This Is Gonna Ruffle Some Feathers, But: Discipline Doesn't Belong At The Center Of My Writing Life Anymore

There's something stronger, wiser, more powerful, and more reliable than discipline. I know, I know--it's a switch for me, too. But it definitely works. | lucyflint.com

Here is the truth of where I'm at.

It's a painfully familiar scene. I'm looking down at the white sheet that's draped over my work-that-used-to-be-in-progress. It's lying on a metal table with a tag around its toe, and I'm trying to nerve myself to make the decision. 

Do I resurrect this thing? Or stick it in a drawer and walk away? Or just get on with the autopsy? 

After a draining summer, I don't have much creative energy. My mind hasn't been in my work—which is the whole reason why I'm even at this table. So my general exhaustion wants to vote hard for the walk away.

But my heart and my gut are agreed: I love this story to death and back, and so resurrection it is. 

And here's where things get tricky. Here's where my fledgling Artist's Way instincts face a big challenge.

Because, like I said, this is painfully familiar: I've done this before. I've zapped projects to life again. I've brought them back from the grave. And I have a method for this kind of tricky operation. 

It's a three-step process. 

1) Send my brain into overdrive. Think incredibly hard. 

2) Make an enormous list that covers every single aspect of bringing the project back to life and from there, to completion. Reread it and add even more list items. Leave no cracks.

3) Proceed to work through the list.

I have a very deep love of this method.

It's so sleek and shiny and disciplined. It's like a perfect ladder back into the heart of my work: I look at each item like it's a rung on that ladder. If I put my feet on each one, I'll get to the top!

THIS LIST WILL SAVE ME.

It's proofed against all whims, all moods.

Come rain, come shine, come high water, hell, or handbaskets: this list marches on.

... That's what I think. That is the grand seduction of the perfect list.

And then, when I'm at the third item on the 200-item list (or maybe, if I'm really cruising, when I'm at the seventh one), something comes along and unsettles me.

Intuition floats over to my desk and says in its low lovely voice, "Actually, there's a better way."

"Ack!" I cry. I bat it away.

I have to stick to this course, right? If I take my eyes off the list, then all my moods and whims will come along and sweep me into a Neverland of Netflix and ice cream and sweat pants. The book will suffocate! I'll disappear into mindless oblivion!

I stick to my task list. I grind through the next item or two.

But intuition is persistent. She tugs at me and whispers at me, and when I finally listen, I do so by overhauling my list and creating a new one, now going in a slightly different direction.

All while railing at myself for being so wishy-washy, so unfocused, so undisciplined.

We repeat this extremely awkward and uncomfortable and grumpy dance step a few times, jerking and stumbling toward the next draft of the now resurrected (if slightly confused) work-in-progress.

And that, my friends, has been my usual process.

That's what I know to do. That's what has somehow gotten my fingers moving over the keyboard again.

But—shockingly—that's not the course that Julia Cameron recommends.

And if The Artist's Way has been right about so many other things... I've gotta believe that she's right about this, too. 

Which means that this resurrection sequence is going to have to go a little differently. (Eeep!)

The Force that Trumps Discipline

It's funny, looking back on it, to realize that I trusted in my lists so hard.

Even though I've never made it through one, even though I've never even made it to the halfway mark—there's still this drive in me to make them. 

The course that Cameron advocates is, surprise surprise, something much more kind, squishy, and weirdly enough, more reliable.

I believe in it. I'm just super new at practicing it. So it still feels a little shaky under my feet.

Here's how she says it: 

As artists, grounding our self-image in military discipline is dangerous. In the short run, discipline may work, but it will work only for a while. ... The part of us that creates best is not a driven, disciplined automaton, functioning from willpower. ... Our artist is actually our child within, our inner playmate. As with all playmates, it is joy, not duty, that makes for a lasting bond. 

WHAT.

She goes on in this essay to recommend the following as replacements for discipline: enthusiasm, "a loving surrender to our creative process," play, joy, "love of secret adventure," a play date, goofing around, play, fun, play, fun, play, and joy. 

Yes. I repeated the words a bunch. But I need to get that mindset into my head. (Plus, she says play and fun a lot in her essay. I'm learning from the best.)

When you're as much of a strict (if hapless) devotee of discipline as I am, this is downright alarming.

Never mind that my experience lines up with what she's saying.

Never mind that I've loved my work most and come to it most happily when it felt like playing.

Pfft. Play? Enthusiasm?! It's not dependable, right?

Nothing is dependable except a bunch of numbers with a bunch of concrete tasks next to them. With action verbs in front. (I'm so good at those action verbs.)

... For the record, she is not saying, "only come to your work when you feel like it." Not at all. She's very clear throughout the book that we make time to work regularly. 

I think that what she's saying here, more than anything, is that it's not our schedule or our sense of what should happen that brings us to our desk.

It's our well-stoked love and sense of play and excitement about the work. That is what magnetizes us to the creative process.

So, if anything, the thing that we should be "disciplined" about is putting ourselves into the flow of that play. That joy. That sense of fun.

We make that our focus. And then we pay attention to see what would be fun and joyful to do next.

So what am I doing about that project of mine on the metal table?

Yeah. I did it anyway. I made a list. 

But it's a really really short list.

Of half a dozen things that would entice my heart back into the work. Of things that feel like playing and might even be, dare I say it, FUN to do. 

Each entry on this teeny little list sends my discipline-devoted brain into shudders. 

Because—real talk, y'all—I DREW HEARTS ON MY LIST.

I wrote the word love on it in big loopy letters. I used other words like doodle, bloom, dream.

And I'm even audaciously balancing these list items with time that I've blocked off for "refilling the well."

I'm buying new markers for my coloring book. (I love this one, if you want a recommendation.) I'm choosing some parks in my area for nature walks. I'm looking for recipes that call for a lot of "mindless" chopping.

Not gonna lie: This is challenging, my friends. It feels so weird to prioritize joy in my process. 

But I can also see the logic of it, the truth of it.

When I'm in love with my book, I dream it up almost without effort. I can drop right into flow when I'm drafting.

I see it on the backs of my eyelids when I'm supposed to sleep. I come up with new paragraphs of dialogue in the shower. 

When I love my work, I see it everywhere. And it absolutely lights me up.

So why should I suppose that a cold, heartless list of businesslike action verbs will bring me back into that state? 

My short little resurrection list is built for joy. For resuscitating not the project but my heart's connection to the project. 

And in spite of my nerves, I'm incredibly excited. Kind of giddy, really. Because it sounds really fun!

And actually...

Actually I'm going to just go dive into that. Because I can hear my book calling me. Gotta go.

How about you, my lionhearted friend? What does it look like, to stoke your own sense of joy and enthusiasm and play?

What if that lovely trio is what beckons you back to a regular writing practice? What if we send discipline to the sidelines, and instead trust that joy will be a better, more reliable motivator?

I know. It's scary. But it also might be the game changer you were looking for.