For every thousand people sending books to agents, hoping to be published, there are tens of thousands of people who WANT to write a book but can’t seem to finish one. There’s a lot of moaning about it on writers’ boards, some from the folks struggling to complete a manuscript, and some from people who have finished books and see the moaners as lazy. Now I don’t think that’s necessarily a fair way to view them—writing a book is a long, hard process and not all ideas are big enough to carry a novel-length work. God knows I’ve started dozens of stories that never made it past the 25k mark, because when I got there I realized I just didn’t have enough going on for it to go further. And not all writers who’ve written novels feel this way about those who haven’t. But one thing I do MOSTLY agree with is when someone says, to the people struggling to finish a novel, “Writing is hard. It takes dedication. Discipline. It means putting your butt in the chair, day after day, and just doing it.”
Don’t get me wrong. I love the creative process. There’s nothing quite as addictive as writing a first draft when the story is strong, and seeing an entire world come to life under your fingers. It’s heady stuff. But when things go slower, is it really discipline that gets us through or is it obsession? When I’m stuck in a story, or when I look at the page and the rhythm and flow just seems foreign (which does happen, sadly), is it some sense of responsibility and stick-to-it-ness that carries me through until it gets easy again? If so, you’d think it would carry over to other areas of life. But sad to say, that’s not necessarily true. Being a disciplined individual would mean I stay on top of the yard work, and go out Saturday after Saturday to get rid of the stupid prickly weeds taking over my flower beds. Discipline would mean that every night, right after dinner, I put all of the pans and plates in the dishwasher and turn it on. It would mean never deciding to watch Tosh.O when I should be doing laundry, and never letting my kid have Ho-Hos for breakfast because I haven’t had enough coffee to manage microwave oatmeal.
One of the formal definitions of discipline is “Behavior in accord with rules of conduct; behavior and order maintained by training and control.” No one who’s ever been to my house on a weekday would accuse me of any kind of order being maintained, I promise. So for me, what makes it possible to finish not just one novel but more than one? In my case, I think it comes down to more obsession than anything else. I am obsessed with my fictional worlds. There’s no discipline involved.
I say this because when I step away from my writing to focus on day-to-day stuff, my brain refuses to let my stories go. Somewhere up in my head, I’m always thinking through scenes and plotlines. No matter what I do, or how hard I try, I can’t shut off that part of my brain. Until the story is finished, there’s no escaping it for me. And that’s what gets me back in front of the computer every single day, during every five minute chunk of free time I can find. I MUST write, because if I don’t I’ll be twirling it over in my head until I can’t think of anything else. And if that’s not the very definition of obsession, I don’t know what is.
So are you a writer who’s disciplined or obsessed? I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but for me, I’m not ashamed to say there’s no discipline involved. Obsession gets the work done, too, and I’m lucky enough to have a family that lets me feed that obsession.