I’ve been thinking about the words “discipline,” “habits,” and “rituals” recently. How are these words connected? How do these words cause disconnect? How will these help or hinder my writing life? With the help of the insights of cited below, I will share my thoughts on what I have discovered about these three similar but distinctly different ideas.
Maintaining Discipline: Perseverance vs. Punishment
“The wonderful thing about discipline is that, unlike inspiration and talent, it’s always available to everyone.” Barbara Ambercrombie as quoted in A Year of Writing Dangerously.
“Discipline, I have learned, leads to freedom, and there is meaning in freedom.” Anne Lamott as quoted in Stitches.
When considering the word discipline, two ideas come to mind. The first is punishment from failing to be disciplined. Although this punishment often comes down through a superior or an institution, it can also be self-inflicted.
As a teen, I ran for my school’s cross-country team. The summer challenge was to run 300 miles. Immediately, punishment comes to mind! Many would not join a team whose race is two miles long. Because, of course, this means training requires running more than two miles on a daily basis. Grueling torture, many would agree. But, to be classified as a runner, a person must run. That summer I not only decided to run, I determined I would take on the 300-mile challenge.
A second meaning of discipline is perseverance. Similes of this word are endurance and long-suffering. Sounds much like punishment, I know, and maybe the one cannot be done without the other. But with perseverance comes instruction and insight. Think of the word disciple.
Which is why maintaining discipline requires gaining mentors. Every runner needs proper training and coaching. A good coach guides the athlete through warm-up stretching and a slow easy run. Then, a time-tested workout is implemented followed by a cool-down.
A writer is no exception. Writing mentors provide free-writing exercises and prompts. They use time-tested literary works as examples for writing workshops to inspire novices in their writing pursuits. They remind the writer to cool-down after these euphoric sessions because there is more work to do beyond the first draft. Just as the runner strives for faster intervals toward the finish line, the writer seeks the fine-tuned turn-of-phrase before the final revision.
Finding mentors can be a difficult task, but they are worth seeking. My first mentor was my father. He would say his writing skills were under-par. One of his teachers planted this idea in his head. Yet another reason to seek out constructively critical mentors and not the merely critical. In his case, he had little choice as he was still in middle school. Not only was he my first writing mentor, but he also coached me through that 300-mile summer.
I remember one run in particular because we were on vacation. Incidentally, I am writing this blog post from my weekend retreat. Discipline takes no vacation. Ergo, runners run and writers write no matter where they are. My dad–a driven doer of entrepreneurial proportions–was between jobs. I recall this summer vacation as poignant. It was when he told our family he planned to accept a job in Ohio, a job that would result in two years of commuting so my younger sister and I could finish high school and the eventual move of my parents and my brother to the Columbus area.
During that vacation run, I had little idea what true perseverance meant. I only knew I was exhausted. We were doing an out-and-back workout. The idea is to run for a specified time, turn around, and run back the same distance in less time. I still hear Dad telling me to “push through the pain” as I gasped that last three-quarters to our start-finish point. If I remember correctly, I stopped short. I know I remember correctly he never stopped encouraging me to pick up the pace and run through the line.
He was my first editor, too. My senior year I gave him a research paper to read through before handing it in the next day. Later, I walked into the kitchen to find my paper cut into strips and taped into a different order. Several strips were in a discard pile, one a quotation I needed to prove I had used enough sources. After my initial shriek of despair, he explained the quote was not a great one, my thesis would be stronger if my points were moved around, and this cut-and-paste technique was a valid editing method.
“But, the paper is due tomorrow!”
In the end, I left the paper as it was. I got an “A.” But, I learned a few valuable lessons from my dad. Editing is painful. It requires plenty of time for the writer and the editor to review and discuss the piece. Just because a paper receive an “A” from one person does not mean another will find it faultless. A mentor’s advice should be considered even if it is applied after the fact. My first semester of college I applied Dad’s cut-and-paste technique and repeated it several times because of the improved results. Much later, when I found this technique of William Burroughs mentioned in The Writer’s Idea Book by Jack Heffron, I realized an important truth about my dad and mentors. They are always trying to better themselves and those they mentor in the process by using methods old and new.
In addition to my dad, I have gleaned wisdom from several mentors over the years. Several professors at Bethel University (then Bethel College) contributed to my education and encouraged my writing pursuits. Jim Moore was my mentor through the now-discontinued Split Rock Arts Online Mentoring for Writers. Jim’s advice contributed vitally to my first book, The Last Time We Were Children. Most recently, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s instruction through an online course from The Loft Literary Center rekindled the dormant cinders of my set-aside poetry collection by igniting new poems and inspiring a sturdier collection structure. I hope to release my third poetry collection later this year.
In addition to quality mentors, writers need other writers. Many times I ran alone that 300-mile summer. But, I knew other team members were striving toward the same goal. This accountability gave me encouragement to continue my seemingly insane pursuit. After our first meet of the season, we gorged on Bavarian cream and swore off sweets the rest of the season. I just ate a cookie, so I did not abandon my sweet-tooth completely. But, for the season, for the team, for myself, I did. Three strong writing friends with honest constructive comments will give the finished piece validity. One of my writer-reader friends has been in two book clubs with me. Now we are starting a book club with our kids. I can count on her to provide genuine comments only a true writer and friend will give. Writers challenging other writers through online courses or in-person classes are invaluable. I gained two new writer-readers through my Loft class. Forming a pack in cross-country running guides each team member to the finish line. The same is true for a pack of writers!
Similar to long-distance training, writing a novel or a collection of poetry requires daily discipline. Sometimes those writing sessions are sprints, and others are miles of meandering trails. But, they are daily. Writers, like runners, guilt themselves when they miss a day or two, and, heaven-forbid, more. The discipline comes in “putting on the running shoes” of writing, which means sitting in the chair and putting words on paper. It is the stretch, the condition, the challenge one takes on in order to be classified a writer.