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Michael’s Musings

Writers Discipline

A Writer's Discipline

As a writer and former teacher of writing, I’ve often been asked what a writer’s most important virtue would be. The answer is simple: discipline. Many talented writers have never published, but writers not blessed with brilliance publish because they are determined to write something every day or every week.
Consider this: In order to write for publication you must become a writer. At first glance this seems obvious. But it is true. Most aspiring writers do not consider themselves to be writers. They regard themselves as persons who may one day become writers. They think they aren’t real writers until they start publishing.
In my teaching days I always told students that no matter what their stations in life, they must first consider themselves to be writers. Most of us who manage to regularly publish our work do not earn our primary incomes from writing. Among our numbers are teachers, nurses, engineers, salespersons, cooks—the gamut of workaday positions. And our identifications are usually derived from our main occupations. But I urged my students to change their principal status to writer, if they’re serious about writing.
I sometimes asked students to identify in a priority ranking, one through ten, the roles they play in their lives. Since most of them were women, they mentioned their major priorities as wife or mother, then daughter, friend, and somewhere in the middle or near the end they listed their occupations. Most of those women placed careers below relationships. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it impedes one’s capacity to write. If writing ranks seventh, it receives only minimal attention and effort.
Prior to my retirement as a college instructor, I was not a teacher who wrote, but a writer who happened to teach. That distinction gave perspective to my life, and enabled me to become disciplined as a writer. If I’d been a teacher who wrote occasionally, others, including my family, would have few qualms about infringing upon my writing time. My writing would have been a hobby, like sketching or gardening.
Most of us who engage in hobbies aren’t compulsive about them. We see them as spare-time activities. But writing—at least writing for publication—requires serious effort. We don’t write in our spare time; we set time side for writing. And in this regard, we must be selfish. Writing time may not be interrupted with impunity. It belongs to the writer. What that means for many of us is that we make sacrifices to do our writing. We may have to reduce or eliminate activities that keep us from writing.
Our partners must come to understand and appreciate this. That which is best about me results from my being a writer. It is, I think, much of what my wife found appealing about me. Writing defines me: it is who I am. To give this up, and the time it consumes is to stop being my best self.
Years ago, when I was a new writer, I would rise at five and write for 90 minutes before heading to my regular job. I wasn’t happy rising before dawn, but this was the only way I was going to meet my writing goal, which was to complete two to two and a half pages each morning. This practice curtailed my social life, since I had to be in bed by ten most evenings.
The sacrifices made in order to write, however, do not guarantee success. We can’t even be sure they will lead to publication. I’ve heard editors say that they’ve received submissions from certain writers for years, and those submissions are nowhere near publishable quality. Yet who can tell if the next story, the next book, won’t be right on target?
You and I are the only ones who know when to throw in the towel—be it after five years or forty of fruitless attempts to publish.
Finally, forget inspiration. It’s fickle and unpredictable, and you’ll get precious little writing done if you sit around and wait for it. We can do little to influence inspiration, but we can discipline ourselves to establish writing as a priority in our lives.
I encountered writing students whose talents exceeded my own, but to my knowledge, haven’t published. The only difference between me and those students is that I write regularly and they don’t. The person who finds his or her way to publication is the person who has formed the writing habit and who insists on writing’s priority in his or her life.

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