Saturday, March 14, 2015

Learning Discipline

For the month of February, my friend Ann from grad school and I challenged each other to write a poem a day, and we shared work and gave feedback to each other once a week. Since I got my MFA in poetry 3 years ago, I haven't been writing consistently, and it was so good to have some encouragement and goals. In March, I am trying (with just some success) to continue the pace of writing every day.

I am not a particularly disciplined person when it comes to anything outside of the necessities (i.e. work, church, eating, socializing). The list of things I have started and then never gotten good at includes piano, guitar, French, Swahili, drawing, salsa dancing, rock climbing, gardening (ahem--a couple pots of herbs on the window ledge), and sewing. Things that I don't have a natural inclination for already (like most sports or games) I don't even attempt.

My tendency is to avoid getting to a point of discomfort. I dabble. I do creative activities when the inspiration hits me, which is not really that often in the middle of the routine of life.

Over the last year or two, I've become familiar with a psychological/educational philosophy called grit, which emphasizes the value of discipline and motivation in learning and overcoming obstacles. It's an idea that seems to be everywhere, especially buzzing around my university campus work setting. Our writing center staff is trained in infusing grit into sessions--working with writers to set goals for their work and practice positive self-talk, for example. 

Some of the grit stuff is a little hokey to me, but some rings true and is really just common sense. Carol Dweck, one of the key researchers in this area, describes two different mindsets, one that leads to hitting walls in terms of progress and one that leads to growth and success:
In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that.... In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. (from an interview on
[Or if you like visuals, here's a cool diagram from highlighting the differences.]

When I heard this idea the first time, it suddenly clicked that in so many areas, including writing, I have a fixed mindset. Writing is something I have always been good at naturally, and I treat myself as if I'll never get any better than I am now, which means discipline and hard work don't factor in. I go through patterns where I pursue writing until it gets hard, and then I feel hopeless and quit for a while. Unless I have goals, like scheduled workshops in grad school, I don't write if I don't feel like it. And I don't get better at writing if I don't do it.

Recognizing this mindset has given me motivation to practice healthier work habits, set practical goals, and be patient with myself in the slow process of growth. I find that this plays out not just in writing but in exercising, eating well, teaching, taking up artistic activities like graphic design, and even in drawing closer to God (which I find is often closely connected to the writing process).

Pushing through my limited abilities in order to truly grow is hard and pretty ugly at times. It means many days where I feel like I'm regressing. It means letting go of fears that I'll never be "good enough." It means occasionally losing hope when I can't keep up the pace, and having to remind myself that my worth is not found in what I do.

But it's all worth the challenges. It is good to be writing again.