I have been thinking a lot about how our comfort zone — that place that FEELS right — is actually a really dangerous place to dwell if you have a vision to create a meaningful body of work. The ideas I have been exploring with writers and creative professionals is whether you need to place yourself outside your comfort zone on a consistent basis in order to find success.(Though, of course, there is no ONE way to find success.)
The question I am exploring is this: Is your comfort zone a trap?
I’m going to look at this from three different stages of one’s writing career:
- Developing an audience
Okay, let’s dig in…
Writing and Comfort
Let’s start with the writing process. This week, I taught a workshop to 5th graders at PS 123 in Harlem on ‘How to become an author.’ We talked about the phases of publishing (more on that below), but first I talked to them about the process of writing.
Me (right) with the students:
The students working:
The first example I gave was the book I am writing, and I showed them my 80,000-word draft, pointing out that it is both:
- An astounding achievement that required a lot of hard work.
- Total garbage that still requires months of research, and several more rounds of intense editing, including hiring an outside editor.
When I was at the school a few weeks prior, running a career workshop, one of the teachers pulled me aside afterward and thanked me for talking about the value of the revision process. He said that the kids feel that their first draft is their FINAL draft.
To show them what the writing process looked like, I showed them a slideshow of images that Miranda Beverly-Whittemore has been sharing on Instagram and Facebook over the past year as she writes her next novel. The book, June, is due to her editor in a week from now, and is set to be published a year from now. Below is what I showed the students.
Working on edits eight months ago on her front stoop:
How Miranda has developed a color-coding process for editing:
Her outline from three months ago:
Writing on a train:
Writing in her home office, a converted closet:
This photo actually may not be from June, but I made the point of how she is stealing work time (with beer, I believe) while her son is in ballet class:
Writing in a hotel room her friend gifted to her for a day:
Writing at night… making the point that likely Miranda would have preferred to be with family or watching TV…
The wall of her office with the book outline, checklists, and reference photos for the story:
Writing with her son:
Writing while on vacation:
Organizing reference photos from the house that serves as the location for scenes in the book:
How she is matching that house to deeper research into period houses:
A detail from that research:
My favorite photo of Miranda, where she describes herself as, “This is what a crazy person looks like, aka a writer under deadline.”
Make no mistake (and sorry if I am putting words in Miranda’s mouth), but Miranda is fortunate to have this life, to have this opportunity in her writing career. She LOVES this work as well.
But let’s be clear — it pushes her outside of her comfort zone. She’d likely rather be relaxing than writing on vacation; watching TV than writing at night; running errands rather than shoving work time into the 1/2 hour that her son is at dance class.
That this is her life is INCREDIBLE and WONDERFUL, but not always comfortable. And this is not an ‘all or nothing’ choice for her. It would be easy for her to justify that if she skipped taking exact measurements of the staircase from that house (which I know she did do), no reader would notice. There are thousands of decisions she has had to make in the past year alone about how to write the best book possible and also live her best life possible. (Sorry if I just got all Oprah on you.)
Then I told the students what lies in front of her this summer… Miranda has a new editor, who is very successful, having edited Gone Girl.
Again, the natural reaction here should be, “That is awesome for Miranda, what an incredible opportunity!” But in reality, there are aspects of this process that may be terrifying, or at the very least, uncomfortable. To have a new editor whose work style may be unfamiliar to you. This is going to be an intense partnership.
If you think I’m over-exaggerating, then tell me how you feel in the week before you start a new job. When you have left behind the job you knew and felt comfortable in, and are about to walk into a building with people you don’t know, some of whom will have very specific expectations of you. That, even though there will be wonderful moments, there will be challenges, and you have no idea what those will be or when they will show up.
What I was trying to show the students is that your comfort zone says, “Write down your great idea!” and then the next step is often, “Wait for validation.”
I wanted the students to see that your comfort zone may not be your friend if you have certain goals.
Publishing and Comfort
I was chatting with my friend Emma Dryden of drydenbks this week, and she told me about an analysis she did on how many people may touch a book inside a traditional publishing process. Obviously, each publisher is different, so your mileage may vary.
Emma framed this as, “Publishing personnel who each typically read and/or work on an author’s book in some capacity before, during or after the book is published.” Get ready to scroll:
- Deputy Publisher
- Editorial Director
- Editorial Assistant
- Creative Director
- Art Director
- Production Director
- Production Manager (oversees production: paper, printing, binding, specs, etc.)
- Production Assistant
- Pre-Press Operator
- Managing Editor
- Production Editor (oversees and coordinates schedules, copy editing, etc.)
- Assistant Managing Editor (aka Copy Editor)
- Marketing Director, Trade
- Marketing Associate
- Marketing Director, Education/Library
- Digital Marketing Coordinator
- Marketing Assistant
- Ad/Promo Director
- Advertising Director
- Publicity Director
- Associate Publicist
- Subsidiary Rights Director
- Subsidiary Rights Manager
- Sales Director
- National Accounts Director
- National Accounts Manager
- Online National Accounts Manager
- Sales Associate
- Demand Planning Director
- Demand Planner
- Reprints Associate
- General Manager (oversees business: P&Ls, finances, royalties, etc.)
- Financial Analyst
- Business Manager
- Contracts Director
- Contracts Manager
- Royalty Manager
- Royalty Assistant
+ PLUS Sales Representatives (independents, chains, online, chains, special sales)
+ PLUS Other assistants and associates within each department
+ PLUS Permissions Director, Legal Counsel, and other personnel who may not read/work on every book, but who are on staff to assist when required.
In our chat she mentioned that many new authors may know nothing of this process, and when trying to emulate their heroes, eschew the idea of having to embrace various elements of the publishing process. Yet, to some capacity, each author goes through their own version of these parts of the process.
That is likely pushing them outside their comfort zone — they would prefer to just write and try to manage the rest of their otherwise complex lives.
This all reminded me of John Green’s acceptance speech for the Indie Champion Award where he says he is often held up as someone who is “changing the publishing paradigm.” He said that is “b*llsh*t,” and then listed out the thousands of others who are responsible for his success.
He flatly states, “We need editors, we need publishers and we need booksellers.” For an author venturing into this field with an idea for a book, navigating this process can — again — be terrifying, or at the very least, uncomfortable.
As part of the workshop I conducted this week at PS 123, we had the students role play the process of finding an agent and a publisher. I pitched the book I’m writing to a student playing the role of an agent. Even pitching in this context left me red-faced and sweaty — again illustrating how even when there are ZERO stakes, the process is uncomfortable. Then the student playing the role of my agent pitched my book two two different students posing as publishers:
Developing an Audience and Comfort
Last week, I shared an inside tour of Kickstarter — the context was how my friend and client Sarah Towle just launched a campaign for her new book/app/tour.
For her, the Kickstarter campaign is part funding, but let’s face it, is also part marketing. She is asking her audience to support her vision not on the day of publication, but months before publication.
In the post, I summed up the experience so far this way:
“It’s exciting… and it’s terrifying! Which is what I find is exactly the place you want to be as a creator, on that edge between excited and terrified. Because otherwise, you likely aren’t doing enough to push your work into the world.”
This week Sarah held a launch party for the campaign, which again, underscored the ways a writer and creative professional can push themselves outside their comfort zone:
Here is Sarah speaking to the crowd:
Just look at the media setup from her host Julie Gribble and KidLit TV — the entire event was recorded and live-streamed:
Sarah had reached out to speakers, asked friends and colleagues for assistance, and even had her family working at the event. It’s easy to see the moment of the event itself (through these photographs) and say, “How lovely for you…” in a moment of envy.
Consider how much was involved in setting up this event, all on top of setting up the Kickstarter campaign itself. Even though Sarah is super talented and amazing and skilled, I can tell you, it pushed Sarah way outside her normal comfort zone to manage the 1,000 tiny decisions involved in getting to this moment.
What is my point with all of this? It’s certainly not to be a downer, but instead to encourage you to establish processes by which to embrace uncomfortable situations, instead of avoid them.
That your comfort zone can be a trap which holds you back.
I have written in the recent past about authors who will make pivotal career decisions based solely on comfort level. My previous two posts:
I think it’s worth noting that I am not advocating for someone to feel uncomfortable all the time; I’m not the kind of guy who does a workout while yelling, “Feel the burn!!!!” I do like to be comfortable.
Rather, I think there is a place for a discussion on the process of navigating discomfort and risk, instead of just looking for “best practices” to avoid that confrontation. (More on my thoughts on “best practices” here and here.)
Do you regularly step outside of your comfort zone?
If so, do you have a process to help you navigate it?