Cultivating Discipline

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One Saturday morning in February, I was reading through several old essays and detected a couple of threads where certain themes held together. I began printing and grouping and by the time I finished I’d come up with an outline for what might be a book of essays. There was one piece in particular, an unfinished one from over a year ago, that I began to see in a new light, a possible vision for the whole thing. It was an exciting couple of hours, until I realized that only a third of the actual writing was complete.

Since then I’ve stumbled quite a bit on the path toward a finished product, yet the further I go, the more clearly I see the obstacles. The most obvious one is that I have never written a book before, and while this is a valid concern, my guess is that, for most writers, each new book feels like the first. Having one book tucked under your belt does not necessarily mean you feel equal to the task of writing another. It’s no accident that I used the word “task” just now, because that’s what writing a book is. No matter the romantic notions I have regarding my name on a spine, writing is work, and this work requires discipline.

Like running a marathon, or building a house, writing a book takes a certain amount of work, each and every day. Now, I can’t tell you the last time I lived through a week where I could actually take two hours, at my leisure, every day to sit and write; it has been quite a while since I’ve have that kind of freedom. I’m married, and we have three children, and my husband is currently enrolled in seminary. His income provides what we need, but it doesn’t allow me to hire a short-order cook, personal shopper, or housekeeper. So around here, my days fill up pretty fast. I’m not complaining, it’s the season of life I’m in. At the end of the day it’s far more important that my family is loved and cared for than that I transfer a thousand words from my brain to a computer screen.

However, I could find the time to write every day if I planned a little more carefully. If I made myself go to bed on time, set my alarm to get up before everyone else, and immediately opened documents rather than checking Facebook, I could easily get an hour’s worth of writing in before my children needed my complete attention. In the evenings after dinner, or perhaps right around nine o’clock, I could sit down and crank out a few hundred words. I could also turn on the TV less, and read my Bible more. I could choose exercise over dessert and creative thinking over status updates. All it would require is a little bit of discipline, organization—and a complete personality transplant!

I’ve never been much of a planner, ask any of my planning friends and family. I drive them all crazy. I prefer to live more like Julia Roberts’s character in Pretty Woman: “I’m more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kinda gal, moment to moment—that’s me.” I hate wearing watches and setting alarm clocks. I secretly think “list” is a bad word. I don’t think ahead, and I am usually unprepared. It’s called being a free spirit, right? And isn’t that what makes me a creative person to begin with? Strike that. I know these silly things are not all true, and I recognize the need for structure. I just don’t know exactly how to do it, and what’s more—I don’t really like working on things that I’m not yet good at.

And that’s why I must cultivate discipline. It’s not something that happens over night. I was hoping it was something I could make happen in forty days when I made my Lenten promises, but alas, it was a rather unsuccessful attempt. Would that I could change the internal hard drive setting of my spirit from apathetic to driven and watch as the file folders multiplied, but I’m finding that personal habits will only be altered by means of those human parameters known as time and commitment.

The one encouraging discovery I have made is this: the more I write, the easier it is to write more. Yes, that may seem a rather obvious finding, but let me tell you that I don’t care. It’s exciting to see that I’m writing faster and my flow of thought is smoother and easier to translate these days. It’s exciting enough that I can smile at the fact it’s taken me so long to catch on. Who would have thought? Training leads to triathlon.

In her book Acedia & Me, Kathleen Norris says of her work: “The world does not care if I write another word, and if I am to care, I have to summon all my interior motivation and strength.” That’s the kind of sentence that should line the walls and ceiling of my bedroom so it can be the first thing I see every morning when I rise and shine. Maybe a mantra like that could drive me to the desk of discipline and transform me into a well-written woman, but real results are far more likely to be the result of daily decision. Just like walking down the stairs and turning on my yoga DVD after breakfast, the choice is mine to make, each and every day.

 


18 Comments

  1. Becca

    Janna, this reminded me of a Somerset Maugham quote:

    “I write only when inspiration strikes me. Fortunately it strikes me every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

    It’s so interesting to see what the Lord is stirring in different folks at different times. I tend to be tireless and driven by nature, so the Lord has been teaching me to rest. But as I read your piece, I was reminded of how the Father speaks to such different needs simultaneously in His people.

    I love His artistry and intentionality. He is so good to fine tune lessons for each heart. I love Him for that. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Rebekka

    Ah, you have spoken to my heart today!

    I struggle with this all too much…and, embarrassingly, I don’t even have children yet! Still, it’s difficult to work from home, be an artist, allow margin for inspiration, all the while getting quality work done.

    Thanks for these words.

  3. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    Thanks for your thoughts, Janna. You’re exactly right; writing is all about discipline. Just ask Jonathan Rogers, who wouldn’t come to Dude Breakfast at Waffle House until he finished his new book. Now THAT’S discipline.

  4. Lori Douthat

    Thanks for these words! I was reading out loud to Derrick and he asked if this was me writting. I guess that means everything you said pretty much applies to me to! Choices…………need to work on making better ones too!

  5. Leanne

    After taking four months off, I’m attempting to blog more regularly. You are right: the more you do it, the easier and more fun it is. A worthy discipline to cultivate, indeed.

  6. MargaretW

    Janna,

    I am currently working at editing my novel’s story and structure *again*. It is exhilarating at times, but mostly a plodding, task driven slog through the mud. But I decided to discipline myself to work at it until it’s done.

    I think of it the same way I do about working out. Jogging or cycling isn’t always great fun, but the satisfaction I get from being healthy reaches far beyond the time it takes to do the actual work.

    And I am immensely satisfied when I see a chapter assembled and beautiful.

    I met you at Hutchmoot last year. I’m glad to see you with a blog post here. Kudos!

  7. Michelle

    I really identify! I wish discipline was easier, but I guess that’s the opposite of the definition, right? It’s still encouraging to know others with the same struggle. Hang in there!

    🙂 Michelle

  8. Loren

    Wow! Like many here I can relate…. I’m often afraid to mention that I write because I’m so undisciplined. When I do say how poorly I get on people will respond, “Oh, but look at your life right now with three young ones. Of course you don’t have time.” True to a certain extent, but like you, it’s more to do with my personality…and I don’t think that’s a good excuse for lack of discipline.

    God is working, though, and posts like these are an encouragement!

    (I love the photo, too, by the way 🙂 )

  9. Charles Atkinson

    Thank you for the post! Great reminder and much needed on my part.

    Ironically enough, it is keeping me away from Greek homework right now, which I better get back to. I am justifying this undisciplined blog perusing because it’s inspiring me to be more disciplined in the future – does that count?

  10. Benjamin W.

    Great post. On this particular subject, I highly recommend looking up some interviews with Guillermo Del Toro. In one such interview, he described his schedule- waking up early, writing for two-three hours, eating breakfast, going to his office and then spending about an hour on each of the potential movies+videogames+ books+ comics, etc… he may prepping at any given time.

    That’s not just discipline… that’s hero discipline, and the guy’s not even a believer. That convicts me all over…

  11. Moyo @ Living Purposefully

    I like your writing style. This was a good write up. I like when you said ” the more I write, the easier it is to write more.” In essence, the key to cultivating discipline is to continue doing what you need to get done irrespective of how you feel.
    I write on success and living purposefully , and this helps on the post i’m developing on putting discipline to one’s passion.

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