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Quinn McDonald : Creative Discipline

Creative Discipline

By Quinn McDonald

"For all sad words of tongue and pen,
the saddest are these, 'It might have been.'"
— John Greenleaf Whittier

The Dance of Discipline

Discipline sounds punitive. Like doing things you don't want to do. The discipline in this article is different. It is the permission to do the things you want — in fact yearn — to do.

The Future May Not Exist

Bob, a friend of mine (and not his real name), decided to live a secure life. He wanted to be an artist — a musician or a photographer — but decided that the life of an artist could not provide for a family. Instead, he became a public school teacher, married, and had two children. His wife also worked in the public school system. For 30 years, the two lived a busy life in the community — giving time to the local zoo, the PTA, and volunteering to coach and support the children in the schools where they taught.

Bob never told me he was happy, nor did he talk about liking the kids or enjoying his work. He talked about the importance of duty and security. But he never told me he was unhappy, either. For more than 20 years, he talked about his retirement, and how his life would begin in full when he had "done his time" as a teacher.

The Vanishing Mirage

The year Bob retired was topped with a great retirement party. He was still young, 55, and now planned to live his postponed dream. He pointed out that I would have to work till I was 80, and he is right. But I began to live my dream early. He was also right when he said I have not had unlimited opportunity nor ever considered myself monetarily rich. But in all the years I've lived as an artist, I have always loved my work and felt it mattered.

Bob and his wife sold the old house, moved to a town with a rich cultural life and a university. They settled close to the kids and grandchildren. Within a year, his wife was diagnosed with an incurable, disabling disease. Bob began to suffer serious health problems himself. His dream may now never come true.

Creative Discipline Gives You Control over Now

What does this have to do with discipline? Bob was certainly disciplined in service to his duties. But his entire creative life was left unserved. He postponed the life of his dreams so long that he never got the chance to live it.

And Bob is not alone in this thinking. Planning is a good thing, but planning to postpone your life assumes that you are in control of the years ahead of us. And none of us are. We are not in control of the next minute, let alone the next 30 years.

Creative Discipline in Action

The kind of discipline I'm talking about is the kind that serves creativity. It's the discipline to not do the dishes until you write that poem. The discipline to let the pet hair gather in the corners so you can run out and photograph that cloud while it is there. And then take another 20 shots as you wander through the woods, amazed at the unfolding of the season.

We all have lots of duties — bills need to be paid, paperwork taken care of, phone calls made, meals cooked, the car maintained. And if we are traditionally disciplined, all those things will happen in good order. When creativity is pushed aside, it slides, is ignored, and the duty becomes bitter. Happiness postponed is happiness lost.

This kind of discipline may involve the disapproval of others. Family may not take kindly to laundry left undone so you can paint. Your make feel the disapproval of a spouse if the family room is left cluttered so you can write a chapter of the book you've always wanted to write.

Clutter Will Wait for You

Here is a secret — the clutter will still be there after you've written the chapter, or painted for an hour. But the creative idea will fade in an hour, and you won't have the emotional fuel to keep the creative spark burning.

Fuel your creativity with creative discipline. Make yourself tackle the creative task. The book may never be published, you may never have a private showing, but you will have no regrets, either. That alone is worth it. •

© Quinn McDonald, 2006. All rights reserved.

Quinn McDonaldQuinn McDonald is a writer, artist and certified creativity coach. More »