The Second Discipline

Writers have to be disciplined. Most writers do not begin their career with a publishing contract in hand. Instead, the writer has an idea. That is all. This idea so interests him that he sits down every day, alone, often without encouragement, always without guarantees, just him and his idea, and he writes until that idea takes the form of a story he can share with other people.

This is one form of discipline. A writer can learn this kind of discipline with his first book. In fact, the writer must learn this discipline if he ever hopes to finish anything at all. But there is a second kind of discipline that cannot be learned with a single book. This discipline must be practiced again and again, from book to book, from day to day, from sentence to sentence even.

Here’s how it goes: You’re writing along, happily focused on the story you’re telling. You’ve forgotten about all your chores and your bills and your obligations; for the moment there is only this interesting story and the effortless feeling of laying your attention upon it. It always feels good to lay your attention on what interests you most. It requires no effort in the same way that eating when you’re hungry requires no effort.

But then, in the middle of wondering what you should write next, you have a thought. You think to yourself, “I’m interested in this story. I wonder if other people will be interested in it too?” Now you have moved your attention off of what interests you most and onto a question you cannot answer. It is impossible while sitting alone at your desk to know what other people are interested in, because they aren’t there. Any answer you receive is made up.

And so, trying to answer this question does not feel good. It feels as bad as laying your attention on what interests you most feels good. In fact, this question now feels like a problem. If other people don’t like this story, why are you bothering to write it? Why write another word if no one is going to be as interested in it as you? And because you are an adult, you have learned that problems don’t solve themselves. To fix a problem, you must pay attention to it until it is solved.

Unfortunately, the more you pay attention to this kind of problem, the worse it gets. Now is when you must practice your second discipline. The only way to solve this kind of problem is to ignore it. Despite all the momentum of fear that somewhere out in the misty future there is a world where no one likes what you’ve written, you must bring your attention back to the present moment where the story you want to tell is waiting for you. No matter how real that future appears as you stare at it through the lens of your imagination, you must deny its existence and will yourself back to reality.

It took me a while to understand this practice as discipline. A disciplined person, I felt, was willing to ignore some of life’s easy pleasures to build toward some desired future, like writing every day even if you don’t necessarily feel like writing every day. But this second discipline was about choosing to feel good rather than bad, choosing effortlessness over effort. And yet the degree to which I have mastered this discipline has meant the difference between loving what I do and fearing what I love.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.


Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
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Be Kind First

You may think it is important to be disciplined. You may think it is important to get your butt in the chair. You may think it is important to wake up an hour earlier, to turn off your cell phone and your Internet. All these things are important. A book will not get written if you don’t write. A book will not get written if you do not create an environment where your imagination can focus on one single story.

But it is still more important to be kind. You are the boss and the employee. You will not work for yourself if you are cruel and demanding. Yet how easy it is to disregard kindness, this grandmother of virtues. How passive it appears, how reliable yet uncreative. Kindness is hard work’s reward, the peace you’ve earned once the unkind world of creation’s uncertainty has been tamed. The publishing world does not always appear so kind, after all. The publishing world has as many No’s in its quiver as there are manuscripts in the air.

But kindness is the soil from which creation grows. Kindness is trust in action. No wonder it seems so gentle, so receptive, for trust accepts no resistance. Kindness is the love you give yourself first, not last, the love you give without proof that a day’s work is worthy of reward. Be kind first, and the discipline of daily work will follow. Be kind first, and in the peace that kindness brings your imagination will find the focus it needs to give you what you desire. Be kind first, and you will have kindness to share with the world, rather than a plea for kindness from a world you feel is unworthy of your trust.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

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End Game

My oldest son, Max, was a kind of genius when it came to resisting my wife’s and my attempts to discipline him. When he was three he used to wake up in the middle of the night and refuse to go back into his room. One night I got so furious I slammed my hand on his bed and screamed, “No more of this!” We then stuffed him in his room and camped outside his door, waiting to stuff him back in his room should he attempt to leave.

He did not attempt to leave. Instead, he opened the door, cried, “No more of this!” and slammed the door again. Then he did it again. And again. And again. I probably got to hear my words echoed back at me in this fashion a dozen times.

When he was nine, we told him if he didn’t stop playing his Gameboy so much we would take it from him. Max marched into his room, grabbed the Gameboy, plucked a large spoon out of the kitchen drawer, and headed outside.
“Where are you going?” I demanded.

“I’m going to bury the Gameboy.”

Our bluff called, we were reduced to begging him not to bury the toy on which we had recently spent $100.

Every writer will tell you the importance of discipline. It takes discipline to return to the page every day when no one is paying you to do so. This is the discipline I would like to teach my boys, but it is not a discipline anyone had to scare or threaten into me. I go to the page every day by choice.

My futile attempts at discipline always reduce to a contest of wills, a contest that no one can ever win nor lose. Even when they chose to follow my dictums – however well intentioned my dictums may be – they do so by their own choice. Secretly they know this. Secretly they understand no one can make them do anything: they are as free as I am, and when they understand this fully, the game will finally be over.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Enter The House

During her interview, Carol Cassella talked about the difference between the external discipline of medicine and the internal discipline of writing. In medicine, as in most professions, the doctor uses her training to solve problems presented to her by others, namely, patients. The writer, on the other hand, uses her skill to solve problems she created.

I believe it is this internal discipline that has left so many people at the doorstep of writing, unwilling to enter that house alone. I don’t think it occurs to the beginning writer until they have sat down to write their first book just how alone he or she will be in this pursuit. And so, with this idea still fertile in their imagination, a new writer turns away, claiming lack of time, or lack of talent, while all that ever stood between them and writing this story was some idea they had about themselves they were afraid they might discover was true if they sat down alone to write.

No one has to be a writer, but I believe everyone has to enter that house, even if it is only on your deathbed. We are all freer than we are normally willing to admit, and the embodiment of that freedom is our unyielding autonomy, a gift from which we habitually protect each other. Why, left to your own devices, you could do anything, and anything could be wrong. It is why it is sometimes easier to be slave than master, why new democracies erupt in violence, why teenagers, freed from their parents will for a weekend, binge and carouse.

Yet as free as we are, we are all imbued with natural limitations in the form of our own preferences—the stories, and words, and friends, and food we choose every day. These are the natural boundaries of our lives, the walls and windows of the house. Upon entering the house, you discover that the divine freedom that is life is not the freedom to do anything, but the freedom to do anything that makes you happy.

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