Passion & Discipline

Here’s an admission for you: I love the TV show, AMERICAN PICKERS. Nowadays, if I’m not under the gun on a book deadline, I reserve Saturdays for browsing flea markets and antiques shops, searching for that bargain, that treasure, that find. It’s less about the item than the hunt, and I love looking up my purchases that evening to see what their current market value is. Have I scored? Or have I paid top retail price?

Recently, I discovered a new shop–not just new to me but new in business, a fledgling treasure trove, barely a month old since its doors first opened.

I found two items of interest: both were priced identically at $25. Both were vintage. I could choose only one because the wallet was running close to empty.

One choice I suspected would bring higher value, but it was large and bulky and wasn’t going to fit in my car that day. The other choice appealed to me personally for no discernible reason. It’s the one I bought.

That night, I got online and looked them up. The item I chose is worth no more than I paid for it, and in fact I paid top retail price. (Boo!)

The item I didn’t choose is worth $200. Had I sold it at that price, it would have meant a 75% return on my investment. (As the Chinese used to say, Woe, woe, woe!)

I moaned for a few minutes, and then I took stock because that’s what novelists do. (Fortunately or unfortunately, we carry constant self-awareness with us. No matter what we’re doing during the living of life, we’re also an observer, taking notes.)

So what if I flubbed my little pickers game? I got the item I liked best. I let my passion overrule my sense of discipline. The things we love cannot–and should not–be squelched for cold-blooded, hard-headed, analytical, heartless reasons.

Many years ago, I bought my first puppy. At the time, I was ignorant of dogs and the dog world, and made several mistakes in that endeavor. Nonetheless, I finally chose a pup and took the tiny darling home. He was only six weeks old, much too young to be weaned and sold on the same day. (One of the mistakes I made.) He tried to eat the food sent along by the breeder, but his tummy couldn’t tolerate it. So he quit eating. In a panic, I called the woman and asked for advice in how to keep him going. Her response was, “If you want to bring him back and exchange him for another puppy, you can.”

I was horrified. Baby Dog wasn’t a pair of shoes that didn’t fit. In twenty-four hours, he’d already become a piece of my heart.

So I dug down and fed him toast, cooked oatmeal, and cottage cheese until I figured out what kind of dog food he could tolerate. Eventually I solved the riddle of his food allergies. And Baby Dog and I were a team for over 14 years.

In writing, crafting a book involves a lot of discipline. The craft, the technique, of writing is tough to learn, tough to master, and tough sometimes to apply. That’s okay. Knowing the writing craft has saved me countless times. It’s enabled me to complete books or meet deadlines when I thought I couldn’t bring it off.

But I will still choose passion over discipline every time. Passion for the love of words, for the shaping of a story, for the satisfaction of bringing characters to life trumps everything else. Passion for story brought me first to books as a reader, then as a writer.

Writing on discipline alone will not generate passion, but if there’s a strong enough passion for the story within you, you will harness discipline to help you through. In novelist Dorothy Sayers’s masterpiece, GAUDY NIGHT, the protagonist and her mentor are discussing how to know if you’ve found your main purpose in life, your life’s work. The answer from the mentor is (and I’m paraphrasing loosely) that you find it when everything else in your life falls before it, and it crushes all your other interests like a steamroller.

I have written without passion, and at such times it’s a slog through a valley of dust. Maybe I need the job to pay bills. Maybe I agreed to a project without realizing what I was getting into. Maybe something makes the project turn sour halfway through. All I know is that writing without passion is death. It’s a world of gray. It’s a flatness, a lack of dimension. It’s being color blind. You can limp along and do the work–hard work!–but you are working without joy.

In contrast, let me sink my teeth into a story I love and deal with characters I care about, and I will gladly walk barefooted over stones and push my way through briars in order to put such a book together.

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