Discipline, Please! Dept.

One of the odd things about having conversations with other creators is how you can talk about the same phenomena in such radically dissimilar ways. Put two authors in a room, get them talking about how they do their work, and after an hour's chitchat it's hard to see what their processes have in common aside from the fact that at the end of it you have a pile o' words.

Take one fellow I knew — I'll call him Doug — who I had to give credit to for having tremendous creative ambition. Doug wanted to write, and he wrote — so much so that I wanted to tell him to slow down and look at what he'd done and think about it for a little bit. He never did. While he had the fire to produce such things, he never also developed the discipline to go back over what he'd done and learn from its mistakes — or, for that matter, its successes. (To this day I'm not sure if he ever wrote more than one draft of anything, which is indictment enough of his work habits.)

It reminded me all too much of John Holt's story, in his book How Children Fail, of a student named Emily who seemed to him to be:

... emotionally as well as intellectually incapable of checking her work, of comparing her ideas against reality, of making any kind of judgment about the value of her thoughts. She makes me think of an animal fleeing danger — go like the wind, don't look back, remember where that danger was, and stay away from it as far as you can.

"The poor thinker dashes madly after an answer," Holt writes. "The good thinker takes his time and looks at the problem. ... [He] can take his time because he can tolerate uncertainty, he can tolerate not knowing. The poor thinker can't stand not knowing; it drives him crazy." In the same way, the good writer is okay with the work not being an absolute and irrefutable embodiment of his ambitions. He knows it is neccessarily imperfect. The poor writer is not comfortable with this; the work has to be good the first time, every time, or he's no good.

Doug had the same thing going on. His attitude towards his work was ruled by emotions that I don't think he even sensed were in play. And part of why I felt as bad as I did about this was because I'd seen the same sorts of emotions wrecking my own creativity for far too long. I had so much invested in wanting to know that my work was perfect that I didn't dare test it against reality. Gradually, though, I'd weaned myself of that trap — but it was painful to see someone else, someone whose talent deserved to be polished and elevated, succumbing to the same morass.

Nobody wants to suck. More specifically, nobody wants to be told "Sorry, but it's terrible", and then have to deal with the painstaking effort of dismantling the edifice they erected and repairing it. And when someone is on fire with the drive to create, they want to let themselves burn in that fire, to become cinders in homage to it. But none of these things should be excuses for sustained amateurism.

There is a book I need to get around to reviewing one of these days, called Lessons in the Fundamentals of Go. I play a little Go — just well enough to know how badly I have been beaten, as I inevitably am — and the book has been a valuable source of advice and insight for how to up my game. And as with any good book about some very specific thing, it sports advice that can apply generally to many other things. Much of Kageyama-sensei's reason for writing the book was to give people stuck at the perpetual-amateur level a way to, well, level up. "Amateurs play the game," he explains, "professionals labor at it." At some point every moderately ambitious amateur will find himself hitting a wall, and not know how to scale it, bore through it, tunnel under it, or blast it out of the way; and so the book endeavors to explain the right way to do this via examples and analyzing one's experiences with the game. He also makes clear how the wrong kind of effort — fruitless pain — is just as bad as not bothering to try at all.

The biggest thing I came away from the book with was that settling for being a perpetual amateur, a dabbler with a pedigree, is a waste of everyone's time — yours and your opponents'. The same goes for any creative endeavor. If you settle for just being an inspired amateur, you miss out on all the real wonder of learning the full gamut of possibilities that go with mastering your chosen discipline. (They call it a discipline for a reason.)

Flying by the seat of your pants is fine for a first-draft NaNoWriMo project, but you can't do everything like that. And to short-change yourself by saying you don't really take it that seriously anyway does not just do damage to your writing; it damages your spirit. It makes you that much more inclined to think of yourself as a perpetual amateur in other things.

When I started writing, I was as undisciplined and seat-of-the-pants as they get. I was like Doug in that I'd just start writing something, anything, and then follow that lead and see where it took me. I scorned the idea that my creative process had to be subjected to any kind of systematic discipline; it would be like cutting a drum open to see what made it go bang. Pure superstition: the magic more than survives such scrutiny, but in fact thrives on it. Without the willingness to develop the discipline to examine one's own creative process, you're always going to be at its mercy in the worst way. There is no romance in this.

Tags: creativity writers writing

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