Creative oscillations (on discipline vs. play)

Irina Dumitrescu recently wrote a fascinating piece making the case against discipline, in favor of play. She asks, “What if, what if, what if it’s not just some vague nameless Resistance that keeps us from doing what feels right, but the very fact that we’ve attached discipline to those activities?” 

Her question definitely resonates, and she concludes, “More and more, I think the only good answer to Resistance is play.” 

I definitely don’t disagree; the person who’s forced to do something will never be as good as—or have as much fun as—the person who has fun doing it. 

Play certainly is a great suggestion. I’ve never had more fun writing than I do now, and that’s because I started playing again every day here at this blog. I let my inner idiot go wild. I let what interests me guide my writing, which often leads to 1,000+ words flowing out of me with very little effort.

“Without play, only Shit Happens. With play, Serendipity Happens,” wrote David Weinberger in The Cluetrain Manifesto

“Work which remains permeated with the play attitude is art,” wrote philosopher John Dewey. 

Of course, I do this with the understanding that this form of play is, at best, an organized hobby. nothing can ever fully only involve play. Making good work takes practice. Practice takes at least a certain amount—even the smallest amount—of discipline. Approaching your work as a craftsperson does takes practice, devotion, and commitment

That’s why writing off discipline, entirely, is a risky endeavor. There will inevitably come times when the going gets tough. It might be a personal problem that affects how we feel, and exacerbates our inclination to procrastinate. It might be a professional problem that feels like a creative block, which makes the fun task less fun. If we were playing, we’d just move on to something else or quit. We’d just watch TV. 

Susan Sontag once wrote every writer is four people:

  1. The nut, the obsédé
  2. The moron
  3. The stylist
  4. The critic

Similarly, professor Betty Flowers said the same thing, with slightly different roles:

  1. Madman
  2. Architect
  3. Carpenter
  4. Judge

The stylist, the critic, the architect, the carpenter, the judge, all need discipline in order to do their jobs; to refine and sharpen work, to make sure it meets a standard of quality and thought to be useful, original, and surprising to other people. 

Only the nut, moron, and madman get to play. Where play comes in is basically to introduce fun back into the mind again. To feed our inner child. To make sure the structure doesn’t take over and starve our work of vitality.

Moreover, in creative work, I’ve tended to notice a duality in many aspects:

  • Play vs. discipline
  • Doing vs. thinking
  • Spontaneity vs. structure

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche writes in The Birth of Tragedy of a similar blend of halves to achieve balance: the Dionysian extremes of emotion, instinct, and spontaneity, and the Apollonian rationality, order, and reason.

Obsession is another good example of this; great creative work emerges from an obsession with details and quality. Yet if you don’t learn to let go of your obsession at some point, you’ll never bring your vision outside of your head.

The key here is to oscillate, and possibly to unify; to stretch the spirit and mind to embody both extremes. I’ve previously written, “Treat productivity advice like settings that you can dial. Your setting should keep up with your changing situations. This mental framework enables you to adjust the settings. Sure, there will be productivity enthusiasts, just like there are tool enthusiasts; but for the rest of us, we just need productivity advice to enable the rest of our lives, not to continuously do more, or to make a shiny productivity system.”

The same goes to creative work; it’s best to move through creativity with oscillations. Know when to be spontaneous and play, and when to plod onwards with discipline. Know when to bias for action, and when to step back and learn. 

Work is work. It can be fun. 

Hobbies are fun. It also takes work.

I’ve also written about how to apply oscillations to your career.

2 responses to “Creative oscillations (on discipline vs. play)”

  1. Herbert, I really enjoyed this, and am grateful for the thoughtful response to my piece. I like the point about oscillation. And of course it’s not about writing off discipline entirely, but about pushing back on a cultural value that I think is questioned too little these days.

    But what I really wanted to write was that your post made me think of a distinction I think may be important. Let’s take long-term writing projects for example. Sometimes they just drag, or they’re not the most exciting thing, or it’s hard to see the end point. In those moments, putting one’s butt in the chair is just what’s necessary.

    But sometimes there’s a block. And unlike some people, I do think there is such a thing as writer’s block. I’ve tried to apply discipline to a writer’s block — it doesn’t work. Yes, it’s possibly to produce a lot of terrible prose, but it can be so bad that it’s not even worth having written it.

    Right now I think blocks are due to not knowing something about the project. Maybe there’s a question to be thought through. Maybe there’s something still too difficult or too personal to articulate. And in those situations, the right thing to do — IMO — is to move *away* from the desk and to try just about anything else that will maintain contact with the project but relax the demand to produce. So: long walks, showers, brainstorming, meditation, creative writing prompts, writing in another genre altogether, talking to people, doing easier related projects, handiwork, morning pages, you name it. These might not all seem like “play,” but I do think an exaggerated focus on discipline can obscure these.

    Of course the experienced writer knows they, too, are the work.

    • Hi Irina, thanks for swinging by and commenting, I really appreciate it! To your point, I started writing every day at this blog to sustain motivation for when I was editing a book—a relatively long-term project for me.

      That’s a really great point on “playing” through a block, and everything you mention sounds very fruitful. This method involves working “around” the block, rather than “through” it (which is very disciplined). I can’t tell you how many happy accidents emerge from keeping an open mind, occasionally letting go of control and discipline, and allowing an illuminating idea to unfold.

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