Getting Out of Your Writing Comfort Zone

By Sophfronia Scott

I love the scene in the film Bohemian Rhapsody when the rock band Queen are in the office of a record executive discussing the group’s next album. The executive is saying they want another hit, like the band’s previous one. Roger Taylor says they can’t just copy their old work. “It’s not widgets we’re making!”

What the executive, who is only interested in selling a product, doesn’t understand is that challenge is the lifeblood of the creative artist. Only when you challenge yourself can you get out of your comfort zone and reach new levels of excellence. Only by seeking challenge again and again was Queen able to produce the sublime album A Night at the Opera featuring the epic song “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

My first novel is quite different from my second. The first, All I Need to Get By, is a contemporary story about a family dealing with drug addiction. The second, Unforgivable Love, is an historical fiction about sexual intrigue and power among the wealthy residents of Harlem in the 1940s. That shift was intentional. I wanted to challenge myself to write something with a grander scope, a more epic scale. I love how the book turned out but even more so, I look at it as a mountain I’ve climbed. Every time I hold a copy of it in my hands, I have a feeling of, “Wow! I did it!”

I like to think our work with students in the Alma College Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program is an ongoing challenge to change their writing life by writing something they never thought they would write. Then, because most of them have never done it before, our students get to stand up and read their work out loud in a room full of people. We do this because amazing things can happen when you leave your comfort zone.

I once witnessed this at a writing retreat. “Tony” participated in my workshops despite having only written material for business purposes. He often sat in the back of the room, but I could see when we worked with prompts or exercises that he was diligently writing.

Finally, during one sharing session, he stood up and read what he had written, and it was absolutely witty and delightful! I could also see a change in him — that he was excited about what he had written. I knew he would continue to do more. Of course, I hope for the same at every residency for Alma’s MFA students.

In fact, the students have two major presentations as degree requirements for the MFA. At their fourth residency, they present as a lecture the critical thesis that they wrote during their third term. In their final, graduating residency, they present a public reading of excerpts from their creative thesis, a manuscript representing the work they produced during their time in the MFA. The brief readings they’ve done at previous residencies and the coaching they have received from spoken word artist Dawn Daniels prepares them for this challenge.

The wonderful result of completing a challenge? The realization that you can do more.

And then the question, met with excitement and not fear, that follows: “What can I do next?”