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.