Dani Shapiro
January 16, 2009

On Discipline

A friend of mine–a magazine and newspaper journalist–keeps telling me how disciplined I am. In nearly every conversation between us, it comes up.

You’re so disciplined, she says.
No, I’m not, I protest.
Yes, you are. I’m just not built that way.
It’s not discipline!
It is. The work is your mistress.

I always end up feeling vaguely frustrated by that word–discipline–that is used so often in relation to writers, particularly writers of books. Well, I have finally figured out why, along with a few other things about the way I live my life.

It’s this simple, I told my friend. If I don’t write, I feel like shit.
That’s discipline! She said.

No, no. It’s not like working out, or eating flax seeds, or something I do because it’s “good for me”. I do it because, if I don’t, I’m not quite right in the head.

I don’t do it because I have a deadline, or because I’m supposed to, or because it’s my job–though all those things are certainly true. If I didn’t spend my days writing, if I didn’t close all the flapping shutters in my mind and attempt to stay only in the single concentrated beam of light that it takes to be working on a long narrative, I would eventually lose my mind. Lose it. The only reason I am a remotely sane person is because writing organizes my inner life. It takes the swirling bits and orders them. It shows me what I don’t understand.

As Joan Didion once said, in her wonderful essay “Why I Write”: Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.

It has nothing to do with discipline.