You can hardly pick up a writer’s magazine and not find an article on the importance of developing a consistent schedule for writing. It’s part of the discipline mantra, usually item number one on a list to to-dos or rules. Discipline to a writer represents the ability—or a learned habit to be more accurate—of being reliable to himself; to show up, on time, ready to sit down and write, day after day.
However, you must be careful not to fall into the trap of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called a “foolish consistency,” which he described as “the hobgoblin of small minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency,” he said, “a great soul has simply nothing to do.”
Emerson’s quote comes from his essay “Self-Reliance,” in which he skewered society’s efforts at conformity and what he termed false consistency. Applied to writers, this happens when a suggestion becomes a rule and the rule evolves into being more important than what it originally stood for.
First and foremost, keep in mind that writing can be work, hard work, damn hard work. The joys of writing so frequently written and spoken about come after a project is—finally—completed and arises from the warm and fuzzy feeling of just being finished. Like the pain of childbirth, the discomforts of writing quickly slip away, replaced by the pride of the newborn in swaddling clothes, and, ultimately, a willingness to start another project.
Emerson’s quote is usually a bit truncated. The full quote went on to say, essentially, that to seek consistency for consistency’s sake the great soul might as well “ . . . concern himself with his shadow on the wall.” Instead Emerson suggested, “Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today. – ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ – Is it so bad, then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
This last part of the Emerson quote is more applicable to the thoughts of the transcendental philosopher that he was. A writer on the other hand seeks to avoid misunderstanding through clarity. Emerson was not against that, he just would argue that you not concede to the tried and true—the universally consistent, the hackneyed. To a philosopher, even a misunderstanding gives rise to new topics for discussion.
The first part of the paragraph makes sense to a writer, if you translate “hard words” as synonymous with substantive ones. The second part we will assign to that side of Emerson open to more transcendental exploration. He led the Transcendentalist movement of his time.
A writer should mostly avoid being misunderstood, which is done by striving for unique clarity and not conformity. Writers need to avoid merely watching their shadows on the wall, or more important, the shadows of others on the wall.
Applied, Emerson comments tell us not to be so wed to consistency that we miss the need to endeavor to write something substantively new and better each time. New frequently contradicts the old; in fact, it nearly always does. Perhaps Emerson presents the idea a bit densely, but he does a nice job of describing the process of writing as a day-to-day effort that strives for something substantively new despite being inconsistent with previous thoughts and efforts. It’s simply more important to keep your efforts fluid and active and not to worry so much about aligning them with the previous ones. Consistently attend to the substantive content of your efforts; work consistently (form) but keep your content (substance) fresh. Don’t get so wed to what you did (wrote) yesterday that you miss opportunities to create something new, and presumably better, today.
However, there is an exception to the rule. Sometimes you discover the train you’re on is not moving forward like it should, or it got switched to the wrong track along the way. You can sense this usually. When that happens, the remedy usually is to jump off the train and head back to the station and catch a different one that takes another, new or different, track. It’s during that sometimes-long walk back to the station that you discover why your first choice didn’t work and what needs to be done to get things moving forward again.
Emerson was not just a poet, but led the Transcendentalist movement and was dedicated to making people contemplate. He thought philosophically, which is always fraught with potential for inconsistencies, and in part involves itself with discussing, if not trying to resolve them. That sort of effort should be part of a writer’s resume. In other words, when not writing, take the time to think about writing.
In the spirit of coming up with new labels for old ideas, let’s call what we’re “talking” about here as “substantive consistency,” which incorporates more that just writing shadows on the wall. Substantive consistency demands a schedule for a simple reason—when you step off the train it’s not like stepping off a merry-go-round that you can just hop back onto after a few revolutions in your absence.
Like a train, writing tends to more linear, ever moving forward, and if you linger, your train (of thought) can lose momentum and end up as dead tonnage blocking the tracks, or move on, leaving you mentally behind, trying to figure out where you were going precisely. You are forced to return to the station and start over in order to catch up with yourself, which can be a waste time and effort.
The consistency of sitting down to work is an important writer’s tool because it creates opportunities for meaningful production and synergistic thinking, when the pieces or facets come together to make something collectively more effective then they were sitting there separately.
Let’s step away from the railroad metaphor and into a musical one. Synergy happens there when the musicians get into the groove, like in Ronnie Laws song “In the Groove”:
“When the band is in the groove
When you feel my body move
Wrap your arms around me, hold on tight
I don’t wanna play some game
I’m a moth and you’re the flame
Just wanna be with you tonight.”
Being in the groove is intense. It doesn’t mean you exclude everything everyone else one around you, but you do become focused, attuned, intimately connected to your project. You and your project become synergistic, feeding and feeding off of each other. Synergy occurs when the result is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s that point where two plus two equals six or even more. What happens is the collective facets of the mind play off each other, and develop a new momentum. To the writer it’s being so immersed in a project that when you’re not physically working on it you’re consciously thinking about it; and, when you’re not consciously thinking about it, your subconscious is.
Too often writers, when they hit the slow spot, disembark from the mental train, to wait for some inspiration to sweep then up and back aboard. Ayn Rand, from that side of her that was the novelist, dismissed the idea there was something called inspiration. Rather than some mystic gift generated by from a cosmic alignment of the planets, inspiration—that Oh my! flash of genius or insight that suddenly and unexpectedly surfaces when you’re in the shower—comes from within your subconscious, which has been working on some aspect of some thought or conundrum and finally reaches critical mass and spits it out. That “inspiration” is what substantive consistency feeds. It happens when you are fully and consistently engaged.