Expanding Your Comfort Zone

This will no doubt sound like one of those hypotheticals, but here goes anyway:

I have a friend (see?) who is very bright and an excellent writer. When we first met at the beginning of first year of uni, it was one of those mutual admiration things with Jane (not her real name) reading all my work and offering thoughtful feedback and myself returning the favour. However, as the months went by, Jane seemed to slowly lose her enthusiasm for university. She began to skip classes and would make bold and disparaging comments in the classes she did attend – comments which could often not be justified because Jane was relying on internet cheat sheets instead of actually reading the texts and thinking about them by herself. Jane disliked several tutors (mainly because they called her out on her statements, asking her to back up her points with evidence) and ultimately began to narrow her focus down, on the creative writing side. Finally, by the end of third year, settling on just one specialism – dramatic writing. She was a good scriptwriter, but gradually it became apparent that her work was on the self-indulgent side. Every play was centred about herself, her needs, her wants and how awful everyone and everything else was. Nihilistic narcissism is her niche.

So now, as we head into third year, Jane is still clinging to drama, has nurtured hatred for even more tutors as well as a vast number of our classmates and claims that university has ‘ruined her writing talent’. We are still friends, although, as this blog shows, my patience is wearing thin.

As for myself: I have learned that the way to be a writer is to read a lot – continually and widely; to write a lot – try get some words down everyday, even if they come out fighting and refuse to flow, the more you write the less blocked you will ever be!; and to push yourself out of your comfort zone.

As an example, my poetry is bad. So bad. I don’t ‘get’ modern poetry, at all. (I quite like some of Carol Ann Duffy’s work and one or others, but Dr Seuss is still the bomb!) For me, in order for something to be a poem, rather than just ‘chopped up prose’, it needs to have rhythm. It does not need to rhyme, necessarily (and that’s a lesson you can chalk up to uni, before I would have insisted on ‘proper’ poems rhyming – not only that, rhyming consistently ALL the way through!) But rhythm is vital. Rhythm makes words into poetry, it makes it sound like music when it is read aloud.

So, when I was invited to write a poem for a contest, I spent hours and days working on a simple poem. I wrote and rewrote it, I put in descriptions and then stripped them  back down, I agonised over the punctuation and I read other poems by the score.

Finally, when I felt it was ready, I submitted it to the contest and then did my best to forget about it – I am well aware of my poetic limitations. Then, the next time I met Jane, she showed me a couple of her single scene playlets (as always, strongly centred around a theme of ‘Jane’!), so I thought I’d get her opinion on my poem. Her eyes flicked over the page for about twenty seconds, then she said, ‘I’m not a fan.’

That was it – no advice on how to improve, not even a reason for WHY she wasn’t a fan, just a bald ‘I don’t like it.’ Now, as you’ve no doubt gathered, I’m sensitive about my poetry, and, yes, Jane’s 20-second dismissal of it stung, but life will go on, (and I have recently written a review and a piece of flash fiction, both of which are being published later this year, so my slightly shredded  confidence is somewhat assuaged.)

However, now that a couple of weeks have passed, I have managed to soothe my stinging pride and can look back on the whole incident with equanimity. So a friend doesn’t like my poem, it happens. Am I pleased that I wrote and sent off what seems to be bad poem?

Yes. I don’t like poetry much, and I know I’m not terribly good at it. While I don’t expect to win the contest – I don’t even expect to be shortlisted into the top ten per cent – I am glad that I stepped up to the challenge and that I tried my best. I may never write good, or even acceptable, poems  but I will continue to try my hand at them every now and then.

Just so that I don’t wake up one day and find myself with a small and shrinking skill set in a miniscule comfort zone, trying to blame everyone and everything else for my limitations.

Like Jane.

Below I’ve posted the story that I mentioned a few blogs ago, the one that was reviewed as being a ‘dramatic essay’ rather than a story – let me know what you think it is in the comments below: essay or ‘real’ story?!

Photographic Memories

Friday was date night for Shelley and Jake. Shelley automatically snapped a photo of her laden black stone plate which she tagged wittily then uploaded to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. She tucked her chair closer to the table and spread her paper napkin in her lap, wishing that she felt comfortable tucking it into the top of her shirt in public – she knew the likelihood of cheese or oil dripping onto her shirtfront was high: it happened every time.

She bit into her pizza and closed her eyes in pleasure at the perfect blend of cheese, soft bready dough and the tart undertow of tomato paste. Jake took a piece of his pizza and ate it thoughtfully, watching her.

‘Why,’ he asked, chewing pensively, ‘do you always take photos of stuff?’

She opened her eyes and regarded him.

‘I mean,’ he continued, oblivious to her affronted ice-blue glare, ‘it doesn’t matter where we are or what we’re doing, you take pictures of whatever we eat and drink, before we go out there’s selfies of us in whatever we’re wearing to go out, and then there’s about a million pictures when we’re there. But we don’t ever do stuff because you’re so busy taking pictures of us getting ready to do stuff and posing with other people that there’s no time to actually do the stuff.’ Jake looked at Shelley as he stopped talking, and realised that not only did he – unusually – have her full and undivided attention, he had her full and undivided angry attention. ‘Wh-what?’ he faltered, suddenly uncertain.

‘For your information,’ she stated, coldly, ‘I take photos for my journal, so that when I’m older I can remember what I did in my late teens and early twenties.’

‘But do you honestly want to remember this particular pizza by itself? I mean, I’m not in the photograph, you can’t see the name of the place – it’s just a pizza on a plate. There’s no… no…’

‘No what, exactly?’

‘No context! Your Instagram is just picture after picture of food! I challenge you, right here and now, let me pick three photos and see if you can tell me where you were, what you did and who you were with?’

Shelley gaped at him for a long moment and he waited, sure that, at last, she would say something real, something honest, something deep. But then:

‘Let’s take a selfie!’ She bustled around the table, held her phone up above head level and leaned in close, raising her eyebrows and pouting. Jake glared at the small screen, refusing to smile, refusing to partake in her corruption.

He wondered, as she exclaimed delightedly over the image, cooing and showing it to him as she readied it for upload to her various social media platforms, whether primitive peoples had actually been right all those years ago, in believing that the camera stole a small part of the soul with each picture taken.

 

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