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The Limits of Discipline

Dispatches from PS Blog Editor Claire Harlan Orsi

Have you seen the new ballet documentary, First Position? It’s great. You watch, utterly enraptured, as five extremely talented young dancers compete in an international competition for awards/scholarships and/or positions at a company. You see them sweat, suffer physically and emotionally and sacrifice their time (and the time of their parents) to the pursuit of their chosen art. Spoiler: they all succeed! Hard work and sacrifice beget success!

I left practically breathless, and am still getting a little worked up thinking about it now. De-briefing with friends, I got the sense that I may have liked the movie TOO much, perhaps more than it deserved. This is not just because I used to be a ballet dancer myself (which is strange if you know me, because I don’t look like someone who used to be a ballet dancer). I loved the movie the way I love anything that dramatizes the rewards of a life of discipline, from cheering on Rocky as he downs raw eggs and runs the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to an overriding fascination with the work routines of successful writers (this is the part I automatically skip to in the Paris Review interviews—who needs a philosophy of art when you can find out that Haruki Murakami writes for five hours, then runs a 10K?)

This brings me to my central point: I love discipline! It’s like Chad Harbach said in a conversation about his debut novel The Art of Fielding, a novel that is in part about what happens when discipline (in this case the training of a short stop) is not enough: the lives of writers generally lack structure, so we’re drawn to ways of being, like sports and academia, that feature externally imposed structures. Indeed, as I watched the documentary I found myself wishing I was still doing ballet so that I could have daily classes to show up to, a diet based on the need to stay under 100 pounds, and an old French man standing over me, cranking my shoulders into place.

There was a time in my youth when I frolicked in the backyard or held elaborate birthday parties for my stuffed animals with no regard for the need to achieve or the dictates of time. But this soon changed, probably due to personal anxieties and familial conflicts better left in the therapist’s office, and by the time I’d reached 5th grade I was doing things like swimming laps (what 10-year-old NOT on a swim team voluntarily swims solitary laps? Me!), setting myself unreasonable goals like reading one novel per day and taking only cold showers. Unlike the overbearing ballet moms in the documentary, my parents had nothing to do with this. Instead they watched, probably somewhat baffled, as my self-imposed rigors became ever more draconian.

I’ve calmed down a little with time, but I still leech onto discipline like a parasite to a hippo’s back, writing a certain number of minutes or hours each day or staying at my desk until I’ve completed the requisite number of pages. This is not bad; in general, it helps me get things done, especially because the only way to have written is to write. For all the little I have public (published) to show for it, I can’t say I haven’t put in a good deal of what romance writer Nora Roberts calls “ass in chair" time.

However industrious my rigid routines may allow me to be, they also pose problems. When everything comes down to a goal it’s hard to see writing for what it really is: putting words down on paper for the sake of the joy of putting words down on paper. I’m less likely to experiment if I don’t see the experiment as going “toward” a definitive product, usually a story or essay. I’m also more likely to try to exert too much control over my writing, rigidly imposing my own concepts and form onto the draft rather than letting the prose go where it needs to. Too much discipline makes it too easy to forget the sense of joy that drew me to writing in the first place.

So lately I’ve been thinking about what it might take for me to bring back some sense of spontaneity and play amid the discipline, to make sure not to lose the joy in writing. This in turn led me to consider times when I do indulge in purely undisciplined play. These include craft sessions with my friend Liat, where we glue things together that have no right to belong together, producing collages that have no use to anyone. They also include learning easy indie pop songs on my guitar, cuddling with the dog, and sometimes even reading a particularly absorbing book. These are times when I lose track of the goal of the action and immerse myself in the process. What if writing could be more like this? While hunched over the keyboard putting in my daily ass-in-chair time, I need to remember to check in with myself to make sure I’m having fun. If I’m not, it might be time to make a ridiculous collage.