I realized last week that the idea of discipline – rigorous schedules, consistency, accountability (at least that’s how I define it) – felt incongruous with being an artist. It felt especially incongruous with being an actor.

I wrote about my schedule a couple of weeks ago in one of the posts that I did for The Positivity Project (my personal blog). I said I was feeling drained – which I was. But then I’d take a day off and I’d feel even worse. I decided that this ‘drained’ feeling was connected to my fear that this discipline was making me rigid. Artists (specifically actors) are meant to be loose, free, uninhibited. Can you be all of these things while still being disciplined?

Made of StoneI looked up ‘artist’ in Google.

The definitions weren’t really the poetry that I was hoping for.

“A person who practices any of the various creative arts, such as a sculptor, novelist, poet, or filmmaker.”

Too bland a definition, and yet a word stuck out to me: practice. I’d expected something different. I’d expected words like natural, bum, slob, lazy, alcoholic.

I thought I’d check out Urban Dictionary. I was certain that I’d find the definition I’d predetermined would be there. This is what I found instead:

“An incredibly talented person who dedicates time and hard work to creating a beautiful work of art, be it a sculpture, music, literature, or a painting. This person has dedicated years of work to mastering his craft, and deserve as much credit as any other professional in a field. They generally have a higher level of creativity and imagination.”

Paradigms were shifting, but I was stubborn. I KNEW that if I looked hard enough, I’d find the definition that I was expecting. I started scrolling down through the list on Urban Dictionary. FINALLY they started popping up:

“Hipster definition of a bum. Usually drop outs or community college specials around the age of 19-20.”

“Someone that isn’t really good at anything, but just calls themselves an ‘artist’ because it’s all they really have.”

I tried to fix the grammar on both of these last definitions… but the first one was just poorly worded.

As I fixed their grammar I realized that I didn’t accept these definitions.

I wanted, instead, to know who wrote them. Their definitions were pretty judgemental. I even thought I hinted feeling of anger, jealousy and… fear? Why did they feel that way about artists? Why had I felt that way about artists?

I suddenly remembered a passage that I had recently read in the book Mindset by Carol Dweck:

“Malcolm Gladwell, the author and New Yorker writer, has suggested that as a society we value natural, effortless accomplishment over achievement through effort. We endow our heroes with superhuman abilities that led them inevitably toward their greatness.”

Right! I’ve recognized this tendency in myself. Sometimes, after seeing a masterfully put together live show (I don’t get this same experience when watching a movie), I’d experience an intense feeling of inadequacy. Fear that I’d never be good enough to perform at their level. I don’t feel like that when watching films because they feel so separate. In the theatre, you can’t other yourself so easily. As you listen to their resonant voices and watch as their bodies move through space, you have two choices: you can refer to their abilities as superhuman – they were blessed/are simply talented – or you can acknowledge that they got to where they are with consistent effort. With discipline. That’s scary, because with that acknowledgement you’re also recognizing that, if you put in the work, you could actually get to their level.


there’s also something sort of magical about being an artist isn’t there? I’ve always felt that. I’ve even searched for it. At the height of creativity, it just feels effortless.

I recently read this other passage from The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler (the funny thing about the inclusion of this passage, is I wasn’t looking for this passage. I was looking for another one that actually supported my argument. This passage made me rethink my stance. This reflection takes a turn after this point):

“What’s painfully ironic is that flow [being in the zone] is a radical and alternative path to mastery only because we have decided that play – an activity fundamental to survival, tied to the greatest neurochemical rewards the brain can produce, and flat out necessary for achieving peak performance, creative brilliance, and overall life satisfaction – is a waste of time for adults. If we are hunting the highest versions of ourselves, then we need to turn work into play and not the other way around.”

Hear that sound?

That’s the sound of paradigms being built and simultaneously – and frustratingly – broken as I write this reflection.

I went to a party this weekend. Some unexpected things happened which lead to a weekend where I didn’t follow the rules. I let go of my disciplined schedule for a few days, but I wasn’t any less happy. I was a different type of happy.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work,” said Thomas A. Edison. But do you really need to work as hard as the protagonist in the film Whiplash to call yourself an artist? Is it okay to experience joy as you work toward mastery. “You’ve got to know your shit and then let it go,” said Matthew McConaguey in a story he told for the actor’s roundtable. He’s an actor who certainly seems like he knows how to play.

So what’s the conclusion?

It seems to me that there’s a delicate balance between all of this, but I’m still trying to figure it out. I know that it takes work — discipline — to become skilled at anything. This definitely includes being an artist, but there’s something else I think I’m still missing.

Maybe it’s true that I was feeling drained last week because of fear… but maybe I was also feeling drained because I was forgetting the play part – the fun part.

Maybe finding the courage to risk through play is just as important.

Maybe a life spent merely being disciplined isn’t really worth the effort. If the end goal is freedom and play, maybe it’s possible to do it all at the same time while still moving forward.

Disciplined Artist

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Christine: Is it Possible to Be a Disciplined Artist, or Is That a Contradiction? (This reflection took a strange turn)
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Christine Bissonnette

I'm a spoken word artist and writer originally from Nova Scotia. In addition to my own private writing practice, I also works with adults and teens by facilitating the writing of their own spoken word poetry. Topics which fire me up are voice, perfectionism, and those parts of growth that don't follow a list. You can learn more about me at 9creativelives.com

2 thoughts on “Christine: Is it Possible to Be a Disciplined Artist, or Is That a Contradiction? (This reflection took a strange turn)

  • Pingback:Creative Life - An Online Artist Mastermind that Explores Discipline, the Creative Process, and Fear - The Positivity Project

  • goldieis@gmail.com'
    December 10, 2014 at 12:44 am


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