Self-Discipline

I’ve been thinking recently about discipline, about the number of hours I spend in the studio, and how much work I get done there - or don’t. I had always the notion that I was a pretty hard worker, but I’ve come to think that I’ve slacked off a fair bit since I got married. Married life is just too pleasant - I’d much rather come home in the evening, have a cocktail, cook dinner, hang out with Dave, play with the cats, and relax in front of the flickering images on TV than slog through another 4 hours in the studio by myself. And I find myself asking, Is domestic felicity the enemy of really getting shit done? I’m always interested in the working habits of other artists and writers, and recently Dave sent me a pertinent passage about Don DeLillo from this article in the New Yorker about The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the literary archive of the University of Texas at Austin.

DeLillo’s letters are often about business—negotiations over contracts, responses to translators—but a few of them provide insight into his austere approach to the literary life. One, in particular, is the kind of note that biographers long to stumble across. In October, 1995, David Foster Wallace [Rest in Peace, DFW - I was heartbroken when I heard the news about your suicide, even though I’m still mad at you for the number of truly revolting images that are permanently seared into my visual cortex after reading Infinite Jest. The word ‘nubbin’ has never been the same for me since. (Never read IJ? Well, it’s what’s left of a golden retriever after he is dragged to his death behind the family Volvo. Lovely stuff.)] wrote to him, “Because I tend both to think I’m uniquely afflicted and to idealize people I admire, I tend to imagine you never having had to struggle with any of this narcissism or indulgence stuff . . . Maybe I want a pep-talk, because I have to tell you I don’t enjoy this war one bit.” DeLillo responded in November. “I was a semiconscious writer in the beginning,” he writes. “Just sat and wrote something, or read the newspaper, or went to the movies. Over time I began to understand, one, that I was lucky to be doing this work, and, two, that the only way I’d get better at it was to be more serious, to understand the rigors of novel-writing and to make it central to my life, not a variation on some related career choice, like sportswriting or playwriting. The novel is different. . . . We die indoors, and alone, and I don’t mean to sound overdramatic but you know what I’m talking about. Anyway, all of this happened over time, until eventually discipline no longer seemed something outside me that urged the reluctant body into the room. At this point discipline is inseparable from what I do. It’s not even definable as discipline. It has no name. I never think about it. But there’s no trick of meditation or self-mastery that brought it about. I got older, that’s all. I was not a born novelist (if anyone is). I had to grow into novelhood.

I also found the following passage, though unrelated to the discipline stuff, completely fascinating. It had never particularly occurred to me that writers - other than poets - would care about how the text looked on the page. Narrow-minded of me, I guess.

. . . in a 1997 letter to David Foster Wallace, he wrote that his prose is characterized by “a sensitivity to the actual appearance of words on a page, to letter-shapes and letter-combinations.”  . . .  “At some point (in my writing life) I realized that precision can be a kind of poetry, and the more precise you try to be, or I try to be, the more simply and correctly responsive to what the world looks like—then the better my chances of creating a deeper and more beautiful language."

And then there’s the magical, magisterial Anne Truitt in a similar vein. I would so have liked to have known her.

A mystery confounds the problem of industry in art. In the last analysis, to work is simply not enough. But we have to act as if it were, leaving reward aside. People who set their sails into art tend to work very hard. They train themselves in school; they practice and they read and they think and they talk. But for most of them there seems to be a more or less conscious cutoff point. It can be a point in time:  “I will work until I am twenty-one [twenty-five, thirty, or forty].” Or a point in effort:  “I will work three hours a day [or eight, or ten].” Or a point in pleasure:  “I will work unless . . .” and here the “enemies of promise” harry the result. These are personal decisions, more or less of individual will. They depend on the scale of values according to which artists organize their lives. Artists have a modicum of control. Their development is open-ended. As the pressure of their work demands more and more of them, they can stretch to meet it. They can be open to themselves, and as brave as they can be to see who they are, what their work is teaching them. This is never easy. Every step forward is a new clearing through a thicket of reluctance and habit and natural indolence. And all the while they are at the mercy of events . . .

One element is clear, however, and that is that the capacity to work feeds on itself and has its own course of development. This is what artists have going for them. From 1948 to 1961, I worked out of obsession, but obsession served by guilt:  I felt uncomfortable if I failed to work every possible working day. In 1961, to my total astonishment, the guilt dropped away, replaced by an effortless, unstrained, well motivated competence that I very soon was able simply to take for granted.