inherited from my great big loving father) and twist them around the throat of my writing, choking it to death. Creating failure so I’d stop being unkind to someone I loved.
I love him because he’s not an idiot, because he cares deeply about me.
He doesn’t ignore me today, he’s learned the habit of stepping back and getting out of my way. I taught him that behavior with my micro-expressions, my sighs of discontent, my own distance.
If your writing isn’t disciplined to wind down without resentment, you’ll end up distanced from it. It’s inevitable because we humans are programed to minimize discomfort. We’ll learn to see our creativity as something to be feared and held at a distance. But distance from one important element in your life will generalize into distance from all things important in your life.
We learn fear of the wrong thing.
For me, someone prone to anxiety and phobias, I developed an irrational, but unrecognized, connection between my writing and all the bad things that happened in a two year period during the time my mother was making her transition. My mother-in-law and father-in-law both died, and our daughter ran off to Austria and married a rock star with wild hair down to his butt. That’s the short list.
Everything got so muddled in my head that I jumped far away from whatever naughty, hedonistic, untamed wild thing I was doing just before it all went down. The only thing that drove me before it all began was my writing, and man-oh-man, let me tell you, I was loving every minute of it. Selfishly enjoying every single second of the struggle.
So I quit.
No. You can’t quit who you are. You can pretend, fool yourself, immerse yourself up to your eyeballs with lies, but it doesn’t work. That’s how I ended up on that site with quotes from other heavyweights of writing and thought. I was painting and sculpting and working as a photographer at the time, noodling around on the internet during my down times as a way to relax. That’s what I believed, but the noodling was my way of finding a way to keep writing on any and every forum I could find. Even when people contacted me, asking if they could quote me for this or that publication, I still couldn’t see that I was crafting words, working language and telling stories.
The breaking point of my delusion came in the early hours of the morning while working on this painting.
It’s called “Against The Storm” and came out of nowhere. As it evolved I became overwhelmed with fear. I had a full-tilt studio happening where my formal living room should have been, but I tore it apart and packed it away, replacing it with all my reference books, locked away manuscripts, laptop, and folders of reference notes. The world had flipped for me yet again, and I had to get my writing back in place and ready to go quickly before something awful happened. By dawn, I sat at my newly re-purposed work table, bent over my notebook and cried.
All of this melodrama could have been avoided, or at least tempered, if I’d had the right kind of discipline in place. A rock steady foundation of habits supporting the architecture of my creative self.
But that didn’t happen because I wasn’t aware. I listened to voices of authority coming at me from the outside. I hadn’t spent enough time in silence to hear my own voice of authority. I hadn’t grown up enough to realize I was the one driving my bus and needed to learn how to control it.
When Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed the Harvard Divinity class, the administrators who had sought out his words of wisdom nearly swooned at what he had to say. He told those young scholars who had worked and studied for year to forget everything they’d just learned. Go out and experience the world, experience yourself, explore everything you can. If anything you’ve learned here at Harvard is true, you will discover it for yourself.
I’m working my way home to my own voice, my own authority, my own process that is true and right for me. The exploration won’t end until I end.
I’ve learned a few tricks along the way that might be of use to someone else, but it’s best if we first struggle in silence finding our own process and truth. (Most of those truths will be universal, if we listen carefully and dig deep.) With that in mind, I’ll make my exit with my secrets untold and encourage anybody reading this to explore the role discipline plays in your unique world. Is your understanding of it upside down? Are you disciplining the right beasts? Are you questioning every lesson you learn and discovering things for yourself?
One thing is certain, and that’s discipline. As a creative, you’ve got a power party of language and stories and thoughts happening inside of you and fighting to be cut loose.
How are you going to tame something like this?