3 Steps To Becoming a Self-Disciplined Writer

Once I decided I was ready to become a writer, I knew I had to become a self-disciplined writer. Otherwise, my life’s true purpose, becoming a great writer, would never transpire.

Unfortunately, most of my life I found it difficult to be consistent, to resist distractions, to think  before acting, and to carry out decisions and plans without taking ten too many and often unrelated detours. Perhaps it’s the New Yorker in me, or the Nigerian, or the woman, but I was never a fan of any “discipline” that required routine.

I didn’t grow up with many rules or boundaries. My parents parenting approach—if you can call the hands off, “she’s mature for her age, she’ll be fine” approach to child-rearing “parenting”—was more like fostering than parenting. I was fed, sheltered, educated. Sure, I was loved, but in that passive “of course I do” way most parents do.

They took for granted that eventually they’d have to actually parent me when I started to want things for myself they didn’t want for me, and when I began that inevitable struggle to discover my sense of self by way of eye rolling, back-talk, emotional outbursts and tiny rebellions like choosing to attend the vocational High School of Fashion Industries, instead of one of the elite New York City high schools like Stuyvesant or Bronx High School of Science when I was fifteen.

Ok, maybe that wasn’t such a “tiny” rebellion.

Nonetheless, I think because I was so well behaved—no partying, no drugs, no drinking, no promiscuity, or any other potentially life altering and stupid shenanigan young whippersnappers got up to—I was left to figure shit out on my own as soon I was old enough to take the 4 train from the Bronx to Manhattan alone. I kind of raised myself.

If I can’t sit down to focus on my writing long enough and with enough consistency to deepen my writing skills and amass a great portfolio of work, I will never become a good to great Writer I am committed to becoming.

Unfortunately, I’ve suffered for this freedom most of my life. If I can’t sit down to focus on my writing long enough and with enough consistency to deepen my writing skills and amass a great portfolio of work, I will never become a good to great Writer I am committed to becoming.

Over the past many months, I’ve been developing a writing routine; a delicate system of habit, reward, punishment without self-admonishing that has put me on the path to becoming a self-disciplined writer.

I spent the last few weeks thinking over what it took for me to get focused enough to develop this routine and find self-discipline.

Becoming a self-disciplined writer in 3 thoughtful steps:

  1. Embrace duplicity: be the adult to your inner-artist-child
  2. Destroy the destructive myth of the “artistic temperament”
  3. Give yourself no other options

Embrace Your Natural Duplicity

In the past few years I have realized that I, and all my fellow human beings, are naturally duplicitous creatures, writers or not. How so, you ask?

We each have that adult-self, responsible for dragging ourselves to work on time…kind of, paying bills, feeding ourselves and wiping our own respective arses. Also, we each have an inner-child. Yes, the inner-child is a real thing, not a hokey self-helpy term made up by self-improvement furus (fake gurus) who sell feel-good-quick seminars and webinars.

The inner-child is the impulsive, sensitive, innocent in us, that when silenced, disconnected or killed, holds “our childhood hurts, traumas, fears and angers”. Most of us, myself not included, never attempt to consciously resolve the damage done by our parents—remember my lazy parents who didn’t believe in boundaries…or parenting.

“The fact is that the majority of so-called adults are not truly adults at all… True adulthood hinges on acknowledging, accepting, and taking responsibility for loving and parenting one’s own inner child… To become adults, we’ve been taught that our inner child–representing our child-like capacity for innocence, wonder, awe, joy, sensitivity and playfulness–must be stifled, quarantined or even killed.”
–from PsychologyToday.com Essential Secrets of Psychotherapy : The Inner Child

Almost a year ago, maybe two years into therapy, I started talking to my inner-child. I started parenting her. And like all good parents, I began acknowledging and listening to her.

I tend to talk to her when she feels overwhelmed and needs soothing before she initiates “emotional shut down protocol 1” or “panic protocol 2”. My newly confident adult self tells her, that the world is not in fact on fire and “we got this”. Together, we try to breath through the pain, the fear, the rage, the whatever emotion that’s kicking ass and taking names.

“…think of yourself as two-persons-in-one. There will be a prosaic, everyday, practical person to bear the brunt of the day’s encounters. The other half of your dual nature may then be as sensitive, enthusiastic, and partisan as you like; only it will not drag those traits into the workaday world.”
–Dorothea Brande (Becoming a Writer)

Late last year when I decided that it’s time to pursue my writing career, I read Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer again. I realized that this duplicitous, symbiotic relationship between the unconscious inner-child and the conscious adult self mirrors her relationship between the artist-self and prosaic, practical self, uncannily.

Perhaps Brande studied psychology, or perhaps she, like Natalie Goldberg, author of Wild Mind, also approached writing, mindfully: holistically, with the whole self. She does, at one point write, “Like any other art, creative writing is a function of the whole man.”

Isn’t that what it takes to write: the whole self? Correction, isn’t that what it takes to be a good to great Writer with a capital “W”?

A great benefit of writing uninhibited—without interruptions and judgment—is that you can get the shitty, light-a-match stinkers out of the way.

I’ve practiced mindfulness for about a year now in my everyday life. For example, when I’m on a BART train that’s once again delayed because another train ahead has “mechanical issues”, instead of sitting, fuming and cursing the technology gods…or devils, I breath. Instead of letting my inner-child rage silently, we breath.

So, as I’ve acknowledged my inner-child, I acknowledge my inner artist. I don’t edit while I’m writing. No, that’s not true. I try very hard not to edit while I’m writing. More importantly, I don’t criticize while I’m writing. I let myself wander, imagine, write like a matterfucker!

A great benefit of writing uninhibited—without shame and judgment—is that I can get the shitty, light-a-match stinkers out of the way. Usually, I only discover what I really mean to say after getting the muddled and false things out of mind and on to paper or screen. Then, it becomes the job of my custodian, my prosaic everyday ward to flush the shit and keep the rest while refining and restructuring what my artist-self has created.

“Artistic Temperament” Is Bullshit!

“It is true that over the years we have associated madness and despair with creative output, somehow linking creativity as a condition comorbid to most mental disorders; there is a myth of the beautiful mind, of the unique insight that a person in mental distress has that enables creativity that those who have not suffered cannot possibly achieve.”
–from The Guardian (Why I hate the myth of the suffering artist)

I love watching period pieces. Especially TV shows and movies set before the turn of the 20th century. When I watch dramas that depict the artist, the writer, the musician as a borderline psychotic, an absurd eccentric or an emotionally volatile genius who can only create in her most desperate moments, I won’t lie, I am entranced.

It’s the veneer of sentimentality of the era of “art for art’s sake”; where artists and writers gathered in literary salons, friends’ homes and local watering holes; and where art was financed by benefactors.

However, these were the centuries upon centuries before computers, internet, and mass sensationalism. Before anyone who had access to a computer and Photoshop could claim to be an artist; and anyone with access to MS Word or a blog could slap “Writer” on their resume…or Linkedin profile (*wink).

Then again, if I think about it, those centuries before computer technology…and Apple, heavily favored the White, the male, the aristocrat and the aristocrat adjacent. I doubt I would have fared well as a black woman. Needless to say, romanticizing what it was to be a writer then does not serve me on my journey to becoming a writer now.

In my younger stupider days, I did buy into the myth of the suffering artist, so much so I put off becoming a writer. Though I believed I was crazy and overemotional enough (ha ha), I didn’t believe I suffered enough. Sure, I had and still have my personal daemons. But, I wasn’t blessed with a debilitating emotional disorder like Tolstoy or Plath. Lucky bastards.

I’ve grown up since then. Fortunately. Now I know that mental illness is not prerequisite to creativity, though it does seem many creative types are a little cra-cra…myself included. But, if seeming is believing, we’d all be locked away in looney bins!

The truth is, parity and duplicity, not mental illness and creativity, are the basic ingredients of a writers temperament.

To be a good to great and prolific writer you need to have your wits about you. The writer has to be both the practical ward and the precocious, sensitive child. The child plays, discovers, imagines, writes; rinse and repeat.

The ward then, must be the gate keeper, the disciplinarian, and the craftswoman. She edits, she schedules, she disciplines, she listens, she discerns, and she prevents distractions so the child can be the creative and curious innocent, the forever searching and wandering creature who unearths what the ward refines and discerningly releases into the world.

These myths about the writers temperament takes a way from the the truth of the writing life. The truth that parity and duplicity, not mental illness and creativity, are the basic ingredients of a writers temperament.

Otherwise, it can feel impossible to become a successful writer who writes well and writes prolifically by illuminating while agitating and refining while fabricating.

Put Baby In The Corner

Time and time again, when I need something to change in my life, the universe, often subtly and sometimes cruelly, provides. It can be downright eerie when either a person comes into my life, or an event of some kind happens just when I need them most even if at first, I don’t see the need. If I were not self-aware and naturally intuitive, I would miss opportunities to take advantage of these little cosmic gifts.

I think we creatives especially experience, perhaps too late, but hopefully just in time, these humbling moments of synchronicity. If you don’t, you’re missing out!

As a creative, I’m sure you have at least experienced the similarly fortuitous phenomenon of the happy accident?

You’re in the middle of a creative project—writing, painting, home DIY, underwater-basket weaving—and then something goes terribly wrong. Perhaps you took notes on a napkin in a cafe after a major writing breakthrough, but lost it? Perhaps you cut off 15 inches instead of 5 of a piece of wood or fabric for a DIY project? “Oh no! What the fuck did I just do?”, you admonish.

After throwing some things around, cursing the very stars you came from, you calm down, and regroup. You are a creative person, after all. You eventually find a creative solution. Yay!

The solution not only hides the mistake, it makes the project work better, look better. More important, you feel amazing and empowered. You are humbled by the transformation from impossible to not only conceivable, but transcendent. Hi five!

I think when we are doing what matters to us, when we make the right decisions for ourselves, when we take care to take care of our needs, when we take a moment, we find that the inspiration we need to move forward already exists. More often then not, the inspiration comes when we need it most.

For the writer, it’s not enough to need to write. You also need to find a way to write everyday and to do those tasks and exercises everyday that will make you want to write everyday. You need the routine, that collection of habits, that ritual that becomes synonymous with your writing process.

“Necessity is the mother of invention”

I have come around to the advantages of becoming a self-disciplined writer because when I made the decision to fully commit to actively pursuing a career in writing late last year, it became apparent I couldn’t do so without it.

I know everyone says to become a writer you must write everyday. Rebel that I am, somewhere in my beautiful deluded mind I thought, or rather I hoped, I could get away with ignoring such sage advice.

I spent a couple of months, through the end of the year, fluttering about trying to first, figure out what this new writing career would look like, and second, how I would keep motivated enough to write everyday.

Then something magical, or inevitable happened. I created a writing routine from two somewhat unrelated needs.

For one, since I’ve grown tired of being home all the time, having worked from home as a web developer for the past 4 years, I needed a reason to get out of my apartment for a few hours a day during the week. Second, due to recent back and neck pain, I have to do PT exercises and stretches every morning before I can do anything else, including my regular exercise routines or even sitting or standing to write.

I would get up early-ish—between 8:30am and 9am—to exercise and stretch. By 1:30pm—after showering, making lunch, diddling around going back and forth on the outfit I’d wear that day—with my laptop, notebook, lunch, snacks and either Brande’s Becoming Write, or William Zinsser’s On Writing Well in my backpack, I’d head out to San Francisco to write.

In the beginning, I just journaled. Sometimes I would just people watch for an hour, take some notes, run some errands and head home. Eventually, I found myself writing up until 8pm with a few breaks for people watching, tea, and stretching.

I do this 3 days a week. One day a week I stay home to do housekeeping and run errands, or rest when my mind and body needs it. One day a week I go to a Peet’s cafe near by, to read and write. Then, on Saturdays, since my sister has her own side-hustle, as the kids call it, she and I work at a cafe until 7pm.

Self-discipline means “committing to you”. Committing to the goal you set out, commit to doing the work, consistently putting in the time, and pushing away distractions and ignoring temptations that detract from your overall goal.

Without meaning to, and from necessity,  I’ve created this writing routine. Even on my most uninspired days, I lug my backpack and my lazy arse to the city or Peet’s dragging my inner-artist-child kicking and screaming like a petulant two year old. I treat her to a soy matcha green tea latte before making her sit down and write. She will pout and putter about the cafe a bit. She’ll linger a bit too long getting set up or slowly sipping her latte. But eventually, she gets to work unearthing, imagining…writing. She’s so easily tamed with her favorite foods…sucker!

What’s most surprising about developing this routine, is without trying, I’ve become a self-disciplined writer…most of the time. I’m still a work in progress. Nonetheless, I rearrange my life around writing (and self-care), and it actually feels good and not as unbearably mundane as I’ve often feared it might.

Though my mind simply does not naturally bend to routine, self-discipline, seeing shit through, it feels good to have focus, purpose and the dedicated times and spaces to write, read, learn and grow as a writer.

I think back to when I changed careers from publishing to web development almost a decade ago: I wasn’t conscious of it. I just, as I tended to, went where the wind took me. Looking back, I wonder, did I choose web development, or did it choose me? No clue. Doesn’t matter.

I am an adult now. I am a mindful, thoughtful, creative artist and adult. As such, I choose to pursue writing now. I choose to work toward my goal without the force of a careless tailwind. I act as mistress of my own universe. I chose to become a self-disciplined writer.

Self-discipline means “committing to you”.

I also feel a great boost in self-confidence and a greater sense of control over my fate. Outside writing, I generally feel lost. I feel purposeless. When I was in the beginning of this career transition, though I was frustrated, scared—I still am sometimes—I felt I finally found purpose. I was just missing the self-discipline to move and direct me along this new path effectively.

Self-discipline means “committing to you”. Committing to the goal you set out, commit to doing the work, consistently putting in the time, and pushing away distractions and ignoring temptations that detract from your overall goal. But, all within the context of your own experiences and specific needs.

Action Steps To Become A Self-Disciplined Writer

I am far from mastering self-discipline. I fall off the wagon often, but because I am committed to writing and have given myself no other option but to succeed at this writing life or bust trying, I will succeed at this writing life or bust trying!

For some people self-discipline is not difficult and so it’s easier to meet the life changing goal of becoming a writer. I have yet to meet any of these people. They may be a figment of my hyper-active imagination. For the rest of us it takes work.

Seriously, embrace your natural duplicity. Do a little research about the inner-child, perhaps starting here. Then read What Writers Are Like, Becoming A Writer by Dorothea Brande. Finally, start talking to your inner-artist-child self as the adult-disciplinarian self. Say hello to the person inside you that creates, imagines, is full of joy and curiosity. The inner-child-artist who needs your adult guidance, strength and wisdom. Talk to her like you would any child. Next time you are about to write, tell her, “Ok, this is your time. Say what you want. Be who you are. Feel what you need to. I got you!” This is much kinder than, “Oh hell, I can’t do this! I’m not a good writer.” Or, “Why bother?”

And next time you come to a very difficult scene or sentence or line in a poem , talk to her, tell her, “Yep, this shit is hard. Let’s take a breath. Come back in a minute. We’ll try again.” Saying this is much better than, “Come on, you’re so stupid! Stop being such a baby!” Or  “Fuck it, I give up!”

Seek and then destroy those destructive writing myths that block your path to the writing life. Start by thinking about your beliefs about the writing life; your beliefs about being a writer. Think about the things you’ve told yourself, or let others tell you about the writing profession. Maybe, unlike me, you never believed in the “artist’s temperament”. Perhaps instead, you’ve always believed that you have to be “lucky” to become a successful fiction writer. Or you believed that no one actually makes a living as a poet. None of which is true, by the way.

Finally, literally look for articles online or books about successful fiction writers and their stories. Read and research poets who make a living writing poetry. Trust, they will inspire you and blow your mind!! Dig deep, unearth the bullshit, learn the truth and let go the myth.

Give yourself no other option but to write everyday. Build a daily routine around how your life already works and how you need it to work to get shit done. If, for example, you can only write after 10pm, then make sure all other obligations to yourself and to others are done by 9:30pm and use that half hour prior to get your mind right to start writing like a matterfucker by 10pm!

Also, think about your current good habits. Perhaps you go to the gym regularly, you limit your sugar intake, you stopped cursing, you walk instead of taking the elevator, and so on.

When I restarted going to the gym a few years ago, after a 6 month hiatus, I would bring my gym clothes to work. Then 1 hour before I left work, I put on my gym clothes. I’d do some work and then head to the gym before going home. I felt that since I was already in my gym clothes, I had no excuse not to go. I knew that once I got home, there would be little hope of me leaving the apartment again. I gave myself no other option but to get my lazy arse to the gym. It worked! I have a great exercise habit now. Have for many years.

It’s a beautiful thing when you wake up one day to discover that the thing you thought seemed impossible, or at least impossible all those months ago, is now just part of your everyday life!

“We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret or disappointment.”

–Jim Rohn

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