Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Drive into the Discomfort Zone: Four Roads of Counterintuitive Inspiration

Inspiration is an elusive goal.
Just when you have the perfect theme,  the ideal character, and the ideal setting; just when you have pumped life and wit into a beautiful balloon called a story, it happens. You sit at your desk or computer, and you begin to type. Without warning, that balloon slips from your fingers, flies crazily about the room and, phthhp! The last breath peters out of it. It hangs momentarily in the air, then drops limply to the floor. Spent. Lifeless. Flat.
You try to bring it back to life. You type the same sentence five times, hoping something different will magically appear. You consult thesaurus after thesaurus searching for the right word. Any word! You scream obscenities at the insensitive walls. You get a nasty phone call from the elderly lady living upstairs.
Eventually, you just give up. The effort is as worthless as trying to teach a wombat to steer a golf cart. There's just no point.
Before throwing your monitor into the recycle bin at the local Best Buy, however, you could try a less drastic alternative: View the re-inspiration process as a road trip.
Road trip? 
Of course. You know your destination––a good story. You simply have to chart a course to get there. 
You could take the normal roads, like buy an encyclopedia of writing prompts, listen to Beethoven, build a cabin in the Massachusetts woods. Heck! You could even watch reruns of Ren and Stimpy.
The well-traveled routes, however, are not necessarily the most exciting, rewarding , and effective paths. Instead, try this. Drive into your discomfort zone, that route that leads through the uncomfortable, the unsettling, the scary.
The discomfort zone is rife with negative emotions: fear, anger, frustration, lonely, disgust, etc. Amazingly, these negatives can result in a positive. When focused, they remind us of what we want our story to be, what we want our characters to portray, and the value of conflict in both the reading and writing process. 
With the inherent conflict of the zone, accompanied by our human "God wish" to fix things, we have the promises of a great story.
So how does one enter the discomfort zone? Here are four ways:
1. Do something you don't like. This could range from the simply irritating to the daunting. Easy tasks could be to purge your closets, your kitchen, or your library. Another could be to wash the week's dishes BY HAND. To make the uncomplicated more difficult, leave the mower in the garage and cut the grass...with a weed whacker. For a major shake-up, consider a new apartment, change your day job, or investigate that funky smell inside the refrigerator.
2. Examine your past. Remember that old English assignment "Describe your most embarrassing moment"? Do it again, this time for you. Don't worry. You don't have to be literary. The only one to read it is you. However, to make the account uncomfortable, include enough detail to be cringeworthy. Ideas: The time you mistook the finger bowl at a fancy restaurant for a dessert drink. The time the faucet in the restroom at a crowded Wendy's sprayed the crotch of your pants. The time you learned how babies were made and realized that your parents did that. Sure, these events are humiliating, but so what? We're all messes. Use those times. They're what make you human. When you fictionalize the events with hyperbole, what could have been, and what you wish had happened, you have a wealth of material to use.
3. Try something new. For some psychological reason, most of us resist change, whether good or bad. "I've never done that before, and I'm not gonna" becomes our mantra. Instead, enter the discomfort zone and embrace change. A new cuisine, perhaps, like Cajun, Texan, or North Dakotan...I know. I need to get out more. Give into the Rosetta Stone commercials and learn a new language while investigating the people who use it. Start a new hobby, like collecting ceramic ducks. All new challenges  result in failures, challenges, and accomplishments, all of which can find their way into a successful story.
4. Reach out. The most unsettling, yet potentially rewarding, venture into the discomfort zone involves people you don't know and probably won't like. However, as a minister once told me, all people have unsurpassable worth. To find it, we need to encounter them; talk to them; find out what, how and why they think as they do; and learn what we all have in common. That doesn't mean we have to like what we discover, but we will at least know and understand somebody we didn't before. As a writer, you may even discover something about yourself, which can find itself into your story. Self-discovery is a great theme.
One attraction of fiction writing as a profession or hobby is the opportunity and ability to control a world of your own making, particularly the story's resolution. By driving into the discomfort zone, you will discover conflict and the inspiration to fix it. 
Resolving real life conflicts, of course, is another matter, but know this: You solve more problems by facing them than by avoiding them. 
The first step is driving into the discomfort zone and breathing air back into the inspiration balloon.