Covewriter's picture
Covewriter from Nashville, Tennessee is reading & Sons March 9, 2013 - 7:05pm

Can we talk about this theory in conjunction with the " write what you know" theory?   I've been a big " write what you know" believer. I'm not a science fiction writer. But then when I break out from what I know it's kind of exhilarating. Still, I stay in a bit of a comfort zone and feel happy writing there. Thought this would be an interesting discussion. Your thoughts? 

Gypsyxt's picture
Gypsyxt from here and there is reading La Isla Bajo El Mar March 9, 2013 - 9:25pm

I don't think the two have to be mutually exclusive, maybe we can amend the statement to read "write what you know outside of your comfort zone?" My take on this is that it is worthwhile for an artist to work from a place of honesty and this to me implies some vulnerability, which can be uncomfortable. Also, I don't take writing what you know to be a literal statement. I think writing (including SciFi) is fundamentally based in the way a writer chooses to interperet their experiences of the world they know.

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On March 9, 2013 - 10:12pm

I don't think genre is necessarily a hindrence to writing what you know. Genre is simply a milieu, so if you "know" loneliness, or heartbreak, or addiction, or fury, or love, then write that story within the confines of the sci-fi room, or the crime room, or the horror room, or the romantic room.

TomMartinArt's picture
TomMartinArt from Amherst, MA March 10, 2013 - 10:25am

I toss this phrase in the same barrel with "everything happens for a reason" and "you can only achieve if you believe." Bunk.

iamsnaggletooth's picture
iamsnaggletooth March 10, 2013 - 12:15pm

I think 'write what you know' means you should write grass how you know grass. If you know grass is green, write grass green. If you've felt grass wet and cold on your feet, then write grass wet and cold on your feet. I think this means write what you physically, mentally, and emotionally know. I think it means to express things with honesty.

If we always stayed in our comfort zone, we would never progress.

As far as 'everything happens for a reason' goes, everything does happen for a reason. It's usually a past reason, though, not a future reason. Like the reason you broke down on I-95 is because you forgot to stop at a gas station, or you ignored your warning light. 

Courtney's picture
Courtney from the Midwest is reading Monkey: A Journey to the West and a thousand college textbooks March 10, 2013 - 2:51pm

"Write what you know," "no artist creates anything worthwhile from their comfort zone," and "sit down and bleed" are just expressions for beginners, in my opinion. I know the second one came directly from Clevenger's article this week, but still -- great advice for a beginner, terrible advice for intermediate or higher.

I'm in a type of Creative Writing 101 class (it's 206, but it's Intro to CW) and would love to scream that in some students' faces. They write sappy, 500 word essays about how their parents were shitty and they like dive bars because of its "atmosphere" that they can't get at home. If they could learn to write out of their comfort zone, they'd be a hell of a lot better.

But I don't think I have a comfort zone, or at least, my comfort zone encompasses everything. I can write about nearly anything with ease. Even the thing that made me cry a few days ago (reference to another thread) was way in my comfort zone -- it was about my mom. I can't think of anything more comfortable than writing about my mom.

I don't feel icky writing about rape or incest, or fetishes or paraphilia, or pedophilia or murder, or torture or whatever. I'm not desensitized, but what I study requires a detachment, and it's helped me get over the road bumps of "comfort."

Nick Wilczynski's picture
Nick Wilczynski from Greensboro, NC is reading A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin March 10, 2013 - 5:01pm

I always thought that the "comfort zone" was some sort of physical state of being.

So, get really drunk, and then in the morning when your head is killing you... write what you know.

Also, eat like 12 burritos.

MattF's picture
MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions March 10, 2013 - 5:42pm

This is a longish passage from Roberto Bolano's 2666 that speaks to the issue of comfort zones, even for our greatest writers. The POV Amalfitano is discussing a young pharamcist who always reads books during the nightshift, and one night he asked the pharmacist what books he liked:

"...there was something revelatory about the taste of this bookish young pharmacist...who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pecuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench."

I can't speak for Clevenger (whom you were quoting, I believe?), but I think this is what's meant by no artist creating anything worthwhile from their comfort zone, and I think it's quite different from the "write what you know" maxim, which is generally offered to new writers that don't yet have the confidence to embark.

TomMartinArt's picture
TomMartinArt from Amherst, MA March 10, 2013 - 6:18pm

As far as 'everything happens for a reason' goes, everything does happen for a reason. It's usually a past reason, though, not a future reason. Like the reason you broke down on I-95 is because you forgot to stop at a gas station, or you ignored your warning light.

I don't know if you're making a wry comment about how cause and effect governs things so technically the phrase works or really defending the phrase, but the phrase as intended means everything happens for a purpose.

That's the problem with platitudes and bible verses, everyone's free to interpret them their way. For the comfort zone phrase, if I pointed out an example of someone creating something arguably worthwhile from their body of experience and taking no risks, you (not you specifically sir, anyone) could defend your point by coming up with anything about the work that might have been vaguely uncomfortable to create, or even something unpleasant about the publishing process.

Platitudes 1) deal in both absolutes and vagaries and 2) stink.

Courtney's picture
Courtney from the Midwest is reading Monkey: A Journey to the West and a thousand college textbooks March 10, 2013 - 11:49pm

Wait, did this turn into a thread about consequentialism? If it did, I'm out.

Gypsyxt's picture
Gypsyxt from here and there is reading La Isla Bajo El Mar March 13, 2013 - 12:56am

I don't think these phrases are "Bunk."

And I think saying "everything happens for a reason" is just as valid as saying "everything happens for no reason." 

I think an underlying question here might be how you define art.

also in reference to the 2666 quote above: I think whether or not someone prefers one type of art over another is irrelevant.

that said, that shit about "real combat… against that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench" is fucking epic.

and I'm not being sarcastic. 

The fact of something being perceived by some, or even most to be sappy and idealistic or even fucking epic does not negate or even vaildate it. Unless we're gonna talk about some hateful hurtful destructive shit, it might behoove us to approach reading & writing with as much receptivity for what is being communicated as possible.

You don't have to like everything you read but you also don't have to shit on everything you don't like.

MattF's picture
MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions March 11, 2013 - 4:39am

And Covewriter, I didn't mean to sound dismissive of writing what you know, just that I perceive it as a different kind of advice.

I think Carver's a great example, as he credits reading Chekhov with allowing him write what he knows. He mentions reading stories of kings and larger than life quests, and then discovering the peasants and village life of Chekhov's stories as a kind of permission to write of the waitresses and salesman that we equate with Carver country. 

But then in Carver's best work you often get a sense of his grappling more directly with the man he'd been, what it means to let down those who loved you, what it means to be a terrible husband or father or to ruin people's lives with your own mistakes, which I think is what it means to write outside of a comfortable place.

Frank Chapel's picture
Frank Chapel from California is reading Thomas Ligotti's works March 11, 2013 - 4:49pm

You should take into account the worthwhile works which already exist and research the motivations of the artists who created them.

When i think 'outside a comfort zone' i think of stories like Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, dystopias like 1984, these things all make me uncomfortable. I assume the ideas and facts in them compelled the authors to write these stories, it all distubed them enough to drive them to write about it.

Paradoxically when one focuses on what they are writing they must be comfortable, away from distractions and physically well enough to carry out the task.

Have any of you read The Midnight Disease?

Covewriter's picture
Covewriter from Nashville, Tennessee is reading & Sons March 11, 2013 - 7:40pm

This feedback is awesome. Love all the comments so far.For me, I need to write what I know and take it to a higher level of meaning.  That's where I am right now. I'm thinking the meaning of write what you know changes as you grow in your work, yes? 

Covewriter's picture
Covewriter from Nashville, Tennessee is reading & Sons March 11, 2013 - 7:42pm

Frank I have not read Midnight Diseases. I did LOVE The Jungle though, all those years ago.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like March 11, 2013 - 10:38pm

They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

A lot of people actually would prefer to watch a kung-fu demonstration or staged fight in a film than see two guys beat the shit out of each other; just the way it is. But, as an analogy, what does this mean? The reality of comfort versus danger applies to both the writer and the reader. Even if an artist takes the risks, it won't mean that readers will follow. Indeed, most won't, which amounts to one more layer of risk (if one wishes to think of it in those terms.)

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated March 12, 2013 - 2:10am

I think this is one of those rules that isn't ever a good idea. You need a certain amount of comfort to have the freedom to make art.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts March 12, 2013 - 11:38am

It's not to say that useless, lazy, uninspired art can't be enjoyed for its pretty colors. You could do a wet fart on stretched canvas and call it art these days. Comfort to me reads more as opposed to effort, and effortless art imbues some admiration from me for its ability more than its meaning. If I felt in my comfort zone while writing then it's probably more like recording than crafting, and, even if it were some pretty good ass prose, I'd probably be cheating myself out of figuring out some important layers of meaning to the thing. If I were good enough or focused enough to hit that level at all, anyway.

I've always had some spite for "write what you know" just because that sounds so freaking boring. As an aphorism it works on a lot of good levels, though. I'd rather keep in mind "write what you need" and take the time to figure out what that really is. What I need to write is probably pretty well informed by what I know, but it's not limited to it.

Gypsyxt's picture
Gypsyxt from here and there is reading La Isla Bajo El Mar March 12, 2013 - 11:51pm

Susan Orlean via twitter: "If the story you're writing doesn't baffle you or scare you or surprise you along the way, you're not doing it right."

@Dwayne, I think maybe the comfort you're refering to directly involves the audience reaction... in other words, perhaps a "safe environment" with receptive, non-judgemental listeneres/readers provides that "comfort" to feel the freedom to make art. However, I would argue that art is essentially an act of rebellion, an act of expression that defies the environment/atmosphere it is unleashed upon and exists as its own entity.

@RNFLDCHEEZVMBVSSVDR, firstly, WTF user name??!! secondly, I want to agree with you but hesitate only because of your use of the phrase "useless, lazy, uninspired art" I may be a total hippie at heart, but I hate to say that any art is truly "useless," Sure you (or any other reader/watcher/listener) may not connect with it, but I hold to the belief that ALL art matters, wheter it matters only to the creator, or reaches an identifying audience, ART MATTERS.

 

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts March 13, 2013 - 12:26am

"Useless" to me being a kind of mix of qualitatively bad and, also, commercial when I use it there. Commercial art, by and by, is made to be disposable, to be ate up and crapped out. Not that you can't you enjoy it for being aesthetically sound. My main love personally as a reader is commercial fiction, which can have some pretty good intellectual worth, but really is little more than eye candy. But if we were going by that, saying artistic intent and effort were wholly related to worth, then genre-wise Sci-Fi would be the end-all, so that theory is somewhat flawed from the start. Art matters, sure, but there's art created naively, there's art created for money, there's art created out of mockery, etc. Not all art is created equally. And of course it shouldn't be.

Gypsyxt's picture
Gypsyxt from here and there is reading La Isla Bajo El Mar March 13, 2013 - 12:41am

@ RNFLDCHEEZWHATEVERTHEFUCK, I see where you're coming from and respect your opinion, but fail to understand what I'm perceiving as your emphasis on the intention behind the art in question... is it not possible that art can potentially take on an (unintended) life of its own, outside of the artists initial, intended impetus?

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts March 13, 2013 - 1:05am

Definitely, but that would be projecting from a reader's perception rather than a writerly one. To follow the analogy it would be more like outsider/folk art, or just plain naivete (or, conversely, exploitation, say when an artist banks on ambiguity to be played off as symbolically layered). Also keep in mind that I'm talking pretty much out of my butt.

Gypsyxt's picture
Gypsyxt from here and there is reading La Isla Bajo El Mar March 13, 2013 - 1:07am

LOL! we are all talking out of our butts. 

That said, I fart (respectfully) in your general direction!

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated March 13, 2013 - 1:21am

@XT - I meant you have to grow comfortable enough to think about your material. You might need to be outside the reader's comfort zone, but you have to get what you are writing about inside yours, at least a bit. If not you will let emotional reactions drag you everyplace. Good to be able to do your reader with your story, but you need control over it.

Gypsyxt's picture
Gypsyxt from here and there is reading La Isla Bajo El Mar March 16, 2013 - 7:48pm

@Dwayne, I'm interpreting your response as defining self-acceptance as comfort... of course I could be wrong here (and often am!)

I think this article identifies what I would like to say in a far more articulate manner than I am able to present: http://litreactor.com/essays/craig-clevenger/the-safety-of-transgression-versus-the-risk-of-honesy#comment-142303

 

edit: agreeing to disagree!

(thanks for the link tip)

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated March 13, 2013 - 2:30am

I am very literal XT. I meant you have to be comfortable with the material, not yourself. If you write about X, you have to accept X to have power over it. You can hate it, but it has to be the hate of traffic or your last year at a job before retirement. Something you know isn't going any place for a while so you learn to live with it.

To get a link to work you have to use the link button on the tool bar. I've read this already, and it is good, but I disagree. Once in a while a wall is a good thing to put between you and the reader, to make them feel outside so you can slowly bring them in. It is a tool, like any other. He is right, it is a hard one to use and people over use it.

http://litreactor.com/essays/craig-clevenger/the-safety-of-transgression-versus-the-risk-of-honesy#comment-142303