Tag Archives: Discipline

One Job

For every good writing day, I have 20 bad ones.  A good writing day is one in which I feel inspired to make progress on a piece.  But that doesn’t ensure that I will be able to finish it or feel satisfied if I do.  It doesn’t mean that I will think I did a good piece of work or that I will be able to trust that judgment over time.  All I know after a good day is that I felt good.  All I know on those other days is that I felt frustrated, uninspired, and aggrieved whether or not I produced pages, whether or not I think (or will think) that those pages are worthwhile.

Optimal conditions rarely exist for creative work.  There is always something getting in the way, some defect of body, mind, or circumstances that conspires to obstruct progress and generate despair and self-doubt.  The only answer is to keep writing, to admit that I can and will generate unsatisfying work, to avoid wondering about my talent, and to just get on with things.  As my trombonist friend, Mike Hickey, once said about being a musician: just keep playing.

Just keep writing.

No one feels they have talent all the time.  In fact, most people feel the way I do: it’s hit and miss, always a struggle, always an emotional upheaval.  If literary geniuses really do exist outside the marketing generated by a hypocritical and terrified publishing industry, they would, by definition, be critical of themselves.  History confirms that creative work is hard, even for the most famous and memorable writers.  And it can’t be genius to believe it’s always easy or that your talent will confer all the pleasures and none of the agonies.

Just keep writing.

I tell myself to forget the people who have advised me not to give up my day job; they don’t know and can’t judge.  Forget the family members and acquaintances who wanted me to reflect their own lack of talent and resented me for trying to develop my own; they can only see disappointing reflections of themselves.  Forget the graduate school competitors, the half-starved adjunct professors, the depressed self-diagnosed creative failures, the cynical postmodernists declaring everything already over; they’re all too emotional.  They’re like sick dogs.  And sick dogs don’t typically write fiction.  Don’t be a romantic.  Be methodical.  Cultivate a classical mind.  Stay dedicated to the work and just keep writing because all these feelings and emotional people will disappear.

The only thing left will be the words I’ve written down.  Whether there are many words or just a few is irrelevant.  The point will be that I wrote them and kept writing them.  In the end, that’s all I will have because the books will get put away on a shelf or recycled or lost.  The computer files will get forgotten or deleted.  What I wrote will be no better than a half-remembered dream.  Just as what I intend to write is nothing more than a flimsy possibility.  A trombonist is nothing without his trombone in his hand.  If he keeps playing, he’s a trombonist.

Nothing exists except for this moment and what I do in it.  So if I call myself a writer, I have one job.

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On Envying Other Writers

Dost thou wish to be praised by a man who curses himself thrice every hour? Wouldst thou wish to please a man who does not please himself? Does a man please himself who repents of nearly everything that he does? – Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, Book VIII

Most writers will tell you that envying the success of others is lethal, stupid, wasteful. They will tell you this because they have no doubt experienced the consequences of crippling envy firsthand. It comes with being an artist. But it’s something we have to get past and learn how to avoid. Envy is one of the many things that will destroy a writer emotionally, creatively, and sometimes even physically.

A True Story from the MFAkong Delta

I remember one afternoon toward the end of my MFA. I’d been teaching a beginning fiction writing class and was fortunate enough to have a good group of undergraduates in the workshop. They were serious, smart, and several of them were in the process of applying to MFA programs themselves.

Because it was late spring and because my tiny office in our brutalist 1970s humanities building resembled a janitorial closet in a parking structure, I held my office hours outside. Twice a week, I could be found sitting on a grassy hill in front of the administration building. Students actually showed up and we talked about their work. It was good. It also kept me away from the toxic environment of the English department and the Machiavellian absurdities in perpetual flux on every level at every moment. Give me grass and sunshine and a passing Golden Retriever any day.

My students and I had a friendly relationship and I looked forward to meeting with them. One afternoon, we were sitting on the grass immersed in conversation when I felt someone staring at me. It was one of the professors in my writing program. Here I will call him “Professor Careerist.” (Why Careerist? Because the vast majority of the things he said in my workshops had to do with getting published by the Big Six and what not to write if you wanted to be famous.)

Anyway, I noticed him standing across the quad, glaring with a mixture of contempt and disgust. Later, I had the misfortune of passing him in the hallway outside the department office. His expression hadn’t changed. When I was far enough away that a full conversation would have been impossible, he turned and called out, “Davis, don’t get used to this life for much longer. You’re not going to have it.

At the time, I took this to mean that I’d be graduating and moving on—and that thinking about this pleased him deeply. I also felt that Prof. Careerist disliked anyone who seemed remotely content not to be hustling and constantly self-promoting. When he noticed students putting thinking about art before trying to get ahead, it offended him deeply.

Ironically, Professor Careerist taught me as much if not more than any of my other professors—about what not to do. His negative example has served as a guide in very tough times. And what he said to me in the hallway has unfolded with many levels of meaning over the years. One of the most profound is: there is no free lunch, not in writing or in anything else. Because of this, an artist has to make a decision whether to write for a commercial interest or for herself or for a little bit of both. But she should never expect the world to take care of her (or even pay attention to her) unless she’s offering something of value in return.

The Kindness of Strangers

When Careerist said, you’re not going to have it, what he really meant was you’re not going to have it without my help. And, brother, that’s one thing you’re definitely not getting. In that, he was correct. I didn’t get his help and didn’t get that life.

Nearly every one of my fellow MFA students was a gifted writer. Some were shockingly brilliant. But today only a handful of us are still writing. And an even smaller group of us have found permanent teaching positions. This is not because we weren’t all talented, hard working, and sincere about becoming creative writers and teachers. It’s because some of us had help and some did not. Some of us offered something of value. Others sat back and waited for a line to form outside their door.

Prof. Careerist never helped me (deliberately), but others did—enough to help me continue. And, because I had very little to offer those who helped me, I have to add that maybe there is a free lunch sometimes. Maybe I was a rare, lucky exception to this cruel economy of patronage and fear. I’m still writing, still interested, still doing my thing. I seem to have had the knack for showing up when certain professors and administrators were about to do their good deeds for the day.

Dry Rot and Perdition

Years later, about to finish my PhD, I had lunch with a fairly well-known visiting novelist. I’d just published my first book of stories, Gravity, with Carnegie Mellon UP (through a largely serendipitous convergence of allegiances that had little to do with me as a writer). I also had 18 or 19 magazine publications and a handful of small writing contest wins. I was not (nor am I now) a big deal. But the novelist (who was a big deal) really wanted to know if the other graduate students in my program hated me now that my book had come out. I said that I didn’t know and I was being honest. My mom had just died horribly. My father had started a second pathological adolescence. I was worried sick about the future. I didn’t care what my fellow neurotics in the department had to say.

I guess the reason he asked was because something like that had happened to him. And he still cared, though he’d been out of his MFA program for close to 20 years. At some point, people had envied him, despised him, traumatized him. And this highly accomplished, famous, established writer was still thinking about it.

That night, at his reading, I sat in the audience while he spent half an hour talking about his creative process. His thinly veiled egotism curdled the air like a rotten onion for nearly 2 hours. I could see him, sitting at home, reading the AWP Writer’s Chronicle and giving himself an ulcer because so-and-so got an interview or some other bonbon and he didn’t. And I could see that even now, deep down, he feared he was a bum. This is what happens when writers forget why they write. This is what envy does to us.

So why do we do it?

I guess there are as many reasons as there are writers. But I think it often comes from the inability to separate commercial success from creative satisfaction. We’re told to eschew fame but emotionally wired to seek it. We’re told that success as an artist is a meritocracy—much like what we’re told in graduate school about finding teaching positions: if you’re good enough, there will always be a spot for you. Right.

Moreover, most of us hold ourselves responsible for our relative success or failure, forgetting that much of it depends on the opinions and assistance of others—people who may only be thinking about sales or who may be in the position of gatekeepers but who may have no aesthetic sense or artistic ability whatsoever. We often overlook (in fact, we’re often encouraged to overlook) the fact that a commercially successful career as a working artist depends very much on trends, consumer demographics, timing, and the decisions of those who may or may not stand to gain by helping us. Patronage is alive and well. We ignore this and we suffer accordingly.

When we do experience a modicum of success, we often celebrate a bit too loudly as a way to release all the angst we’ve otherwise acquired. Unfortunately, it is guaranteed that someone is hating us twice as much as a result. First, for our success. Second, because we seem to be enjoying it too much. And the extent to which we crow about our successes is the degree of envy we will feel when others pass us by. It’s absurd. It turns us into fools, victims, slaves.

Remembering Who We Are

Caught up in all the envy and jealousy, we tend to forget ourselves—that we originally became artists not for fame, wealth, or to demonstrate our worth to a cruel world. We did it because we wanted to create.

We have to keep in mind that the pain of not being able to create to our own satisfaction is only superseded by the pain of self-doubt that gnaws away at us and will not depart until we accept that we have limitations. Ultimately, being an artist is a love affair with our creative impulse—not with hype, not with fame, not with feeling clever or showing up the competition.

It’s far healthier to say, I am going to make this small interesting thing. I am going to do the best I can and then send it out into the world and forget about it. I am going to do this over and over because it makes me happy. So please don’t tell me what it should say, how much I should be adored at this point in my professional life, how much money I should be making , or who should be coming over for dinner.

You write your thing and I’ll write mine. And if I’m writing for pay, let me do the best possible work for my employer. If I’m writing just for myself, let me know my creative genius in the deepest possible way.


Problems and Solutions, Part 2: This is Why You Fail

​Here are some random thoughts on getting creative work done with a minimum of grief.

Basic Artistic Needs.  In order to write, I need, at minimum:

1. Quiet.
2. Solitude.
3. Minimal levels of discomfort​ – i.e. not feeling feverish and sick (including being hung over, exhausted, or otherwise ill), the heater not turned all the way up / down, people walking back and forth through the room or shouting / throwing things against the wall next door​, the gardener blowing leaves under the window, etc.  ​The idea is to be able to forget one’s surroundings for a short period of time in order to free the imagination.  This can’t happen with constant chaos and upheaval. 

Artistic Time vs. Regular Time:

Artistic time is subjective.  If I haven’t written in 3 days, it feels like a week.  When I haven’t written for a week, I feel dead–like I may never have the enormous amount of energy it will take to find the particular emotional structure I was working on before.  This is why Bukowski, Hemingway, Carver, and probably every other non-hack in existence worries about waking up one day and realizing that one’s talent has disappeared.  But such worries just amount to performance anxiety.  I get back into the process and they disappear.

Money and Making a Living as Justification for Complaints:

I am unable to justify any of these needs in terms of what I need to make a living.  It is not persuasive to say: maybe if I had a regular schedule (i.e. a better day job, more money coming in) I wouldn’t be having these problems.​  Money has nothing to do with it and publishing advances will not ultimately validate these needs.  Personally, I am writing highly specialized literary fiction.  I will be most likely to publish in literary magazines and small / university presses​ where there is an audience for my work.  I will not be able to support myself with my work because there are not enough consumers to make it profitable.  Therefore, all the demands I make about needing time, needing space, and needing minimum levels of comfort must always seem baseless and unjustifiable in any practical sense. 

Keeping on Keeping on:

I meditate and exercise.  Music plays a large role in my process.  Whatever it takes to continue is what you need to do.  The point is to continue.

Objections are Inevitable:

Objection 1: Resentful voice from the Internet: “I am a scholar / artist / salesperson / programmer / thought-worker and I need time and space, too!”  (Yes, I completely agree.  This doesn’t mean that just because you are having trouble along the same lines, I stop having trouble as a writer.)

Objection 2: Spouse / flatmate / friend / parent / magical talking dog who lives in the closet: “I am doing my part to help you have the conditions you need to write (so stop complaining)!”  (My complaints come from my sense of frustration not from any perception of insincerity or failure to help on your part.)

Objection 3: Regular reader of my blog: “But you write in crowded cafes all the time.”  (I can write in cafes when I am surrounded by strangers I can ignore and only when they are sufficiently quiet or oblivious.  I am unable to write in cafes (a) where there is someone I know staring at me or walking back and forth; (b) where people are emoting too much–like irritated tourists or upset locals; and (c) where people are sitting too close to me.  Because the art-production process is rarely 100% systematic, there will always be experiences that stand as exceptions to these things.  Still, I am talking in general, not about the exceptions.)

​Objection 4: Upset writer trolling posts tagged with writing terms: “So-and-so produces ten times the amount of work you say you produce and has none of these complaints.”  (So?  Many writers and artists have these complaints​.  If you want to point out an anecdotal counter-example to me, ​I can again note that there will be exceptions.  Unfortunately​, I am more typical​ in my needs than atypical.  If this makes me somehow complicit in my own misery, so be it.  But if that is true, then I am joined my many, many others experiencing the same problems.)

Objection 5: My disillusioned ex-girlfriend who wanted me to stop writing and go into sales to support her modeling career: “Why do you choose to do this work in the first place when it is so difficult and thankless?” ​  (Because even though it is difficult and thankless, writing fiction provides me with intellectual, emotional, and spiritual relief that would be lacking if I were merely working to make money.  People have said that an artistic calling is a curse because once you develop yourself artistically, you typically feel compelled to continue no matter the personal consequences.  Nevertheless, I can say with a certain degree of conviction that  if I didn’t have this relief, I would exit life as quickly as possible.  This is not to reduce art to the level of therapy, but it is therapeutic.  And I believe that is a large part of what makes it compelling.  That said, no artist actually chooses art.  It chooses the artist, my young apprentice.)

Objection 6: Well-intentioned genre writer with anxiety from listening to editorial advice on how to be more formulaic and saleable: “I read that in order to be a professional you need to (a) produce 1-2 novels a year; (b) write at a 7th grade level; (c) have your work vetted by test readers that function like focus groups, guiding your revision process to the most genre-acceptable trajectories; (d) spend twice as much time self-promoting as you do writing; (e) give away free content to entice readers, etc.” (No.  These things come from a particular stratum of the publishing industry that is usually heavy with genre fiction​ aimed at a very tight reader demographic.  These professional standards are neither right nor wrong.  However, they are definitely narrow enough to apply only to the new pulp fiction industry that has emerged from the convergence of e-publishing, self-publishing, and a powerful online consumer base.  If you are a literary writer or someone whose aesthetic does not fit into the highly calculated style sheets of these pulp houses, don’t fucking worry about it.  The publishing industry is a lot bigger than it seems.  Do not make the mistake of thinking that just because a particular writer on a particular blog says this is how it is, that is how it must be for every writer everywhere.  Apply critical thinking.  And don’t forget to do that with what I’m telling you here as well.  Remember that I am just another writer with a perspective on his industry.)

Objection 7: One of my Facebook friends: “You like James Altucher, but he says publishing is dead and we should all self-publish.  How do you reconcile that?”  (I don’t.  Altucher is a good writer and is entitled to his opinion about publishing.  I don’t completely agree with him because I have had some success in traditional publishing.  I have not made much money; though, I am not concerned with making a living this way.  I will probably always have a day job.  If I were writing Harlequin romances to make a living, I would be very concerned and would probably put all my books on Amazon.com via Createspace instead–because I fundamentally believe what he is saying about skipping the middleman in the publishing process.  It makes sense.  I actually like that idea and am not ruling out self-publishing for myself at all.  I just don’t think that self-publishing is the only viable way to publish.  And if you’re alright with the (admittedly crazy) traditional methods, then relax and put your manuscript in the mail.  He uses 50 Shades as an example of a successful way of bootstrapping oneself into publishing using self-published material.  Okay but I would like to point out that the books he mentions reading are somewhat different from that and any given piece of his own writing is superior to that of EL James (I have read some of her work and am not making this criticism arbitrarily).  Altucher is too modest to make that claim for himself.  I also think 50 Shades of Grey is a good example of a turd that everyone has decided to eat.  For that matter, I think Eat, Pray, Love, She’s Come Undone, The Notebook, and most of what Random House releases every year is comparable.  This doesn’t mean I won’t read such books.  I will read them to learn more about what I like and don’t like.  Maybe I’ll check them out from the library instead of giving my money to the Big Six.)

Woof?  Woof.


The Discipline: In Your Head, Off the Street, and Away From the Club

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 LivingThe 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.