Writing Outside One’s Comfort Zone

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Outside the comfort zone is where the best art lies.

We’ve all got a comfort zone, the place where we can function easily, where we know what to expect. It’s a nice place. It’s…well, it’s COMFORTABLE. Hence the name. It would be easy to stay there all the time.

But for writers, I think it’s very important to go outside it on a regular basis. For one thing, your characters are going to be outside their comfort zones, being challenged, tested, thwarted, more often than not, because one thing about comfort zones is that they can be pretty darn boring to read about. Who wants a character for which everything goes right? (This is, I will argue, why the Richie Rich comic books were pretty darn bland.) How can you write a character outside their comfort zone if you don’t know what it’s like?

And outside our comfort zone is where we learn new things, new skills, new things about ourselves. Here in Costa Rica, my Spanish skill is leaping upward in a way it wouldn’t at home, despite all my best resolutions about daily Duolingo workouts or buying books in Spanish from Amazon. And that in turn has prodded me to try some new things with it, like using one of my stories as a practice piece in translation.

This is why, when I talk to students about going into a workshop like Clarion West or Viable Paradise, I urge them to try to fail. Because you learn so much more from a story where you tried something new and failed than one where you did the same thing you always did. I wrote Zeppelin Follies while at Clarion West as my very first try at a screwball comedy, and I will confess that the first draft was a horrible mishmash of stuff. And boy did I learn a lot from that.

Fortunately, for the vast majority of writers, we like new things. New words, new vistas, new thoughts. And we find them outside that comfort zone, in a place that is frightening and exhilarating all at once. Whizzing along a zipline, diving into waters over our head, talking to strangers. If you doubt that you are brave enough to do such things, remember that you do something braver everyday by putting your writing out there for other people to look at.

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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