Recently I was asked to conduct workshops at a new annual writer’s retreat in a Costa Rica resort, right on the beach.
This sounds like an opportunity most writers, or even regular human beings, would jump at without hesitation. But me being me – a hater of both the sun and traveling – my first response was actually “no thanks," prohibited by my own irrational idiosyncrasies.
Not only was this generous and completely unexpected offer a once-in-a-lifetime chance to flex my authorial muscles in an authoritative context, but also I’d be treated to a free “working vacation” in a tropical paradise.
My wife had to talk some sense in me. After initially turning down the gig, I immediately changed my mind and fortunately, the deal was still open.
I will reveal more about the details of this event in due time (it’s scheduled for February 2017), but for the purposes of this particular column, I want to focus on the benefits of breaking your own borders, virtual or otherwise, since they are often barriers to personal and professional growth.
Expeditions Are Not Usually Expeditious
In a previous column I discussed the political strategy of attending literary conventions and vying for awards. Since then I’ve attended and won none whatsoever. But I still think it’s a good idea in terms of networking and self-promotion. That’s why I changed my mind about Costa Rica, to build both my resume and my character, even though it involves a lengthy trip. I figure the destination is worth the journey.
I’ve also recently written about collaboration with other writers as one possible way to literally double your potential and possibly profits. But it’s not for everyone. In general, it’s not for me, but the few exceptions I’ve made were quite worthwhile on many levels, so I’m glad I didn’t restrict myself unnecessarily. My point being: neither should you. Complacency is the enemy of creativity.
As a writer, you need to discover what works for you, and what doesn’t, and in so doing, achieve self-discovery. Maintain loyalty to your own muse, and you can’t really go wrong.
But sometimes you need to listen to another little voice inside you - not the creative one, but the practical one, even if following that internal directive takes you to places far beyond your familiar turf.
In fact, to actually find your ideal comfort zone, you often need to first travel outside of it.
Over two years ago we moved from the Bay Area to Seattle, mainly due to my disdain for the sun, but also to jump-start my stagnant soul. (I also hate moving!). Despite the epic logistics of relocation involved, including selling our beloved condo, it was one of the wisest proactive reactions to ennui I’ve ever made.
Just since moving to (mostly) cool, cloudy Seattle, I've written and published two novels, and am work on a third, proving your writing environment matters.
And my wife Monica, now a graduate student at the University of Washington School of Drama, is happier than ever – because she also decided to trade in complacent comfort for bold adventure in pursuit of her true passions.
For you as a writer, horizon expansion can refer to either physical exploits like attending conventions or teaching workshops in exotic lands, or mental gymnastics, basically giving your brain a work out by exercising parts of it that are underdeveloped.
If you specialize in science fiction, try your hand at a crime story or novel – and vice versa. Even if you never finish or publish it, you will explore and perhaps discover aspects of your abilities you weren’t aware of, or else you will further define yourself as an author that excels in a certain field. Nothing wrong with that. But it's better to know for sure.
There’s no need for you to be a renaissance man or woman, mastering numerous genres and styles. This is something you’d try in private, just as an experiment, to find out exactly what your limitations are – and are not.
This can also be applied to non-fiction. Research a subject that you’ve previously avoided, and jot down some editorial notes, pro or con, or process the information as a neutral reporter, sans any subjective filter. As a freelancer, it’s important to keep an open-mind so you can accept as many assignments as possible, even if they’re not in your field of interest. (Technical writing is where the big bucks are, but that requires both formal education and a strong natural business sense, including a grasp of mind-numbing marketing statistics.)
Of course, you don’t want to stray too far outside your “comfort zone,” to the point where you feel completely lost and worse, totally disinterested in your own project. Consumers don’t take kindly to carpetbaggers, interlopers and dilettantes exploiting a genre strictly for profit – unless of course you can fake enough enthusiasm to fool the discriminating target audience.
Speaking for myself, I can only write something I would enjoy reading myself. I believe that’s a good rule – or strong suggestion - for most writers.
One of the most common pieces of advice is “write what you know.” That may be true. But expanding your knowledge – and your experiences - will naturally give you a lot more to write about.
Even if that means an unplanned trip to Costa Rica.
PHOTO: TRISH HARTMANN