Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Feeling Uncomfortable

Yesterday while working out on the elliptical machine at the Y, I was reading a woman's magazine to pass the time (instead of panting out the seconds to reach my 30 minute quota!). One article was titled "6 Weeks to a Younger You," so of course, I had to check it out. ;-) It consisted of a recommended set of lifestyle changes to implement each week for six weeks to improve the quality of your life so you look and feel younger, healthier, and happier. You know, the typical woman's magazine article.

In glancing through the nuggets of wisdom that included things I was already doing, like eating more fruits and veggies, exercising regularly, using sunscreen, solving crossword puzzles, and so on, one piece of advice really resonated with me:

Resolve to do one thing each day that makes you feel uncomfortable.

If you followed this advice, you would constantly be nudging yourself out of your comfort zone, trying new things and confronting problems, instead of wallowing in the same old rut that keeps you from growing and learning. Soon, making risky decisions, even little ones, would become a habit. Wow!

Resolve to do one thing each day that makes you feel uncomfortable.

What great advice that is for a fiction writer. The last place you want to be when telling a story is someplace comfortable. Because that means not only are you bored, your reader is bored. Through your characters, you have to experience uncomfortable emotions, solve uncomfortable problems, and confront uncomfortable experiences. Otherwise, your story isn't interesting. So, why not apply what works for your story and your characters to yourself?

I thought back on occasions in the past few years when I've made a decision to do something that felt uncomfortable in my writing life, and how much personal learning or progress resulted. For instance:

When writing my rough draft manuscripts, I now publicly post my word count goals and progress. I used to do it on the Pikes Peak Writers yahoogroup or a Sisters in Crime Guppies goal-setting subgroup or other small forum, but now it's on my Facebook page, for all of my thousands of friends to see. Why do that? It makes me accountable and forces me to put my (ever increasing) butt in the chair and pound out the words instead of finding some housecleaning or gardening to do instead.

Once I stood up to read at a Pikes Peak Writers gathering, even though I hate to do readings and know I suck at them. I asked for honest feedback on my presentation skills (or lack thereof), and then I read not just a piece of fiction, but a poem, one of the very few that I've written in my adult life. Eek! My hands were shaking and I was sweating, but I plowed through it. The feedback from my fellow writers on how to improve my delivery was extremely helpful, especially from those who had done multiple poetry readings before. But what was even more gratifying was the praise I received on the poem itself. That gave me the courage to try writing some more.

I said "yes" to a request from a high school to make a presentation about how to write a short story. You may say, well that's not so bad, but this high school was in the most deprived and dangerous section of the city. All of my writing friends, once they found out where I was going, said there was no way they'd visit that school even in the middle of the day. Frequent reports of knife fights, drug selling, etc. in and around that school appeared on the police blotter. Then, I found out that I would be talking to not just one English class, as I had originally thought, but to a whole auditorium filled with students from five classes. And my contact said, "Don't worry, the teachers will stay and take care of any behavior problems for you." Yikes!

That was another sweaty palms experience. But it turned out fine. Yes, a few students slept through the talk, and the teachers quietly reprimanded a few other students during the talk, but I made my presentation highly interactive and asked a lot of questions. I even was able to get some students participating and talking. Later, a few young writers stayed to ask me about potential markets for their stories, and the teachers' gratitude was enormous. What an ego boost! I've since gone on to make many other presentations to high-school or middle-school-aged teens and have thoroughly enjoyed every one.

Other uncomfortable things I've done in my writing life have included saying "no" to volunteer jobs so I had the time I needed to write, telling a critique partner that their plot twist or character just wasn't working for me, including a character name in a charity auction even though I was a relatively unknown author (I was sweating again while waiting for someone, anyone, to enter that first bid), and more.

What about you? Have you done something lately that makes you feel uncomfortable? What happened? How did you feel afterward? Did you learn something or grow in some way from it? Please share! And,

Resolve to do one thing each day that makes you feel uncomfortable.


Vicki Doudera said...

Beth, I think this is one of the best posts you've ever written. Thank you!

"Feeling uncomfortable" is really a nice way to say "afraid," don't you think so? I ask myself what I'm really afraid of (usually it is rejection in the writing biz, but your experience in the inner city school was safety.) Usually when I've id'd the fear I can proceed to do the actual thing.

Because I am extroverted, I'm not usually troubled by public appearances, but it is difficult for me to say no to some things. I like to be involved (and liked) so it can be tough to admit that I really can't give the time. The hardest thing for me to do? Ask for money (talking donations, with my volunteer work for Midcoast Habitat.) This year though, I'm determined to mount a face-to-face campaign and get us some big donations. I still cringe at the thought a little, but I so believe in what we're doing that I know I can get in there and make the ask.

Mario Acevedo said...

Singing makes me feel WAY uncomfortable and you don't want to hear me sing. You should thank me for staying ensconced in my comfort zone.

Lois Winston said...

I gave my first talk to a large group (about 200 people) way back in the last century. I was unbelievably nervous, but once I got through it, I've never had a problem speaking to groups since. This never ceases to amaze me because I was always the "behind the scenes" kid in school, never wanting to be on stage for anything.

What makes me uncomfortable is when I realize I have to end a relationship with a friend or family member because it's grown toxic with no hope of improving. This has happened several times over my life, and although I know it's the right thing to do for my own health and sanity, it's never easy.

WB Terrien said...

Great post. It really is something to practice. Not sure if I can do it *every day* but it's worth a try. And hopefully I'll run out of things after a year or two. Or three. :)

Beth Groundwater said...

<> Thanks, Vicki! I poured out that post last night after becoming inspired. It's interesting how sometimes the things you write the fastest turn out the best. Yes, asking for donations--or asking people to volunteer their time--is very hard!

Karaoke night at the RMMWA meeting next weekend! You're up first!

Oooo, ending toxic relationships is VERY painful. I've had to do that a couple of times with fellow writers in critique groups, and it was agonizing.

LOL, WB! Yes, don't we all wish we didn't have a few years worth of uncomfortableness to work through? :)

Ann said...

A great and inspiring post Beth. Stepping out of the comfort zone....have done it many times. Just letting other people read my writing has been a biggy for me! Still very uncomfortable with it.

TheaH said...

I hate throwing rocks at my characters. It must be done, so I created a character whose sole purpose in my life is suffer the slings and arrows that I perpetrate upon her. It helps, but I feel really sorry for her.

Terry Wright said...

Hi Beth. Interesting take on being uncomfortable. Most of us strive to stay comfortable. Whenever I go downtown, I leave my comfort zone. It's not the bustle and noise that gets to me, it's the homeless people (PC for bums) who come up to me and ask for money. Their problems are real and sad, and seeing them up close is very disturbing. I can't solve their problems, no one can, and that is very uncomforting.

KathyW said...

Great post. I know the feeling well. I know I need to start doing Facebook and Twitter, but for some reason, I really resist them. Maybe this idea will inspire me.

Patricia Stoltey said...

This is excellent advice, Beth. My most uncomfortable moments ever were back in 2007 when we had to start promoting those first mysteries. Signings and presentations made me so nervous I thought I'd have an anxiety attack. Thank goodness I got over that.

Beth Groundwater said...

Hi Ann,
Yes, I'd forgotten what it was like to first allow others to read my fiction. That's definitely a scary move, but an essential one if you have any hope of improving your writing.

LOL, Thea,
It is indeed hard to make life difficult for characters we've begun to love, but it MUST be done because that's what makes for good fiction.

The way I try to deal with my feelings about the homeless is to donate money to homeless shelters, food banks, and nonprofits that have much more experience than I do in dealing with the myriad situations of the homeless, many of which are due to mental illness or substance dependency.

Hi Kathy,
I'm with you on Twitter! I haven't touched it yet, but I've become comfortable on Facebook. I hope you give it a try and that you send me a friend request.

Hi Pat,
Yes, I remember those days when we "Colorado Five Stars" were learning together how to promote our books. We have indeed come a long way since then, as evidenced by your excellent blog.

Thanks for the comments, folks! Keep them coming...

Robin Allen said...

Things that make me feel uncomfortable? Let's see: publishing a book with my name and picture on it, speaking in public, doing book signings, writing blog posts, commenting on blog posts, and reading less-than-glowing reviews of my book.

And that's just been the last couple of months.

T. L. Cooper said...

Awsome post, Beth!! I love it!!

Doing things that make us uncomfortable definitely contributes to our growth as human beings. Whether it helps us feel and look younger, I don't know. I don't really care because the growth benefits are worth it!

I've done several things that made me took me out of my comfort zone lately. Here are a few!

I joined Writers on the Move and it always makes me uncomfortable to share my workout habits with others silly as the may sound. Then I blogged about it making me feel uncomfortable and how the experience was changing my attitude.

I decided on a bookcover for one of my upcoming books of poetry that I normally wouldn't have for fear it would offend someone else even though I love it!! So far the majority of my small focus group agrees with me. Even the sole (so far) dissenter's opinion convinced me I'd made the right choice.

I tried posting my writing progress on Facebook for a while even posting my lack of progress on days when I accomplished nothing. At first, it really helped me, but something happened. I don't pay close enough attention to daily word count to post word counts, so I was posting what I worked on and how I felt about my progress. Somewhere in there, I started feeling like posting was becoming detrimental instead of helpful. Reading your post today makes me think I quit doing it because I got uncomfortable... Time to start facing that accountability again... Thanks for helping me see that!!

Unknown said...

Beth, that's awesome! While it's obviously a scary thing, it's an amazing opportunity to make a huge impact on the lives of some young people. What a gift!

I love this idea and I'm going to do my best to embrace it. Thanks for sharing!

Marne Ann said...

Beth, you got my gears turning. Great post. Thanks. There really isn't an "uncomfortable" for me. I go from comfortable to fight or flight in zero-point-two, with no in between... However, I still try to work past my foibles. In June, I read a short bit of one of my books out loud and in public for the first time. Ever. Scared to death. But I didn't cry (true story).
Next month I'll have to try singing in public with Mario. That'll make everyone cry... (not a true story).

Jessica Lourey said...

Your post is serendipitous, Beth. I'm just finishing up the first in what I hope will be a YA trilogy, and I have been uncomfortable writing it the whole way through. Putting kids in dangerous (fictional) situations is difficult for me, and your post has given me the boost needed to get through the last 30 pages of the first draft. Thank you!!!

Beth Groundwater said...

LOL, Robin, well you're certainly following the advice!

Thanks, T.L, and thanks for sharing what you've been doing to push yourself into uncomfortable areas. All great ways to stretch yourself, and I think you'll see your creativity blossom even more as a result.

Thanks, Angela, and I hope you do embrace the advice and gain something from it.

Marne, a twosome of you and Mario is something I've just GOT to see--and hear! Congratulations on surviving your first public reading. Every one after that one will get a little easier until you wake up one day and realize you're an old pro.

Yay, Jess! You're welcome. I can't wait to read the first book in that YA trilogy. Striking out in a whole new genre is a huge step into the "uncomfortable zone" for writers, but it often reaps huge rewards when a writer finds that s/he has discovered his/her true calling as a result.

Sebastian Stuart said...

Very thought -- and squirm -- provoking post. Discomfort is a fact of life, we can only change how with respond to it. Thank you Beth.

Marilyn Levinson said...

What a wonderful post! I feel uncomfortable about being my own publicist for my books. I published years ago when authors wrote, spoke to groups, etc. but didn't have the burden of selling one's books to the public.

Eloise Hill said...

Beth, I love that this came to you while you were exercising! I recently accepted a request to teach a six-week course on a rather dense subject, at the same time my first book is debuting, and in addition to my regular work. It has made me stretch my limits and now I have to get really good at organizing each day: always useful for a writer:)

Susan said...

Inspiring! Love the idea of posting writing progress publicly. I am about to let relatives read my first mystery before I look for an agent. I'm okay with them reading it...it's hearing what they think that scares me! Now I'm going to look at the discomfort more positively. Thanks!

Carolee said...

Doing something uncomfortable? How about leaving public comments on the Net? I have this thing about privacy which doesn't really exist any more. For a government job answering calls at a call center, I had to have fingerprints taken, one of those iris scans, face recognition--all to answer a telephone?

Right now, Beth, I'm trying to work up the courage to set up a blog/web site. Part of it is just putting myself out there. The other part is it's another computer thing! Spending hours on the phone over various computer problems over the years does not fill me with joy about taking on something like web sites/blogging when I have (very) little knowledge. This is confronting the uncomfortable for today. Whew!

Bob Sanchez said...

I edit the Internet Review of Books, and a friend asked if I could have her novel reviewed. I said sure, but someone else would have to do it, and there was no guarantee of a positive review.

When the review came back it was quite negative, and it pained me to run it, but I did. That's really something to avoid, though.