The Freedom and Energy of Discipline: How We Hold Tight to Let Go

“At four o'clock you are going to write, come what may, and you are going to continue until the quarter-hour sounds. When you have made up your mind to that you are free to do whatever you like to do or must do.”
Dorothea Brande

Life unfolds in drudgery, not dreams. Our dreams fill the universe, but it’s action after action, word after word, and minutia done in sequence that makes dreams real.

The question is, then, how do we force ourselves to do that endless work, day after day, when dreaming and playing are more pleasant?

Is there freedom in discipline?

This is the longest diary I ever kept. Not a diary of course but an attempt to map the actual working days and hours of a novel. If a day is skipped it will show glaringly on this record and there will be some reason given for the slip.

When John Steinbeck set to write The Grapes of Wrath, he knew “the whole physical basis of the novel is discipline of the writer, of his material, of the language,” and he relied on a daily journal to place him under the thumb of discipline.

Steinbeck finished his great novel in the three intended months, but the mental and emotional cost of keeping a breakneck pace was significant.

My hand writing is bad now. One more month—one more. And then I have it. I am just gibbering. And that is all right. I don’t care. At three o’clock. What strangeness. What strangeness. Can’t let things go.

And the next entry:

And now all of the foolishness and the self-indulgence is over. Now there can be no lost days and no lost time. Straight through to the finish now without loss. It must be that way.

As Steinbeck inhales woe and exhales his novel, he documents all. He must have known the diary would be published as he was already quite famous. And yet, he is unabashed about his unravelling. Such was his commitment.

The Freedom and Energy of Discipline
“The Lace-Maker,” Caspar Netscher, 1662. A study of domestic diligence. intent focus. Soft light falls on her back suggesting moral imperative. A resting broom and simple dress reinforce themes of focus and work. Learn more.

People respond to discipline differently. A more positive reception of discipline and its handmaiden, routine, comes from famed dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp.

In The Creative Habit Tharp introduces us to her habits of creativity with this unassailable truth: “No one worked harder than Mozart.”

Except, perhaps, Tharp, who rises every single day and hops in a cab to the gym and through that action launches her daily creative beginnings.

First steps are hard; it’s no one’s idea of fun to wake up in the dark every day and haul one’s tired body to the gym. Like everyone, I have days when I wake up, stare at the ceiling, and ask myself, Gee, do I feel like working out today? But the quasi-religious power I attach to this ritual keeps me from rolling over and going back to sleep.

Tharp then sits in the white room of her studio and fills a box with ideas that will eventually lead to a dance. From a discipline trunk curves a creative tendril.

I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance […] notebooks, news clippings, CDs, […] videos of dancers rehearsing […]. The box makes me feel organized, that I have my act together even when I don’t know where I’m going yet. It also represents a commitment.

Steinbeck used discipline as a motivator to keep writing and to keep going. Tharp uses it as containment, focus. There is nothing to be done but fill the box.

The Freedom and Energy of Discipline
“The Lacemaker” by Johannes Vermeer, 1670. Domestic duties in 1700’s Netherlands were common depictions of moral values such as domesticity, hard work, and a pious life. Learn more.

I met a writer recently who quit a career as a professor of pharmacology and became a successful author of adult fiction. She credited her dissertation. “I know how to sit in a chair and write,” she told me. “Once you learn that, the rest isn’t hard.”

Ernest Hemingway expressed similar skills in his recollection of writing, The Moveable Feast. “I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.”

The gift of sitting still is something I lack and something I’ve spent time pondering. In my pre-writing life, I was an operations consultant. Which is to say, I spent a lot of time studying business systems and processes. Now, I manage the systems and processes of myself. Seeking the intersection of efficiency and freedom.

The Freedom and Energy of Discipline
“Mother Beside a Cradle” Pieter de Hooch, 1660. Learn more.

Discipline—however firm or gentle we make it—is something we give ourselves over to. It is some outside power that takes charge so we can relax and dig into the work itself.

But for all that passes under discipline, it has limitations. What do we deprive ourselves of by being disciplined? Can we really routinize everything?

Like Steinbeck, writer and memoirist Dani Shapiro sees discipline as a sort of hostile entity, demanding not enabling.

Discipline calls to my mind a task master, perhaps wielding a whip. Discipline has a whiff of punishment to it, or at least the need to cross something off a list […]. Rhythm, however, is a gentle aligning, a comforting pattern in our day that we know sets us up ideally for our work.

Virginia Woolf said a great pattern underscores life, ties us into something bigger. I think of Shapiro’s comments in that light—that through this gentle rhythm, we give ourselves over to something else. Shapiro writes:

Three pages a day, five days a week. When working on a book, this has been my pattern for my entire writing life. I spend most mornings writing my three pages, and I revisit them in the afternoon. I scribble in the margins thoughts about edits, I cross out paragraphs. Sometimes I reread them before I go to sleep. I cross out paragraphs, I rearrange sentences. These pages are where I begin the following morning because those notes give me a way in.

When Steinbeck wrote East of Eden a decade after Grapes, he returned to his daily writing habit but with a different approach. Rather than writing a journal, with his nonwriting self ostensibly his audience, he wrote a letter to his friend and publisher, Pascal Covici.1

Going well today. I am trying to hold it down to 1000 words a day for a while. I have always the tendency to hurry and I don’t want to this time. I want this book to be a very slow one. I must not let this book run away from me.

Steinbeck said he wrote the letters to “get his mental arm in shape to pitch a good game,” but it was more than that. Steinbeck was a man of extraordinary sensitivity who had to write from the correct emotion. Writing to a friend—being that open, vulnerable, generous person—allowed him to cradle his insecurities in a glow of positivity.

Enfolded in Shapiro’s nurturing rhythm, Steinbeck shone.

At four o’clock you are going to write, come what may, and you are going to continue until the quarter-hour sounds. When you have made up your mind to that you are free to do whatever you like to do or must do.

This empathetic advice from creative writing teacher Dorothea Brande in her classic 1934 book Becoming a Writer a book that teaches genius through discipline and argues if we cannot sit still and write, maybe writing isn’t our calling.2

At the intersection of passivity, power, containment, and encouragement sit discipline and creativity. From this beautiful medley, however mixed, comes our most original thoughts and our greatest achievements. (And less great thoughts and mediocre achievements, but they still amount to something.)