The Discipline of Writing

Several weeks ago, after I explained Caffeinated Press to a colleague of mine in a different industry, she looked at me with a sense of awe and said: “I could never find the time to write a book.” This, from an experienced nurse leader who single-handedly re-wrote her entire organization’s clinical procedure manual. While raising teenagers!

Sometimes people who’ve never written, yet aspire to, adjudge the novel-writing process as some sort of grueling journey that involves alcoholism and cats and occasional, uncomfortable engagement with one’s inner Emo Teen. Even people who do write sometimes view long-form composition as the literary equivalent of scaling Mt. Everest in a thong whilst carrying a mesh rucksack stuffed with a dozen angry porcupines.

But fundamentally, writing the Great American Novel isn’t much different from studying a martial art or learning to scuba dive or qualifying for the Boston Marathon: You need a wee bit o’ talent, of course, but success follows from mastery, which follows from putting in the time to advance from novice to expert.

Writing, foremost, is a discipline. It’s a thing to do repeatedly and without public accolade, just like going to karate practice four or five times per week over three or four years is a prerequisite to earning a black belt. Or like doing your 50 logged dives to get your Master Diver rating. Or like following a year-long couch-to-marathon training program to complete a long run in a respectable time after a decade as a Netflix-binging layabout. For all these hard-to-attain goals, innate talent might make the initial effort a bit easier, but success attaches to the person who does the work, even if he started from the back of the pack. Diligence usually trumps raw talent.

If writing is important to you, you’ll make time for it. If it’s not, then you won’t. Period. You’re unlikely to be successful if you don’t consistently write; you’re almost guaranteed to be unsuccessful if you spend the time you could be writing, instead whining about how little time you have to write.

Suggestions for cultivating the discipline:

  1. Gauge your own seriousness. If you want to be a writer, then you have to write. (Sensing a message yet?) If you merely like the idea of being a writer, then you’re in a whole different bucket. Are you willing to make the “you” of your fantasy life converge with the “you” in the real world?
  2. Schedule your writing time. People dedicated to physical fitness plan their lives around their gym times. Martial-arts schools offer classes on fixed schedules. Pianists spend evenings tickling the ivory. So when are you writing? Block time early in the day, or late in the evening — or even reserve half your lunch hour to sit in a quiet place with your notebook. Frequent repetition of short scribbling periods may be more useful than intermitent but longer writing sessions.
  3. Use your downtime effectively. Take the bus to work? Bring a notebook. Stuck on I-90 during a Chicago rush hour? Dictate ideas into your phone’s voice-memo app. Waiting three hours to get through a TSA checkpoint? Cry. But also haul out your Moleskin and work out the details of your next scene. Waiting for your kidlet’s ballet class to end? Tote your laptop to the studio with you. If you keep a tablet or a notebook handy at all times, there’s really no excuse to not have at least a little creative time during your day.
  4. Maintain a journal. Sometimes it helps to get “meta” about your writing. Keep a journal wherein you reflect on your growth as a writer — record stuff like how you broke a writer’s block, how you figured out how to fix a broken scene, why you might be having a dry spell or why you found a particular anecdote or quote to be inspiring. It helps to write about your craft of writing! Just like a karate student keeps an attendance card, or a diver keeps a diving log, or a runner keeps a list of personal records — so also should a writer keep journal. Exact same principle.
  5. Read difficult material. Don’t block yourself into a literary rabbit hole. Read literary journals and anthologies. Read the classics and material outside of your genre. Consume both fiction and non-fiction, prose and poetry. If all you ever read is stuff you like, you are depriving your self of the ability to see the richness of the literary world in all its various styles and themes. Focusing on “your” genre is like wearing goggles that only let you see your favorite color: The result might be pretty, but you lose the environmental context that would otherwise have helped you avoid falling to your death through an open manhole cover.
  6. Learn from St. Augustine. My favorite quote from one of the Fathers of the Church: “Lord, make me holy — but not yet.” Put differently: “I want to write a best-selling, award-willing novel — but not yet.” Take that “not yet” time to experiment and grow your craft. Errors, failures and misdirections are inevitable. Don’t despair. Setting out to write, as a “virgin author,” the next great installment in American Lit, will disappoint you. Don’t aim high. Aim low: Pepper the ground with salvos of crap. That kind of target practice helps you improve your shot from a distance — and eventually, you’ll be ready to take down the Next Great Novel.

You have no excuse to avoid writing.

[Cross-posted to Caffeinated Press.]

Five Strategies

“Life is a journey.” This trite, overused metaphor — a staple of self-help literature and pseudo-intellectual motivation bloviation — suggests that the essential ingredient to living a happy and fulfilled life is to set goals and then work to achieve them. Tidy and linear.

Great idea, in the abstract, but too simplistic to be useful.

The journey metaphor assumes a few important premises. Most of the folks using it recognize that you need to identify your point of origin as well as your planned destination. You can’t make it to Miami if you don’t know whether you’re presently in Duluth or Las Cruces, for example. The motivational encouragement is therefore predictable: Set goals, and then reflect on where you’re at, so you can create a roadmap for success.

My problem with this approach is that it lacks a mechanism for stopping to smell the roses. Even if you figure out you’re in Duluth and really do want to make it to Miami, the “journey” metaphor and its associated tips and tricks makes precious little room for scenic detours. In fact, according to some self-appointed self-help gurus, the detours are considered failures.

Make no mistake: Reflection and goal-setting remain significant parts of any successful person’s toolkit. But something else is needed — a set of strategies about how to live a fulfilled life that empower people to know when, where, how, why, and if a detour is worth the effort.

For myself, I’ve set five strategies. These were borne from months of reflection and represent concepts that strongly resonate with me — who I am, and who I aspire to be. Each person ought to set his own strategies, to serve as the traffic rules to govern life’s journey.

My strategies include:

  1. Cultivate serenity. Inner turmoil and social drama: the Scylla and Charybdis of emotional maturity. Oh, how seductive the lure of interpersonal drama. A codependent friend, a co-worker with a bad attitude, family dysfunction — these sirens sing to us, lulling us into a cesspool of negative emotion that is damned difficult to escape. It takes a lot of work to remain serene when the world seems to be going to hell around you, but it can be done. Medieval monks nurtured a discipline of “spiritual indifference,” which allowed them to observe and be engaged with those around them while remaining indifferent to the tumult within. It’s an attitude that requires a person to keep his empathy and remain connected to others, yet understanding the importance of maintaining an emotional firewall.
  2. Reduce consumption. Whether it’s too many calories or too much alcohol or too-frequent shopping trips, consumption can rob a person of his resources and vitality. In all things, ask the question: Is this necessary? Do I need it? Why do I want it? The goal isn’t necessarily to live like an ascetic, but rather to ensure that consumption of any kind is necessary and appropriate.
  3. Nurture relationships. Without others, we lack context. Everyone needs a network of people, provided that they are the right people. Surround yourself with people who can do things for you, and who will allow you to do things for them. Avoid the incessantly negative, the narcissistic and the emotionally immature. Connect with people of substance, and keep the relationship alive. Find at least five people you could call at 3 a.m. and know they’d respond without hesitation or reservation, and more importantly — be that person for others.
  4. Exhibit insatiable curiosity. Never stop asking why. Never stop learning. Never stop welcoming new experiences, new friends, new adventures. The person who turns his back on a child-like curiosity about the world and the people within it, loses an essential piece of his humanity.
  5. Do few things, but do them well. People who know me best know that I’m a jack of all trades but master of none. An ocean’s worth of breadth, and a puddle’s worth of depth. My grandfather had a saying: “Anything worth doing, is worth doing right.” That phrase was both inspiration and rebuke.  It’s easy to get caught up in master planning, developing a sequence of events, activities and goals that would yield a modern-day Renaissance Man, if only a person had time to do it between all the planning and reflecting. Breadth has its value; a wide perspective allows a person to see the world from different angles, informed by different ideas. Yet depth is important, too; someone who has never really struggled for mastery is, in some sense, locked into perpetual adolescence. Perhaps the solution is to do a few things, but do them well. Be broad, but find a few very important subjects or hard goals and master them.

These strategies govern my decision-making process. The allow me to evaluate whether a deviation or change of plan is good, bad or indifferent. They help foster virtues, attitudes and behaviors that make me a better person irrespective of my pursuit of individual goals.

What are your strategies?