The Elusive Creature Known as “Discipline.”

My cousin Jennifer once told me this story about a 20 year old kid who had just published a novel.  I was 21 at the time.  And I had been talking about becoming a writer since I learned how to print.

“Why haven’t you published a novel yet?”  she asked.

Earlier this year, I was a junior editor on a new fantasy novel in the process of being published by this independent publisher in Orange County.  The author had just entered his freshman year of college.

Since I moved to LA, it seems that questionable or mediocre scripts are being optioned for screen or produced on stage around every corner.  Scripts that I see and think: “I could write THAT.  Gee, if I knew I didn’t have to put so much EFFORT into my work, if I knew my writing didn’t actually have to MEAN anything in order for it to go somewhere, maybe I would have been successful a long time ago.”

So, I sit in a coffee shop, drinking my Nutty Doodle and half ‘n half, and decide that, well, if that 18 year old and the superficial Hollywood hound can get their stuff written and out into the great wide world – so can I.

But then, of course, there’s laundry to do.  And I have to clean my apartment.  And my car needs an oil change.  And I have all that freelance work to finish since my day job pays me barely enough to live.  And I have that scarf to finish knitting because eventually it will stop being 84 degrees in the middle of Fall.

Let’s be honest: writing is hard.  There are a lot of writers out there who will admit that they don’t necessarily enjoy the act of writing as much as the feeling of having written.  I can’t completely agree with that – I love to reveal in language and the lives of characters for whom I am mapping out a complex road ahead.  But it takes a very disciplined person – equivalent, say, to an Olympic athlete – to get the words on paper and shape them into the brilliant stories you feel you have inside of you.

Finding a writing routine and being disciplined to follow through is hard enough – on top of that you are surrounded by people, some of whom you know personally, who have already found their success, who are signing books and contracts and receiving checks in the mail.  It is easy to become discouraged and look at your own work as small potatoes.  It can feel overwhelming, like you are swimming against a strong current and can feel your legs getting heavier, like they are filling themselves up with sand.

The important thing to remember is that writing is ultimately a personal act.  Like any art, it comes from an initially selfish place – a need to understand.  A piece of writing should firstly be written for yourself, you should find some joy or satisfaction simply in the act of creation, in the expression of your ideas and impressions.  If you are not inherently excited about your work, then chances are, no one else will be.

If you write first for yourself, you might find that your feet touch the bottom of the ocean when you stop fighting so hard – and then you can walk slowly through the current rather than swim against it.

I’m sure there are able a million examples one could find to prove this wrong as a universal truth, but ultimately, if your only satisfaction is found through what OTHER people think, then you are missing a large step.  And in a town like LA, where opinions and taste change more than the latest celebrity love affair, your entire life happiness should not be focused on making THEM happy.

If you start finding real satisfaction in your work, finding discipline will become easier.  Allow yourself to be terrible, and it will be easier to get to the good stuff.   Writing will flow from a need to create rather than a fear of failure.   And that, to me, is a far better way to judge the successfulness of your life.

I’m still working on my own discipline, so I can’t give much advice there, but here are a few links to interesting articles by writers (about the arts) who seem to know a little something:

Finding the Discipline to Write;

Going from Amateur to Professional

The Chrysalis of Discipline

Writer’s Block: Learning to Love the Weeds

Also, a couple good books to check out:

Dojo Wisdom for Writers by Jennifer Lawler

War of Art by Steven Pressfield

If you have more, feel free to shout them out.


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