Developing Discipline–The Habit of Art

Developing Discipline–The Habit of Art


Novel Spotlight (Molly Jo): Heart’s Song by Aaron Gansky and Kaye Morrison


Developing Discipline–Mental Steps to Establishing Habit

We started this year of FiF podcasts by focusing on the writer’s mind and way of thinking. Last week we chatted about the “Writer’s Mind: What Kind of Writer are You.” Mostly we focused on how the writer can better know himself or herself and customize their work to their pattern of thinking. This episode, we’re focusing on the “Mental Steps to Establishing Habit.” Aaron has pulled together some great thoughts.

Aaron, in reviewing the notes, it looks like this has been an important subject for you. Why do you think this is important?

Some years ago, I wrote a blog post called “the habit of art,” a term I lifted directly from Flannery O’Connor. It became one of my most widely-read and commented-on posts. For some reason, people reacted very strongly to me suggesting that writing be a habit, a discipline. There’s a line of thought that says that discipline cramps creativity. The opposite, though, is true. While it’s true there have been great poems that have come to the poet and “inspired” them and become famous, we tend to remember the classics put together by the masters who have a large body of work: William Shakespeare, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Frost, Hemingway, Carver, etc. Can you imagine if Shakespeare only wrote when he was “inspired?” He would have starved to death. The same goes for all other artists.

What I think O’Connor meant by “the habit of art,”, is that we, as writers, have an obligation to turn our art into habit. A habit, you’ve probably noticed, is formed over time, by repeating the same action over and again.

Al: You pulled a few ideas from James Clear and blog post he wrote sometime ago. Let me advise our viewers and listeners that you can access that article from a link in the show notes which should be up at soon after this podcast airs. What three suggestions did Mr. Clear have for us?

Steps to creating a habit: According to James Clear there are three steps to creating a habit. Here’s what he suggested:

  • Reminder–set a reminder for yourself. This may be an alarm clock to wake up early, or a post-it note on your XBox controller or television. It might be your wife or your husband. Whatever the case may be, you must remind yourself of what you’re supposed to be doing. I’d also add that you should remember to remind yourself of WHY you’re doing what you’ve resolved to do. You’ve got to keep the end goal in mind. Otherwise, it becomes easier to give up and quit. Think of it like this: if you resolve to lose 100 pounds, but working out and eating right is too hard for you, you’re not going to stick with a diet or a work out routine for very long unless you can envision your thinner, fitter self. Remind yourself why it’s important to be healthy (doctor’s orders, to get that girl or guy, to have more energy and improve self-confidence, etc.) In the same way, WHY is it important to write that novel. Leave reminders for yourself (consider post-it notes on bathroom mirrors or the steering wheel of your car or on the refrigerator: my words can change people. The story demands to be told. No one can write my novel for me. Every day I don’t write, my characters die a little bit.)
  • Routine–be consistent. Structure your day to give yourself the time you need to write. If you have to give something up, give it up. But it’s better to grab a few minutes from other tasks so that you don’t end up resenting the routine. For example, you resolve to write before you watch television or play video games. If you’re used to playing games for an hour, and watching television for another hour, try cutting both in half, and then you have an hour to write, but you don’t feel like you’re missing out on your fun time. Completely eliminating all recreational activities will make you resent what you’re doing and make it easier to quit.
  • Reward–Reward yourself for doing what you’re supposed to. Maybe that’s buying a new computer (if you’re filthy rich), or just splurging on the good coffee so you have something to look forward to when you wake up early to write in the wee hours of the morning. Maybe it’s treating yourself to a special lunch out when you complete your manuscript. Whatever the case may be, be sure to reward yourself for small things (staying consistent daily) as well as for the big things (sending a manuscript off to a publisher).

Al: Okay, so reminders, routine, and reward. What would you add to that?

I would also add these tips:

  • Avoid distractions–Try to get other work done before you write so you’re not feeling guilty for not doing other things. If you can’t get it all done before you write, set a time to do it later. Tell yourself, “I’ll pay bills at two this afternoon.” That way, you won’t be concerned about missing important work. Turn off your internet. Unplug your television. Whatever you need to do to ensure that your attention will be on your project.

Al: I know several professional writers who have a “work space” that is distraction free. A friend of mine has an office that has no access to the Internet, but it does have a phone. One only his wife can ring. He calls it The Cave. Rex Stout, I believed, would get up, have breakfast with the family, then go to work–up stairs. Emerge for lunch, go back to his writing space until dinner. He worked eight hours a day that way. Michael Crichton used to eat lunch at his desk when on a project. Same lunch every day, so as not to distract him.

Some authors work in off hours, really early or really late.

What else, Aaron?

  • Create a support group–Call it an accountability group if you prefer. You need someone who loves you who will tell you to write. You also need them to cheerlead for you a little bit. The extra encouragement and support is vital, even if it’s just a spouse handling the kids for an hour while you work.
  • Set reasonable, attainable goals–One reason I don’t like NaNoWriMo is that the expectation seems pretty high. Writing 1,700 words a day every day with no breaks is a pretty high bar. Instead, set your goals according to what you can do–writing for one hour, or writing two pages, or writing 500 words. Then, you won’t feel overwhelmed.

Al: Early on you may have to experiment to see what fits your life and schedule. Also, don’t despair if you miss a goal one day. Later that week you might exceed it. Writing is lumpy: some days are easier than others.

You also talk about writer’s “life skills.” What do you mean by that?

In addition to creating a discipline of daily work, you should also make  a habit of these “writer’s life skills.”  


  • OBSERVE like a writer


    • Writing is born of observation. A writer who does not observe the world around himself or herself is like a deaf, blind, mute detective trying to solve a crime. Not impossible—but highly difficult, and far from exciting to watch or read.
    • Wherever we go, whatever we do, we should ask ourselves what we are experiencing. It’s so easy to forget to experience life as we live it. We become so obsessed with how we feel (emotionally) that we forget to realize what we feel tangibly—how tight our shoes are, how slick our socks are inside those tight shoes, the feel of sweat under our shirt on a hot day, the lavender scent on your girlfriend’s neck, the roughness of the black and white bark on a birch tree.
    • When was the last time you touched a tree? Climbed it just to feel the bark in the crook of your knee? Have you ever felt the soil as you dug a hole to plant your rose bushes? Was it cool in the shade of a spring day? Did you smell the mineral-rich earth, see the pale, pink worms working their way through the dark dirt?

Al: Fiction requires scene settings the reader can experience. To do this well, the writer must be dialed into the real world and draw on life experiences. It’s the only way the reader can “feel” what’s going on.


  • IMAGINE like a writer


      • Maybe you’ve never punched out a window in a jealous rage, but take a moment to imagine exactly what it would be like—the momentary resistance, the eventual give, the way it shatters, the way the cuts don’t burn until a half-second later, when your elbow-deep in the new hole.
      • Al: We often talk about the almighty questions, “What if…” but this another question every fiction writer should ask, and ask all the time, “What is it like to…” [I’ve had to imagine what it is like to be on the Space Shuttle watching my crew die one by one, and know I have the same disease; to imagine what is like to wake up in Hell; what a heart attack feels like; to remember what it felt like to fall in love.] Learn to imagine good and bad. I’ve made myself laugh, cry, and scared myself half to death.


  • ANALYZE like a writer.


    • When you read, study. Take apart a novel page by page. Look at the structure. Highlight particularly well-written passages, great metaphors and similes. Look at  how dialog is assembled. Ask yourself, “how did they do that?” Then ask, “Is this something I can do?”

Al: Every novel you read is time spent at the feet of a mentor. You can learn what to do and what not to do.

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