May 042019

I started to make movies out of spite. I had a number of exciting conversations around adapting my first novel that came to naught, and was left with an unsatisfied feeling. This idea of making a movie had been awakened in me, and then abruptly shut down. I’d never really seriously considered it before, but now the idea was a grain of sand in my brainfolds.

In 2000 or so, my friend, Terry, loaned me his MiniDV camera and I went about figuring out how to make a little short film. My main concern with making movies had been the economics — that to even experiment with the medium, you had to spend money on film stock. Without that barrier, I was free to pursue this new goal independently. And I’ve pursued it methodically over almost two decades now.

For me, it’s harder to stop something I’ve set my mind to than to keep rolling with it. It has its own momentum, bolstered by pride and habit. I’m a compulsive finisher, even in some cases where projects would have been best left unfinished. People attribute this to my self-discipline and often wish they had it. But it’s not a binary, and it’s not the solution for all problems.

In the same way that the idea of “laziness” is associated with moral weakness, self-discipline is associated with moral strength. The judgement associated with both is unhelpful. These days (inspired by the writing of Robert Bly) I like to think about things being harder or softer rather than stronger or weaker. Free of the judgement you can see that the hardness of self-discipline and the softness of laziness are both beneficial in certain circumstances.

Once you start to believe that strength is always the answer, you harden yourself to the people around you. In my teens, my mother started smoking again after having quit for two years. I refused to talk to her for two weeks. It was terrible for her, and terrible for me, and it wasn’t until I broke down — softened, really — that she decided to quit again. Hardness was not beneficial there.

I also see myself habitually going to a hard place when commitments to me have been breached. Becoming the rule-enforcer and authority figure when I could be softly probing for the underlying reasons as to why things have gone awry. The part of me that comes out in extremity here still believes that softness is weakness. I’m fearful of being taking advantage of, and it manifests as outrage.

We live in a society that privileges hardness, so I usually benefit from these tendencies and habits. But I can see times where being independent has isolated me. People assume that I don’t need help or would reject it. This has led me to a place where I am spending time reaching out and inviting people to be involved in my projects, collaborators to direct movies or agents to sell my books. This requires much more self-discipline than actually creating work.

When I’m creating work, I’m in my happy place. Many creators have fraught relationships with creation: writer’s block, hypercriticality, etc. I’m daydreaming onto the page, riffing, dancing. It’s joyful. So when I block out time to do this, I’m not forcing anything — I’m giving myself permission. I get to my designated word count and call it a day, satisfied.

When I’m looking around for help to get it out into the world, I am not joyful. I’m irritable. When I have to package my creative work into a standard format to make it palatable to a business partner like a publisher or agent, it feels like I’m demeaning it — it’s original, not standard! It’s the feeling of going somewhere cap-in-hand — it’s the feeling of being weak and needy.

So tasks that bring up unpleasant feelings require more self-discipline, require you to draw on your limited reserves of willpower. As someone who is secure in my self-discipline, I actually try not to draw on willpower reserves too heavily — I don’t feel like I have anything to prove in that way. I save my willpower for when I really need it and use mental tools most of the time.

How I have solved my business partner problem recently (and I wish I had started this earlier) is by keeping a list that I write down potential business partners as I encounter them organically over time. Then instead of googling around randomly, feeling predatory or needy, I can just start working my way down the list. This transforms something that was a bottomless task (getting help for a new project) into something quantifiable and finishable.

Another tool: I spend time finding external deadlines to anchor my goals. I find other people’s deadlines are a great immobile object to stack a schedule against. It would be possible for me to choose an arbitrary date to make progress on a project, the way it would be possible to get something up a stair with brute strength. But why not use a tool like a ramp? It’s not cheating. It’s not weak.

And recognizing your limitations is incredibly powerful. When I was in high school my terrible memory necessitated that I write things down when friends kept everything in their heads — they would roll their eyes at my endless “lists”. This weakness of memory meant I adopted a tool early and got good at it and expanded the scale of projects I could achieve, far past my peers.

But I think you have to learn and relearn the benefit of tools. I write down everything — creative ideas, tasks, goals — but it’s taken me a long time to use this tool in relation to my potential business partners, and to methodically look for help. Choosing projects is another place I have felt has to be spontaneous — like if it doesn’t come from a place entirely of passion then it’s somehow compromised.

I now try to think about choosing projects consciously, because of the experience I’ve had: I’ve promoted projects where I had to push them every inch of the way, burning willpower like crazy, and ones where a small push was enough to send it merrily on its way. I’ve yet to get to a point where I am purely analytical about it, but I’m conscious of the effort-to-impact ratio. I’m trying to focus on bringing seeds of ideas to seedlings, rather than committing to growing another full tree for my forest.

I have to remind myself that just because something is difficult to do and allows me to flex my self-discipline muscle, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to do. And looking for ways to make things easier on myself is a worthy endeavour.


Further reading: “Laziness Doesn’t Exist” is a great essay by Devon Price. I also talk a lot about mental tools in my edu-comic Time Management for Anarchists.

You might like to listen to The Joy of Being Wrong, a podcast where I chat with other artists in the middle of their career. The second episode is with Scott Waters, a frequent collaborator and friend and very talented illustrator and painter. We talk about self-discipline in relation to art and his time in the military.

Illustration: Scott Waters
Feedback from: Bruce Sudds, Bryan DePuy, Johnny Kalangis.

This is a part of the Fallow Year Essays, reflective pieces on art and cultural production I’m writing now that I’m 20 years deep into my practice. Previous articles are about productivity and money.

If you’d like to see me continue to make stuff for another twenty years, you can encourage me by signing up for my mailing list:

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