As a demonically possessed, binge-writing, axe-wielding Jack Nicholson wrote repeatedly in The Shining, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” The last thing a writer wants to be is dull.
Does a writer become dull if he or she is too compulsive about the work regimen? Maybe, though a writer who is too undisciplined may suffer the same fate, simply from a lack of productivity.
I wrote about Henry Miller’s writing COMMANDMENTS in a recent post, and a couple of these are relevant to this question about discipline.
“4. Work according to the Program and not according to mood.”
This one emphasizes the need to stick with a regular writing schedule, even if you don’t feel like doing it. Distractions are many and moods vary continuously. If you wait for perfect conditions and only the best inspirational states, you will write rarely. To be productive, there needs to be a certain amount of discipline to do the work consistently.
“9. Discard the Program when you feel like it – but go back to it the next day.”
Miller adds this commandment, which is interesting. He puts a bit of breathing room in his structured writing program, which acknowledges something about our humanity. This commandment may seem contradictory to #4, but it is actually only a variation that allows for flexibility in the program – to an extent. Sometimes there is a need for a break, or an alternative activity that will refresh and renew the writer. Such a temporary hiatus could be an antidote to burnout…and dullness.
It’s a balancing act, and you must develop your own program, and reasonable exceptions to that program. An extreme swing to one pole or the other on the discipline/freedom continuum could impair the quality or quantity of the writing.
Jack Nicholson in The Shining is a good example of a writer who failed to find the right balance. First he swang to the completely undisciplined pole and didn’t write a word for weeks. Then he swang to the monomaniacal, over-working pole and wrote pages and pages of dull, repetitive crap. Finally, he swang an axe at his wife, and froze in a blizzard.
A psychotic death in a snowbank is without a doubt unfortunate, but the real tragedy is that Jack never finished his novel. A little more balance and a lot less swinging and would have helped that dull boy.