On Discipline

There is no such thing as disciplining one corner of a life. There are only disciplined or undisciplined lives.

Appears in Fall 2011 Issue: The good society
September 1st, 2011

Discipline is not a mystery.

Its elements are so simple they can seem mocking. Put down the extra slice of bread. Run one more mile. Pick up the pen, or brush, or violin.

It's no more complicated in the creative spheres. But it's every bit as elusive there as it is in the world at large. "I want to make work," people often confess to me when they discover I'm a working writer. "I just never seem to get to it."

The practical solution to their problem barely amounts to a paragraph. Choose a time to make work and hold that time inviolate, I tell them. If you lack inspiration, wait. Don't do anything else. The work will come.

It's advice that stems from years of personal experience. When I was eighteen and entering college, I reasoned that the two most important things in my life were faith and writing. I didn't want my new life to crowd either of them out. So I resolved, each day, to pray for an hour and write for two hours. I joked at the time to the few people who knew about this arrangement that I probably had my priorities reversed. But that simple commitment marked the beginning of lifelong habits of prayer and creation. I've never taken a job that wouldn't allow me to continue them, even when that meant working as a maid or a waitress instead of something that seemed more in keeping with the degree I finally earned. And I kept this up for over a decade before I began to make anything approximating a living from my writing.

It's also advice, I've discovered, that almost everyone finds impossible to follow. And although the elements of discipline in the creative spheres are no more complex than anywhere else, our failures in discipline as artists strike us deeper. Most people can understand lack of discipline in exercise or diet—we've all reached for the remote instead of going for a walk, all taken an extra slice, even after we were full. But why would an artist, whose whole identity hangs on their creation, fail to paint? Why would a writer, whose deepest joy comes from their work, fail to write?

The art world is full of talk: gossip, politics, and a smattering of actual ideas. But the question of artistic discipline, the central problem of a working artist's life, is almost taboo, perhaps because the answers are at once so obvious and so daunting. Tellingly, the artists who do have strong habits—the writer you can never see on weekends, because she's always tapping away at a new manuscript, the painter who disappears into her studio every other evening, despite working full-time hours—are the ones who are also carving out names for themselves in their respective fields.

At first, I was fooled by the simplicity of discipline. Good artistic habits were easy to explain. There were no laws against them. They didn't require money, or physical prowess. How hard could they be to pass on to others? In partnership with the International Arts Movement I began to pilot a program called the Working Artists Initiative, designed to help emerging artists in all genres form strong creative habits. The heart of the program: a commitment to create work at least five to ten hours a week, even while working a full-time job.

I thought of this as a simple commitment, something that could be fit into the context of any life, with enough discipline. I was shocked to discover how much it actually demanded. The problem is this: creation requires firing on all cylinders. If people carved out time on a Saturday morning, but were out till three on Friday night, the time was compromised. If they hadn't been eating well, the time was compromised. If they were distracted by other pressing worries, the time was compromised. Part of an artist's task is to shut out these distractions and listen only for the voice of their work, and no artist can survive without that species of discipline. But many of the problems the artists in the program faced were genuine, too visceral to be ignored. In fact, introducing discipline in one area seemed to exacerbate problems in the others. "When I push on one area," one artist said, "the rest of my life seems to go crazy."

There is no such thing, we discovered, as disciplining one corner of a life. There are only disciplined or undisciplined lives.

Let me be clear. Too many artists already raise artificial barriers to creation: they can't write, or think, or paint, they claim, unless they're seated at a pristine desk, with southern light, perfect silence, and a dozen sharpened pencils all pointed west. These are not aids to creation, or marks of real discipline: they are a group of excuses not to create if the conditions are not met. I am not saying, "Don't bother to create unless your whole life is in perfect order." I am saying, "Creation will require your whole life."

For years, I had seen my early commitment to prayer and writing as separate concerns. Now I wondered if my spiritual disciplines and my creative disciplines had been more deeply bound than I knew. The actions of discipline are simple, but the barriers to discipline are spiritual, rooted in anxiety, despair, and fear. And approaching them as if they're simple matters of practicality will only result in the failure that most artists already know so well.

All spiritual problems are creative problems, and all creative problems are spiritual problems. Doubt, depression, lust, rage, greed: because the artist herself is the mechanism of creation, none of these things can be separated from an artist's work when they're present in the artist. And an artist's failure to work is rarely mechanical—fingers that fail to curl around a pen or a brush—but spiritual: a fear that has rendered them artistically blind or deaf. The solution to them all is to draw closer to God, the source of all order, rest, and freedom, and of every image, sound, and word.

I no longer draw a distinction between my spiritual and creative disciplines. I don't claim this as a fresh practice, but confess it as a novice only now beginning to grasp a fundamental truth that I've long practiced without knowing its name. In some ways, this insight changes nothing. Both spiritual and creative disciplines still require strength and courage, and a high tolerance for loneliness, boredom and pain. But in one fundamental way, removing the distinction between creative and spiritual disciplines changes everything. I no longer flatter myself that I work alone, or that my strength is my own. I lean instead on God, who has been there all along. And that releases me from the very real fear that I will someday come to the end of myself: either my own limited ideas, or my own limited strength. Instead I have a bottomless well to draw on and an endless universe to spin through, renewing itself so fast that my limited mind can only ever capture it in glimpses and fragments.

This is what undergirds my discipline in my best moments: the dazzling beauty and variety of the things God wants to speak into this world, the honour of being able to repeat some of them in my own voice, and the shortness of my life relative to the size of the task. It requires discipline to stay tuned to these truths in the crush and noise of each day, but when the division between creative and spiritual disciplines is removed, the reward becomes not just another page written, or another lonely hour stared down, but a meeting with God himself, who restores us even as He leads us on.

So I'd invite you to read again the simple rules of artistic discipline. Notice how much they resemble a call to prayer. And how differently the commands ring when you have something to draw on besides your own wavering strength: Choose a time to make work and hold that time inviolate. If you lack inspiration, wait. Don't do anything else.

The work will come.


Carey Wallace is the author of The Blind Contessa's New Machine, which was released by Viking/Penguin in 2010. The book tells the story of the invention of the typewriter, which was created in 1808 by an Italian count for a blind woman so that she could write him letters. On the surface it tells their love story, but at heart it's about invention of every kind: lies, dreams, technology, imagination and the ways it fails us.


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