Discomfort zones

Saturday June 26, 2010 @ 09:57 PM (UTC)

Last night I finished a story which I started writing in March. I’m not the most linear person in the world, and I often let stories in progress lie fallow while I work on something else. But in theory this story has been my main compositional task all this time. In theory, I was going to turn it in to my critique group for comments in April, and May, and June.

Now sure, it ended up longer than I’d thought, and I had some structural doubts in the middle that had to be solved with six colors of whiteboard marker and some diagrams, but all that happened after I really got into writing it. It took me months just to feel sure of the person, tone and voice; to stop writing beginnings and scratching them out; to get beyond the second scene.

I’m pretty sure I know what was going on here. This story was way out of my comfort zones. For one thing, it was set in an uncomfortable time period: what you might call the middle future. The next few decades? Fairly easy to write. Turn the tech we have now to eleven, add a few things currently in R&D, a startling new discovery if you need it for the plot. You extrapolate the current social trends and cultural trappings. Far future? You just go hog-wild. The middle future — say, a century from now — is pesky. You can barely start to extrapolate how we’ll get there from here, and yet you can’t exactly press “up and out” on the space elevator of your mind.

Folks who don’t write science fiction are unlikely to come against the time frame problem. Writers of historical fiction may, though: there’s that desire to set a story in a period and the feeling that you just don’t know it well enough yet. It’s easy to spend months researching just to get confident enough to write. For fantasy, the need to map out a new and alien second world and its history before setting pen to paper might be similar.

One comfort problem I think any fictionist might encounter was the other main obstacle for this story: distance from the character. My protagonist is an athlete. I, anyone who knows me well may attest, am only an athlete if you adhere to marketing feel-good messages about everyone being one. (If everyone’s an athlete, no one is?) It was kind of a ridiculous thing to get hung up on, since I’ve written moms, monsters and teenage boys, but still, I felt intimidated by the distance between her experience and my own. Thank goodness I chose a sport for her that I actually love, or I might still be trying to write that third scene and failing.

I’m not sure how well this story turned out, yet. If the proof is in the pudding, stories take a while to get to pudding stage. But I can be pretty sure that working through this and pushing past my comfort zones is a good thing. For one thing, I feel a stronger sense of accomplishment than I would if it had been easy. (Isn’t that part of why I’m a writer in the first place? Because it’s deliciously hard?) For another, it may be good for me, my stories and my skills. Ron Carlson, a versatile short story writer, told Quick Fiction, “I also think that if you write stories for years, you do develop or sense a rhythm, and when I sensed that my stories were all rounding the corner at about four thousand words, I changed that rhythm.”

Is comfort the enemy of art? Does changing things around keep you fruitfully off-balance? (My oboe teacher went to a master class for all sorts of instrumentalists once where they stood on a little platform which they had to balance as they played. In each case, the musician’s performance improved.) It may be a good thing to do the same thing Ron’s discussing with genre (or subgenre), type of protagonist, first versus third person, anything else that becomes too easy. Maybe discomfort is good for us as writers, working out different muscles, finding new things to say and convincing ourselves we can accomplish unfamiliar tasks. The first part of being a writer, after all, is having the confidence to speak.

Get out there and be uncomfortable! From this side of the experience, it feels pretty good.


Okay, yeah, it was a typo, “narvelous,” when what I meant was “marvelous,” but then I thought: Narvelous ought to be a word being wonderful and nervy at the same time. Nervy in a good way—showing nerves of steel. And that’s pretty much what I think of what you write, Felicity. It’s all bloody narvelous!

I always learn something and you make me feel better about writing because what you write makes sense to me and I wish I’d thought of it first.

I believe not only in pushing out of our comfort zones in what you write, but what we read, as well. So many writers say “I don’t read poetry, it’ll corrupt my voice” or “I don’t read genre fiction” or “I don’t read blank kind of blank” but the truth is, there is something to be learned from all kinds of writing.

I love your word! It makes me think of narwhals, so you know it’s good! Thank you for your kind words. It’s good to have friends’ good opinion of your courage to live up to! (Since revising this one is going to be a challenge, too.)

I’m also glad to know my natterings about writing are resonating with somebody. I always feel a little self-conscious blogging about craft and process.

YES! Excellent point, J9.

I’ve been trying to expand my horizons in terms of country of origin, too.

Am I understanding you aright that poets say they don’t read poetry for fear of corrupting their voice?

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