Writers know that there is always room for improvement in terms of our craft. In this article, Dave Terruso explains how stretching our artistic comfort zone is good for our work. Plus, we all need to stay physically healthy as writers and personally, I lift weights several times a week so this is a great metaphor!
The most important thing to strive for as an author is growth. Consistent growth in your craft and creativity.
Here’s an unlikely metaphor for writing: bodybuilding.
When I first started working out, my goal was to get bigger arms and a bigger chest. So I would find a heavy weight that I could lift 3 sets of 8 reps with. And I would do those 3 sets once a week for two weeks. Then I’d add 5 pounds to that and the next two weeks would be 3 sets of 8 with that new weight. Then 5 more pounds added, and 3 sets of 8.
I was getting stronger, but I wasn’t seeing any significant growth in my arms or my chest.
After a couple years of getting nowhere, I decided to research how bodybuilders get such big muscles.
And I learned their secret: lifting to failure on purpose.
See, if I were trying to do my 3 sets of 8, and on the third set I could only get to 6, I thought I’d failed, and I was mad at myself. Then I’d lower the weight to finish my set. But it turns out that lifting a weight that’s just heavy enough that you can only do a few reps before you struggle with it is the key to getting bigger muscles.
You have to push your muscles to their limit. Lift until you hit that rep where your arms shake and you get the weight halfway up and then have to stop because you have nothing left to give.
Muscle growth comes from muscle repair. And muscle repair happens when the muscle fibers get damaged.
Weightlifting is basically damaging your muscle fibers on purpose so they’ll get bigger through the repair process. You create this damage either by lifting a heavy weight a few times or a lighter weight a lot of times.*
How does this translate to writing?
Two words: comfort zone.
Being a great writer takes a lifetime. There are hundreds of skills that all work in tandem, and then there’s the mental and emotional maturity earned from experience that makes your fiction resonant.
It’s very tempting to get to a point where you’re pretty good and just stop. You’ve found your comfort zone. You say to yourself, “I’m a good writer now, this is the kind of stuff I write, and it’s working. I’ve found my place and I’m going to stay in this lane for life.”
It’s such a relief. No more struggle. No more failure. Consistent success.
At least that’s how it seems.
In reality, your comfort zone as a writer is a path to stagnation, to atrophy, to becoming a plagiarist of yourself instead of a creative writer.
The temptation of the comfort zone is exacerbated by the publishing industry. Publishing is a business first and foremost, and the strategy is usually “this made us money, so do it again and again!”
Many successful authors fall into this repetition pit and spend the rest of their careers regurgitating their past successes ad nauseam. Authors need to make a living just like anyone else, and a comfortable life doing what you love is an admirable goal for a writer. Right?
I would posit that this is an unfulfilling life for a writer. A life of diminishing returns, and of slowly, steadily waning quality.
The only way to grow as a writer is to consistently step out of your comfort zone.
You need to fail to grow
If you’re really good at writing novels, but you’re a terrible short story writer, make a concerted effort to master the short story form. It’ll not only add another tool to your toolbox, it’ll also improve your novel writing.
The best thing I ever did for my novel-writing ability was master writing screenplays. I came back to novels with a much better economy of words and a tighter sense of act structure.
Identify your comfort zone, then find one or more blind spots and work on them.
Maybe you only write in first-person point of view. Maybe you only write historical fiction. Maybe you only write short stories. Get rid of that “only” and branch out.
Write in omniscient POV. Write a futuristic sci-fi story. Write your first novella. It doesn’t have to be good. Just try your best.
Not only is it okay to suck at certain aspects of writing, it’s a requirement for artistic growth. Some of the best growth comes from trying things that are outside the bounds of writing.
Body builders also use something called muscle confusion to help with their growth. Every month or two, they’ll change or modify their regimen of exercises because muscles start to adapt to the movements they do repeatedly, and the muscle gains will decrease if they don’t change it up.
Take an acting class and you’ll come back to your writing with stronger motivations for your characters.
I once had a bit part in a play where my only lines were “Yes, sir” a dozen times, and one line of exposition. Trying to act as this character was difficult because I had no idea what he wanted. That frustrating experience led me to vow to never write a yes-sir character in one of my novels, to always give every person that populated my stories, at the very least, a desire or a quirk.
Acting classes and stand-up classes will also give you a better ear for dialogue just from hearing the words spoken aloud. An improv class will give you the courage to invent something on the fly and see what develops.
Writing is not something you do in your room alone. It’s not an excuse to hide from the world. Don’t let your home become your comfort zone. Get out and experience life or you won’t have anything interesting to write about.
Fail. Learn. Grow. Repeat.
It’s the only way to become the best writer you can be.
How do you stretch yourself out of your comfort zone in order to grow as a writer? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Dave Terruso is a novelist and stand-up comic based in Philadelphia. His latest novel is Alter Ego: The Other Me. A detective is hired by an archvillain to uncover the secret identity of Blue, the world’s first and only superhero. Once he uncovers who and what Blue is, the sleuth risks his life to protect his city’s supernatural savior.
*Please note: Dave is NOT a fitness expert. This is an oversimplified look at weightlifting for the purpose of the metaphor. Don’t try what he's describing without getting instruction from an actual fitness expert. He doesn’t want you to get hurt.