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?