It’s only in the past few years that I’ve kept a journal, despite the fact that the very first writing book I read, Hallie and Whit Burnett’s guide, devotes a chapter to the importance of this creative discipline. Over the years I tried, kept up the habit for a month or two, then burned out. Now it’s so easy calling it a “creative discipline” a second ago seemed like a stretch. What’s changed? The switch flipped, interestingly enough, when I began writing and publishing on a regular basis.
Same thing happened to me in graduate school. Here I was in the mecca of craft, with a coveted spot at a top creative writing program, but I found myself writing much less than I had before. The only time I wrote was when there was a workshop assignment due. That work, hastily bungled, would be praised or savaged (or both), and then go into a drawer never to be seen again, let alone revised. I was producing pages for the classroom, not writing for publication. As a result, a lot of what my teachers tried to drill into me was absorbed only as theory.
Later, after a three year hiatus, I returned and finished my degree. In the meantime I’d started writing for myself again, and cared more about the prose than I did about class participation. All the theory became real, because I needed it for my work. Just as the journal stopped being a chore once I couldn’t live without it, my education started making sense once I actually started using it.
Which leads me to wonder whether, faced with repeated failure trying to maintain any kind of discipline, if instead of redoubling your effort (failing again, only with more at stake) it wouldn’t be wiser to look for the underlying issue. Soldiers in barracks clean their weapons for drill, and have to be ridden by superiors even to do that. Soldiers in battle keep them clean so they’ll keep firing. All that changed was the sense of necessity. Things that don’t matter don’t keep getting done. Things that do become second nature. The key to any discipline, I suppose, is figuring how to make it matter.