“The Inflexible Routines”

Tennis Ball at Sunset
iStockphoto: 33ft

 

I was withdrawing deeper into myself, isolating myself from my surroundings, settling into the routines—the inflexible routines—I have before each match and that continue right up to the start of play.

3 July Rafa cover on same page as Jo Rowling coverThis is from Rafael Nadal’s sometimes surprisingly candid book, Rafa, written with John Carlin. Listen for that light, self-effacing Majorcan accent, our Mediterranean catch of the day, emphasis mine:

I repeat the sequence, every time, before a match begins, and at every break between games, until a match is over. A sip from one bottle, and then from another. And then I put the two bottles down at my feet, in front of my chair to my left, one neatly behind the other, diagonally aimed at the court. Some call it superstition, but it’s not. If it were superstition, why would I keep doing the same thing over and over whether I win or lose? It’s a way of placing myself in a match, ordering my surroundings to match the order I seek in my head.

Were you moved by our colleague Robin LaFevers’ recent Writer Unboxed piece? Her 3-D piece. On Discipline, Dedication, and Devotion.

I was moved. Because she used the Oxford comma in her headline. I may ask for her hand in marriage.

I was also moved, you’ll be relieved to know, for two other reasons:

  1. LaFevers named some of the more elusive, soul-centered elements of our work. They have to do with willpower.
  2. She did it without getting maudlin. Not a single verse of Kumbaya.

It’s about giving free rein to your obsessive and personal tics and possibly unsavory interests. —Robin LaFevers, On Discipline, Dedication, and Devotion

Earlier this month in New York, it was borderline unsavory when some of the commentators at the US Open chuckled at how Nadal refuses to step on a line on the court between points. He always steps over the lines, not on them. Chuckle all you want. He has some $60 million in prize money. Makes you want to step right over some lines, no?

Watch Nadal play for 20 minutes and you’ll be familiar with that trademark series of fast moves he makes at the baseline before each point. Personal tics on parade. He plucks the left shoulder of his shirt. Then the right shoulder. His shorts get a tug. The sweat is wiped off his nose. His hair is pushed back over his left ear. His nose gets another swipe. His hair is pushed back over his right ear. Only after all this will he play a point. Every time. Same moves. In the same order.

Greg Garber at ESPN has written that Nadal looks like a baseball manager sending signals. I think it looks more like he’s genuflecting. Those moves are prayer.

What’s going on out there on the tennis court is a lot like what LaFevers is saying might need to happen at our desks.

She writes about discipline:

You practice discipline for so long that it carves a niche in your life that only writing will fill.

And 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.

And devotion:

When we are devoted to something, there simply are few things on earth we’d rather do or spend our time with.

I ate what I always eat. Pasta—no sauce, nothing that could possibly cause indigestion—with olive oil and salt, and a straight, simple piece of fish. To drink: water. — Rafael Nadal, Rafa

Isn’t it odd how impatient we can be with our own “inflexible routines”? As if there’s something wrong with the habits we create around the work that means the most to us. What if the so-called ruts are where we’re safe enough to do the great work?

Everything Nadal describes is part of a routine.

As you may know, he won the US Open this year, after being sidelined by serious injuries—he had to watch last year’s tournament on television during a seven-month hiatus. He has had what S.L. Price at Sports Illustrated calls an “unbelievable comeback year.” He looks stronger than ever, and on hard court, not just on his native clay.

What Nadal shows us about discipline, dedication, and devotion, is that these three dimensions of focused endeavor don’t hold still in a neat progression for us. When you lose a set, it might just be the discipline of those “inflexible routines” that makes you rededicate yourself to turning the match around.

Did you notice how many of the comments following LaFevers’ post here at Writer Unboxed seemed to be about which of these components should come first?

Three excerpts:

  • “I think it’s devotion that gets me past all the other challenges.”
  • “Yet devotion doesn’t amount to much without dedication and discipline, does it?”
  • “Disappointment with the publication process has knocked me back to mere discipline, which is a good deal less satisfying.”

No one questioned how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, fortunately.

But what if discipline, dedication, and devotion all shift around us simultaneously?

Then we must shift between and within them. LaFevers writes:

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.

Willpower - white cover - by Baumeister and TierneyNadal’s devotion plays out its imperative. After winning the Open and beating Novak Djokovic for the 22nd time, he lies on the court, face covered, seconds ticking away, a long time for network television and 23,000 fans and the queen of Spain to wait. But they do. Until his discipline ends the indulgence and stands him back up again.

Nadal writes:

The secret lies in being able to do what you know you can do when you most need it.

LaFevers writes:

Writing should draw us in, either the challenge of it, the puzzle of it, the marvel of it, or simply to have accomplished it.

And somewhere between a tennis court and a keyboard, these two folks are saying the same things to us.

Studies described by Baumeister and Tierney in their book Willpower tell us that discipline is weakened by fatigue from too many small decisions, too many niggling details—dithering over what to wear, when to eat, whether to work out.

The theory here would be that Nadal, 27, is preserving his best disciplinary energy, in part by not making decisions, not questioning the tics or what he’s going to eat or whether he should step on the lines.

“Don’t get into a rut.” What if that’s just an old husband’s tale?

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

Not to put words into LaFevers’ or Nadal’s mouths, I’m the one stressing structure here. And not even I would argue that allegiance to an overly strict construct makes any sense.

But when you hear talk about the “joyous chaos” in which creative types are supposed to revel, you’re hearing from people who aren’t creative. The discipline reflected in a few “inflexible routines” can anchor dedication and devotion. I’ve seen a lot of chaos. Little of it has been joyous.

I say step over the lines if you need to.

Go through your obsessive litany of preparation. That silliness may turn sacred any time now.

“Place yourself” in your work. Call down the order you seek in your mind.

LaFevers:

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.

Nadal:

For all the passion and work I had invested for so long in trying to make myself as good a tennis player as I could be, this was truly something I had never imagined…I understood that I had made the impossible possible. I was, for that brief moment, on top of the world.

What do you think? Have we put too much emphasis on this “get out of that rut!” business? Is it possible that the repetitive dependability of “the inflexible routines,” even our little tics, may be what we need more, not less? How much routine comes into play in your work? 

 

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About Porter Anderson

@Porter_Anderson, BA, MA, MFA, is a journalist, speaker, and consultant specializing in publishing. Anderson is The Bookseller's Associate Editor for The FutureBook in London, a sister site focused on developments in digital publishing. He is also a featured writer with Thought Catalog in New York, writing on publishing and on #MusicForWriters in association with Q2 Music. In 2015, Anderson has programmed the IDPF Digital Book Conference that opened BookExpo America (BEA) and is programming the First Word event at the Novelists Inc. (NINC) conference later in the year. And he is working with the Frankfurt Book Fair on special programming for its new Business Club suite of events and facilities, now in its second year, 13-16 October, in the 2015 Buchmesse. More on his consultancy, which includes Library Journal's and BiblioBoard's SELF-e among its clients in 2015: PorterAndersonMedia.com | Google+

Comments

  1. says

    Routine is paramount to my writing regime. My life feels chaotic in so many ways–children, cars breaking down, what happens in the publishing world–and also completely out of my control. What I can control is that perfect cup of coffee next to my desk at the appointed hour, the same time every week. This is how I am a writer, this is how I dedicate myself to a task and progress toward my goal.

    I’m a firm believer in traditions, patterns, and visualizations…or call them inflexible routines if you must. They open up a portal within and set the mind into action.

    Another great post, Porter!

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    • says

      You know, Heather, I can tell you value these routines even in how you write of them — the cadence here is lovely:

      “This is how I am a writer, this is how I dedicate myself to a task and progress toward my goal.”

      Just in that sort of rhythm, we can hear reflected your cultivation of what I call the “repetitive dependability” of these things, which I think most of us need in creative work.

      Good for you, great to know you’re so well experienced in finding and generating the “inflexible routines” you need for yourself — to my mind, this is one of the most important elements of self-nourishment any artist can offer him- or herself.

      Thanks for reading and for such a lucid comment, as ever!

      -p.

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  2. says

    Porter,
    I loved the connection you established between Robin ‘s excellent post and Nadal’s routine. I’m a big believer in discipline and structure. John Wooden used to say his legendary UCLA teams won all their games through relentless and disciplined practices. Their practices were so effective by the time the game started it was all muscle memory. I have to check out Nadal’s book. Thanks, Porter.

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    • says

      Hey, CG!

      Thanks, as ever, for being such a faithful, gracious reader, and I’m really glad you brought “muscle memory” into the mix here.

      I’ve used the Lumosity.com brain-trainers a great deal (from Lumos Labs in California) as one of my own “inflexible routines” for some time, and at a certain point you realize that your gains in mental flexibility, speed, problem-solving, etc. (the system tracks your progress) can only be happening because a kind of “muscle memory” of the mind is starting to kick in and place you on a higher level than you were before.

      This, especially in a John Wooden parallel, is an excellent element of what we’re talking about, you always bring such good points to the table here.

      Thanks, and be sure to tell Rafa I sent you when you buy that book, LOL. (The Kindle edition, I notice, is only $2.99, Seattle must have seen us coming!)

      -p.

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  3. says

    I took this quotation from Flaubert as my motto a long time ago: Be orderly as a bourgeois in your life so you can be radical in your work.

    Works for me.

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    • says

      Hey, Pamela,

      I’m a pushover for anybody who arrives bearing the gift of Flaubert. :)

      What a lovely line, and it’s absolutely perfect for what we’re talking about here. Yes, exactly. Bourgeois orderliness so the ravishing radicalism can appear.

      Felicitations, Pamela, well done!
      -p.

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  4. says

    I loved reading this, but who doesn’t love validation? I’ve long ago noticed that what others call a rut or a block is the result of me falling out of my discipline. This year, I started writing 8-6 and as my pages increased, the chaos followed (huge tumbleweeds of husky hair) and at some point the chaos took over and the page count dwindled. It was a hard learned lesson. I felt like a junkie going through withdrawal when I stopped writing and had to clean and organize. With my discipline firmly back in place, life is slowly returning to normal.

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    • says

      Hey, Cristine,

      I’m sure you’re making a lot of us feel better with this great comment. A lot of us have been through this experience of thinking we were piling on the right kind of focus, only to discover that everything else was coming apart. It’s hugely tricky to get these things right.

      The great news is that you’re already turning the ship in the right direction by getting some discipline into place around what you’re doing. That’s it exactly. Some good, strong, “inflexible routines” are frequently just the thing.

      Hope it all continues to firm up for you, and congrats on heading in this good direction!

      -p.

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  5. says

    “[D]iscipline is weakened by fatigue from too many small decisions, too many niggling details…”

    I may owe you a bottle of Campari for this sentence alone, Porter. Thanks for a spot-on post.

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    • says

      I’m hopping into the WU station wagon and driving over right now for that bottle of Campari, Teri. :)

      Seriously, there has been some wonderful, fascinating work coming out on this issue lately of where willpower comes from. One of the most intriguing sidelines is that President Obama, apparently very up on this line of research at the moment, has a closet full of exactly matched shirts, ties, suits, etc. — he doesn’t have to stand there wondering, “OK, damn it, which shirt today and did that tie look right last time with that other suit at the press conference…?” He simply reaches for the next outfit that may well look exactly like the last outfit, and thus eliminates one waste of energy on the “what am I wearing today?” dilemma. (This is easier for guys, btw, than women, whose outfits are far more varied and require more decisions, but you get the idea.)

      Apparently, per the research data, they’re finding that we really fritter a lot of our best energy away fighting with ourselves over, say, the $3.00-vs-$4.00 glass cleaner question at the store, the errands now or in 10 minutes debate, the walk the dog first or open the mail first questions. The “just do it” answer appears to save energy for bigger, harder decisions. And the fewer decisions overall, the more creative (and physical!) strength and energy we may have.

      I find the truth of what the Willpower book covers in my evening hours — the more tired I am, the less I make good choices about what to do in those evening hours that could be pretty productive … but I’m too tired to make the right (disciplined) decisions, so I tend to opt for easier tasks that don’t accomplish much. Not because I’m slacking (which is what we blame ourselves for) but because I’ve spent the day using up all my willpower through expenditures of energy on everything else.

      Bottom line: We just have one channel of energy. What we may think of as “willpower energy” is also being sapped by physical effort, mental effort, and emotional effort. So by the end of the day, you’re not shirking your duties when you choose the easier way out of something, you’re just too tired to have the strength you need to make the right, tougher choices.

      My focus right now is on trying to figure out how to put more “morning” energy into other parts of the day, so that I have more willpower / discipline capacity later in the day, not just in the mornings.

      Finding the solution to that one? Is going to take a whole lot more Campari. :)

      Cheers!
      -p.

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  6. says

    Porter-

    Discipline is great but what is it without skill? I’m struck by this by Nadal…

    “The secret lies in being able to do what you know you can do when you most need it.”

    For writers that means not only confidence and courage, but having story tools, techniques, methods and processes to summon when facing the opening serve…uh, I mean the blank screen.

    Discipline alone won’t take you from cocktail napkin to finished novel. You need to know how to do it–your own unique way of doing it–and repeat that every time.

    Nadal’s rituals help him focus. But then his body moves as its programmed to do. His muscles have memory. Writers need that too. The story brain needs training. And experience.

    Then when you hear the *thwock* and ball streaks toward the outside corner, you know what to do.

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    • says

      Hey, Don!

      Skill. Yes, please! :)

      I’m glad you’ve dropped in to say this because it hadn’t crossed my mind that anyone would think (especially if we’re talking Rafa here) that the necessity for skill isn’t a given. Great of you to bring it into focus.

      It would never be right for me to speak for Rafa Nadal, so of course I now will do just that. :)

      My take on what he is saying — and doing — is that his “inflexible routines” support not only the actual playing of matches but also the making and use of his skills. His “inflexible routines” are brought to bear on the part we don’t see in his training at Manacor on Majorca, AND on the spectacular results of that training in the world’s greatest tennis courts.

      Mary Carillo was right in her coverage of the Opens’ final that Nadal and Djokovic are now playing a kind of tennis we simply haven’t seen before. A meeting of these two occurs on a level of competitive skills — you’re right — that historically have not been brought to bear on this game until now, at least with such devastating consistency: physical power and stamina driven by fast strategic adjustments. As McEnroe and others will tell you, this is a changed game, and it goes far beyond the 140-mile-per-hour serves I first saw Andy Roddick doing in Atlanta. Interestingly, height is a huge factor. With the radiant exception of Rafa’s fellow Spaniard David Ferrer (5’9″), the men now are huge. John Isner, who trains here in Tampa, is 6’10”. Rafa, that runt, is 6’1″, Djokovic 6’2″.

      As the demands on these bodies and minds expand, so must be an intense form of structure (“inflexible routines”) to bolster and embrace both the deployment of these electrifying skills, as you rightly say (including doing “what you know you can do when you need it most, yes”), and also the learning of those skills.

      We see this in an example of Nadal’s current-season bravura.

      One of the fascinating things that may well see Rafa eventually called the greatest athlete of the modern game is that he is still growing in dramatic ways (with all those “inflexible routines”), above and beyond overcoming substantial injuries. Rafa first beat the fine Frenchman he played in the semifinal at this year’s Open, Richard Gasquet, when he was 15 years old. And he beat him again this year at the Open, when he was 27. The changes in Rafa’s game are, needless to say, remarkable, and those are the 12 years in which you’d expect to see such leaps in a major player. For that matter, Gasquet is nobody’s slouch, either, and has matured into a terrific, dangerous opponent.

      But one of the most electrifying elements of Rafa’s gains (for those of us who follow tennis closely, I realize we’re into some esoteric reaches here) is that he has quite recently — as in this season — achieved an incredible new range of skill on hard courts. Always a man of the clay, the guy is “suddenly,” in terms of a tennis champion’s career, outplaying our best hard-court guys at various times. He left the field to get his knees fixed–no one was sure he could return to compete at all–and he came back not only with the knees fixed but also with a whole new level of attack and impact on a surface that was not his forte before that seven-month break.

      What I believe supports Rafa in accomplishing this jump in his repertoire is these “inflexible routines.” They never substitute for skill, and I apologize if something I wrote in my post here made it seem that’s what I meant. By no means. Instead, they support the development of existing skill, the discovery of new skills, and the refinement of recently engaged skills. Nadal never stops learning, acquiring, honing the skills.

      John Carlin (who wrote the book with him) writes directly to the reader at the end of the book in an interesting passage, describing watching Rafa and “Uncle Toni,” his coach, working through a practice session at home on Majorca (there’s a small tennis club there, in the town of Manacor) — both coach and player completely in the zone, unaware of their surroundings, of one couple turning up to watch, both of them hemmed in on all sides by these “inflexible routines” … and these are the sessions we don’t get to see, in which Rafa works on some new element of skill and technique — or in which a writer bungles a chapter so badly that it’s deleted by the end of the day, another hard learning experience added to the skill set.

      To us, Rafa springs with a “sudden” grace and assurance on hard court when lunging into a backhand return. To him, it’s the “inflexible routines” that have supported his ability to incorporate that skill (without killing @RafasKnees, as the old Twitter handle had it) into what he’s doing.

      So I’m right with you. In fact, you’re reminding me that I think we need to write more these days and discuss in our community the place and purpose of skill and — some will run out of the room — talent. Maybe the difference, too. One may be the learned-and-earned development of the other. Or not. Opinions differ. But we shy from too many of these conversations because we fear that it could be hurtful or embarrassing to speak of talent, skill, aptitude, expertise. It’s like the dreaded “intelligence question” in education, isn’t it?

      Maybe we can bring more of these factors into our good carryings-on here at WU. It’s too easy at times to get focused on the business and craft and forget fundamental requirements, such as skill, that really can’t be done without.

      For now, absolutely. Skill. And again my regrets if I seemed to suggest it’s not important. It’s absolutely essential. Essential. No short cuts. Essential.

      All I’m saying (and what I think Rafa is saying, too), is that the structure that supports the work IS the structure that also supports — through discipline — the acquisition and development of just that, skill.

      The “inflexible routines” won’t get you past anything, least of all the mandatory development of skill.

      Instead, they help get you into the job of developing it, refining it, deepening it.

      How does that jibe with your observations?
      -p.

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  7. says

    We are creatures of habit and it helps to create the habits that work for us. Years ago, when I wrote at night, nursing the baby was the beginning of the writing … it was a contented and relaxed 20-30 minutes that allowed entry into my story world. Even after I stopped nursing, the nightly rituals were a prelude to writing. I still write best in my nightie :) Pavlovian response? Probably so. I assume a walk, or a commute to the office, or lighting a candle, a prayer, can serve the same purpose … to prepare the mind.

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    • says

      Hey, Vijaya,

      This is such a nice point you’re bringing in. Yes, I’ve had the same experience (not nursing!) of finding that formerly well-established habits and routines can end up almost “ghosting” in my life, so that I tend to feel their usefulness and resonance, even after their place and practice on a daily basis has changed. If anything, I find it very telling how nostalgic I can feel for a pattern of routine that worked well for me and that I can’t recreate because of changed circumstances, etc. These things stick with us!

      Thanks for this, a great angle, and really good to have you with us, appreciate your input –
      -p.

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    • says

      Perfect, Alex!

      I’m stepping right over all lines from now on, and drinking from two water bottles at a time. :)

      Exactly. Nicely done, cinches it right there.

      Cheers, sir!
      -p.

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    • says

      Thanks, Jennifer,

      Such kind, kind words, and really appreciated. I can attest to the usefulness of those “inflexibilities” — and also to just stabbing at it until something seems to click. :) You’re a generous reader and it’s great to have you here, thanks again!
      -p.

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  8. says

    Did you happen to read Pressfield this week, Porter? If not, here’s a link: http://www.stevenpressfield.com/2013/09/furyk-swings-authentic-swing-shoots-59/

    He uses a golf swing metaphor, talking about how we all have an innate “authentic swing.” But I do believe even Jim Furyk, his example of a golfer with a truly unique–if unconventional–swing, had to go out and hit quite a few balls to find that swing that was already inside of him.

    I learned that it takes discipline from my dad, who was an excellent golfer. I regret that I was a disappointment to him in this regard (specifically where it applies to golf). He always bemoaned the fact that I (according to him, and a few others) had a “great natural swing,” but that I wasn’t disciplined enough to take advantage of my innate gift for the game. My dad’s been gone for over twenty years, and I may never have developed my swing, but I never forgot his example about discipline.

    I have been at this for over nine years now, and damn near every word of fiction I’ve ever composed has been typed in the very room I sit in typing this comment. Mostly between the hours of 9 to 5. No coffee shops or no laptops for me, thanks. My discipline resides in this office. I sort of quailed when I first read Don’s comment. Oh crap, I thought, now skill is a part of the equation. Unlike my golf swing, I don’t have my dad’s stamp of approval to assure me I have any sort of innate skill for this gig. Quite the contrary. I’m sure I sucked when I started. I’ve been relying on discipline and dedication to win though. I don’t want to count angels on pinheads here, on whether skill is innate or can be learned, but I into his comment that skill can be gained through experience. Hope so. In any case, it helps that through my routines, here in my dormer office, that I’ve actually become devoted.

    Of course my dad never won a pro tourney, but he enjoyed the heck out of being on the course, week in and week out, right up until the very week he passed. I think that’s worth aspiring to.

    Another great topic and conversation, Porter!

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    • says

      Bro, thanks for jumping in and especially with that fascinating workup on golfing and your father. Your own story really does tie in to some of what Pressfield is doing with Furyk – and a lot with what we’re doing here about “inflexible routines.”

      Your authentic swing is just that, as Steve is telling us, and as Rafa shows us, match after match. I couldn’t mean to be more complimentary when I say that in addition to being a legend in the making, Nadal is easily the quirkiest athlete-artist on the circuit, too, and this is, yep, that authentic swing — WHICH ALSO is why, my friend, you likely didn’t warm up to golf. While your dad may have thought he saw the potential for a good swing in you (and may even have been right), your own authenticity had something different in mind. Following that calling into your nine-year sit in that room was exactly what WAS authentic to you, it’s your swing, and therefore it’s right where you need to be and its routines and structure and disciplines are the correct ones.

      These are such interesting issues, at times, because we see them in opposition to what we feel we should have done or what we feel we regret we didn’t do. I would bet your father would be not only proud of your writerly swing but also as envious of it as you might be of his time on the fairways.

      And as for the experience question, yeah and yeah — see my long answer to Don (poor Don pulled my string, lol) and you’ll see what’s going on here. What Rafa and Furyk and Pressfield and others teach us is that the “inflexible routines” are not just there for the doing of the end result — not just to get us into the right tux on the night of the big award for our work — but to keep us in that 9-year room doing the learning, the experiencing, the trilals, the errors, the missed forehands and grotesque serves and crazy swings and inane putts and really awful chapters and whatever else.

      I think Don felt I was dismissing skill. But far, far from it. And I’m thoroughly enjoying speaking for Rafa today, lol.

      What I feel Rafa and Robin tell and teach us is that these routines ARE the learning tools, too, not just the now-I’ve-arrived-and-am-doing-the-job tools. We need the discipline, dedication, and devotion sooner than later. So we need the routines to keep us in our skin long enough to get going, find some skills, refine them, stop walking into walls, and try to get something out there.

      Your dad just wanted an excuse for more tee times. LOL I’m sure he was damned proud and you should be, too. Build in a few routines to remind yourself of that. :)

      -p.

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  9. says

    This was really interesting to read and I can really relate to Nadal. For me, if the rut works, there’s nothing wrong with it… I definitely tend to be a creature of habit, and if my routine is interrupted by something unexpected, I feel pretty restless. That said, every once in a while I like to shake things up because if I get too comfortable that tends to lead to lack of focus, too. It’s a delicate balance this self motivation in writing (and life).

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    • says

      Hey, Julia,

      Yeah, shaking things up from time to time is always good. If anything, it’s the very structure you start with that makes that shakeup both possible and useful — your resistance, in effect, for clarification of what you’re doing and where things stand.

      Good on you, sounds like you have a great understanding of this, thanks for being with us!
      -p.

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  10. says

    This was the most interesting article I’ve read on here to date. Before I started writing, I studied to be a classical ballet dancer. Taking class and rehearsing six days a week, a minimum of eight hours a day, in addition to maintaining a strict diet and remembering hours of choreography, requires the utmost commitment. I remember a lot of talk about discipline during those years – but LaFever is correct in breaking down the differences between discipline, dedication and devotion. Discipline is required but it’s not enough. To really succeed, one must be wholeheartedly devoted physically, mentally and emotionally. For me, coming to the barre every morning and dancing the same set of exercises was like a prayer; it was certainly devotion. And there was no question that everything I did was necessary to reach the goal; the truly devoted, like Nadal, don’t question. They just DO.

    I’m intrigued by both books now – I’ll be adding them to my to-read list…

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    • says

      Well, Lis.

      If there’s anybody who knows as well as Rafa what these “inflexible routines” are and can do, it’s you and your colleagues in ballet. I studied with Myra Kynch (and Shirley Roby and Carol Sherman), myself, and yeah, there are few endeavors, even in such finely tuned intellectual and physical sport as tennis, that can match the demands of focus and sheer immersion than classical and modern dance.

      As you say, the artist in these realms, like the athlete in Rafa’s, just DOES. And if anything, the reason dancers move past the mere-discipline stage so fast is that the art builds in endless, endless inflexible routines that must be honored and fulfilled. Barre, floor work, right down to the freaking stretches, right?

      I’m so glad you’re able to transfer the sense of that devotion to your work as a writer — nothing will sustain you like the “muscle memory,” as others have talked about here, of doing your footwork hour after hour after hour.

      You’re in great shape, and it’s super to have you with us, thanks so much for your kind words and generous interest!
      -p.

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  11. says

    Porter, I appreciate the spanking. For the past two weeks, I have arranged the water bottles of a writerly outline for a short story on my computer, positioning characters in background sketches and plot points and pointing them diagonally toward the actual writing. But not getting on the actual court.

    I have a number of writerly disciplines, but the devotion often moves toward delay; I can let a story idea incubate long after its shell has cracked: The starting, the getting on the court, is the problem. But after reading your post today, I wrote the first scene (which is so often the breaking of a dam), and the muscle memory of keyboarding took over. (That does bring to mind Truman Capote’s remark about Jack Kerouac’s writing, “That’s not writing, it’s typing,” but we’ll ignore that.)

    Anyway, thanks for being a catalyst. My Oxford comma, always holstered and ready at my side, curls in obeisance to you.

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  12. says

    Well, congrats on the chapter, Tom, delighted to hear this and thank God you got the bottles lined up diagonally (my favorite detail of that ritual) .

    Don’t let Capote worry you — he was a bad judge of typists.

    -p.

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  13. says

    All I know is that having a structure – whether that be outlining a plot or following a routine or making up a schedule – helps keep my mind neat and tidy. Otherwise, I am too scattered to complete much of anything. I used to think I was flexible, and maybe I was when I was younger, but realize now that I also didn’t accomplish much. It’s only after I’ve given in to my need for structure that I’ve become (at least) disciplined enough to finish things I start.

    As to devotion and dedication, I like to think I am a devoted and dedicated writer. It seems to me that is where the enjoyment of my writing comes from. It’s the fun part, the challenging part of learning new skills just because writing is such an amazing process to explore.

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  14. says

    Routine must be important. Otherwise, why would human beings have created rituals as part of the most important moments in our lives–funerals and weddings?

    A rut, to me, is a routine without a purpose. A rut is what you do when you don’t know what else to do and fail to see the meaning in what you do. I may not need to think about my routine, but the purpose is there.

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  15. says

    Porter
    Thanks so much for this posting.
    I have fundamental changed my mind as a result of reading it.
    And I just love changing my mind when someone gifts me a brilliant idea.
    I started to write more to you, but realise that I need to think more / change some specific things I am doing.
    Anyway wanted to say thankyou to you.
    Thankyou!
    Caroline
    http://www.carolinemawer.com

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  16. says

    Coming to this late and with a tangentially related comment. They’ve done studies on people who survive and thrive chaotic childhoods, such as being raised by parental addicts. One commonality to those who exhibit resilience is that their home still exhibited rituals. Mom and dad might be drunk, for instance, but dinner took place at 6 pm ever night, and you were expected to arrive with washed hands.

    Other studies show that the brain can only handle so much uncertainty before it begins to slow cognitive functioning, making less of our neural circuitry available to creativity as it gears up the flight-or-flight reptilian brain. This can alter not only how we think, but how we see and hear.

    Rituals soothe, offer a perception of control at a time when we might better be focused on execution, not whether or how to begin.

    So if one has a pre-writing or intra-writing ritual which doesn’t create harm, why fight it? (If it involves a fifth of Scotch and a cigar, I’d argue for health-affirming replacements.)

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  17. says

    Porter,
    First time here. What a treat! Lisa Hall mentioned you and had to check it out.

    “Bottom line: We just have one channel of energy. What we may think of as “willpower energy” is also being sapped by physical effort, mental effort, and emotional effort.”

    Loved the line above. I’m guessing my stubbornness, which I prefer calling perseverance is what helps me when my emotional and mental capacities are being strapped by life.

    I totally get what you said about few choices taking less energy. I think the fact I am purposely getting few choices because of limited funds is actually one of the reasons I do have the energy many have sapped!

    I’m not a coffee house writer, maybe because I’m not a coffee drinker. But after reading this post, I see when I’m anywhere else, I’m not as prolific. Neatness of desk for me clears my cluttered mind.

    Silence is preferred so the shouting words can quiet down and take their places on my paper/screen.

    Loved the post. Felt validated. Made me appreciate the order I have in my thinking/life.

    Thank you.

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