Just returned from my regular Sunday swim. As I’ve been having shoulder problems, I decided to cool down in the hot tub...if that makes any sense. During that time, I chatted with a lifeguard and another pool regular.
“How far do you swim?” the lifeguard asked.
“5K on Sundays. 3K whenever I get myself to the pool on weekdays.” Somehow the conversation shifted to me talking about my writing. Midway through an explanation, the other swimmer interrupted.
“Wow. You’re so disciplined.”
I grew up feeling like one of the least disciplined people on the planet. I was always misplacing library books and failing to return them before the due date. My room had shelves and a cupboard, a chest of drawers and a closet, but I preferred a clutter sprawl extending across my desk, spilling onto the floor and oozing under the bed. Efforts to organize my mess were always sidetracked by a fascinating piece of paper or toy that surfaced as I sifted through the first hodgepodge pile. (And, really, any piece of paper magically became fascinating when faced with the daunting task of a major cleanup.)
In high school, I was the one stuck reading Watership Down or Jane Eyre on the final weekend despite having three or four weeks to ”enjoy” the assigned novel. Projects were completed at the last minute. I told myself that I thrived under pressure.
Same experience in university, only the cram sessions became all-nighters as the neglected readings and assignments were exponentially greater. (My pages to read before midterms always exceeded a thousand. For some reason, I wasn’t sensible enough to stop registering for history classes. All that pressure,...a good thing.)
As I started teaching, it seemed to take me twice as long to prepare lessens, five times as long to mark papers. If only I were more organized, more disciplined.
Something clicked while I was working on my master’s. Despite having lived my life as a procrastinator extraordinaire, I started signing up to be first with class presentations, frontloading the work for my courses. I did my readings so far in advance that I’d have to thoroughly review them again before class, which I realized was a great way to solidify my understanding rather than an exercise in redundancy. I performed as well, if not better, and I enjoyed my studies instead of experiencing a radical shift from lackadaisical to frantic each semester. My fingernails survived key deadlines, my facial complexion cleared up and my caffeine intake...well, some things really can’t be changed.
Apparently I’m not an “old dog” just yet. Human beings can evolve and, remarkably, I have grown into being a disciplined individual. This year of writing could have been a loosey-goosey joke. I could have developed an online addiction with Pac-Man and juggled Scrabble games via email with people around the world. I could have reconnected with Oprah and tried to figure out the reason for the existence of “The View”. And I could have made a dent in the shelves of reading material I keep meaning to get to...some day.
I’d agree with the lady at the pool. I am disciplined. Thankfully, I am as fully accountable for my time writing as for my workouts. I’ve logged my writing on a calendar and documented my time spent writing each day. If I let the dogs out or answer the phone, the clock stops. It may seem obvious that breaks are not actual writing time, but without my newfound discipline, I could have easily deceived myself. Rationalization comes easily. I set writing priorities at the beginning of each week and hold myself to six days of writing. Whenever I come up short on a particular day, I fit in more writing on other days to recover the missed writing time.
I’d always thought being disciplined led to being stuffy and rule-oriented. Artists, after all, are supposed to be free and spontaneous, exploring their craft when the mood is right. Yet I’ve become more driven as a writer as a result of my discipline. If anything, there is more flow to my creativity. Yes, being disciplined as a writer can indeed be an asset. Go figure.