When Writer's Revenge Backfires

It's our privilege to put our personal enemies in our novels, and get their flaws down on paper. But sometimes it backfires on us. And not in the way you'd expect. | lucyflint.com

When I was in college, there was a girl that I, um, didn't get along with.

We were thrown together a lot, and she made me crazy. Almost literally.

She had a constantly demoralizing effect on me, reducing me from a happy-enough, confident-enough student into this ... mess. 

(One day I saw her coming down the hall of the science building. Before she could see me, I ducked into a nearby bathroom, and as I waited for the coast to clear, I watched in the mirror as my face broke into hives. I don't think anyone else has had that kind of effect on me.)

So, fast forward two years, when I wrote my first novel. And needed to put a minor antagonist in. Her personality suggested itself instantly.

AHA, I thought. Finally. All that suffering can have a purpose! 

I can put every character trait of hers right into my novel. She'd be the perfect disruption of the plot, the perfect wrench in my protagonist's plans.

And THEN, I can give my protagonist all the things I should have said. I can let her do all the things I should have done while this girl made my life a living hell.

Writer's revenge. We all know about this, right?

If life hands you a jerk, you get to use them in a book. That's the deal.

And that's what I set out to do.

I got her physical appearance down to a tee. All her worst character flaws (which was all of them, frankly, because I couldn't see a single redeemable thing about her in real life): there on paper. Marching through scenes. Mucking up my protagonist's life.

And then--I got into trouble. A lot of trouble.

And it's probably not what you think.

See, I believe in good books. Good stories. And that means stories with three-dimensional characters.

I don't buy characters that are pure evil, pure good, all terrible, all wonderful. I try not to write them, and I don't care to read about them either.

Which meant that I had to explore this antagonist's personality. This girl that I skewered so wonderfully with my words: I had to balance out her character.

This is not something I wanted to do, but the book demanded it. The story needed her to live and breathe as a real, rounded character.

As I considered ways to make her character more dynamic, I had to graft in slightly less-horrendous character traits. I gave her a really decent line or two. I made her take a stand against a worse character. I gave her just the slightest bit of redemption at the end.

It was hard work. It forced me to scrape the depths of my writerly generosity. 

And that's when it all happened, when it totally backfired, when it blew up in my face:

It made me reconsider the girl herself. The girl I hated so much.

I still shiver when I think of her, honestly. I still think she was pretty messed up, and if you put me in the same room with her, you'd see me claw my way through an air duct to get out.

But. Thanks to the work I did with her in my novel, I can now imagine that there's more to her real story. There were probably some terrible forces in her life that made her the way she was. I'm guessing some pretty ugly crap must have happened to her. 

I'm even willing to believe--just barely willing, but willing nonetheless--that there is something redeemable in her. That somewhere in her scabby soul, she has done something good. That she isn't pure awful.

I might even be mustering up a wisp of forgiveness or two. I might be letting it go, all of it, all the infuriating moments, all the insanity.

Writer's revenge. Approach it carefully.

It just might change your heart a bit.

Bring the Awesome into Your Novel with These Resources

If you're writing a novel and you want it to be amazing: these are the three books you need to get your hands on. | lucyflint.com

If you're writing a novel, and if you're committed to making it the best darn story you possibly can: these are the three books you need.

These three books will put the AMAZING into your novel. | lucyflint.com

The Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook is simply the best resource I could possibly give you. Period.

... Although, if I'm handing out recommendations, then in the very same breath, I've got to say: Get the companion book (Writing the Breakout Novel) and also The Fire in Fiction (which also has exercises that are SUPER helpful: it builds on the other two books, without unnecessary overlapping). 

If you're like me, it's easy to read a brilliant book about the craft of writing. If you're like me, it's easy to nod and underline and feel very wise.

And then it's hard as heck to apply what you've learned. Yes? Turning theory into sentences and paragraphs... I tend to feel really inspired--and then I give up. 

Well, the concepts in Writing the Breakout Novel will convince you that this is exactly what your novel needs. I mean: it's written by Donald Maass, a massively experienced literary agent. And he's pulling apart the elements that make the great novels work. 

He knows what he's talking about. And as you read it, you'll find yourself nodding, yes, yes, yes, this is exactly what I love to read too, this is what I love in a story, this is what my novel needs--

And then the Workbook comes along, spelling out everything in very practical terms, and then stepping you through the application of each one. He tells you how to make your characters unforgettable, how to make your plot layered and complex, how to give your writing that resonance that readers love. 

He breaks it down to the smallest components, and then leaves space for you to jot down how to make it work in your story. (Your brain will explode. Mine still does, every time I go through it.)

The Fire in Fiction follows it up, with more transformative exercises, and more elements of the most powerful fiction: how to shape scenes so that each one moves the story forward in a powerful way; how to make the extraordinary plot twists feel realistic; how to get tension into every page of your book so that no one can put it down.

Deepen your novel with The Fire in Fiction. | lucyflint.com

But for all that, none of this feels gimmicky to me. They aren't silly tricks. He's teaching the elements of unforgettable fiction. The craft of it.

Nothing has transformed my stories like these books.

No other resource has helped me feel this confident about what I'm writing.

If you were interested by the idea of a master class but you weren't sure where to go with it, then let me humbly suggest: This workbook plus you plus your novel. For a year.

I'm dead serious. 

It's far cheaper than taking a class. And I'm pretty sure it will have an equal--or greater!!--effect on your work.

You won't be sorry.

A Survival Guide to Life Outside the Comfort Zone: Part Two

Still pushing into the unfamiliar? Four more strategies for life outside the comfort zone. | lucyflint.com

Two weeks ago, we started this discussion about stretching beyond where we're comfortable. If you missed that post, check it out for four more tips.

How are you doing, traveler? How's it going, stretching into new skills, facing your own awkwardness? 

I don't know about you, but my comfort zone is fairly small--it's a dwelling place, after all, not a county, not a continent.

When I leave it behind, the world is wide. 

And the survival guide should probably be a bit longer. 

So, if you too are exploring the world beyond familiarity, here are a few more tips for us all to keep in mind:

FIVE: Start small.

If you take off running, just barreling out of your comfort zone into the land beyond, you might get pretty far. You really might. And maybe you're the kind of person that would do just fine out there.

For me, I need to take it at a steady calm walk. Or possibly a crawl. Sometimes I just inch forward.

I've learned that I need new ideas to marinate in my brain a little. If you just pull the rug out from under how I do things, I usually end up screeching. And not really growing.

But if I have a little time, I can warm up a bit. I have a better shot at making it stick. I take it bit by bit.

So when I'm facing the great unknown, I take a deep breath, look down at my toes, and just take a teeny step. 

It's still progress. It's still forward. And I'm warming up the skills I'll need later--when I start to jog, when I begin to run.

SIX: Nurture your curiosity.

Curiosity is there to make bridges. Curious is what gets us to the other side of a question. And it's one of our best weapons when it comes to facing the unfamiliar or the uncomfortable.

But what if you don't feel curious about, say, learning a new strategy for outlining your novel? What if you don't feel curious about writing a memoir, or about posting flash fiction on your blog?

You might have to wheedle a bit. Just like you might encourage a child who very stubbornly and very certainly does not want to do something (sit on the potty chair, go to the classroom, get into the car, get out of the car).

Have you done this? Listen to the things you say: Hey, what's that over in the corner? It looks interesting, it looks fun, let's go check it out. I bet your doll would like to go over there and play. Let's go see. Let's see what it's like.

Take that same tone--patient, focusing on possibilities--with yourself. 

Start prodding different parts of the project. Start saying, Hey, what's that? A new technique? It looks interesting. It looks fun. 

And as the rest of you protests--lower lip out, I don't wanna!!!--insist on becoming curious.

Curious about how the new outlining strategy might look on your story--about the possibilities it might uncover. Curious about how a memoir might reframe your perspective on your present. Curious about flash fiction as a form, even if posting it terrifies you.

Tell yourself, Let's go see.

(You can fake curiosity too, in a pinch. Fake it long enough, and it might become real.)

SEVEN: Focus on gratitude.

A few months ago, I started learning some yoga moves. The resistance in my head about this was massive. And inwardly--as I started warming up--I'd make my list for all the reasons why this was a bad idea:

I'm not flexible, I'm not strong enough, it hurts to hold these poses, it probably looks really dumb, I'm bored already, this is so hokey, I could be doing something else right now, are my hands supposed to slip?, I'm going to injure something, I don't think this is how it goes...

And on and on and on. 

Until one day when I remembered a woman I know. She's suffering from a progressive disease, and she can't move easily at all. She needs a cane to walk (if she's feeling well enough to walk that day).

She has more bad days than good days. 

I thought of her one day as I was warming up, and it transformed my whole workout. 

What wouldn't she give, to be able to do what I was doing? Even as badly as I was doing it?

I realized I was so fortunate. And I felt grateful for a body that could move at all. Glad to have the ability to do any of the moves, even though I was just a beginner.

Even the simplest stretch filled my heart with thankfulness for my working arms, my working legs.

See what I mean? Whatever it is that you are doing, whatever you are pressing into: Think of the people who would trade their teeth to be able to do that same thing. Who would welcome the challenge of it, because they would be so glad to be able to do it.

Bring some of that gratitude into this journey outside your comfort zone. Reframe the struggle. See the grace.

EIGHT: Celebrate every milestone. (And have a broad definition of milestone.)

It's a heroic thing that you're doing. Now and then, come up for air. Pause. Look around at the new view you've discovered, at the new behaviors, the new skills.

Declare it a milestone. 

Pop some champagne and have a picnic. Take celebratory photos. Sing some songs.

You have come this far. And you will go farther. And that's worth a toast or two.

Become a Better Observer (Writer, Thinker, Person) with This Book

Change the way you see the world. | lucyflint.com

Every time I read Annie Dillard, I grow. As a writer, as a thinker, as an observer, as a human being.

And the book of hers that I keep coming back to is Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. 

The summary--which can't possibly account for the power of the book itself, but whatever--is this: It's a non-fiction narrative account of a year of observing nature, in the area of Tinker Creek, Virginia. That's it. 

But it's so much more than that, too: It's a study of observation, itself. An account of life, itself. It's about staring at the world up close, holding truths, being stunned by beauty.

The experience of reading it--even just a chapter, just a page--is a lot like having my vision tweaked at the eye doctor. Waiting as he slides new lenses over my eyes; watching the office grow sharper and clearer around me.

If you literally want to change the way you *see* the world, read this book. | lucyflint.com

Maybe it's her vocabulary: the dense, dizzying crush of it. I feel more awakened to words, to the very real power that they have. 

Maybe it's how she observes: how closely she looks. And then, how she zooms out to paint the big picture, only its bigger than we ever dreamed.

Or maybe it's her insights. The beauty of her thinking. 

However it works, I reel away from this book every time I touch it, with a deeper, richer, fuller, magnified view of the world.

I really can't recommend it enough.

Here, a bit of beauty for your Friday:

Moments are not lost. Time out of mind is time nevertheless, cumulative, informing the present. From even the deepest slumber you wake with a jolt--older, closer to death, and wiser, grateful for breath. You quit your seat in a darkened movie theater, walk past the empty lobby, out the double glass doors, and step like Orpheus into the street. And the cumulative force of the present you've forgotten sets you reeling, staggering, as if you'd been struck broadside by a plank. It all floods back to you. Yes, you say, as if you've been asleep a hundred years, this is it, this is the real weather, the lavender light fading, the full moisture in your lungs, the heat from the pavement on your lips and palms--not the dry orange dust from horses' hooves, the salt sea, the sour Coke--but this solid air, the blood pumping up your thighs again, your fingers alive. And on the way home you drive exhilarated, energized, under scented, silhouetted trees. -- Annie Dillard

One Simple Way to Grow Your Creativity (and Generate Hundreds of Ideas!)

You have hundreds of ideas at your fingertips. | lucyflint.com

Being a writer means: Solving problems. Generating ideas that fill the gaps (in the story, the character, the setting, in the writer). 


Sometimes--we don't know how to fill all the gaps.

Here is one easy trick to give yourself hundreds (and hundreds!) of new ideas: instantly.

CONSULT AN ORACLE. (I've seen this strategy a number of places, but it was Roger von Oech in A Whack on the Side of the Head who called it an oracle.)

This is a massively simple, widely applicable technique. Ready?

First, consider your problem. Whatever it is that you're trying to solve. Think of it as a question. Got it? Okay.

Grab a dictionary. Or encyclopedia. Or actually any book that would contain a noun. (Or even a picture of a noun.)

Open it at random. And the first noun at the top of the left page (or the bottom of the right page, or wherever your finger hits when you jab the open book):

That's the answer. 

Apply it to your question. No, really apply it. Find a connection. And then try to find several more.

Imagine that you asked a writing master how to solve your writing conundrum and they said that one word. How might you interpret it? 

As you struggle to see it as an answer, the creative sparks fly.

For example, let's say we're trying to figure out how our character--let's call her Clarissa--confronts an obstacle. Let's say she has to climb up the Mountain of Frightening Beasts, and we don't have any great ideas.

We state it as a question: How does Clarissa make it to the top of the Mountain? 

Then we grab an oracle. 

The nearest book for me is Collected Poems by Jane Kenyon. I open randomly to page 76 and the first noun of the poem is hemlock. 

So Clarissa might carry poison with her, and use it to drug the Frightening Beasts. 

Or, she ingests some kind of substance that makes her undetectable, unsmellable, invisible, and slips past.

Or--since hemlock is a plant--maybe she finds a tree with astonishing properties...

Hemlock is often confused with wild carrot, so maybe she makes a wild carrot salad and uses it to lure the giant saber-toothed rabbits away from the path... 

Or she meets a mysterious character named Hemlock who knows of hidden pathways...

See how this works? 

For a super tricky or complex problem, you can grab two or three nouns. 

And if you arm yourself with five to ten nouns, you could probably dream up an entire scene, a whole chapter, maybe an entire plot.

So there you go: Face those gaps bravely. You can fill 'em all.

Perfectionism Doesn't Love You (So It's Time To Declare War)

The voice in your head that rags on you for having flaws? Yeah. Kick it out of your writing life. | lucyflint.com

One of the biggest enemies to a healthy writing life is perfectionism. 

Of course, it won't tell you that. It has a fantastic propaganda machine going. It has this great lie it tells. 

Perfectionism says: I'm the way to make sure that your writing is any good. Believe ME, and I'll make sure that you write something worthwhile. 

But don't believe it. It's a trick. A scam. Because perfectionism won't sign off on ANYTHING. And in the meantime, it will make you totally miserable, if it doesn't shut you up entirely. 

And anything that annihilates your confidence and keeps you from working--that's not a good thing to keep around your writing life.

So we need to kick perfectionism out.

Here are three places where perfectionism tries to run your life (and what you can do instead).

Perfectionism panics in the face of growth. Perfectionism sees challenges as occasions for grand despair. Because, it reasons, you won't be able to do it well enough. You won't figure this new skill out.

It can't bear the early stages of a new skill. It's anti-mess. It can't tolerate rubble. It doesn't do process.

Perfectionism is usually the thing bleating "I can't!!" into my brain when I try something new. What it means by that is, I can't guarantee that I will be able to do this perfectly; I can't guarantee that I won't look foolish. Which means that it is Not Allowed. Back away. I can't do it.

That is a big, paralyzing message. 

One of the best ways to fight it: Write crap. 

Yes, I've said that before. Yes, I'll keep saying it. 

When perfectionism flares up and says, NO, you'll do it wrong, this is what you need to do. You need to lean in and DO IT WRONG.


Flail on paper. Be sloppy. Stutter.

Write the most one-sided character you can. Fill up your dialogue with "Um, like, totally awesome, I mean, OMG and LOL and stuff." Throw in the profoundly dull plot twist. Set the next scene in the most unoriginal place possible.

Then sit back and admire your handiwork. In spite of everything, YOU HAVE WRITTEN. So, refuse to panic. And listen as perfectionism does a long, slow death rattle.

Can I tell you a secret about what you just wrote? Everything changes when you call it a placeholder. It's just hanging out in your draft until you know how to do it better. That's all. It's doing its job. Holding that place. And everything is fine.

Writing doesn't come out perfect. Ever. Improvements come slowly. But they don't come at all if your hands cramp up and your brain squeals and perfectionism marches you away from the desk.

When we focus on what we can't do, we miss everything that we can do. And you can do so much, lionheart. So very much.

Perfectionism blasts a message of "This is terrible" whenever reading your writing. It might tell you that it has your best interests in mind. It wants your writing to sound good. And this isn't good.  

Argue back. Decide that there's something more terrible than really smelly writing. What's really terrible is choking up to the point of not writing at all. What's terrible is walking away from writing, because you'll never be good enough.

Remind yourself that no book, no article, no piece of written anything can be declared perfect. Perfection in writing is massively subjective. You won't get there. You just won't. 

Embrace the idea of versions. Of all your works being works-in-progress. You'll improve it on the second try. You'll do as a 2.0 version.

(Obviously this doesn't work in all situations, but it does work more often than perfectionism would ever guess. You can have a second version of a blog post, a conversation, an outing, even a birthday. There are so many times when you can simply try again. And it's just fine.)

Counter that brittle idea of "perfection" by aiming for Good Enough. This, like so many excellent tricks, comes from Heather Sellers

Listen to how she describes it:

"Do the best you can" means you put honest-to-God everything you have into your book. You can't call it Good Enough until you have stretched yourself, dug deep, pushed yourself, and really truly...given the book everything you have. ... You bring the book up from the very depths of you....

When you are giving it your best, nothing is held back. ... When you give it everything, everything, there are still going to be flaws. And that's when you say, at the very end of the day, Good Enough. 

Good Enough isn't settling. It's celebrating the truth." -- from Chapter after Chapter 

Isn't that beautiful? You give it everything you have. And that means that there will be flaws. And that's okay.

Tell perfectionism that--insist on that in your mind--and watch it blow up. 

Perfectionism has an all-or-nothing point of view. It doesn't allow for complexity. If it sniffs out a few flaws (and it can always find a few flaws), then the whole piece, the whole book, the whole writer, is rotten. 

When I dive into revision, perfectionism looms over my desk. I find myself making a massive list of revisions I need to make: I need to fix everythingAll at once. When my tally of changes hits triple-digits, I finally catch the smell of perfectionism's bad breath. 

To fight this, I get rebellious. Audacious.

I countered my 100+ list of revisions by radically deciding I would only focus on three changes.

Perfectionism spluttered. "What about seventy-five?" it said, very seriously.

"THREE," was my answer. 

And I set off on one of the happiest revision experiences I've ever had. With each chapter, I focused on just dealing with those same three issues, over and over. Calmly.

And as perfectionism leaned in to point out a dozen glaring errors, I'd cover my ears and shriek, "Only three!!"

You have to do a lot of shrieking if you're battling perfectionism. It doesn't respond to subtle. It doesn't understand polite.

You've got to be rude. Get in its face. It wants to take your writing life away from you. Get aggressive.

Really, it comes down to this. You need to realize--deep down realize--that perfectionism doesn't have your best interests in mind. It just likes being loud and feeling smug. It's empty. It doesn't have anything to offer you. It won't keep you safe.

So don't let it boss you around.

Borrow the Best Advice from Another Discipline

When writing advice feels stale, start listening to the thinkers in other disciplines. | lucyflint.com

One of the loveliest ways to grow as a writer: Listen to a talented non-writer talk about what they do.

It's amazing how your sense of creativity expands. How you get new ideas for ways to solve problems. How your appreciation for other art forms helps you write more dimensionally.

This is why TED talks are so great. I've only listened to J.J. Abrams talk about mystery boxes seven hundred times. And then there's the amazing designer Kelli Anderson and her pursuit of disruptive wonder. (Listen as she talks about "the hidden talents of everyday things," and see if that doesn't get you rethinking what's possible in a novel!)

What about documentaries? (I'm not the only writer who was insanely inspired by Jiro Dreams of Sushi!) I just found Chef's Table and The Mind of a Chef on Netflix, and I'm thrilled. I can just feel the creativity bubbling: they're looking at ingredients from every angle, and I find myself translating, thinking about new ways to consider characters, settings, conflict...

What about learning from master pruner Marco Nucera? This man shapes trees for a living, and he's darned good at it. This except from the totally gorgeous book Educating Alice:

"He has a natural talent for seeing the shapes in trees and bushes," she said. "There is a poetic quality to his work as well as a theoretical one. Both are equally important." ... "I wanted to keep the natural shape of the tree, but bring out its line," he explained. "Trees each have their own strong character. Landscape pruning is like being a sculptor of trees." 

Yeah, they're talking about trees. But somehow, reading that, all I can think of is revision. Listening to the work, instead of just hacking away. Being a sculptor of words. Balancing the poetry with the theory. 

Or what about this--think about your writing life as you read these words:

"Don't overestimate the skill and wisdom of professionals. Take advantage of what you already know. Look for opportunities that haven't yet been discovered. ... Ignore short-term fluctuations." 

It's advice on evaluating the stock market, written by Peter Lynch. But I hear it as a way of trusting your gut with writing, as a way to investigate your own work, and to look for places to keep pushing it. And ignoring the short-term fluctuations of my I love this/I hate this reaction to the work. 

Isn't it about writing too? 

Especially this line:

"Stick around to see what happens--as long as the original story continues to make sense, or gets better--and you'll be amazed at the results in several years."

It's how he judges stock picks, but it's how I think of some of my revision projects as well.

It's so energizing, borrowing perspective from other fields of work. I'm pretty convinced that when we only listen to other writers, all our advice gets stale and reused and dull. 

Borrow from some non-writing creative thinkers this weekend. People who are talking about skills other than writing, other than story-making. 

How are other craftsmen solving their creative problems? How do other disciplines grow in their craft? 

Who can you learn from this weekend?

Give Yourself a Master Class

Writers are always learning. | lucyflint.com

There's a time to focus on the small, micro-movements that help us grow. And then there's a time to go big. To invest in splashy, obvious growth.

A master class.

The educational big guns.

Now, you can absolutely pay to join a class, or take a course, or something like that. Having a live teacher is brilliant and oh-so helpful. 

But you can also design a course yourself.

1. Start with a bit of self-reflection. 

Where is your writing weakest? Where do you flinch? What do you shy away from? What do you apologize for? What glares the most when you reread your work, or when others read it?

Or, to take it a different way, consider one of my last assignments at college. The professor of my senior seminar class (the final class in the English major curriculum) told us to do the project that we hadn't done yet. To tackle the thing that was still missing in our education.

Where had we slipped through the cracks, what topic had we not fully explored, what still needed to be dealt with before we graduated?

We made up our own assignment. And while the openendedness of it stymied me at first, I created one of my favorite assignments ever. (I interviewed half-a-dozen writing professors and designed my first year of full-time writing. It was exactly what I needed to do.)

So: what is the project that you haven't done yet? What's missing in your writerly education?

2. Set your calendar.

How long of a class do you want? Any length will be helpful, so don't worry about wrong answers.

You can have a one-day workshop, a weekend retreat, a week-long intensive, or a semester-long course: it's up to you.

(Even one day of focusing on a problem area can change your writing for the better, so don't rule it out!)

3. Get yourself a teacher.

I love finding a writing book that deals with the specific thing I'm trying to tackle in-depth. Or, there are fantastic books that cover a variety of topics: which is good news for your next self-designed course! 

Try to find a book (or blog, or manual, or website) that has a kindly attitude, if you can. And one with exercises is especially helpful. The more exercises you do--the more we immerse ourselves in this new way of working!--the better. Be your best student self, and practice practice practice.

4. Investigate novels that practice this skill well.

Dive into your bookshelves and scout around. Rifle through your favorite novels. How do those authors tackle your chosen topic? Find examples. Pick your favorites. 

And then: Copy them out. Better yet, copy them by hand.

Why? Because there's something about writing someone else's prose that helps you zero in on how they accomplished it. How they strung it together.

I don't know why, but this works, and works well. It gets the rhythms into your fingers, into your brain.

5. The extracurriculars: Who else can you learn from?

I love the idea of learning tactics and ways of thinking from non-writers. 

So, if you're studying description, go learn a bit from painters and photographers. How do they see the world? How do they make the creative choices they make?

If it's dialogue, eavesdrop your heart out. (In a restaurant, in a coffee shop. Get close to people who are talking loud enough for you to hear. And jot it all down, exact quotes whenever you can. Get the pace of how real people talk. The way a conversation can turn on a dime. How they misunderstand each other.)

If you're working on adding sensory detail, go to a zoo. Find a place to sit, and then close your eyes. Listen. And if you're really brave, smell. Take a few deep breaths, and then write down how that goes for you.


Self-education is one of those things that we'll always be doing. We're never done as writers. 

And right now, that sounds like a good thing. After all, we love this job, right? There are a million opportunities for us to lean in, to keep practicing, to get better. And to feel the thrill of growing in our craft.

What will you be learning next?

A Survival Guide to Life Outside the Comfort Zone: Part One

Growing means that you won't always comfortable. How are you going to deal with that? | lucyflint.com

One of the biggest reasons to not grow is that it's darned uncomfortable. It pushes you out of where you'd rather be. Out of the default position.

Even when I realize that growth is a good idea, that change is a good thing: when I get away from the familiar, away from the old ways, panic sets in.

But if we want to grow (and we do!), and if we want to keep it painless (and we do!), we gotta get this: The panic is usually more painful than the actual growth itself. 

How do you stay panic-free outside your comfort zone? Here are four steps that help me maintain my perspective, resist the panic, and keep growing.

ONE: Balance growth with self-care.

Growing just to grow has a tendency to make us brittle. You've seen trees whose limbs get all draggy and start snapping off, right?

Let's not do that.

Let's get support, let's take strength from what's familiar, and use it as a springboard to reach new places.

So as you start a draft, as you dive into a skill that makes you nervous, as you embark on a new project that has you a bit scared, a bit dry-mouthed: Be kind to yourself. 

Watch the silly TV show, the guilty pleasure movie. Eat the cupcakes. The macaroni and cheese is ALL YOURS. 

This isn't weakness. It's not a sign of giving up, and it's not a sign that you're not strong enough. 

On the contrary: it's giving you strength to step into the unknown.

TWO: Applaud the awkward.

Small talk at parties is one of my least favorite things in the world. I hold my glass too tight and scout around for exits. Seriously. Until I discovered a secret trick: Announcing to myself that this is SUPPOSED to be awkward. It's supposed to feel like I'm standing on needles. 

For some weird reason, knowing that I'm going to feel uncomfortable really helps me relax. This is supposed to feel strange. Supposed to be awkward. It's just doing its job.

I tense up when I'm frantic about the symptoms of change. Those prickle-pangs of growth. But when I say, hey, this weirdness is normal, I planned on this: that makes it so much easier.

Can you try that, with the blank page, or with the difficult phone call, or with the new writing exercise?

Hey, it feels like my brain is melting! My hands are shaking a bit! I'm doing it exactly right!

And then go back to step one and reward yourself with a cupcake. If you didn't notice, step one is very repeatable.

THREE: Have an unswerving focus on your goal.

Why do all this, though? I mean, really. Why do it?

Who needs the macaroni and cheese and the slow-breathing in the face of awkward? Who cares? Why do it?

To survive the process of growth, you need to be really clear on your goal. Be clear on what's great about all the happy milestones, too, but have a laser-like focus on the true big mother-goal itself.

Interview yourself to get clear on what that is.

So, for me: I want to write a book.

Yeah, sure. But what else? I want this to be a career. I know this is my career. I love words. I love stories.

All right, fine, what else. Money? Money would be so nice. Money is also not a super reliable goal.

What else? 

Well, there are aspects of my childhood that were pretty crappy. Same as a lot of people. Especially fifth grade through eighth.

So I want to write books for girls in those grades. I want to give them more good books, good stories. They're going through a really hard time, and I want to send them words and characters and ideas to keep them company.

That is a worthwhile goal for me. That's THE Goal. 

That is what makes the hard days worth it, the days of braving the difficulties that we all face as we try to improve our craft. That's worth it for me.

So what's that big goal for you? Narrow it down. Get to the place where you can almost feel it throbbing in your veins. The goal that makes all the hard stuff worth it. 

Write it down. Post it somewhere. And as you're applauding the awkward and scarfing cupcakes, stay clear on that goal. And let it guide you into deeper growth and steeper challenges.

FOUR: Claim this new place as a future comfort zone.

Strange but true: the thing that scares you today will get easier with practice. Maybe not exactly easy, but certainly easier.

Think back to what got you here. Where are the places where you had to step out, where it was mercilessly uncomfortable, where you thought you just might not make it? 

For me, facing a blank page isn't nearly as uncomfortable as it used to be. I know how to fling a few words on there and get rolling quickly. Posting these blogs three times a week? It used to be TERRIFYING. Now it's just a little bit of a "here we go!" in my stomach, and then I'm good. 

It helps to know that you've done this before. You really have. Stepping into the new, getting used to it, and finally planting your flag of "I've conquered this!" in that new soil? Yeah, you've totally done that before, lionheart.

From the first time that oxygen hit your little baby lungs to this exact moment: you've tackled so many uncomfortable things and made them your new home. 

You can do this. You really, really can. You know how to lean in, you know that it's worth it, you know how to keep going.

So what am I doing still talking? You already have everything in you that you need.

Enjoy those cupcakes. And have some fun outside the zone.

Grow Your Brain with a Reading Safari

One of the most time-honored ways to stretch your brain: grab a book. | lucyflint.com

When it comes to reading, we all tend to have a sweet spot. Right? The kind of book that it's easy to reach for. The sort of thing we're always in the mood to read.

For me, that's British mysteries, middle grade adventure novels, and essays about food. I am never not in the mood for these.

The rest of the literary world radiates out from there, from books I'm comfortable with, to the ones that challenge me the most--because of style, vocabulary, subject matter, point of view, or genre.

We all have that spectrum: from the books that are our best friends, all the way out to the books that make our toes curl.

So here's a little growth experiment for all of us. A mini-challenge for the weekend.

Grow by reading the thing that stretches you.

I'm not saying aim yourself at out-and-out torture, but lean in to the kind of reading you avoid--on purpose or accidentally. The kind of books you don't normally consider.

What does that look like for you?

Here's a clue: hit the library or a bookstore. Think about where you normally go. Then think about all the other places. This weekend, let's prowl in all those other places.

Let's read writers from other continents, writers from four hundred years ago. (Unless that's what you normally read. In which case I'd say: read a writer from your own backyard, from the last decade or two.)

If you avoid books of letters, pick up a book of letters. If poetry is something you dodge, wander among the poets.

Find a book about the mystics, a book of plays, nature books, field guides, philosophy. 

Let's dive into whatever is least familiar.

Treat it like an excursion to an unfamiliar city. Have yourself a little word safari.

What's a safari? An expedition that involves observing and hunting. 

And that's what we're gonna do with these books we don't normally read.

You don't have to read it, not in the usual way, from page one to the end. It's an expedition. Observe. Hunt.

Look at the metaphors, at the flow of it. What kind of nouns keep showing up? And what about the verbs? What's the style like? Adjective-heavy or spare? Formal or conversational?

Look at the people involved--whether that means characters, or creatures, or whatever. The actors in the book, whatever the book is. Look at the different settings, the places where things happen.

Take a few notes if you want. Make lists. Capture examples of the writer's unique vocabulary. Copy out the quirkiest or most stirring phrases that you come across. 

Browse the world that the book is describing (because every book, every single one, is describing a world). And just let it cross-pollinate with your brain. Taste it. 

I have a feeling that the more we do this, the more we dip into books we wouldn't normally read, the more reading safaris we have, the more rich and strong our own writing will become. 

And that seems well worth the expedition.