Going outside the comfort zone

For writing class, I’m trying my hand at a fantasy short story, starring a country’s armed forces holding the line against shadow horrors while the civilians evacuate. I don’t know whether the idea is worthy of expansion or what it would feature besides combat, nightmares, and people attempting to cope. I think it’s a worthwhile exercise, though. Just like science fiction, there’s world-building and infilling. The suspension of disbelief can be pretty delicate- can I convince you that there are horrible monsters coming from the south magnetic pole to ravage humanity and destroying what’s in their paths? Would you believe that the people living closest to the pole have a mix of customs not seen in our world? Is using arquebuses with female representation in the army too much of a stretch? The science fiction I write is about predictions for our world, the fantasy about less likely possibilities for any world.

Our instructor advised us to try writing something we don’t usually write, hence the experiment of possibly going outside of my comfort zone, which didn’t happen but was worth pondering.  My comfort zone is ill-defined. As a teenager, I read William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch. That hit my boundaries with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. I think there’s far more in my comfort zone now because of the space Naked Lunch created in my mind by crushing linear time. It’s not often you see a David Cronenberg movie and think, “hey that made a lot more sense than the book.” Typewriter sex and all.

The comfort zone indicates feeling in control, a lack of stress instead of ease of reading. I was going to mention Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! and Gene Wolfe’s The Urth of the New Sun, but they were difficult to read and required digesting, not stressful. I could lose myself in the book, but it didn’t feel like baddies were holding me captive and beating me repeatedly about the head and shoulders despite my pleas. Stressful subjects become more so if I become held in their grips-  feel more uncomfortable when I am under a story’s sway and I get the heebie-jeebies. If I feel detached from a story, it’s harder to violate my boundaries because I am less vulnerable with distance.

For example, a death by sex scene can make me think ‘ew, that’s not okay’ or it can make me think ‘oh holy Lego Man I never want to have sex again.’ The writer’s job here is to make me turned on and horrified. I will also mention body horror to the mix because it can be delicious and emetic at the same time: a beautiful flower growing inside a girl, and the petals are starting to erupt from one of her eyes. Inducing two opposing emotional reactions at the same time causes dissonance in my brain, and it makes me question what’s going on with the juxtaposition that makes me uncomfortable. This way, I learn more about myself and possibly other humans.

There are also books that I consider out of the zone I read in because I don’t think I get what I should from some of the subject matter. In the romance genre, I tend to shy away from BDSM and multiple partners because I find them either boring or confusing. Not everyone is aroused by everything, and that’s just fine: vanilla doesn’t work well for some, homosexual isn’t hot for everyone. I feel a little awkward when I am reading something and thinking, “This would be hot for someone else, but I am not experiencing that thrill. I guess it’s cool that the characters are enjoying themselves?” The discomfort is a mismatch of reader and the work, and trying to figure out how to frame the book or large parts of it when I lack some important feeling-context.

I think it’s important to challenge myself and go outside my comfort zone every so often. It’s a way I can avoid stagnation in my thoughts and deeds, and how I can ask new questions of the world and myself. That’s how I grow.

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