3.3 A Deeper Discipline

For those of us who hike, or garden, or take long bike rides, we are deeply aware that there are two types of hikers, gardeners, and cyclists.

The first type is in it for the destination, whether that be a summit 26 miles away, a synchronized garden that maximizes each hour of sunshine without taxing the soil too much from its neighboring plants, or the end of a century ride that takes you around some of this world’s greatest natural wonders.

These types have their head down and are focused on what awaits them at the end of the journey. They are immensely happy (and proud) of their accomplishment, as they should be. They talk about what they might do differently to shave off a few minutes, or maximize the oxygen for the snap peas. It’s all about destination, and they are proud of crossing that finish line, regardless of the form it might take.

The second type is in it for the journey. They meander through the woods, observing the different bird calls, the tracks on the trail, and the variations of vegetation to discern exactly what kind of wildlife are nibbling at its branches.

The gardener embraces the feel of the soil on his finger tips as he digs a hole for a new seedling. He might even talk to it, breathing a little security-blanket oxygen its way.

The cyclist knows she has until 8 p.m. to reach her destination, so she wanders through the small towns, talking to the locals about what makes their little communities so personable, so resistant to the buzz of the bigger cities around them.

In short, this second type savors every step of the journey, and when they finally reach their destination, they are rich in telling stories about what they experienced along the way. There is no talk of the next trip or what they could do differently. To them, they are too immersed in the now, holding on to the words they shared with once-strangers.

When it comes to writing and discipline, I’ve been a little of both, and not necessarily for the right reasons.

The first type of disciplined writers have deadlines; they are focused, and they “put butt in chair” when they are supposed to. They turn in their work with confidence that they wrote a good piece, but they equally allow a smile to linger, knowing they made their deadlines — their destination — on or ahead of schedule.

Head down, do the work, meet the deadline. All good.

The second type of disciplined writers, however, don’t really do any of the things the first type does, except make (most) of their deadlines (more on this a bit later). These creatives are highly disciplined, but they are also a little scary. Let me explain.

It takes great discipline as a writer, as a creative, to “let go” in the journey of writing or creating, where there is room to wander with the characters or the image to see where they (or it) will take you. You remain fully immersed, disciplined, and focused; getting to the destination, however, might take a little longer than anyone might have liked.

And to you, that’s just fine.

Being disciplined in our writing, our creating, does not necessarily have to have that “get the job done” mentality. There is great and wondrous discipline in staying immersed in your work, expending insurmountable amounts of energy with the characters, and seeing where they take you in the story.

Ultimately, it’s being mindful enough to strike that balance between the two.

I’ve done solo projects with each approach, and I’ve learned from these experiences that there is nothing black and white about discipline when you are creating.

When our heads are down, we’re missing the little nuances that lead us to greater discoveries; likewise, when we let go entirely to see where the characters take us, we often find ourselves too far away from where we began, and with little hope or direction of finding our way back on to the blazed path that leads us to our natural and eventual home.

Understanding the deeper significance of our discipline allows us to let go, play, but stay close to the trail that leads us to our story’s natural conclusion. We need to be aware of what type of discipline we use in our crafting, and when.

And, as important, we cannot allow one form to tell the other that it is the lazy way out, or the wrong approach, or the wrong time. It’s important to get to the end, but it’s equally important to be deeply mindful of the journey along the way.

3.2 A Celebration of Discipline

I suck at discipline.

Yet I’ve managed to co-write a novel, complete the first draft of a novella and keep writing small bits and pieces because I love to play with language.

I suck at discipline.

Yet I’ve managed to play in a covers band for the last few years putting in practice behind the drum kit whenever I can manage.

I suck at discipline.

Yet I’ve managed to get up at 5:20 three mornings a week for two and a half years to go to CrossFit for the betterment of my physical and mental health.

I suck at discipline.

Yet I love routine and mundane rituals; left leg before the right. Always. First pants, then shoes (thank you Gary Larson’s The Far Side for the life advice).

And I hate that I suck at discipline because I could be further advanced in my writing practice, in my drum skills, my reading habits, and in my fitness.

The title for this post comes from a non-fiction text I return to occasionally when the need for a sense of discipline arises. Ironically, I have never finished reading the book. It is “A Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster, and it is focused on Christian religious practices e.g prayer and fasting. It is not a book you walk into lightly. The book hints at a monastic sense of discipline and a fervent sense of denial of self. Not a dismissal of worldly pleasures but an awareness and understanding of humanity’s place within the context of creation.

I see discipline in a monastic manner. That is, a sense of devotion and commitment (and here I agree with Jodi) to developing the sense of self and how it is connected with, and through, our creative endeavours. It is ritual and repetition, mundane and sacred, practice and practise.

Reading drumming magazines and blogs I saw how the elite managed their time to practise up to 8 hours a day, 7 days a week to achieve their goal. Similar sacrifices could be applied to athletes, business people, anyone who has a goal to achieve their vision.

And if that works for them, fantastic. It doesn’t work for me. There are situations and circumstances, despite my privilege, which means I cannot give over the same amount of time.

I want to have that (almost) monastic approach to discipline because I want to see just what I can create if I am committed to the cause.

A DIFFERENT APPROACH?

Therefore it’s time to rethink how I approach discipline.

I want to be dedicated and committed to my creative practice, and it is an goal I strive for but realistically it’s not going to happen. Rather than a methodical, daily practice borne out of routine and perfunctory ritual (which it still can be if I want it to), I can approach it as a cyclical momentum. To look at each month, week and day on the calendar and ask, “What can I achieve? This month? This week? This day?

I know this month is no good for me because I’m moving house. I know other months in the year will be difficult to maintain a daily discipline due to the marking workload I will have (I teach high school English). Therefore my practice of discipline will look different if I approach it from a cyclical perspective.

How long should it take to write a novel? Or a short story? Or a poem?

Depends on who you ask. My answer: As long as it takes.

It might take me two years to write that poem. Or three years to write that short story. Or I can punch out that novella in four months. It takes as long as it does for a variety of reasons, dependent on circumstance and situation but if I maintain the discipline to be aware of what I am working towards then I will complete what I have started.

I have noticed that writers are not sharing their word counts like they used to do on social media:
“I wrote 5,000 words today.”
“Tough day. Only managed 3,700 words.”
“WOW! Exceeded expectations by writing 1,500 words!”

Transparency of practice is not necessarily an indicator of discipline. As Jodi said last week, it is the commitment to putting your bum into the seat to make it happen on a regular basis which is an act of discipline regardless of the outcome. It’s not just word count that is an act of discipline but research, reading, re-reading, making notes, brainstorming, character sketches, plot summaries or synopses.

And it’s not necessarily about sharing that with the world. Create in secret if you want. Tell the world if that’s your preference to want a cheer squad. We all deserve a round of applause now and then.

The act of discipline can be monthly or weekly challenges, daily word counts, pages read, sentences written. They are marker points along the way. What about your longer term goals. KPIs. Specific? Measurable? Achievable? Relevant and Realistic? Time framed?

Each creative person’s method of discipline is different and your practice may not be successful for someone else. Elements of it might be. Time to try it out and see if it works.

APPRENTICESHIP AND MENTORSHIP

Another aspect to discipline I believe is important is apprenticeship. While I may not have the disciplined focus I want, I can be apprenticed to another who is further in the journey ahead of me, or someone who will walk beside me. I still have much to learn. I can apprentice myself to another to understand the parameters and work within the boundaries before I colour outside the lines. Apprenticeship is to learn from a master.

Mentorship is another method of developing discipline. Accountability is key. With the JAR Writers Collective I have found two like minded individuals who can assist me in my creative journey. I won’t always agree with their perspective or point of view on a topic, nor will they always align with me. What I do have is a support network to help me through when I doubt my creativity, can’t seem to produce words, or cheer me on when projects are going well.

WRAPPING IT UP

I want to make conscious decisions about the texts I aim to create. I need to be disciplined in maintaining that focus. I will apprentice myself to masters to learn. I will engage mentors to check on me. I will think of progress in cycles and not be upset when it doesn’t go well or expected.

And I will still suck at discipline. And I’m ok with that because I will consider myself a work in progress.

3.1 Until Death Do Us Part

1978 – resplendent in my hand-knitted jumper and already fascinated with writing

The word discipline is a loaded one for me. I realised earlier this week, while out walking the dog in the bush, that discipline is synonymous with punishment for me. Between discipline and punishment is coercion and fear. Not surprising, as an extremely sensitive and shy child, I was very very good and avoided getting into trouble. The model child. I didn’t like conflict. I hated yelling. I was undone by the perpetual state of terror of ‘wait til your father gets home’ on occasions where I found myself on the wrong side of right, thanks to a younger sister adept in lying and manipulating adults. And being hit demolished me – especially because my parents never hit in anger, so corporeal punishment came with a waiting period which was often more devastating than the actual physical act.

Not surprisingly any writing advice that talks about ‘discipline ’ immediately and permanently isolates me from any wisdom that it may contain, because the small girl in me hears discipline and makes a conscious choice not to invite in coercion, fear, shame or physical pain. Can’t say I blame her.

Discipline is a demand to follow; it is a training in obedience from an external source that demands capitulation and a forgoing of sovereignty. Discipline is an overt act of control, and for someone hell bent on choosing her own path, you know where I’m going to tell  discipline to stick itself.

ORIGINS

But if we look at the origins of the word discipline, to the Latin root discere, the heart of the word is ‘learn’. We discipline as a branch of knowledge in higher learning and in the case of disciple someone who follows (one could argue, from the heart) with the intent to learn from a mentor, leader or teacher.

So what of learning or following from your heart when it comes to the personal experience of parking your arse to put words down, if you’re someone who wants to flip discipline the bird?

COMMITMENT

For me, commitment is where the passion meets purpose meets practice meets productive output. Not discipline. Commitment asks me to make a conscious choice and stick to it. Yes, it sounds like discipline, but the locus is internal. The pay off is joy of achievement. The joy of collaboration. Or simply the joy of exploration.

I have always said that writing is my first and greatest love affair. I adore it. I am dedicated to it. I love it deeply. I am indebted to it. I’m committed to it. But like human love affairs, we fall in and out of favour. It requires work. Attention. Time. Energy. Prioritisation. And I am okay with that. I remember. I forget. There are better days, there are worse days. The sun rises and the sun sets. But like souls dancing a karmic pas de deux, we eventually find our way back to each other to begin again regardless of the hard time we fall on.

THE DAILY BREATH

In January, I made the unprecedented decision to commit to a yearly project that would see me produce a piece of cut-up poetry every day. In the past, I have kept away from anything with a ‘daily’ attached to it. ‘Daily’ screams of discipline and its handmaiden ‘routine’. I have recognised myself as a cyclic creative who produces best in wild bursts of original output, with (often long) fallow periods following. The idea of doing something every day has, until this year, felt like a slow death.

Then the idea for The Daily Breath landed and invited me in to learn new about my capacity for commitment, love, creativity, joy and putting myself first. The Daily Breath is a poem-a-day-for-a-year project that I put in motion, first and foremost for myself as a small precious dawn enclave. Each morning I get up, make a cup of tea and then set about building a poem for the day (it often includes making the postcard the poem goes on). The Daily Breath is kind of like a stretch goal from last year, where I collaboratively completed The Red Thread of Fate across 141 days, followed by another of 63 days of Beauty of Oracle.

The Mechanics of Commitment

I’ve learned quite a bit over the last 80 days about the mechanics of commitment:

  • Only commit to what brings joy, inspiration and terrified-excitement to push beyond the comfort zone and release any assumptions about what it looks like or what is asks of you.
  • Once committed, share with just enough people to create a support network and cheer squad to listen and hold space when things get rough.
  • Ask others to commit alongside you by inviting the people who love your work as much as you do to enter into a fair exchange to engage with your work.
  •  Actually be committed. Do whatever it takes to make you turn up. Prioritise it. Make time and space. Follow through to the end by simply taking one step at a time.
  • Be committed from a place of ease. Make it easy. Be organised. Don’t take it too seriously. Have fun. Surrender. And then surrender again.
  • Celebrate the high points and learn from the rough patches. Ensure it is a growth experience from start to finish by being open the whole way to how it can act as a catalyst for transformation.

IN CONCLUSION

I have already experienced the crushing devastation of thinking I hate something I loved only a few weeks earlier, and the ecstatic rush of discovering I did still love it a few weeks later. I have cut up Angela Carter, Thoreau and Italo Calvino. I have hand-cut and made over 60 postcards. I’m about to complete the third chapter (month) and ready to crack the spine on a new book and shuffle a new set of postcards.

I may have made a commitment to a poem-a-day-for-a-year, but no two poems are the same and every day is a brand new adventure waiting for me because of this. The sun rises, and the sun sets and for the next 280 odd days, it’s very much the love and devotion aspect of ‘until death do us part’.

Poem One – In the Beginning
Analogue | Illustration: Scruffy the Tugboat | Source Text: Adam, One Morning, Italo Calvino
Poem Two – Memories of Walden
Analogue | Photo: Rus VanWestervelt | Source Text: Walden, Thoreau
Poem Three – Nights With Remedios
Digital | Artwork: Remedios Varo | Source Text: Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter
Poem Four – Doorways (1)
Analogue | Photo: Doors Calendar | Source Text: The World and Other Places, Jeanette Winterson

Words As . . . Oxygen

As an older writer, and as a teacher of students of various ages, I have the unique perspective of viewing life in the dreams whispered of the young in early spring, in the struggles of the middies in the summer sun, and in the regrets of the elders as autumn falls. One thread is common among all three: the desperate dream of returning to uninhibited innocence and an abundance of creativity — both seemingly, always a touch beyond the grasp.

The reasons, as you might imagine, are the usual suspects as captured by my college writing students: a lack of time and money, the demands of domesticity and jobs, and life-defined priorities.

Their stories began with vibrant images in early youth, where they embraced an exhilaration to create: write, paint, sing, dance, build, bake. But something happened around the age of 8 or 9. Their pure connection to creativity was interrupted by classrooms as darker spaces of evaluation, where test-taking judgments replaced the free-flow of creativity.

By the time students reach the end of their essays reflecting on their education, the writing is tired, even labored, as they lament the loss of the good old days and whimsical risks with the arts.

“Life just gets in the way,” one student wrote. “I hope to find myself in one of those arts and craft stores some day, pick out a sparkly purple journal like the one I used to have, and write every now and then. That would be nice.”

I witness the life draining out of their words. What started as a bubbly youthful enthusiasm filled with color and possibility morphs into — time and time again — a tired maturity hooked up to a dented half-empty tank of oxygen trying to supplement the breath of life that once came instinctively.

Why have we programmed our culture of educational nurturing and extension to debase  creativity as secondary to evaluation and data collection? The former does not need to be replaced by the latter; if we are to recognize and celebrate the power of creativity in the very young, why must we dismiss it in increasing measure as we grow up, demoting it to a sub-classification of “hobby” or something we do when time permits?

I think it’s time to change that classification; as we get older, we must embrace the essential role creativity plays in our lives as the vital oxygen we need to thrive, both domestically and professionally.

I am heartened by two of my former students who have proclaimed their love and devotion to creativity.

Lacey, who graduated in 2006, was on the verge of becoming one of those oxygen-supported creatives in high school, but she embraced the concept of the daybook — a daily journal — and felt the surge of energy every day when she put the pen to the paper to write.

“At the end of the year, I couldn’t stop,” said Lacey. “I can’t imagine not writing in my daybook anymore than I can imagine not breathing.”

Ruthie is another model for all of us. She graduated from high school in ’14, and just a few days ago, I happened upon her Etsy page for handmade pottery.

Ruthie? I couldn’t recall a single art class she had taken in high school. Her world was sports and graphic design; I had no idea how she had turned to spinning and creating beautiful mugs and bowls out of circuitous touches on wet clumps of clay.

I purchased one of her mugs and we reunited yesterday morning. As I drank a bold, black roast from the hand-crafted mug, she explained that the BFA program she was in at Salisbury University, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, encouraged her to break out of her major and broaden her creativity with other art forms.

She beamed. Creating pottery is a very spiritual experience for her, and she’s opening her own studio — in addition to getting married and moving. These are the very things that “get in the way” for most of us. Ruthie, however, breathes deeply the oxygen provided by her creative acts. She has discovered a spiritual relationship with art, and  is now helping others bring creativity into their lives as an essential component to being.

This idea of creativity, of clay, of words being our oxygen reminds us that we need to recognize the powers and benefits we are afforded when we create daily. I know that I, like Lacey, cannot imagine life without words any more than I can imagine life without oxygen.

Create. Breathe. Live. Thrive. Let creativity be a priority in your life, one that fuels your domestic and professional acts and responsibilities. We are all born creative; it is our charge to nurture it at all costs, across our entire lives.