A Heaping Bowl of Discipline

Mmm, mmm.  Discipline.  Tough, gritty, and guaranteed to give you heartburn.  Still, it is the fiber of the writing diet, and we all know we need more fiber.  I’ve come to a grudging respect, and even a moderate craving for discipline – and it was a long evolution.  In my youth, I went into stories hot, like an invading army.  I usually had no idea what the outcome would be, where I was going, or whether I would get there.  All that conventional wisdom about making an outline, writing every day to build creative muscle, being alert to grammar and style, that wasn’t for me.  I was an ARTIST.  I couldn’t be bothered with discipline.

Fast forward 20 years or so.  I have learned the value of treating my writing as the craft it is.  Like any specialized skill, it requires practice to develop and maintain proficiency.  That means daily practice, by the way, just like those piano lessons your Ma made you take when you were a kid.  And look, now you can play Claire de Lune without disgrace!  The daily commitment has another benefit; it primes the pump and gets those ideas and words flowing.  For me, that cuts down on the amount of time I spend sitting, staring at the blank screen, chanting under my breath, “Come on, come on!”  After all, as writers we do want to produce some finished pieces, right?  I mean, I’m not just goofing off; I have goals.

Goals.  And timelines by which they should be met.  Of course it’s all a bit pie-in-the-sky, but it gives me a target to shoot at instead of just blamming away all over the place.  Discipline, again, puts its heavy hand upon my shoulder and squashes my butt down into the chair.  Write!  You have a goal to meet!  This, while slightly draconian, is a good thing.

The craftsmanship of proper grammar and style, nicely paced plot, strong characters, rich settings, and delicious language is the spice of discipline.  This is where it all comes together.  Don’t be sloppy, don’t be lazy, tighten it up, and for God’s sake watch the exposition! Get that adverb out of there!  Suck in your gut and drop that passive voice!   And please, control your use of exclamation points.

Yes, discipline is a writer’s friend.  Pack away your bohemian disregard for structure and rules.  You’re in the literary army now.


4 thoughts on “A Heaping Bowl of Discipline

  1. Elizabeth

    Ah yes! Discipline! I have very little of it I’m sorry to say. I’m rather hedonistic, self-centered, selfish, and narcissistic. I love the “ideas” of things but seldom see them through to completion. In High School, my report card often read: “John does not make good use of his time”. Or: “John does not pay attention in class”. Or: “John is very disorganized”. I was always trying to explain to my parents why a “high” D+ was better then a “low” D-. What a trip!

    Since then I’ve learned about Neurobehavioral Developmental Disorders and I recently discovered Auditory Perception Disorders. Who knew? Certainly not back in the day. But this sounds very much like your description of how we play the “blame game”.

    For me, the best motto resolves to “One foot in front of the other”. I live by that motto. It takes me from point A to point Z, eventually. One step at a time gets me to where I need to go.

    Good post! I’m very much enjoying my visits to your little site! Keep up the good works!

    -Brother John
    Lansdowne, Pennsylvania USA

    1. John, I think I’m a lot like you. I, too, got those “does not pay attention in class” notes. In fact, I was parked in the corner many times in grade school for ignoring the teacher and doing my own thing! Discipline does not come easily for me, but I have found that running my own business (though quite small) has helped ground me a bit. I’m better able now to stick to a schedule and move toward a goal, as you say, “one foot in front of the other”. Could it be >gasp< maturity? The dreaming part has always been effortless, but creating the concrete thing out of the dream is still a challenge. And, oddly, commitment is frightening. Guess I'm just a ne'er-do-well at heart!

  2. Discipline is necessary in writing but not too soon: first get it down and then go back and tighten it up and that requires discipline. The mistake of many novices is the reluctance to change anything, they think everything they write is “gold”. If you can indicate to me something is wrong with my piece and I see it, I readily change it. All that requires discipline. And you are always the ultimate judge of your own work.

    1. Siggy, I agree that editing and rewriting should be done once a piece is finished. Constantly tweaking along the way (with, perhaps, exceptions for glaring booboos) can kill your momentum. Get it down, and don’t worry that it’s not right. You’ll make it right later. However, discipline does come into play from the start of a project (if you’re writing for publication) in the form of daily budgeted writing time and even work done on the business end of things: contacting agents/editors/publishing venues, setting up readings/signings, taking or giving classes, etc. And, if a writer pays no attention to how to properly craft a sentence, that writer is going to have quite a time when she does reach the rewrite. Finally, though the writer must judge whether she has done her best and whether her work is ready to go out into the world and try its luck, the reader is the ultimate judge of its value. Readers are the point of the writing, the audience. That judgement is subjective as it is for all art. If you are writing for sheer enjoyment or for therapeutic reasons and are not concerned with publishing your work, then of course the rules are much more relaxed, and you have but to please yourself. Thanks for your insightful comment!

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