In my quest to write as much as I possibly can this year — in an attempt to push and challenge myself, because I need it — I started writing a lot of “fluff.”
And I don’t mean that I began writing aimlessly just to increase my word count (though the fluff did help with that). What I mean is that I stopped taking my writing quite so seriously. I kept my focus on my professional work and treated that with the seriousness and care it deserved. But I also started spending my evenings (and sometimes even my mornings) writing stories I was never going to show to anyone.
I’m a huge advocate for “creating when no one’s watching.” There’s great value in isolated experimentation. Everyone needs a bubble where they can throw around new ideas, let their prose go off the rails, and test what they are creatively capable of without worrying about people judging their choices.
I grew very fond of this bubble. I started spending a lot of time in there, determined to put in as much “practice time” as my days allowed. Which is not at all a bad thing, by the way. The more you train yourself to let go and go with your creative instincts, the better you’ll become at telling stories.
The problem was, I got a little too warm and cozy in that bubble. Because it turned out, without realizing it, that bubble took me back to a place I’d thought I left behind for good: my creative comfort zone.
I realized I had been spending nearly a month telling different versions of basically the same story. I kept the topics safe and familiar — things I often wrote about and felt I could pull off with the least amount of effort. Was I technically getting more writing done? Yes. But I wasn’t challenging myself the way I had set out to do at the beginning of the year. I was just filling space. Filling time.
I like to consider the writing time I spend in this cozy bubble my creative “comfort food.” When it comes to pantry snacks, potato chips are my go-to “stress relief” food. I could eat those things by the handful — okay, if I’m honest, by the bag. They fill me with familiar comfort when I need it most. They also fill me with calories. Technically chowing down on comfort food counts as part of my daily food consumption. But as much as I’d love to only eat potato chips all day every day, I couldn’t thrive on fried tuber slices alone.
I also need, you know, vegetables. And fruit. And protein.
In other words (HA) I need to write things with a little bit more substance a little more often.
There is nothing wrong with eating a handful or two of potato chips in a day. As long as you are balancing that out with fiber and vitamins and other “good for your body” stuff.
There is nothing wrong with writing fiction that does not involve trying very hard. As long as you are also writing things that challenge you and expand your horizons and make you think more deeply and creatively.
Practice time as a writer is good. But what are you “practicing” for if you never apply what you’re learning on your own writing time to something other people are going to see?
As with all things, there has to be a healthy balance between comfortable things and challenging things. I wouldn’t say I have this balance mastered. In fact, I’ve really been struggling with it lately. Some days it’s just easier to write whatever you want instead of sitting down to write something that’s going to stretch you to what feels like beyond your limits.
We all need to stretch, though. And while SOME writing is certainly better than NO writing, you can’t spend all your time staying comfortable. That’s not how we grow. That’s how we stay the same, always writing the same old things, always sticking with what we know and what’s familiar.
You are always welcome back to your bubble in moments you need relief. You don’t have to get rid of it forever — in fact, you shouldn’t. But step out of it on more occasions that you snuggle into it. Don’t just write what comforts you. Write what scares you. Write about what you don’t fully understand, so you can learn as you go. Write things that exhaust and move you. That’s how you know you’re thriving. You wear yourself out, but in a good way.
I always have at least one bag of potato chips in the pantry in case I ever need them. But I don’t always. I feel much more energized, much more fulfilled, when I choose comfort food as a reward instead of using it as an escape.
Write what you have to, maybe. Then write what you want to. Get out there, learn new things, write new stories. Then take some time to curl up in comfort and be proud of what you’ve accomplished.
Balance. It’s difficult to achieve. But it works.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.