Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone

by Wendy Lu
published in Writing

When people meet me for the first time, they usually find out within the first ten minutes that I love to write. The question that proceeds right after is, “What do you write?” At that point, I’m stumped. The thing is, I write a little bit of everything – memoir, flash fiction, news articles and feature stories, to name a few. As a writer, I don’t stick to a single genre or style. I never have.

Branching Out

I got my first diary, a red Hello Kitty notebook with a matching lock, when I was about seven years old. My handwriting was horrendous back then, and there wasn’t much to say except perhaps what my mother made for dinner and which games the kids played at recess. But I still wrote nearly every day.

My first fiction story, which I wrote a couple years later, was 60 pages long and followed the bond between a young girl and a horse she saves from animal cruelty. The writing was flat, and the premise was strangely similar (okay, identical) to the story of Felicity Merriman, my favorite American Girl Doll at the time. But I still cried when the story got deleted one day with a single click of the wrong button.

Throughout my childhood, I continued to write short stories and even created a neighborhood newsletter called The Weekly Reader – sounds original, right? – because I wanted to be just like The Pickwick Club from Little Women. It didn’t last long, but here I am, one decade later, a student journalist who writes for campus magazines and the local newspaper.

I’m a journalist who writes news articles on tight deadlines and scribbles poetry in the margins of her reporter’s notebook and submits fiction or memoir shorts to literary magazines. I’ve written horror, contemporary romance and erotica because I like the challenge. The answer to the question, “What do you write?” is, “Whatever I feel like, plus anything I haven’t tried before.” As long as I’m doing some form of literary storytelling, I’m happy.

Fitting In

Some people might say it’s important for writers to specialize in a certain category like young adult, or stick to just one genre like mystery or sci-fi. It becomes your targeted market for future work. Your time can be devoted to this one niche instead of getting wasted on your dabbling in other irrelevant areas. Certainly a novelist can’t be a good lyricist, too!

There is some merit to this rationale: You practice writing humorous pieces and you eventually become the Jim Carrey of literature (oops, wait, that’s John Green). You construct a thousand different ways two or three people can fall in love with each other, and Nicholas Sparks gives you a run for your money. You become not only a knowledgeable expert of the topic, but you become better at writing about it over time.

But this “hyper-specialization” also narrows your choices of what you can write and hinders your ability to discover worlds beyond the one you’re writing in. Every time you start on a new project, it takes a little bit more effort to think of something new that fits with your bailiwick. Beliefs like “I only write chick-lit” or “I’ve never written fantasy in my life, and I don’t think I could start now!” become reinforced. It’s only when you start exploring that you become exposed to possibilities – a potential interest or knack – that you might otherwise not have found.

Quit Boxing Around

Writing outside of your comfort zone doesn’t necessarily mean you have to “think outside the box,” because the rules of a box, or whatever your usual genre or style is, no longer apply. You don’t think outside a box because there is no longer a box – it’s a tunnel, or a cylinder, or a cone. It means you become a more creative and daring writer. Soon, you learn to incorporate several different elements together for a much richer piece of writing. Many of my favorite novels do this: The Lovely Bones, for example, has elements of romance, paranormal, horror and family tragedy all woven in a single beautiful book. When you write outside your comfort zone, you’re no longer categorized as a young adult novelist or a mystery writer. You’re a storyteller.

By experimenting with different styles of writing, you also improve at the craft. If you write poetry, you know how to condense a lot of meaning into a small amount of words. You pick words carefully, because each one counts toward the flow of things. Not just in the symbolism, but in sound. Syllables matter. If you write narratives, you know how to knit sentences together that make sense structurally. If you write a lot of both, you know how to create stories with vivid imagery using the rhythm of words. Essentially, you’re Michael Ondaatje.

Over time, you become multi-talented and capable of working on several different projects. When I first started writing feature articles, I struggled. I’d been trained to write either with a creative mind or with a strict formula for presenting hard news facts, never both skill sets at once. Feature articles are in-depth human-interest stories that focus on people, the things that happen to them and how they’ve changed as a result. By nature, feature articles use creative storytelling to present facts or the subjects’ interpretation of facts. By writing several feature stories, I became a better journalist and a better creative writer. Now, I use the same techniques for memoir writing, which must also rely on colorful human memories to recall true events.

If you’re used to writing within a particular genre, it can be scary to suddenly switch to something new. That’s why it is helpful to stick with familiar territory at the same time if you can. During the last few months, I experimented a lot with poetry. But because I’m used to writing romance, I wrote a lot of love poems. Unlike the awful angst-ridden poetry I wrote in sixth grade, these poems actually turned out, well, pretty. They sounded pretty when I read them out loud, and they resonated with the few people who read them. I call that a success.

Choosing to write outside of your comfort zone is the first step. The next step? Just write whatever comes to mind. That’s usually how the magic happens.

author_photoWendy Lu is the entertainment editor for Blue & White magazine, a former book publishing intern and a NaNoWriMo 2008 winner. She writes a little bit of everything and blogs about creativity and happiness at wendyluwrites.blogspot.com. Her work has appeared in The Daily Tar Heel, The Collegiate Scholar and Chapel Hill Magazine’s The WEEKLY.

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