How to Be Disciplined About Your Creative Projects

November 1, 2017

When I was in a creative writing MFA program, every time a visiting author came to campus to speak to us, one student inevitably asked during the Q&A, “So, what’s your process?”

As a group of aspiring prose stylists and poets, we were all hoping for the same thing: A formula that, if we adhered to it faithfully, would transform each of us into someone like the person standing at the podium, a successful, productive writer.

Of course, every author responded to the question differently. There was no one method to tapping into the artistic spark within until it somehow yielded a book.

Every artist I’ve asked has confessed to struggling with discipline, whether they’re just dipping their toes into a creative project for the first time or have known they were meant to do this their entire lives. No matter how passionate an artist is, she faces countless obstacles to sitting down and getting to work, from the interference of daily responsibilities (like, for instance, the need to earn a living), to the scathing voice of her inner critic, to a failure to get into “the zone.”

Such hurdles can feel insurmountable, but every artist you admire has overcome them, and so can you. Here’s how:

Do it even when you’re not in the mood

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper,” E.B. White once told the Paris Review. If you wait for silence or a sense of order—or to be granted access to that elusive place, the zone, where you lose all track of time and are truly immersed in your craft—you will be waiting for quite a while.

Key to getting work done is recognizing that the ideal conditions are unlikely to come, writes Linda Kulman in Salon, and resolving instead to simply put your ass in the chair. (Or in front of the easel, at the barre, and so on.)

I’ve found that I’ve been able to write my way into the zone from a place decidedly outside it, which often involves cajoling myself into getting to work despite an initial lack of enthusiasm. As White continued in the interview, “Delay is natural to the writer. He is like a surfer—he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in.”

If you show up, you’ll eventually catch that wave, though it may take some false starts. This is where regularly setting aside blocks of time to work comes in. Unless you make your living off of your art (which: lucky you!), creative work is infinitely postpone-able. There will always be something that seems more pressing; there have been many occasions when cleaning the house suddenly seemed way more important to me than writing.

Combat this by blocking off dedicated time in your calendar to work. For that hour or two you’ve scheduled, put your ass in the chair and don’t allow interruptions. (This may require use of an app like Freedom to keep yourself off the internet.) At first, you might get nothing more accomplished during this time than staring into space, or producing something that you immediately throw away. Next time, or the time after that, though, you may find you have something to say. You’ll never find out if you don’t show up in the first place.

Engage in activities that are “art-adjacent”

In 1991, Julia Cameron published “The Artist’s Way,” a kind of self-help for creative types that many artists adhere to with religious devotion. (I was never able to get past Cameron’s “morning pages,” one of the main tenets of her system, which implores artists to start the day by free writing in longhand for several pages. That said, I know people who swear by it.)

But another fundamental of her approach is the “artist’s date,” in which the artist takes himself on a weekly outing with no expectation other than to feel stimulated, inspired, moved. It’s important to remember that there are ways to hone your craft outside of directly engaging in it; attending a museum, performance, or reading—or even doing something as simple as taking a long walk or going to a bookstore—can feed your work in ways that aren’t immediately apparent.

Cameron calls these “festive, solo expeditions.” That these dates be both fun and solitary is significant. You’re trying to access your imagination, which requires a willingness on your part to play, and that can be easier to do on your own, free of self-consciousness or the need to analyze the experience with another person. Giving yourself the time and space to both observe the scene around you, and your own responses to it, can spark ideas and an eagerness to delve into them.

Silence (or appease) the voices of self-doubt

My writing students have often told me that they are lazy. I used to think of myself as lazy. I’d plan to work on a short story at a certain time, and then spend that time scrolling through social media, watching TV, indulging in one numbing, sedentary activity after another, ending up agitated and frustrated with myself.

I don’t think it was laziness, though. I wanted to write. It was something closer to fear. I feared pouring herculean effort into a project and seeing it come to nothing. I feared being exposed as someone who had no idea what she was talking about, who understood little about life, who was delusional and grandiose to believe anyone would be interested in what she had to say.

You won’t permanently banish the voices that warn you to fear these things, but you can work with them so that they don’t obliterate your will to create. Shelly Oria, author of the short story collection New York 1, Tel Aviv 0, told Poets & Writers that the way to deal with the critic in your head, the one who hisses at you about how much you suck, is to be kind to it: “We all live with an inner asshole and he isn’t going anywhere. Which means, we kind of have to learn how to become best friends.”

When I start hearing that voice, I’ll have a sort of conversation with it—by which I mean a conversation with myself. “Why are you yelling at me?” I’ll ask. The voice eventually admits that it’s just worried that this isn’t going to work out, that I’m going to end up disappointed. Which is the risk all artists take and have to decide they’re willing to live with. Once that’s settled (or at least addressed), I find that the voice quiets down and I’m able to work.

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