Pushing The Limits

I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.
Pablo Picasso

I haven’t been doing much in the way of thought provoking posts lately–as that requires thought on my part, which requires sleep, which I haven’t gotten a great deal of lately until the last couple of days. But as I got up this morning and started going through the daily routine, I came across the quote above, and it struck a chord.

Writing, like life, is a learning experience. No matter how great your natural talent for wordsmithing, there are always things you don’t know. And clearly in order to grow as a writer, you have to confront things you may not be comfortable with, try new things that are out of your realm of experience–whether it’s tackling a controversial subject (Jodi Piccoult’s My Sister’s Keeper comes to mind), writing a character to whom you simply cannot relate, or deliberately creating and pushing through difficult scenes. Pot and I were talking about this a little the other day in honor of our one year crit partner anniversary. She mentioned how when she and I first began working together, I had said that I was terrible at love scenes and would more than likely always either skim over them or lead up and fade to black. Since then, I’ve written several that did neither. They aren’t necessarily outstanding–but they mostly don’t suck, and I’ve learned from the process. I pushed my limits as a writer. Joely and I had a conversation about this a while back regarding her Letters to an English Professor in which she deals with the issue of bondage–totally outside her comfort zone as a writer. But she did a great job–she presented it in such a way that I didn’t even squirm. Should be interesting to see how Conn’s brother turns out.

I think writing is a unique profession in that there is always room to grow, new directions to take.  Working in academia and sciences to boot, I’m accustomed to the idea of knowledge changing in the field and the necessity to keep up with current research.  But for some folks who work in other fields, they may feel somewhat stagnated after they’ve been in their job for a certain period of time.  With writing it is definitely possible to fall into a rut–you may find a formula that works for you and stick with it.  But after a certain period of time, your work begins to all have a ring of similarity.  And you may actually find yourself bored and dissatisfied with the hobby/career you love.  It’s the dreaded slump, and that’s often when writer’s block will hit.  That’s the point at which you should try something new.  Pick that controversial topic.  Strike out in a new genre.  See if you can change your voice.

We see this among some well known authors.  Mary Higgins Clark made the switch a few years back from writing exclusively in third person to first.  John Grisham decided to try totally different kinds of stories from the legal thrillers that made him famous.  Katie MacAlister is striking out in the mystery genre as Kate Marsh.  The changes aren’t always well received by readers–some readers keep coming back to the same authors because they like whatever that established formula is (that’s often the reason for “branding”–established authors striking out with new names like Nora and J.D. Robb–but that’s another kettle of fish).  But that doesn’t mean you, as a writer, shouldn’t try.  You might snag new readers.  But most importantly, you improve yourself.

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