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February 2015

The Writer Speaks: Discipline


The discipline of a writer is not a constant effort. It is more like an energy field that has ebbs and flows, and each ebb is a crucial part of the flow. One thing is certain: creativity cannot be forced.


My day begins with a set routine which is, of course, a source of stability, a means of marking time that is not accounted for by a supervisor, company, deadline, series of conference calls, meetings, appointments that must be met (or perhaps somehow avoided). I am often asked how I find the time to get the work done that I do. I silently laugh. At the end of each day, I wonder where I will find the time the next day to get done the work I did not accomplish that day or the day before.


Depending on the creative task at hand, I work in one of the various rooms in my house, but my (still-unfinished) writer’s room is where I read my French books, leaning against pillows on my guest bed. This room is also where most of the materials for my creative projects are warehoused. The sense of work-in-progress pervades this space, along with the quiet exultation over work-completed.

“The Writer’s Room” is a poem that I wrote and included as #9 in Solstice II. The poem details the history of this room and hypothesizes that once this room is finished, it will be a writer’s room no more!


Atop my desk in the writer’s room sits two short piles of books, one to each side of the desk. A thick, heavy, cumbersome, blue fabric hardcover anthology of English Literature anchors the pile on the right side; two 8-1/2x11-inch yellow lined legal pads rest on (and overhang) the sizeable book. Each notepad is half-used. I do not know why more than one pad of paper got pulled out of the wooden supply cabinet that contains other writing supplies and the printer.


On the left side of the desk, there rests an anthology of critical theory since Plato (also heavy and cumbersome, but without the blue fabric), my large green journal, and five file folders for The Western. Centered in between the two anchor piles sits a stack of weekly magazines with book reviews I must read (a subscription was a stocking stuffer for Christmas).


These issues (in more ways than one) collect dust on top of a platform of photocopied quilt patterns. On top of the magazines is my small green journal for selected passages from several books.


On one as-yet-unknown day within the next week, when I am ready, when the decision will feel spontaneous but will undoubtedly involve some planning, the photocopies of the quilt patterns will be taken from the desk. I will cut out each pattern piece and glue it onto cardboard and then cut out the cardboard pattern. The backs of the 8-1/2x11-inch pads of paper were frequently hacked up for this purpose, but I now purchase illustration boards that are of a superior quality, thinner and easier work with.

I cut out the fabrics in the writer’s room. I used to rotary-cut the material but I found that method, though rapidly efficient, was too mechanical and sterile. The activities of ironing the fabric, touching the fabric, tracing the pattern onto the fabric with a pencil, and then using scissors to cut out each piece – these steps, one by one, bring back memories from my earliest days of quilting when my children were infants and toddlers and even children!


Back in those days, I performed this work while listening to music, played in part to drown out the noxious noise of the dreaded Weed-whackers. (I adamantly refused to prostitute music to the role of “white noise.” My music was music-to-my-ears first, the cloaking device second.)


Every yard surrounding me got whacked on a different day. Nowadays, in Ruraldom, the Weed-whacking is somehow coordinated to commence on the same day, almost at the same time! A virtual symphony of din, monotony, and reverberation!

While I am in my writer’s room, cutting out the various geometric shapes, I recall those busy boundless days before I wrote that first novel. I realize that I did not realize that I would be altering who I was as a person with the written creation of fiction.


Those tactile motions with fabric, even the time that I spend washing and drying the yardages, center me and my thoughts. They help me to return to places in time when my mind first began to “come up with” the ideas for novels I’ve yet to fully write. It is sometimes a long, difficult journey for me to return to some of those places in my past but the voyage is necessary for my work. It is part of the discipline of being a writer and it is always an adventure. And I need a little more adventure in my life.


Alongside this neatly arranged assortment of materials on my desk is the little bird calendar that designates one week at a time. At the end of 2014, I purchased this artistic, functional, flip-top agenda to give me a sense of the days sprawling before me in 2015. I have jotted down some appointments and significant dates but most likely I will not write more in the thing.

It’s too lovely to mark up. A 5x7-inch notepad in the kitchen will be used to mark down appointments and daily tasks. I enjoy making the list and then running a Sharpie through each item that has been handily mastered or achieved.


On the floor at the foot of my guest bed, next to the dumbbells, a rectangular box awaits my attention. In the box are fabrics that have been cut out for a “Turkey Tracks” quilt. The pieces are all ready to be sewn together for the first quilt made this year. The creation will begin on Super Bowl Sunday.

When I am in sewing, mode, the first-quilt-of-the year traditionally commences on Super Bowl Sunday. I believe that Super Bowl 24 in 1990 was the last epic of that genre that I intentionally watched. That day was memorable for not only the 49er blowout of the much-reviled Broncos, but for the 4-foot-long deli sandwich that I ordered, thinking it was the 18-inch picture on the brochure. Dear Husband had to angle the thing in past the front hallway and into the living room of our first house.


This small “Turkey Tracks” quilt will adorn the wall in front of my desk. Beside this box is another box, a large square box filled with neatly folded fabrics, left over from previous quilts.  Above that stack are the folded fabrics for a Christmas quilt that I have longed to create for many years. (At last the right pattern and fabrics came along!)


I line the quilt projects up, like ducks in a row, and have been doing so since last summer when I made several large quilts. All of this lovely, categorized fabric tells me that I’ve got my sights set on The Western. But there is no rushing these things. I am by nature a methodical creature.

The elements crucial in my life to spur creativity must be present; furthermore, they must align in the proper order, not unlike a favorable horoscope. I believe in signs and I believe in stars and I believe in “Thy will not mine,” although my will is a formidable force. Bending my will has required discipline. Discipline is my exercise in faith, just as patience is my path to perseverance.


Perseverance is a muscle that must be worked on a regular basis so that it is fit enough to guide and train a formidable will. The formidable will is then capable of the mastery of many skills. Such mastery leads to the achievement of lofty goals.


One key goal for me is to pace my creative energy and myself. I take time to smell the roses, not merely prune them. I smell the coffee and occasionally even drink a cup! It was no less than an Irishman who informed me that tea has no scent: it’s just hot water!


I mostly agreed but I also realized why, during my vagabond days, I packed in my suitcase a 100-count box of Lipton tea bags. I was not taking any chances among coffee drinkers. Tea-drinkers make allowances for the bean folks; I’d yet to meet a coffee hound who acknowledged the existence of the cuppa.


That type of caution is an innate part of pacing myself. Another part is more expansive: I like to have fun with fabric and let the creative mind take the lead in wherever I am going!

Working with fabrics is for me more than a tactile exercise. I “see” scenes as I work, “hear” dialogue, “feel” textures within narration. A vision is spun into a dream, a dream woven into a plan. Victor Hugo said, "There is nothing like a dream to create the future." Every dream takes time and timing; planning, even calculation; patience; more than a smidgeon of good luck; and, above all, preparedness.


I cannot be willing to embark on this textile project until I have reached a point of readiness for literary conceptualizing, a phase of forming fiction that often becomes trancelike. Observers have often commented that I seem to be in another world, that I’ve gone off into my “dream world.” Perhaps, but I do not “enter” that world until I am fully ready to clothe it with the fabrics of my palette, my passions, my design.


The discipline needed for me to arrive at the jumping-off point for that juncture of working on a novel can be painstaking. At the beginning of this year I wrote to a friend that I’d returned to research reading a bit at a time. “I seem to be plodding along toward writing The Western but mostly I just want to have free time to myself after so much work last year!”


And so it is with disciplining myself. The free time – whether to go to the mall with a friend; to putter around the house and see what tasks come to me to do rather than the other way around; to leisurely clean the empty frig before I submit to the boring task of grocery shopping; to visit various makeup blogs for visual fun and info on femaleness; or to surf the net for deals on shoes or sweaters – that unstructured time is just as important as the structured time.


Discipline allows me to harmonize the downtime and the uptime. The time in between those times is where the creativity resides. Creativity surges and seeks expression when it has been nurtured and fed from the ins and outs, ebbs and flows, ups and downs of the routine of life. Each month, each week, each day brings to it an order all its own, quite outside of whatever I have planned. The harmony of life comes from meshing that natural order with the order one wishes to impose on time.

When I was the efficient, fun, home-schooling mom, I designated Friday as “the day to do something special.” And so, once the Friday art lesson was over, my clever eager students and I accomplished that assignment quite productively. Each Friday of the school year (and then each Friday during the summer), a very spontaneous plan was hatched and undertaken. I still carry out that small tradition each Friday, not in the TGIF way but with the sense of Oh-Happy-Day-Reward-Time-Is-Here!


The reward might be a surprise sale purchase online; a trip to an antique store; a long, luxurious afternoon nap; a brisk walk in the sunlight; baking a cake; dressing up; creating a new makeup look; whatever strikes my fancy.


I set aside the books, the laptop, the pen, the paper, the dictionary, the studious glances-at-the-desk (which is not a random mess but an organized physical arrangement of projects to undertake). And as time permits, I permit my discipline to be awarded with my own certificate of acknowledgment.


Life can sometimes get in the way of this small honor ceremony, but I always bear in mind to keep my eyes on the prize: discipline is drudgery without the pats we give ourselves on the back. The objective is not smug self-satisfaction but the calm affirmation of a job well done, the contentment and even the joy that come from the wise and proper use of your abilities and talents. Those blessings are gifts from your Maker. When you develop and fulfill them, you are returning the favor.


Or to use an overused phrase: “The gift that keeps on giving,” keeps on giving – all because of discipline.