On Discipline, Dedication, and Devotion

photo by Alice Popkorn

I’ve been thinking a lot about discipline as my current deadline comes screaming my way and contemplating the different ways we can approach writing. Although it is the one most talked about—and brandished with Puritan-like pride—discipline is not the only relationship that writers can have with their work. There are two others approaches as well: dedication and devotion.

But first, let’s talk about discipline.

For me, the word conjures up parochial school and the military, riding crops and rigidity, grim determination and lots of slogging.

Discipline is sterile, harsh. Discipline is the barbed wire fence that corrals our creative enthusiasm in order to force to actually flow in a meaningful and productive way.

I absolutely believe that discipline plays an important role in our growth as a writer, and seems especially important and useful at the very beginning when we’re flirting with this whole new seductive idea of writing. At its most positive, discipline is the building of new muscle stage. Discipline is the axle grease we apply to our flighty, frivolous perception of what is actually involved in learning how to create something.

Dedication is another thing entirely. Dedication suggests voluntary commitment rather than rigidity.  Dedication is calm and measured. There is no element of harshness or punishment in dedication. If discipline is the stick, then dedication is a voluntary willingness and desire to reach for the carrot without the threat of that stick.

Dedication implies a level of mastery. It is the point at which you no longer need to apply discipline because your creative work flows out of your own organic desire to do that work.

Dedication is the point you reach where you understand that a hard day writing is far more satisfying and rewarding than a hard day at just about anything else. It is also about creating your identity as a writer, seeing what marvelous things you can do with those newly built muscles.

And then there’s devotion.  Devotion implies joy and zeal and ardent affection. I think of it as the big yellow Labrador puppy approach to writing.  It is a process oriented stage. It encompasses dedication and can appear from the outside to look a lot like discipline, but its origins are very, very different. When we are devoted to something, there simply are few things on earth we’d rather do or spend our time with. It’s not just about what you want to say or create, but involves the very act of creating itself.

It’s like acquiring any new skill, it takes a while for it to become a part of our new skill set patterns and habits. But at some point, our internal motivation should shift.  I mean, we’re all writers, so we do know the importance of motivation, right?

At some point we should consider the possibility of not having to continually force ourselves and simply wanting to do what is needed. We are drawn toward rather than goaded into the act of writing. Writing should draw us in, either the challenge of it, the puzzle of it, the marvel of it, or simply to have accomplished it.

So what do we do when we find ourselves stuck in the grim slog of the discipline stage? I think we need to let go. We need to give ourselves over to the process rather than the end product, at least in the short term.

So, how do you make that jump from the discipline stage to dedication?

  • You practice discipline for so long that it carves a niche in your life that only writing will fill.
  • You feel a shift in focus from content to form and craft.
  • At some point – whether through rejection letters or beta readers, — you become aware of just how much you don’t know about writing. Instead of letting it discourage you, it creates a fierce obsession with learning more craft.
  • Throw ideas about the market out the window and write about things you are passionate about, questions you want answered, human behavior that repels or fascinates you.
  • Try to give up writing — try to walk away and see if you can.  If you come running back to it, you are most definitely in the dedicated stage.

 

And what about the devoted stage? What might help your writing shift so that you practice it with the zealous ardor of devotion rather than simple, steadfast dedication?

  • It’s about giving free rein to your obsessive and personal tics and possibly unsavory interests.
  • It’s about suspending judgment of not only the work, but of yourself for being interested in those things in the first place.
  •  Consider having a secret love affair project or projects that you protect from the publishing side of writing.
  • There is a subtle re-shifting back from form to content, and the story is the thing.
  • The story becoming the most important thing — the characters, the truth, the world—are all more important to you than your publishing contract, critical acclaim, or sales figures.

For some of us, devotion brings us to the table initially, but it is only after acquiring discipline that we will be able to make any meaningful headway in acquiring the necessary skills we will need to bring our stories to life.

For others, it is a conscious act of discipline that has us initially sitting down. We are completely unaware of the deeply hidden forces in our own soul that are compelling us to do this.

And then of course, we all have those days (weeks! months!) where all bets are off and the most devoted among us must dig deep and find the discipline to get us through a rough patch, or even as we grimly slog, we are granted a glimpse of what the joy of creating truly feels like.

What about you? How do you approach your writing–what stage are you in? Are you happy with that stage or is it time to consider a slight shift in perspective?

 

 

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About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.

Comments

  1. says

    What a fascinating way to look at our writing lives! Thank you for sharing this, Robin. I think I’m mostly in the dedication stage myself right now. Or at least I am aspiring to that “fierce obsession with learning more craft” :-)

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  2. says

    Thank you, Robin! This is one of those posts that I will print out and add to my collection to read when I am having a difficult day. Inspiring as well as beautifully written…

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  3. says

    I’m struck by the ‘life long introvert’ mention in your mini-bio. Providing 14 YA books to enrich hungry young minds is a thunderous outreach deserving respect and celebration. No sign of shrinking violet that. We all have our ‘blissfully quiet hill’ when we’re really into it. No matter that mine is pool table flat Florida, when writing, it’s blissfully quiet.

    Your post was thoughtful, profound, enlightening and appreciated.

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  4. says

    I had no trouble with the discipline from the onset through the first draft. And I think I’ve found my dedication in what’s come since. Sometimes it felt like having the stubbornness to persevere (note the presence of the word ‘sever’ in that last word). But I do believe that through rewrite and rejection and critique and more rewriting, I’ve gone beyond dedication (or stubbornness). I’ve discovered devotion, and you’re right–it lies beyond reward or external validation. Makes me grateful for my dedication (stubbornness).

    For me, it takes no discipline to read WU every day. I suppose I’ve been dedicated to it for a long time. But posts like this one, and contributors like you, Robin, make me devoted. I’m grateful for that, too.

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      • says

        Thanks a lot for the earworm, T! As payback, I might ask about your dedication to piña coladas, and maybe getting caught in the rain.

        Dang, in my first comment, I meant “Severe” rather than “Sever” but I suppose they’re both pretty harsh. Worked out alright.

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  5. says

    I love this post, Robin, especially your suggestions for being devoted to the work. Fall in love; focus almost obsessively on the good stuff and go happily blind to the rest of it. Thanks for sharing.

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  6. says

    Robin-

    You had me at riding crop.

    But seriously, this post blew me away. So much wisdom…

    “Dedication implies a level of mastery. It is the point at which you no longer need to apply discipline because your creative work flows out of your own organic desire to do that work.”

    And then to go beyond that to define and describe “devotion”? Wow. You must have been born on a mountaintop. I’m in awe.

    I had a bad morning. Getting my kid to school was a struggle of Biblical scale. After drop off, I fumed on the subway to work. Fellow passengers, I’m sure, saw the cartoon thundercloud over my head.

    Then at a crowded stop a woman stood in front of my seat carrying a Lululemon tote. On it was a collage of inspirational messages like, “Breathe Deeply” and “How you see the world is a reflection of how you feel about yourself.”

    I breathed. I thought. I got off the train and sat with a coffee. I felt better.

    That’s how I feel reading your posts. Thanks for leading us to the mountaintop every month. The air is clean and good. We’re breathing deeply.

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  7. says

    Devotion means getting to the point where I look forward to turning on Freedom (macfreedom.com – available for PCs, too) to block the internet and protect my writing time, instead of it requiring a Herculean effort to force myself to stop wasting time and get to the next hard task in making the fiction work.

    I’m not quite there yet, but I can see how much better it will feel: this is a choice, and no one wants it more than me.

    I’ll try to remember your words: devotion sounds like the destination I want.
    Alicia

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  8. says

    Wisely considered, intelligently plotted, richly written.

    I read with interest, nodding my head at your words — and who amongst us doth not identify? — yet true to my obstinate character, I discovered I apply these 3-Ds of writing in reverse order. With apologies to Descartes, I write and paint, therefore I am, drawing on skills learned so long ago that they are visible in medical testing, part of my DNA, flashing on an MRI. The devotion is my pulse, the dedication is my private calendar and secret stash, and I would venture that the discipline is that which involves “the world,” that pesky step I have yet to conquer.

    However, being a non-success — I refuse to utter the “F” word! — I resolve to apply your principles in the correct order, accepted by those published and well-agented, and I’ll see how that works, because honestly, my way isn’t. I live in the woods, and that is no metaphor!

    So, old dog, time for new tricks. Roll over!

    Discipline! Thanks, Robin and thanks, WU. (And yes, now I have “Hopelessly Devoted to WU” as an earworm…)

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  9. says

    This is such a great way to look at the process!

    I hit each of these at different points with every book I write, but I can also see them (in, thankfully, the right order) in my slow evolution as a writer. Devotion is definitely what brought me to it in the beginning, and I had to learn discipline and grow into dedication. I’m still fumbling my way into (back into?) devotion -a far wiser and more self-aware version of it, after so many years of trying and failing and finally succeeding- but I’ve hit my stride a few times recently, and it’s a fantastic feeling.

    Robin, thank you for posting this. I think I need to print it out and tack it to my wall over my desk.

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  10. says

    Well, Mara Buck, I don’t know what you think you’ve failed at ’cause I’m ready to buy whatever you put out. LOVED your comment! Skills ‘visible in medical testing’ floored me. Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.

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    • says

      Ah, thanks, Alex Wilson. Your lips to the ears of the publishing gods, but I’m afraid that discipline with a capital D is smirking at me; a long cold winter is forecast, and my teeth are no longer sharp enough to munch on acorns.

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  11. says

    Oh, wow! What great distinctions you make. I was educated in a Convent school. There was discipline, dedication, and most definitely devotion. On any given day these days, I have one or all three of the dispositions. Right now, since I’m nearing the end of revisions, it’s all devotion. There’s just so much love for the work, and so I come to it in the same way as I pray the rosary.

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  12. says

    I love the way you describe each of these stages, the nuances that distinguish them. Thanks for the tips, too. So much of writing, like any craft or sport, is mental.

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  13. says

    It seems to me that dedication and discipline both flow out of devotion. Writing every day over a long period of time is hard. In fact, the word “hard” doesn’t begin to describe the difficulty level. Writers put ourselves through that pain because of devotion. Stated more simply we do it for love.

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  14. says

    I love your posts. And I will selfishly believe that you wrote this for me today. I have been slogging through this second book on my contract, longing for the feelings of devotion I had for my first book. They aren’t happening. I’m working strictly with discipline here, and it’s wearing me out. Thank you for reminding me to let go and to shift my perspective. I do love this. I love traveling down all my obsessive little roads. I just forget that I love it when there’s a deadline. Something to consider in the future.

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  15. says

    I could use some discipline, certainly, but I think dedication is what keeps me afloat!

    Though when comparing puppy enthusiasm, Doberman puppy is the example I have (there’s one on my couch, what can I say?). Focused at times, doesn’t know when to stop, and sorry, it might hurt once in awhile (Those paws fall where they will….Elka’s love is not a gentle one).

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  16. Sevigne says

    I love this post. It immediately reminded me of my mother whose workroom and fitting room occupied two rooms in our house (a tall skinny Georgian row house off the Old Marylebone Road). My mother was a visionary who was offered the chance to create a billion-pound niche in the fashion world as direct competition to Mary Quant and turned it down. Because she wanted to remain the master of her work. Every day, except on Sundays, she was in her workroom by about 9.00am and stayed there pretty much until 9.00pm, except for short beaks to cook and eat and walk the dogs. But every Thursday (I discovered many years later), she would take the afternoon off to stroll down Bond Street, look at the art galleries, and visit her favourite pâtisserie, where she would consume a napoleon (apparently, her favourite pastry). She was self-disciplined to the utmost. But more than that she was as you’ve said devoted. She was master of her craft and her imagination.

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    • Sevigne says

      short *breaks* (not beaks)…she was fond of birds, but as I far as I can recall none ever did the cooking for us or walked the dogs.

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  17. Lisa Threadgill says

    Probably because I’m contrary (it’s the Irish, what can I say?), I would say that for me, Discipline and Dedication emerged from the enchanting visage of Devotion somewhat like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. And then proceeded to beat me about the face and neck until I accorded them their proper due. What I have found, is that any one of the three lacks, and it is only by embracing them as a whole can I call myself a writer.

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  18. says

    Thank you so much for this post, Robin. It really made me think about where I’m at right now. I was flush with devotion and dedication for a beautifully long time, but disappointment with the publication process has knocked me back to mere discipline, which is a good deal less satisfying. There have been a number of other articles that have been poking me about this, but yours is the one that helped me put language to it. I need to immerse myself back in the world of my novel(s) and rediscover dedication and devotion, where the process, the story, and the how of expressing it is what spurs me on.

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  19. says

    Wow! Thank you! What an incredible post. Very insightful:) The road from discipline to dedication to devotion. I could relate to so much of what you wrote. Thank you for posting this. I guess for all of us there’s that moment when we wake up and go: OMG there is so much to learn! And then if we just keep going… these incredible other levels open up. What a magical journey.

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  20. says

    Beautifully conceived and gorgeously said. Yes, I too am a devotée. Yet devotion doesn’t amount to much without dedication and discipline, does it? And without the celebration and joy of devotion, the other two would be utterly miserable. I love how you’ve shown just how entangled they all are.

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  21. says

    Loved the post! I think it’s ultimately devotion that gets me past all the other challenges of the business, particularly on the marketing end. This is the quote for me: “The story becoming the most important thing — the characters, the truth, the world—are all more important to you than your publishing contract, critical acclaim, or sales figures.” And devotion is what allows one to find ways of telling that story despite all the obstacles, taking risks with the story and its forms, and daring to break the rules.

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  22. Scott McGlasson says

    I read this blog daily and I have to say this is one of best entries I’ve seen so far. More than likely this is due to it speaking right to the core of my experience with writing so far.

    I’m a complete newb and as such still trying to get into a groove. I’ve spent the last year researching, outlining, imagining and such, but haven’t yet been able to force myself to sit down and start banging out a first draft.

    I’m convinced it’s because part of me is intimidated by my own story and characters. Somehow I don’t feel like my current skill level can live up to their potential, if that makes any sense to anyone.

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  1. […] So…about BAtF, that YA supernatural thriller I am writing… I was on a roll for pockets of times rather than consistent all the way through so I’m sad to say I haven’t made much progress. Time to change that. If I want to write one or more manuscripts a year, I need to hunker down and stop playing around. Discipline, Dedication, and Devotion. […]

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