Not long ago I was standing in a hotel lobby, formally done up in an evening skirt, sparkle top and lipstick, making small talk and waiting for the doors to open for an elegant cocktail reception and ceremony. There was, however, a delay. The doors did not open. About 200 of us milled about, obediently, for 10 minutes, 20. The doors continued to not open.
I began to grow impatient, as I had particularly been looking forward to a glass of wine. I wanted one now. The ballroom down the corridor, I’d noticed, was teeming with wedding guests enjoying a reception. Why not? I thought, and strolled in their direction.
I took a deep breath and glided in, smiling and making eye contact with other guests, and made my way to the bar, where fountains of pink liquid bubbled. The server handed me a stemmed glassful and I tasted it. “Pink lemonade?” I asked, my heart sinking. “There’s no wine or anything?”
“Are these guys Mormons?”
“Either that or AA, I guess.”
I thanked him and carried the lemonade to my reception. Well, I thought, I didn’t get my wine, but at least I crashed a wedding.
This is the kind of thinking writers need to do. I may or may not use material from that night in my fiction—either the actual incident or my quickening heartbeat as I talked myself into brazenly acting like the guest of people I didn’t know—but that’s not entirely the point. The point is that I stepped out of my comfort zone, did something a little outré, and got away with it.
Let’s face it: We writers tend to be rule-followers. We were the kids who turned in our papers on time, played clarinet in the marching band, didn’t have premarital sex. (OK, two out of three.) As adults we drive defensively, wear sunscreen and consult experts before making big decisions. We don’t crash weddings or argue over the contents of our carry-ons in the airport security line. We weed out risk.
And we get stale.
But we’re writers! As such, our chief goal is to produce work that resounds with authenticity. We must create exciting fiction; we must produce gripping nonfiction. And taking the safe path won’t always cut it. Comfort zones can hold us back in life as well as in our work.
William Faulkner asserted, “A writer needs three things—experience, observation and imagination— any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.” Note that experience is first on his list.
Ernest Hemingway surely agreed. He was cut down by a hail of bullets in World War I, recovered and skied the Alps, hunted lions on foot in Africa, ran with the bulls in Pamplona, and fought fish his own size in the Caribbean.
Rebecca West, arguably the most influential British writer of the 20th century, took to the streets of London to advocate for women’s suffrage, probed the guts of Yugoslavia to write her nonfiction masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, covered the Nuremberg Trials for TheNew Yorker, and risked arrest while exploring the slums and prisons of Johannesburg to report on apartheid.
Those writers took chances. And they used their experiences to prime their creativity. I think that deep down, we all wish to be Ernest Hemingway or Rebecca West.
Great, you might be thinking. All I have to do is find a war, live abroad or put my life on the line against nature, thugs or both.
Well, no. While I wouldn’t dissuade you from leaping onto the world stage, here’s the great secret Hemingway and West knew:
Great writing begins with an appetite for life.
Too, they knew its corollary:
A glancing acquaintance with something is often all you need to extrapolate accurately in writing.
Here’s how to get out of your comfort zone, wake up your wild side, break rules and reap rewards.
1. Know thyself.
Spend an hour writing your thoughts on these questions:
What makes you quail? Disease, poverty, a spider over your bed, meeting new people, space-based nukes, a plugged drain, heights, defying your parents? Make a full list. Delve into the feelings those things inspire. What exactly does the fear feel like?
Turn to a fresh page. What does your wild side look like? (If you’re not sure you have much of one, think of it this way: When you were a kid, what did you like to do for fun?) Is it happy, or is it listless and neglected? Listen to it. What is it asking for?
Read over your fears, then read about your wild side. Which makes you feel better? Remember: Fears are only thoughts, but the world is thrillingly real.
2. Say yes to opportunity.
The main thing is to be ready.
The best way to be ready is to get stronger, physically as well as mentally. If you’re out of shape, get active and eat healthier food (you know you’ve been meaning to anyway!). If you’re in decent shape, challenge yourself to get to the level where you really want to be. Having a strong body boosts your confidence and automatically makes you feel more adventurous.
Recognize opportunity. It might come in the form of a hint from a friend (or hey, even an enemy), or you might feel a vague impulse to do something new. Pay attention to these subtle suggestions; get quiet and listen. The instant you start thinking No, counteract that with, What if I did? No might still be the right answer, but it shouldn’t be a knee-jerk one.
When I was facing a milestone birthday (not telling), I started thinking I should do something—anything—to counteract that horrible number. Listening to me whine, a friend challenged me to join him on a rigorous backpacking trip in Washington’s Olympic Mountains. I hadn’t slept outdoors in 20 years, but realized this was what I had to do. Five weeks later, with a body in (somewhat) better condition and a willing spirit, I forged through muck holes and inched along sheer drop-offs. The knowledge I gained of the Olympic backcountry—the harsh terrain, the sound of gushing streams, the emotions stirred by isolation and exposure—brought authenticity to my novel On Location. Reviewers noted its realism, and readers tell me they find certain passages appropriately harrowing.
3. Go backstage.
If all the world’s a stage, there’s got to be a lot of stuff hidden behind the scenes. Walk backstage after a show. Walk backstage anywhere. Talk to the people you find there. Trespass mildly. Open doors that interest you, even if they say “STAFF ONLY: WRITERS KEEP OUT.” Simply open them and walk through. At worst, someone will notice and ask you to leave (apologize and/or play dumb as needed, remembering these magic words that always work for me: “Sorry, I was just looking for the bathroom”). You’ll still catch a glimpse of something you haven’t seen before.
Cops essentially live backstage, know what I mean? Talk to them. The first time I nervously walked up to a police officer with an off-the-wall question, I was curious about why there were so many people begging for money on the main drag in Berkeley, Calif. I got a respectful, long answer that sparked a deeper interest in street people. That interest led me to write realistic passages about street life in my novels Lucky Stiff, Easy Street and The Extra. Now I talk to cops all the time.
4. Get a press pass.
My first job out of university was as a reporter-photographer for a small newspaper. The work extended my education tremendously; I learned how newspapers and city governments really work, plus I got to do unusual, cool things like ride in a police boat and watch dynamite blow up a rock face.
I was reminded of this when I did some freelance work for my local daily recently. Within just six weeks, I’d met and written about performance artists, homeless mothers, sand sculptors, kids with autism, botanists, volunteers, police personnel, an Army sergeant (and an Army wife) and social workers. Pitch an article or offer your services as a freelancer or part-time stringer and see where it takes you. It takes nerve to ask questions (especially if you don’t have any journalistic background), but it’s proportionately rewarding. Invariably you’ll learn off-the-record, juicy stuff that suggests nonfiction book and article ideas as well as fictional plotlines.
5. Learn something new.
Take a class in anything. Build or make something unusual—say, a potato cannon or a paper model of the Forbidden City. Follow an interest to its deeper conclusion. Do it yourself.
A while ago I said yes to a friend, a retired military commander, who invited me to go target shooting in an abandoned quarry. He brought a number of guns. One was a beautifully made hunting rifle with a high-resolution scope. That gun was a smooth joy to fire, accurate and powerful, designed to make a clean kill of big game from a distance. Another was an AK-47. As I handled it, feeling the clunky action, the haphazard finish on the metal and stocks, the clumsy open sights, the loose tolerances, I felt a chill as I realized the gun was meant to do only one thing: kill people at fairly close range, and not cleanly. So simple even a drunk terrorist could drop it in the mud and still destroy with it! Without handling both guns, one after the other, I wouldn’t have known that, wouldn’t have gotten that visceral cold feeling that I’ll never forget—and that I fully intend to evoke in my future crime novels.
6. Do something that makes your palms sweat.
Scared of public speaking? Go to a busy street corner and start orating about something. Express a strong opinion. You will be terrified at first, but if you put your heart into it you will experience a breakthrough. Your fear will transmute to a why-not sort of joy.
Like my fictional series character Lillian Byrd, I play the mandolin. Along the lines of my interest in street people, I’ve had a strong interest in buskers (street performers).
Purely as a test of guts, I’ve busked for money in several cities. It’s surprisingly terrifying to stand on a street corner, open your case, tune up and begin playing. I’ve been photographed by alternative city papers and questioned by passing musicians who think maybe they should try busking too. “It’s like getting paid to practice!” one exclaimed. One time I was challenged by a belligerent panhandler who felt I was hurting her business. That was an interesting conversation.
If you’re considering doing something dangerous, like walking alone in a tough part of town, think it through first. What are you really after? An accurate representation of dread? Maybe it’d be just as scary, and way safer, to walk alone through a cemetery at night. Or maybe you don’t have to be alone to get the experience you’re after.
Eavesdropping is illicit, it’s impolite, and it’s great fun.
When I lecture on writing terrific dialogue, I advise my students to eavesdrop to gain a sense of how people really talk. But you must do more than listen; you must be systematic—you must bring your
notebook. How often have you heard somebody say something imperishable, but when it came time to recount it, you could only weakly paraphrase? When you take a minute to write it down, it becomes yours.
Coffee shops are the cliché place to eavesdrop, and there’s good reason for it. Often people who haven’t seen each other in a long time meet over coffee to talk their heads off, or people meeting for a not-exactly-a-date first date, or to discuss something important, will do it in a coffee shop.
I used to do a lot of writing at a particular Starbucks in my town. Once in a while I’d see a certain type of couple: a young man sitting drinking coffee with a much older woman. Their conversations were quiet and remarkably intense. And I saw this over and over, with a different young-guy-older-woman combo every time.
I started to wonder. And I started to purposefully, stealthily eavesdrop. I started to look at the bigger picture, and realized that the coffee shop happened to be across the way from an armed forces recruitment center—and these young men and … their mothers had just been there. They’d come out and seen the Starbucks and decided to come in and talk it over.
The faces I saw and the conversations I overheard there were too intimate to recount here, but they informed me as a writer.
Eavesdrop. Write it down. Repeat.
8. Do something repugnant to you.
Challenging your assumptions will result in a broader worldview. Never been to a strip club? Go. Feel uncomfortable about stadium-sized churches? Attend a service. Despise the [fill in the blank] political party? Show up at a rally and watch without judging. Skeptical about mediums? Attend a séance. Do nursing homes creep you out? Walk into one, find a lonely person (which will take eight seconds) and hang out awhile. Do these things and feel them. Avoid labeling or categorizing the resulting experiences, because doing so will keep them on the surface. Instead, let them sink in deep.
Busting out of your comfort zone to seek out unique experiences will not only make you a more complete person and bring authenticity to your writing, it will suggest new ideas and new work. If you extend yourself, you’ll have an advantage over the couch potatoes and Web addicts.
I invite you to share my current motto: Impulse control is overrated.