The discipline has three steps. It begins at home.
You want to do something–paint, write, act, play the hammered dulcimer, whatever–because it calls to you. It’s more than just a passing interest and you’re aware of this (I think hammered dulcimers are kind of cool, but I feel no compulsion to start taking lessons down at Jim’s Dulcimer Academy). This thing calls to you more deeply than it does to the dilettante. You think about it when other things aren’t distracting you. Then it becomes the distraction. You love and even idolize existing practitioners of the art. You read their interviews, their Wikipedia pages, the pretentious Rolling Stone pieces that treat them like geniuses or flops. You fantasize about that being you.
So you take a step and get some training. Lessons. You pay for a class at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. Extension courses at the local community college. Don Webb’s class at UCLA. Maybe you get a method book or join a group that meets in the back of a bookstore once a month. Maybe you hit the pawn shop and buy that beat-to-hell Mexi Strat in the window with some Dylan tablature. Maybe you just get some paper, a pen, a stack of your favorite Stephen King novels, and start imitating. The point is that your brain is a learning computer and, whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re learning.
So it goes: you produce a lot of bad material that you soon come to recognize as such. Then maybe you make something small and good. Then a few more small good creations like it. Things begin to seem possible. Your teachers (if they’re ethical) encourage you and suggest possible directions. You start to calibrate your “built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” You’re at the door of the Shaolin Temple. Again, whether you know it or not, you’re standing there looking for admittance with your duffel bag and $300 in personal burial money. You are not coming into fame and fortune at the top level with connections, Aspen lift tickets, and a sugar daddy to introduce you to literary agents or casting directors. You’re doing it yourself. And you’re probably starting to get pushback from those who now identify you as competition and want to end the threat before it begins.
As soon as people start trying to stand in your way–friends, family, other practitioners, teachers, coworkers–you know you’re moving forward. This is also the moment when you truly have to apply “the discipline.” Here it is as I have formulated it for myself. This is a theme that runs throughout my writing on this blog and, in a more subtle way, my fiction. The two things I care about most in life are helping people find their “thing” (bliss / true will / highest actualization–whatever you want to call it) and being able to follow my own path as a creative writer. This has led me into teaching, which I love, and a lot of philosophical / sociological / life-hacking explorations.
Step 1: Mental Discipline: orienting all ambitions toward your art but expecting nothing in return save the art itself. Just as publishing houses care primarily about volume of sales and production companies about box office returns, see commercial art for what it is. In exchange for the freedom to make the art you want to make (if you’re not a commercial artist–if you are, you have a different set of problems than I’m addressing in this post), accept that “industry values” come from a vastly different universe than those of fine art and never think commerce cares about art beyond its baseline profitability.
You can’t control whether someone wants to buy your work. You can slavishly imitate the trends, hoping that there will be room for one more clone. Or you can recall what inspired you to start doing art in the first place–the possibility and texture of self expression. So if you want to be authentic and original, save yourself a lot of pain and disappointment by accepting that your work may or may not be appreciated by those who seek to profit by the creativity of others. By all means, submit your creations for publication and consumption. But make that peripheral to your emotional center as a practitioner. Make the work come first and the marketing come second.
This is the first step of the discipline because there will be enormous pressures levied against you for even thinking that you have the right to be original. The publishing industry, like the movie industry, does not run on originality. It runs on predictability. Taking chances can be disastrous for them in the worst, career-wrecking sense. You will be told a version of this in 1000 different implicit and explicit ways: try to imagine your audience and write to their expectations. The serious artist will be following something else in her work than trend and established taste–something industry professionals may not even believe exists. Two different sets of values. Different universes. Thus, the serious artist must be disciplined in what she believes, how she lets herself be influenced, what choices she makes about the integrity of her work. The best way I know to do this is to embrace the real possibility of being ignored while continuously putting your work out there. It can be emotionally difficult at first.
Step 2: Financial Discipline: keeping survival (but not respectability) always within your peripheral vision. The second wave of pushback comes with the very real threat of extreme poverty. Staying away from the infectious and materialistic mechanisms of the business world, status jobs, job trends, upward corporate mobility, and attendant notoriety is essential. At best, these things are distractions from your daily commitment to furthering your art. At worst, they will lead you into value systems that are openly antagonistic to serious, non-commercial productivity. The same attitude behind “A BA in philosophy? What are you going to do with that?” is the one that will frame you as an unrealistic dreamer who is certainly crazy and misguided, possibly stupid in a number of hidden ways, and someone we don’t want our daughters dating.
But these worlds and their inhabitants will be more than willing to ignore you if you ignore them–if you do not ask them for a handout or add to their unabated misery, jealousy, and covetousness by showing them the contrast between your values and theirs. Rather, the second step in the discipline involves smiling and waving good-bye to middle-class ambitions; practicing “cheerful retreat”; and going your own way. Being non-threatening (actually invisible) to those who hold status and money as the highest good will allow you to (1) avoid being influenced by their values; (2) avoid having to defend yourself against them; and (3) the space and time to simplify your life financially. You are not a threat–so the fact that you are living humbly and frugally is a non-issue for them.
Simplifying your life is easier said than done. And it may not seem like others would have a problem with this, but people will actively try to prevent you from simplifying and reducing your levels of consumption if they feel threatened by this. However, you must arrange it so that the bulk of your personal responsibility can be shifted toward your art.
Because it’s good to live in human society–because that, too, provides fuel for your work–accept that “shifting personal responsibility toward your art” will entail a certain amount of discipline. You may have to take the kids to football practice. You may have to do what seems like an all-consuming job as a psychologist or a Zamboni driver or an IRS agent or a drug lawyer or a hot dog vendor in the mall. All of these can be scaled down. Take fewer hours. Accept two (or three?) part-time jobs instead of a full-time job if that will build in greater flexibility. Plead your health, your ailing family life, your grandmother’s lumbago, but reduce, reduce, reduce. Become a freelancer. Become a contractor. Become a minimalist in everything but your work (and even in your work if that’s where your creativity leads you). Read and apply The Four-Hour Workweek, Choose Yourself, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, Possum Living, The Shoestring Girl, Working, The Outsider and Gordon White’s brilliant blog, Rune Soup–especially “Apocalypse Timeshares: Radical Strategies from Inside the OAT.”
Step 3: Be Determined / Take Your Lumps. Do not think that frugality means limited options in any sense. This is another cruel fiction propagated by the industries that depend on a manufactured, highly misleading, and unhealthy post-WWII middle-class will-to-respectability. As a person practicing this discipline, you can do anything you want to do as long as you are willing to approach it in a transactional way (ironic, given the degree to which I inveigh against zero-sum materialism, but this is not always synonymous with transactional thinking as I use it here–see Browne’s book linked above).
In other words, if you want to, say, study herbalism in Shanghai, you can. You may have to become a dishwasher, an ESL teacher, a private tutor, a person who carries pipes in a shit field, a dog-walker, a nanny. You may have to cut costs by mostly eating rice, thin broth, and yam cakes. You will have to learn a version of Chinese to a practical extent. You will have to sharpen your social skills in order to get along and get what you need. All of this takes energy. All of this is disruptive and sometimes painful. All of this can be done while functioning as an artist. But you will have to pay for these experiences through a degree of chaos, stress, effort and the disapproval of others. There will be dreadful moments. But if you want to lead a different life–one that includes art and new experiences, you will accept the trouble as a necessary payment for doing what you want to do. The discipline means taking your lumps and eternally paying dues. Nothing comes for free but sometimes the payment is fun and sometimes it doesn’t even matter.
People enmeshed / immobilized in a fugue of “respectability” (in my opinion, a parasitic set of social mores and strictures that slowly consume the time and energy–life–of innocents whose only mistake was doing what they were told from an early age) will say you are crazy, unambitious, stupid, a loser. They will do this because you haven’t had the time and wouldn’t spend the effort to become a stakeholder in their hierarchy of values. I have experienced this firsthand and still do from time to time when the ripples of life-decisions I made in my late 20s come back to me. But I do not have regrets. I have largely overcome my personal demons, the emotional, familial, social fallout associated with owning my life. That’s why this is a discipline. You have to practice it. It’s not something you do once. It’s a way of life. And I want that for you if you want it for yourself.