Don’t Get Comfortable

Our Lady of 47 Ursae Majoris The problem with being comfortable is…well, the “comfort” part. As human beings, we like our comforts. Very smart people spend a lot of time trying to figure out new ways of making people comfortable, and there’s a reason for that. Kick up the recliner with a beer and a bag of nachos, watch the game, what could be better? So far as comfort goes, not a lot. Just everything else. Comfort is the killer.

You say that like it’s a bad thing.

For writers, painters, musicians, artists of all sorts? Not just a bad thing, but possibly the absolute worst thing you can do is to get too comfortable. Not physically—we’re not talking “starving in garrets” here–but in every other way that matters to your work. And it is way too easy to get comfortable, because as you progress in your work, whatever it is, you will eventually discover your strengths. We all have them. On a process level, you may find that you have a gift for tight, vivid descriptions, or catchy dialogue. So much so that you find yourself fighting the urge to make your stories all description or all dialogue, and that’s a good thing. You’re going to know instinctively that overemphasis on one or the other is a bad idea structurally and esthetically. Yet there’s a level to this where instinct doesn’t serve quite as well.

Once you get out of process, there are more things to be good at. Yes, I know, that’s not a bad thing…until it is. Say you have a gift for painting landscapes. Comes easily, almost naturally. You’d be quite happy painting landscapes for the rest of your life. Or writing space opera. Say you’re really good at writing space opera, you have a devoted readership who will devour whatever you write on the subject. Even if the tenth book feels a lot to you like the first three. Are you writing the same story over and over? Maybe not, you work at keeping it fresh, for yourself if for no other reason. Or maybe what you’re really good at is writing one sort of space opera. Maybe your readers won’t notice. Chances are they will, eventually, but chances also are that you’ll burn out long before they do.

Playing to your strengths can be a trap. If you want to avoid it, every now and then you have to get out of your comfort zone. This can be easy or extremely difficult, but what matters is that you do it. I’m mostly a fantasist. That’s where I’m comfortable, and I don’t plan to leave. But every now and then I have to do a pure quill science fiction story. Partly because the story was there to write, but also to stretch the writerly muscles that don’t get enough exercise. I’ve done comic scripts for the same reason. Or to talk about an extreme example, for our last anniversary I wrote and performed an original song for my wife. Music and lyrics both. I’d never written a song lyric in my life, and I’d certainly never attempted music. As for the result, let’s just say the critics were being kind. I may not do it again. But I might.

Or as one of my guitar mentors put it—“Don’t practice what you can do. Practice what you can’t do.”

And, now and again, surprise the hell out of yourself. It’s good for you.