I am a member of Words on Water, a writing group here in the Chesapeake Bay area. It has been an invaluable resource for me. Led by Gwen Mayes (who calls herself a recovering attorney), we often start with a prompt for a free write. Sometimes the writing just flows from me. But on occasion, I am stumped! I am suddenly wordless and can’t seem to find my brain.
One such evening we had all received a different prompt. Mine was “How do you practice self-discipline?” I felt a wave of shame wash over my brain and I went I into wordless mode. I am one of the most undisciplined people I know! How could I write about this? I sat immobilized while my colleagues put their pens to paper and dove right in.
Then I remembered that often it’s helpful to engage is some motoric task. Even doodling can engage the brain’s right hemisphere and put the left into neutral. Laura Oliver talks about this at length in her marvelous book, The Story Within: New Insights and Inspiration for Writers. I needed to quiet that left hemisphere with its chatter about my embarrassing lack of discipline, and access some creative spark.
I began by writing one word, circling it until I thought of another, then circling another, and so on.
Here is the free-write that emerged:
Have I ever been disciplined? Never! I have habits that I perform daily. I brush my teeth twice a day at roughly the same time. I shower every day. Those are well-rehearsed behaviors. They don’t require effort. But perhaps they did at one time?
What have I tried to do in a disciplined fashion? Practice Spanish, learn piano, the ukulele, paint, and write. I dabble in all, but disciplined? No. And my lack of improvement shows that.
But wait! I have a Ph.D. I wrote a thesis and a dissertation. Gosh, that was hard work. I kept at it. That was discipline, right? Or did I persevere to avoid the negative consequences of not finishing? I couldn’t bear having invested so much and not complete my degree. And I really needed the job I had been offered, contingent upon graduating. It was obligatory.
I walk my dog every day, usually several times a day. That’s an obligation, too. One can’t not walk the dog. And I email my graduate school friend, Holly, almost every day. She is counting on seeing it every morning. An expectation.
So I think it’s accountability that keeps me “disciplined.” If I know someone else expects me to write, paint, practice, exercise, put the leash on and go outdoors, then I’m good to go. On my own, I’m out of control!