Learning the craft, part two

In writing, I learn, it’s wise to emphasize love over discipline.

 

This is part two of a three-part series on the major lessons I learned while writing Shepherd: A Memoir, which is scheduled to be published in Spring 2014.

 There’s a common notion that self-discipline is a freakish peculiarity of writers—that writers differ from other people by possessing enormous and equal portions of talent and willpower.  They grit their powerful teeth and go into their little rooms. I think that’s a bad misunderstanding of what impels the writer. What impels the writer is a deep love for and respect for language, for literary forms, for books.—Annie Dillard

Thankfully I came across this advice in The Writing Life early in my work; an MFA mentor had admired Dillard so I was reading her. Love, Dillard continues, is much stronger than discipline: only love gets a mother out of bed in the night to tend a crying baby. Discipline has its place—after a writer has gotten in shape, built his muscles. After he’s made himself ready, in other words. You don’t set out to run a marathon on your first day jogging.

I used to wonder why it took writers so long to finish a book. I didn’t realize they were producing multiple versions of that book. Mine took six complete versions over seven years, with each sentence, paragraph, passage, and chapter worked over so many times I lost count. While part of me can’t believe it took seven years, using Dillard’s figures in The Writing Life the average length of time is six years to produce a publishable manuscript.

Sure, writing’s hard—but it’s play, too. Get in shape before you try “discipline.”

Get in shape before you impose “discipline.”

It always took me an hour to re-enter the work; in the next hour I started producing; in the third and final hour, all I’m good for, came the good stuff. My usual hourly rate, I found, was a page an hour. And after a year and a half of writing for hours daily I noticed that my sentences seemed better somehow. They felt more fluent, and I’d learned the secret of varying their structure for rhythm and musicality.

In the end, the self that apprehends meanings, the part of us that would say this is true, is all-important. You’re trying to make something out of nothing. One wants—no, wishes—to be worthy. All one can do is put one’s head down and try, hope that the work itself will call forth—and in some way help supply—any necessary personal transformations. One must begin humbly but bravely wherever one is. And try.

But ideally not try so hard that you lose the fun and let fear win. Because that’s what “lack of discipline” usually amounts to, fear and confusion. Maybe it’s all confusion, because ignorance creates fear that can only be remedied in the practice itself and through education, both willful and incidental, as a result of the practice.

No wonder writer Bill Roorbach counts birdwatching and gardening as writing. Writing is fed by what lies beneath the straining ego; I think of that vastly larger continent as—there’s no better word for it—soul. Or, if you prefer, Jung’s collective unconscious. The Force? Whatever you call God?

Anyway, something greater than the feverish brittle outward egoistic shell we commonly call me.

Next: Why your writing posse is vital—but can be mistaken.

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17 Comments

Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, memoir, MY LIFE, working method

17 responses to “Learning the craft, part two

  1. I don’t know if it’s a love for language so much as it is a compulsion to share a story. And I do mean compulsion. I don’t think writers can stop writing.

  2. “Writing is fed by what lies beneath the straining ego; I think of that vastly larger continent as—there’s no better word for it—soul.” Such good words, Richard. I spent 2 years writing many drafts of my current novel, Cherry Bomb. Then 4 months in revisions with a freelance editor. Then 8 months querying agents. And now an agent is sending me back to the editing table with another editor (work to begin any day now, when the editor sends me her first remarks). So, I’ve only got 3 years invested so far, but then there were the years before this novel, the three previous book-length manuscripts (which will not be published) and the numerous essays and the workshops…. it all counts, doesn’t it? Like the walks on the beach or in the woods and the months/years spent reading/researching, and just living. It’s all part of the process, and I’m (slowly) learning to embrace it all.

    • Yes! It is all process, not just something to get over with so you can publish. Sounds like you are on the path, Susan.

      If you can do something that you love to do
      without fear of criticism,
      you will move. You will find joy in it.
      You do not have to move more than an inch
      to feel the joy.

      — Joseph Campbell

  3. Hi, Richard. All of the things you say about the writing you have done and the preparation for doing it (one learns by doing is obviously true, by your example) is encouraging and daunting at the same time. It encourages me because when I get delayed I feel less bad about it; but when I realize that I don’t have 6-7 years for every book I want to write, it daunts me: I am evidently not as much of a craftsperson as you are. Still eagerly looking forward to reading your book!

  4. Big take away for me: “All one can do is put one’s head down and try, hope that the work itself will call forth—and in some way help supply—any necessary personal transformations. One must begin humbly but bravely wherever one is. And try.”
    Thank you, Mr. Gilbert.

  5. “Trying to make something out of nothing” takes time. Six years for me, too.
    Btw, I am thrilled to see you are now on Twitter.

  6. Loved reading the post to the music.

  7. I too enjoyed Van Morrison’s music as I read this post. You would love this book by John Paul Lederach and his daughter Angie. There’s a whole chapter in it on Van Morrison: http://www.amazon.com/When-Blood-Bones-Cry-Reconciliation/dp/0199837104

    Also, I blogged about writing as spiritual practice this week, which always goes back to love also. But this time I put a lot of emphasis on the discipline part. Still swinging from the same tree, however. Great post.

    • Came across this great quote the other day that emphasizes the love aspect:

      “If you can do something that you love to do without fear of criticism, you will move. You will find joy in it. You do not have to move more than an inch to feel the joy.” –Joseph Campbell