For the last several months—actually, the past year—I’ve been running experiments on myself and my process. One month I gave up social media. The next month I played with internet blockers. For three months I’ve been doing mornings pages, with few exceptions. This month I’m doing the Whole30. But the thing I keep struggling to figure out is how to get more writing done. More writing in.
The business trap is real. I’m not sure what else to call it, other than the pull of the machine: emails to answer, blog posts to write. It’s easy to get sucked into the frenzy of doing things for doing’s sake, and the tangible output of writing a draft, or even just plucking away at the next stage of researching, always seems to be time whittled away.
This week, however, I stumbled on something that turned my mind upside down.
In Chapter 9 of The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about the relationship we have with discipline versus our relationship with adventure.
“It must take so much discipline to be an artist,” she says about people who talk about art.
There are so many paths to better habits. To better structures and routines and systems. But I’m having the darnedest time pushing myself to write more and insisting that I do it. It’s as though my work self is saying, “Sit down and WRITE, Sarah.” And my inner artist just shrugs helplessly and says, “Sure, I can tap tap at the machine, but why aren’t you asking nicely?”
To be honest, I felt a bit guilty about this. I should write at a consistent time every day. I should be more diligent, consistent, and habitual. An artist just does the work. That’s what a professional does.
And that’s what I’ve heard from Cal Newport, Chris Guillebeau, Steven Pressfield, and so many more. Pressfield’s book is even titled The War of Art!
Now, they’re not entirely wrong. There is a discipline and a habit that helps. Doing something consistently — daily consistent action — is the fastest path forward towards progress.
But somehow underneath this pile of structures and processes and systems, my soul was feeling squashed.
And that’s when Cameron’s words hit home.
“As artists, grounding our self-image in military discipline is dangerous. In the short run, discipline may work, but only for a while. […] The discipline itself, not the creative outflow, becomes the point.”
She writes about the need for the quiet enthusiasm, a spiritual commitment, and a surrender-like quality to the work. The whisper that says, “where are you taking me, words?” The excitement that makes you want to get up and start the project.
The feeling that when you’re working on the project, it’s somehow illicit, stolen, exciting, dangerous.
“It is joy, not duty, that makes for a lasting bond.”
But to be clear: it’s not following the whims of emotions or flitting back and forth. It’s about knowing that part of the work of an artist is to be true to our inner creatives. Our artist “may rise at dawn to greet the typewriter or easel in the morning stillness,” she explains.
“But this event has more to do with a child’s love of secret adventure than with ironclad discipline. What other people may view as discipline is actually a play date that we make with our artist child. ‘I’ll meet you at 6:00 A.M. and we’ll goof around with that script…”
It’s a relationship with the work that allows for the mystery to stay in the process. For the tantalizing feeling of not knowing, for the delight in the exploration.
In the mornings, my kid will spend long minutes at the table just focused on cracking a hardboiled egg, cracking and laughing, cracking and peeling. The peeling of the egg is more fascinating than breakfast. Of course he’ll eat. Later. Hunger will take over. But right now, this eggshell? It’s the latest mystery of the world.
All of a sudden it felt like something was unlocked.
Instead of the heavy to-do list and the pile of unwritten blog posts and the stack of essays, I asked myself late in the evening before sleeping, “What project do you want to secretly do before we get started on work?”
I woke up early, excited, even though my kid had been up in the night. “ooooh, let’s do the one about the books and the post-its you’ve been wanting to do!”
“It isn’t practical,” my objective self said. “Why this?”
My swirly self cackled in reply, “Of course it’s not practical! That’s not what it’s about!”
But it’s fun. And it’s secret. And I’m going to steal away some time to write on this little project, all before I get started on all those pesky “work” projects later in the day.