Devotion and Discipline
I’m writing this post on the balcony of the Renaissance Hotel in St. Augustine, Florida. Here to do a workshop on Quieting the Inner Critic, I’m also taking this opportunity to catch up on some reading and some writing. Right now, perched on the tiny south-facing balcony of my hotel room, I’m soaking up as much sun as I can because the thermostat of every square inch of this large hotel and conference center is set at a bone-chilling 56 degrees. Last night when I returned to my room, my toes were actually numb. So after a large buffet breakfast and a whole carafe of coffee this morning, I’m feeling like a fat cat lounging in the toasty spot of the house. Heavenly.
I haven’t attended a writing conference in a while, so I’m happy with all the talk about genres and best practices and how to market and how to deal with the daily fear of putting your thoughts on the page. Even if we don’t walk away from these events with concrete techniques for making good writing, they do instill eagerness to keep trying, and that’s worth a lot in the writing life. It’s a yearning that workshop attendees share—the need to put fingers to key pads and shape experience into sentences. It’s almost an addiction for many of us, and it feels good to be around other addicts. And while I don’t place myself in the category of those who actually pop out books the way some people pop banana bread out of the oven, I do consider myself a dedicated writer.
And not surprisingly, the question came up in the Q&A session that Phil Deaver and I did yesterday after our workshop sessions: "What makes someone a writer?" a nervous young woman asked.
Phil and I looked at each other and smiled because we’ve talked about this question numerous times with our students and with friends. What does make you a writer? Do you have to have a title on the NY Times notable book list in order to call yourself a writer? Do you have to earn a living wage from your work to call yourself a writer? Do you have to get up at 6:00 a.m. every morning and hit the keys for eight solid hours to call yourself a writer?
I know I’ve moved back and forth on this topic, but these days, here’s what I’m saying: if you write with devotion and discipline (that means somewhat regularly), you are a writer. Thirty years ago, I used to call myself a runner. I had won no competitions, I had no awards, I made no money from my running habit, but I ran with devotion and with discipline. I gave myself fully and mindfully to the process of becoming proficient at it, and I did it every day. Sometimes it brought me joy, and sometimes it really frustrated me; sometimes I thought I was an amazing athlete, and other times I thought I was an abject failure as a human being. Still, running remained a significant part of my life experience. And thus, my constructed version of a “self” included the label “runner,” and I think it was a fair and legitimate label. I felt no hesitancy in claiming it.
And yet, I know many writers who resist calling themselves ‘writer’ because they don’t think they possess the necessary achievement to be legitimate in the art form.
As I tell my students and my clients, if you write with devotion and discipline, the ideas, the forms, and the venues for presenting your writing will rise up to meet you. They will take shape over the days of pounding out words, shaping ideas, examining assumptions, and refining conclusions that you are making through your art form. We call this a generative creative process because in the midst of just doing the writing, the form and purpose for the writing take shape, they are generated out of process.
This process requires a devotion to the practice even when nothing seems to be arising. Days go by sometimes and we find only drivel on our pages. “I told you so, my inner critic screams, you have nothing to say! So just stop writing!” That’s where discipline comes in. Artful expression is shy sometimes; it lingers in the shadows of the writer’s mind, unsure of being accepted when it appears on the page. Devotion and discipline are required to coax art out.
Recent MacArthur Genius award-winner Angela Duckworth studies the psychology of achievement. And in her studies, she finds that self-control and grit account for achievement far more that raw talent. High achievers, her work suggests, are willing to work hard, face set backs, and address complications with equanimity. Her research has so many implications for our educational system, but it is also useful to those of us engaged in a solitary creative practice. Talent helps; but grit will get you where you want to go.
So how do you label yourself when it comes to your creative practice, whatever form that practice may take these days? Do you call yourself a writer? a poet? a water-colorist? a gardener? a weaver? Do you take up the practice of your chosen art form with devotion and discipline? In her wonderful novel, In the Shadow of the Banyon Tree, Vaddey Ratner’s poet-prince character says this: “Art is our divine expression, and we humans, not the gods, must be worthy to reveal ourselves.” I believe devotion and discipline are two ways to make ourselves worthy of revelation.
And if you are wavering on the ways and means of bringing “devotion and discipline” to your practice, please stop by the LifeArt Studio for a conversation, attend one of our workshops, or come and take a yoga class with me. We’re all about helping you find the inspiration (and foster the grit) you need to take up your practice anew, and to claim your artist-role whole-heartedly.
Thanks for stopping by the ArtLife Studio today. Have an artful day!