When I was a university freshman, I enrolled in a seminar called International Issues in Arts and Humanities, taught by the charming and otherworldly don Carlos Mentley. The key themes were technology, globalisation, and travel.
We also talked a lot about comfort zones, and why we should free ourselves from them. Being a stubborn, know-it-all freshman, I was fully convinced that I didn’t have a comfort zone. I soon found I did have a comfort zone. Several, in fact.
With don Carlos’ guidance, I learned how to break out of my comfort zones. It’s a lesson I’m still learning today, and one I’d like to share with you.
Comfort Zones in Writing
We writers are all too familiar with the comfort zone. We’re told to “write what we know.” We’re discouraged from using the point of view of other races, genders, and species. We’re instructed to stick with our chosen genre, establish ourselves as genre authors if we want to be successful.
Conversely, writing gurus often encourage us to “step out of” our comfort zones. I don’t like that expression. It implies you should dip your toe into the unknown, and sprint back to your little bubble as soon as you feel overwhelmed.
You shouldn’t step out of your comfort zone. You should stomp on it. Kill it with fire!
How to Kill Your Comfort Zone
Without further ado, here are the goods you came here for.
Identify your comfort zone(s) in life and writing.
Think long and hard about what scares you, makes you uncomfortable. Try to get to the root of it — why does it scare you? What can you do to break out of your shell?
Try to do something outside of your comfort zone every day.
This is a baby-step process. Read something in a genre you don’t like. Walk down the street without putting in headphones. Order a coffee you’ve never tried before. It really is that simple.
Write about a repressed memory or something equally painful.
My current novel-in-progress has made me cry more times than I can count. I’ve faced my sins, dug all my skeletons out of the closet, dusted them off, and shook their hands. The themes are dark, heart-wrenching, but I persevere. Why? Because I know there are people out there who need to read this story. I’m writing it for me, and for them.
In the wise words of “Mama” Maya Angelou, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Write what you don’t know.
Screw the naysayers! Write whatever you want. Explore what you don’t know and write about it — how else will you learn? After all, it’s called “creative license” for a reason.
Dabble in foreign genres.
Second semester of freshman year, I took don Carlos’ advice about comfort zones and enrolled in copyediting and poetry classes, both of which were junior-level. I hated technical and business writing, found it drab, boring. I loved poetry, but I had to be in the mood. I was a terrible poet and an even worse technical writer, but I took the plunge.
I kicked butt in the copyediting class; I got my butt kicked in the poetry class. But the plunge paid off — both classes taught me more about writing than most classes since. My love affair with both genres is still going strong.
Fast forward to second semester of my Master’s programme. I took a scriptwriting class. I’d never so much as laid eyes on a script, but I was determined to carry the torch don Carlos lit four years earlier.
Again, I got my butt handed to me. My Scriptwriting lecturer called my protagonist a self-centred bore, said there was an interesting idea struggling to exist in a lacklustre script. Meanwhile, my Contemporary Fiction lecturer praised my novel-in-progress, said any publisher would be thrilled to accept it.
In short, writing is hard. We won’t be good at every single genre we try, and that’s okay. But we have to try other genres to discover our hidden talents.
Seek out feedback and criticism.
I took Poetry the same semester I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Medication altered my sleep schedule and moods, so much so that I accrued too many absences and risked failing the class.
One morning, after pulling an involuntary all-nighter, I wrote a poem, “Channeling Mother Nature.” It was my turn to workshop that week. Mr. Allen put my poem up on the projector and the class tore it apart. Mr. Allen always endeavoured to be honest when workshopping — and he certainly was honest that day.
I nodded along, noting everyone’s comments. After class, I fought tears. I’d been so proud of it, tried to follow Mr. Allen’s guidance, and failed. That pain and humiliation guided my revision — by the end of the semester, I produced what is still one of my favourite poems. His criticism made me a better poet, and a better writer.
In the four years that followed, I grew a thick skin. You have to, when you’re an English major whose work is criticized regularly. But when you’re a writer by hobby, you’re not exposed to that regular, industrial-strength feedback. You have to seek it out, create your own workshops.
For many writers, showing our work to other people equates to baring our souls. It’s terrifying. Sometimes, it’s humiliating. But it’s necessary if we want to kill our comfort zones and become better writers.
All that said, our comfort zones are natural mental states. We all have one — and some of us have several — but we won’t know what we’re truly capable of until we do something we think we can’t.
Next week, we’ll talk about the comfort zone’s dangerous cousin: self-doubt.
What’s your comfort zone? What steps do you take to break out of it? Let me know in the comments!
Great post, Mel. I’m trying to write what I don’t know (though in a genre I enjoy) – both my main characters come from backgrounds fairly unfamiliar to me, and do things I’ve never done before, but why shouldn’t they? I’m writing a book, not an instruction manual ;).
But I agree with you on reading books in a genre you don’t like – I’m totally not exploring much beyond crime and women’s fiction, to be honest, and I definitely should. You’ve given me a little kick on the butt to dust off that Terry Prachett I have chilling on my bookshelf!
Thanks Gabriela! Glad my post motivated you to do something outside the norm. I’ve been trying to read outside my comfort zone as well. Dabbling in fantasy/sci fi, as well as some postmodern lit.
I’ll never understand why we should “write what we know.” Fiction is supposed to be fun! Our characters are supposed to do things we wouldn’t do, take us places we wouldn’t normally go. That’s the beauty of reading!