The Space between Discipline and Freedom

“Art lives in the space between discipline and freedom.”

2_18I heard that in a talk recently, though I don’t know who said it first. It was, though, one of those statements worth grabbing onto.

The speaker also said, “In the great artist you see daring bound by discipline and discipline stretched by daring.”

H. Jackson Brown, Jr., author of Life’s Little Instruction Book said something similar, but in a more amusing fashion. “Talent without discipline is like an octopus on roller skates. There’s plenty of movement, but you never know if it’s going to be forward, backwards, or sideways.”

From the social psychologist Eric Fromm . . . “It is essential . . . that discipline should not be practised like a rule imposed on oneself from the outside, but that it becomes an expression of one’s own will; that it is felt as pleasant, and that one slowly accustoms oneself to a kind of behaviour which one would eventually miss, if one stopped practising it.”

The cartoonist Sidney Harris . . . “Self-discipline without talent can often achieve astounding results, whereas talent without self-discipline inevitably dooms itself to failure.”

And Jon Kabat-Zinn, the well-known teacher of mindfulness meditation . . . “Discipline provides a constancy which is independent of what kind of day you had yesterday and what kind of day you anticipate today.”

So . . . do you feel as though you’ve been hit over the head with a hammer? BE DISCIPLINED!!!! But that’s not the point of these odes to discipline. The point is that discipline is the gift that lies at the center of every writer’s success. It provides the platform beneath our feet, the place to stand while we catch hold of inspiration. Without discipline we will drown in the tumbling stream of our own language, in the fecund well of our own ideas.

With discipline, with the foundation it gives us to support our most extravagant leaps, we can fly.

Perhaps the quote to return to is the one by Eric Fromm, that discipline must become “an expression of one’s own will; that it is felt as pleasant, and that one slowly accustoms oneself to a kind of behaviour which one would eventually miss, if one stopped practising it.”

That, I’m certain, is the key. There is so much pleasure in writing, at least there is if we are meant to be writers at all, that discipline itself can be the most pleasant of exercises, a door into a place where we will long to live.

I grow weary of writers who talk about their writing practice as though putting words together were the most onerous task imaginable. Wasn’t it Hemingway who said, “Writing’s easy. You just sit down at the typewriter and open up a vein”? My response to such a self-aggrandizing remark is something like, “Oh, come on now!” Writing is work, of course, and it can be intense work, but it’s hardly akin to self-mutilation.

What may be difficult to start with is devising a time framework to hold this work you so want to do and then to return to it day after day. Most of us are so accustomed to having our time ordered by others that ordering our own time may demand an inner authority we haven’t granted ourselves before.

I have two suggestions for that. The first is simply be your own boss. Bosses set schedules, so do it. Set work times, reasonable ones, ones that you know you can manage. Write them down! Then keep them. If your cat has to be rushed to the vet for an emergency appendectomy during that sacred time you can give yourself a pass. Your boss would understand. But otherwise, keep your commitment. Be the kind of worker you are when someone else is standing over the clock.

The second? Simply this. Remember that writing is fun, that it will feed your soul every time you do it, that while you’re enjoying yourself, you will be creating a gift for others.

It you stand on that platform of discipline you’ve agreed to build and then play with all your heart, how can you lose?

16 thoughts on “The Space between Discipline and Freedom

  1. Steven Palmquist

    Your post has gotten my brain fixated on the contention between discipline and freedom. What degree of constraint is needed to allow creativity to flow, but not hamper it? Perhaps we run in cycles that allow us to alternate the comfort and protection of working within rules and familiar discipline with the occasional excitement of exploding all that when a truly unique inspiration wells up inside us.

  2. Adrienne M

    🙂 When one is grateful in all things, and thankful for the ability to do what we do whether that be creative “talents” or other things that we do for “work” , it is then when we can find what we love in it and be grateful for it that we can begin to “love what we do”. I love Hemingway’s quote…for it is true…it just sometimes seems that the vein is clogged LOL ;D Thank you always for sharing Mrs. B ! Gratefully read your writing everytime I get a chance to ;D Much Love, Adrienne

  3. bethanyhegedus

    Marion, thanks for this. I am going to pass it along to a few of my writing students, one in particular who is struggling with discipline. I appreciate the time in my life where you were my mentor….remembering our semester fondly.

  4. Sarah Lamstein

    Love “our own time may demand an inner authority we haven’t granted ourselves before.” So key. Thank you, Marion.

  5. gardenlearning

    Thank you – I appreciate your comments this morning. I am moving from a full time job to open time and struggling with this. It was helpful to think about being my own boss. I love your quotes – especially Fromm’s.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      What a wonderful world opening for you as you move out of your full time job . . . and how intimidating all that unscheduled time can be! Enjoy! And give yourself the power to choose.

  6. Shonna McNasby

    Your comment about Hemingway made me giggle. Did you happen to see Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk? She is just as irritated by the tortured writer attitude and I think you might enjoy it.


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