I was at a book association meeting last week and, having introduced myself as the author of several middle grade mystery and adventure stories, the lady next to me leaned over and asked how I developed the discipline to write all those books.
In my past life, I had the kind of job that demanded I be disciplined, energetic, dedicated to my products, focused, on time and awake, and always aware of managing the time and resources to accomplish what was expected of me. I made lists like you wouldn’t believe.
I don’t have that kind of job anymore.
The following comments about myself and the way I write do not apply to those people who work for someone else, who have deadlines and objectives, or job descriptions, or multiple jobs, or bosses who measure them against some nebulous criteria of quality, efficiency, or effectiveness. If you have a deadline, or a timetable, or a plan, or need a paycheck from your writing, then obey the writing teachers who quote whoever it was that first said that you have to plant your butt in your writing chair and not leave it until you have words down on paper. Those teachers are right.
That being said, it’s not right for me.
I look undisciplined; I look lazy; I look distracted and arbitrary and shiftless. I act much of the time like an old dog laying in the sunshine, slobbering over a bone. I putter, stroll around the house, make yet another cup of tea, or will suddenly go on a walk in the afternoon. I might even take a nap. Sometimes, I just sit in my recliner and stare into space.
I bounce back and forth between working on my new book, reading other books, or how-to-write books, or magazines, or blogs, or paying bills, or checking Twitter or Instagram or news websites, or working on my blog posts, or looking at my bookshelves at all those books I could be reading, or putting in the laundry. I could clean the bathroom, I guess.
But, in the background, I’m thinking about what I’m working on, of my choice to be a writer, of why it’s important to me to write well, of my characters and plot and descriptions and emotion and tension and whether all those things are working or not. I’m thinking about what I’ve written so far, whether it’s going in the right direction or not, what the next step is, and encouraging myself to be patient and to push on to finish what I have. I can fix things later, but I have to finish now. I’m thinking about whether it’s a good story, and whether people will want to read it, or whether it’s really just plain dull.
I look undisciplined and undirected and capricious, but it takes these motions to settle myself down to be honest when I put words down on paper. Honesty is a fundamental requirement for me to be an effective writer because I have not in times past been particularly honest in my words or my personal life, so it does not come easy.
Focusing on honesty gets and keeps me fully ready to write. If I am honest, I will be able to tell if the story I am writing is the story I intended to write; I will be able to tell if it’s working or if I’m just pretending; if I am authentic, my characters will say what real people say; if I am grounded, my readers will see themselves in my words; if I am simple, my creativity will add dimension to my stories, not fluff.
When these things happen, my seeming lack of discipline proves right for me.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.