Stepping Out of the Comfort Zone

Next month at this time, I’ll be preparing for a one-week trip to Guatemala.

Oh, who am I kidding. I’m preparing now. There’s a lot to do, and even though much of the trip will be unscripted, I know at least some of what I’ll need to have while in-country. It helps to know I won’t be alone, that I’ll be with my travel mentor Laura, one who’s been to Guatemala numerous times and can do a little hand-holding before, during, and after. It isn’t just a matter of going to another country. This is a land of expansive beauty, richly embroidered history, ruins dating back centuries, all elements which send my heart racing with excitement. Then throw in a language barrier, an unfamiliar culture, and the (small) potential for risk, and that sums up the brew churning in my brain right now. There’s no predicting every contingency for this kind of adventure, so we’ll need to be flexible, ready to roll with whatever Opportunity throws our way. It’s a relief to have someone to turn to with questions, yet I still have to admit I’m a little nervous. This is almost completely outside the box for me. In some ways, it feels like a blind leap into the unknown.

In some ways, it’s the same with writing—a task that goes so far beyond simple typing of words and putting them together into a logical storyline. For a piece of prose to have real lasting impact on its reader, the words must be carved directly from the writer’s soul and pieced together with tears, with blood. A good story/memoir/essay is nothing less than the very essence of the writer spread onto the page/screen. Thus writing is an intimate undertaking. Sharing it is doubly so, like laying bare one’s most intimate feelings for the world to see. To seek—and obtain—publication is therefore a leap of faith that can be both exhilarating and torturous.

I see enough comments on Twitter from others in the writing community to afford an expectation—even after a writer has been accepted for publication, the process of getting from signed contract to published book is like riding a narrow trail around a mountain ledge on a Harley at top speed. They’re ecstatic, as they should be. Also, their jaw is clenched, their hair is standing on end, and they’re hanging on for all they’re worth. Further, they know that the trail doesn’t end. There is no bottom of the mountain (at least one hopes not) where everything levels out and becomes “safe” once more. On the other side of this crest, there will be another.

Because the writing life is exactly that. Each book is followed by the next, and thus is a career made. It’s a series of risks. Tried and true might sell a few copies, and certainly readers have expectations from every genre. But the writers who transcend those boundaries, the ones who venture out on those ledges where the next step is not so certain—they’re the ones who leave legacies and set new bars for the rest of us to meet. Striving to be “that writer” can be grueling, a never-ending challenge on which to prop a life’s work. Yet it is that endeavor—in competition not with any specific writer, but with our own past skill sets—that hones our talents and brings our writing to the next level. And the one after that, ad infinitum. There is no top of the mountain either.

The would-be writer faces plenty of trials. Long hours, days, weeks, months, sometimes years before we see our efforts come to fruition. Add to that the struggle to create believable worlds and characters, captivate readers with intriguing plots, and keep the ideas fresh, exciting. If that weren’t incentive enough to turn some from the path, stir in a plethora of form rejections, bad reviews, and low sales. Someone outside the writing community might scratch their heads and say we’re insane to keep trying.

That is not unlike some of the reactions I’ve gotten to my travel plans. The news media delights in telling us the world can be a dangerous place. That may be so, yet I believe worlds of beauty and adventure await those brave enough to step outside their comfort zones. Scary as it might sometimes be, I have learned that with traveling, as with writing, the greatest reward comes in forging ahead despite the challenges. Gratification can be earned, but only if you don’t give up. Perhaps, even if in some small measure, fear is part of any great act. It is when we face it head-on that we step up, step out, and grow.

What fears or trials are holding you back in your writing career? In your life? What steps might you take to overcome them?

Lago de Atitlan photo courtesy of Mailanmaik

Biker photo courtesy of Mohamed Hassan