Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Some Notes on Story, Bullfighting, and Comfort Zones

Let us begin with the extreme example of a bull raised in a heritage of fighting bulls, bred for a special day in the bull ring.  Such an animal has been raised in a pampered life.  Until his big day in the bull ring, he has never seen a human who was not mounted on a horse.  

As the fighting bull acclimates to the arena in which his life will play out to a conclusion, he sees a sight spared him for most of his life, men on foot, posturing, presenting themselves as a target.

Among his other traits, the bull has been bred to have sharp reflexes, to find it irresistible to charge at anything that moves.  Within the next half hour or so, the bull will encounter a good deal of frustration, lunging at men waving capes that seem to cause him to turn in arcs shorter than his body length.  On occasion, he is able to make contact with a horse, but even then, there is the distraction of him receiving sharp jabs of a lance in his shoulder muscles.  His immediate future is filled with urges orchestrated by hard wired reflexes and the desire to make contact with something tangible.

Small wonder than that this fighting animal, frustrated, wounded, undoubtedly running on adrenaline, will pick places within the arena area of the bull ring where he will feel safe.  Safer than when he is in other areas.  These comfort zones are called querencias.  

The shrewder bullfighters know the importance of trying to draw the bull out of his comfort zone, where he will be more manageable.  To add extra weight to this particular use of fighting bull as metaphor, some matadors will take the more risky measure of trespass in the bull's comfort area to maneuver with the bull therein.

Comfort zones exist as metaphor and literal entity for persons and for characters.  To extend the bullfighting metaphor, sometimes authors become the equivalent of a matador, maneuvering and frustrating characters within a story, luring them away from their comfort zones, forcing them to face the point where they must do something well beyond their stated boundary:  killing, betraying, maiming, in one way or another seducing or undermining.

To the lifelong reader, such behavior is an accepted aspect of storytelling to the point where many of us consider a character who has stepped out of her or his comfort zone to have been put into the crucible of existential anguish, with the flame turned to high.  If the character survives this trial, she or he emerges forever changed, forged, as it were, into something harder and at the same time more resilient, better able to withstand the same frustrations and ritual wounding that will lead the fighting bull to his death.

So much for the bull and characters and their dramatic relationships to the comfort zone; the most significant participant of all in this drama is the writer, who has psychological reasons for seeking the author's querencia, but overriding dramatic reasons for avoiding it.

A major risk for the writer who remains finds and remains in a comfort zone is the outcome of safety.  This outcome extends to the choice and depiction of characters, the needs they acknowledge, and the degree to which they are willing to take risk.  The outcome also increases the chances of the writer drawing on the same solutions for newer problems as those assigned to prior ones.  

A writer in a comfort zone becomes a guarantee of a writer with a higher center of gravity and a more predictable horizon. The main risk for such a writer is the risk of becoming derivative, not of another writer, which is serious enough, but of him or herself.

In the simplest of terms, the writer who is able to forgo comfort, able to find satisfaction if not pleasure in trespassing beyond the boundaries of comfort, is the writer who will return from the venture with some sense of having been somewhere worth the trip.

One of the two or three basic templates for story is the hero's journey, the man, woman, or child who sets off on a journey not merely to get away from the confines of a place but to reach the outskirts of a more welcoming and meaningful place, then to bring news of that place back to friends and family.

As one of your cherished mentors reminded you, writers are like Mars probes, sent out into the unfathomable beyond in order to report back with photos, samples, and reports.  In its way, the journey of exploration within is every bit as fraught with risk as the  journey beyond our own planet, through the wrinkles and warps of time, space, and causality.

The writer who writes beyond understanding, hopeful of discovery, is the Mars Explorer equivalent. With each venture, we gather in eager anticipation for the result.

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