A writer friend of mine, Sandra Wickham, was trying to brainstorm ideas and found herself, in her own words, “floundering.” She wondered aloud if people had any tips on how to dig deep for a big idea.
I expect she got lots of good advice, because if writers have anything in over abundance it’s advice. Myself included. But, here is what I told her:
“Take chances. Push the envelope. Think outside the areas you are comfortable in and imagine what makes you uncomfortable.”
This fits in with my own philosophy about writing. I don’t believe in playing it safe when it comes to writing. I don’t know if that has ever been part of my makeup when it comes to writing, but it may have been early on before I wised up. I grew up a big Henry Miller fan and he was a huge inspiration to me when I started to write in a serious way. You can’t delve into Miller and come away with the thought process that your writing should be dull and uninspiring. You may not like Miller, but you can’t argue he ever played it safe.
Remember Marathon Man, that movie with Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier? There’s a chilling scene where Hoffman is asked over and over again by Olivier, “Is it safe? Is it safe?”
As a writer I believe you should ask yourself the same question about every story you write. If the answer to any part of the story is Yes, it is safe…then you should probably pass it by unless you have a very good reason not to.
Here’s the reason. Let other writers write those safe stories. You need to concentrate on thinking outside the envelope and pushing past your comfort zone. It’s easy to write the same story over and over. But here’s the problem. Many other writers are already doing that. So you might as well take a chance and break out of that mold.
Sandra also mentioned in a conversation that she felt if she were a “real writer” she should have lots more ideas waiting to be written. As someone who has done this a long time I know from personal experience it’s not the number of ideas you have, it’s the quality.
And the quality comes, I believe, when you push yourself and try to work outside your comfort zone.
Some years back I used to train in Shotokan Karate. I got pretty good at it and was a final test away from getting my brown belt. But as I trained I learned it benefited me more to practice the things I wasn’t really good at more than the things I could do well. Writing is the same. There are probably many things about writing you can do well. So you need to work on your weaknesses instead. This is the mark of a good writer. This is the mark of a writer who grows.
Writing is hard enough without making it more difficult. A lot of these things come with experience and a belief in yourself. You gain a levels of trust and confidence within yourself as you advance. As you write and publish more stories you will become more secure in your abilities to take on new problems. Your writing will get better, and readers will definitely respond.
Or, you could write the same old safe story over and over again. You know. Like a lot of other people are doing.
Writing is an art form. Like all art you can be part of a crowd or break out. I once half-joked with another writer that if you’re not ticking someone off you are doing something wrong. But I was only half-joking, I think. Or, maybe, knowing me deep down, not joking at all.
I’m not saying it’s easy. I probably don’t succeed myself half the time. But the point is I try. And when I fail, I keep trying because the only other option is to play it safe.
That, more than anything else, is really what separates writers.