The Downside of Discipline

We all know that inspiration is fickle; it comes and goes, and appears when you least expect it and deserts you when you most need it. There are a variety of ways that successful artists have developed deal with this situation.

One of the ways to deal with this situation of uncertainty is discipline. Artists as diverse as Elizabeth Gilbert, Khaled Hosseini, Julia Cameron, William Safire, Chuck Close, and Gabriel García Márquez, have all discussed the necessity for discipline as a requisite for success in art. These are not the only ones; web page after web page is devoted to the topic. It’s something I have written about before. Hazel Dooney has said, “It’s when I don’t feel like talking, writing or drawing that I need to most. Waiting for inspiration is actually procrastination.”

So you adopt working in a disciplined manner, and all goes well. Then one day you sit down at the easel, the potter’s wheel, the piano, the computer, the rehearsal table, wherever it is that you work, and nothing comes. You are dry. Ideas, images seem to have deserted you.  And you sit there and sit there and sit there, doing what you are supposed to be doing, and still nothing comes. What do you do then?

One of the things that you cannot do is command fresh ideas and inspiration to appear. This is the downside of discipline; it doesn’t guarantee that you will get what you need. You have allotted the time and the time is not, at the moment, being fruitful. It feels like a waste. It isn’t.

And what you should not do is give in to the temptation to get up and go do something else. That is also procrastination. This is the time to work, and if you choose to do something else, it is certain that you will produce nothing. While exercising discipline cannot guarantee ideas and insight, it can maximize the possibilities. What you produce during this time might not be great—particularly when ideas are not flowing—but it may well lead you somewhere great. Give yourself the time to develop, to experiment, to explore, to create.

And that’s what you can do: use the time that you have set aside for work to work. Perhaps you need to explore in a different direction. Almost all of us have notes on ideas and images that we do not have the time to immediately explore. This is the time for that. Perhaps, you need to try approaching your work in a different way or from a different direction. This is an opportunity to experiment with a directional shift. You might use the time to explore a new medium for your ideas. You might want to use this period for research that will further your work. There are also a number of other ideas to be found in Daniel Grant’s excellent essay called “What Artists Do While Waiting for the Next Inspiration.”

Put those alternatives in the back of your mind and continue to exercise your discipline so next time—and there will be a next time—you will know how to use your work time time to deal with uncertainty of inspiration. Again, to quote Dooney:

The truly creative not only adapt and evolve in response to uncertainty, they relish it. They might be disciplined in their work habits but inspiration is often unruly and unreliable. Attempts to control it, to corral it, make dull art. An ability to collaborate with uncertainty has always been the mark of a great artist.


Date: Monday, 17. September 2012 0:01
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