People who want to be artists/writers often say, “I don’t have any discipline.” We imagine discipline as a character trait we do or don’t have, just as we imagine that talent is something we’re somehow born with, rather than a set of abilities developed over time. Very often, what looks like “lack of discipline” is actually fear. We imprison ourselves with fantasies of what we should be able to do, how we should be able to do it, and what the end result should look like.
Almost no writer leaps out of bed every day humming, dances over to whatever serves as a work space, and dashes off a couple of thousand brilliant words before adjourning for a hot tub. (Although, on our best days, nothing matches the joys of coming up with unexpected ideas, seeing our way through a problem, having connections fall into place.) Writers who manage to work regularly have simply found out how to survive the mix of exhilaration, terror, and sheer dread of failure; to make some work, no matter how rough; and then to look at a messy and partial monster and ask, without shame or despair, “What does it need now?”
Having a community of fellow artists can help, not just for support but for reality checks. And, of course, it helps to learn about the processes of other artists. In the article “How to Write a Great Novel,” by Alexandra Alter, writers like Orhan Pamuk, Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, Junot Díaz, Amitav Ghosh, Edwidge Danticat, Kate Christensen, Dan Chaon, Colum McCann, Michael Ondaatje, and Laura Lippman discuss their processes, from dictating on the train to writing entire drafts by hand in a notebook to filling up color-coded index cards with images and then shuffling them.
A number of writers do write entire drafts by hand, which eliminates the danger of going over a first chapter for years, but it’s far from the only way to work. We pull all kinds of tricks on ourselves, from setting minimum page counts or writing hours to landing ourselves with public deadlines. These strictures are great when they work, not so great when they turn into internal prisons, evidence of the ways we don’t live up to our ideals about process. So many of the writers I know have timetables for themselves and are panic-stricken by being “behind.” I recommend “Late Bloomers” by Malcolm Gladwell.
The kind of work we do will be changed by the lives we live. I’ve heard people, at fifty, and then sixty, say, “It’s too late.” Then, at seventy, “I had so much more time than I knew, but now it really is too late,” and at eighty, “Seventy was nothing, I wish I’d started then.”
It’s actually just about never too late to start or restart, to learn to keep working despite our fears and failures, to recommit ourselves to the process. Even though writing is unbelievably demanding, it’s also the source of such intense happiness and freedom that nothing else I know can touch it.
(This blog entry, and others in the conversation, can also be found at http://blog.ciis.edu/)