Saturday, January 5, 2013

Comfort Zones

 Many successful authors, if asked what their profession is, say writer.  Many writers, asked the same question, will say author.  The former have striven to acquire a toolkit, while paring away useless adornments and attitudes that distance them from their work.  The latter collect mannerisms, affectations, and flourishes which seem to them necessary ornaments.  One of several resident ironies is that while both author and writer seek to expand their reach and stature, the danger persists for each to become more like the other.

The author, wishing to avoid self-repetition and any hint of having become "written out" begins to take on flourishes previously discarded as unworthy.  The writer begins to pare away excesses in language and stage directions as visions of story become simpler, stronger, and more direct.

Although you have a number of friends and clients in the former group, the closest identification you have with them is the fact that you blanch at the suggestion you are yet--if ever--an author. This is no mere modesty laid on with the literary equivalent of a palate knife, this is because you have encouraged and indulged many of the things a writer indulges when he is hopeful of becoming an author.

In so many words, shut up, tell your stories, write your pages, refine them, then rethink them in order to refine them again.  Let someone else call you an author, but try hard not to listen.

Some authors need four or five outings to achieve their status, others seem to get right  at it, having discarded it in early, unpublished drafts.  The "it" in this case is the comfort zone, that remarkable, beguiling place where language, format, technique, and vocabulary become such grand toys that they distract from story to the point where the reader reads for the distractions rather than the story and, oh, woe, the sales figures delivered to the publisher in fact validate the editorial judgments that allowed the distractions to remain.

Comfort zone becomes the place where, filled with the pleasures of the tools, you set forth with deliberation to create a messy distraction, which you are at no pains to clean up.  You feel an impudent sense of freedom, which is valid because often in your exuberance, you are pushing beyond the comfort zone without realizing it, the pleasure and fun coming from the emotional discovery but beguiling you into thinking it is the wit and pacing of the technique.

In some ways, your approach to a short story or a novel has links to being invited on one hand to speak before a group or to partake in a panel discussion, and on the other to the preparations you make being invited to a dinner party.  You store up observations, aphorisms, jokes to tell at the latter.  In the former, you rely on your effects, your ability at, say, metaphor, or some literary equivalent of the magician "finding" a fifty-cent piece behind the ear of someone in the audience.

Writing in the comfort zone often produces witty, market-wise tropes and incidents.  Writing beyond the comfort zone produces the unwelcome arrival of a guest you've discussed in these blog essays, the unthinkable come to pass, come to visit, come to roost, come to drive you beyond your arranged outcome and into a corner where you are reminded of one of the many elephants in the writing living room, the fact that writing is either safe or risky, the fact that you have chosen safe.

A day or two, perhaps longer, perhaps a month, perhaps even a year in which you live at that state of un-ease is enough to remind you that this is serious business, painful business, painful if you wish to pull heart-rending solutions or no solutions at all from the confrontations you develop.  The matter becomes fun again when you have gone "in" to fix it, to solve it as best you can.  The matter becomes fun again when you have written it but not while you are struggling with it.

The accomplished actor, discovering her character is drunk in a particular scene, approaches that drunkenness as a drunk trying to appear sober, her speech and movements more deliberate as opposed to sprawling all over the set.  The audience sees this and gets the message

A writer attempting authorship betrays the same deliberation  as the drunk actress character--and gets the message.

You cannot fake authorship by exaggeration.  You cannot tell the reader you are an author because doing so will sound like an exaggeration.  If a reader were to call you an author, your response might be similar to being told by a friend that a wasp or scorpion has landed on your jacket.

You need that Buddhist's way of piling consequences on your character so that you feel the character's tension and rawness and exposure to risk, which you will process for the answers (if there are more than one) and the vocabulary with which to set them, alive and wriggling across the jackets of your characters.  Furthermore, you need to be able to do this as a matter of course, making matters as difficult and gritty for your characters and you as possible.  If you do not, you are the amateur actor pretending to be drunk by weaving all over the set.

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