Feb 09, 2015
No Fool Like A Bold Fool: On Leaving One’s Comfort Zone, No Matter What
Thirty-three years ago, I took a fiction writing workshop in college - Sarah Lawrence - with the extraordinary Allan Gurganus. Allan set us to writing a story a week for the full year, an experience for which I’ve been grateful ever since. We had different sorts of prompts, different parameters for each assignment, and I don’t remember the exact prompt that led me to write a story about a nineteenth-century sheep farmer who took in a beautiful stranger, who, if memory serves, either baked him a lot of bread or spun his copious wool into yarn, but I do remember the beautiful stranger’s name: Genevieve.
I remember her name with a cringe – and will remember it that way all my days – because at a certain point, as she stood in his doorway, wrapped in her too-thin cloak, facing out toward the dark, snowy night, he spoke the immortal words: “You needn’t leave, Genevieve.”
(Read it out loud, if you are missing the point.)
Sadly, I didn’t catch it before making my copies and distributing them to the class. Inevitably, my classmates did. I don’t think any serious or lengthy teasing went on, but it was enough that a couple of people repeated the phrase with dramatic emphasis, and perhaps a few laughed. Perhaps more than a few. I was mortified. I am still mortified. The thought of that sing-song rhyme still makes me cringe.
You needn’t leave, Genevieve.
Did I mention that this was thirty-three years ago?
I assure you that in those three decades plus I have done a lot worse than write an inadvertent, inopportune rhyme. Yet this particular gaffe has a particular power over me. And I think I know why that is.
One of the great virtues of Allan’s class with its many imaginative prompts and oh-so-frequent assignments was that we were all forced out of our respective comfort zones. I was not then (though I might now be) inclined to write about nineteenth-century sheep farmers – or, maybe more to the point, about the origins of a Great Love. (I still struggle with that.) I am certain that going into workshop that day I not only felt all the usual worries about being “shot down” for lousy writing, I also felt the particular worry of someone who has tried something entirely new. And so, in the way of these things, feeling foolish about the rhyme became feeling foolish about the story which became feeling foolish about writing which became feeling foolish about ever having thought I could write which was really just feeling like a fool.
There are reasons comfort zones are called what they are. But then there are also excellent reasons to step out of them.
Like many writers who have work out in the world, I’m aware that the people who read my work do so with certain expectations. They think of me as writing a specific kind of story, usually big on what people call “interiority,” not so high on high drama. I’m also aware that so-called realist short stories in general, not just mine, are also often read with set expectations, particularly about their endings, which to put it very crudely, include a kind of upward turn, an opening up, a enlightenment which often feels like a lightening of a kind. The epiphany, the ray of sunshine just brushing the top of the glistening wheat field, pointing the way toward a brighter future and so on and so forth. . .
Or anyway, whether that gross generalization has merit or not, in 2006, just after getting my MFA, I felt myself in danger of writing too much to that expectation. The “final lilt” as I thought of it. But my loyalty to these endings seemed to me to be dishonest as they related to the human condition. I knew a family then who had been crushed by multiple tragedies all at once, and I knew that for them – as for many other inhabitants of this earth – there was no upward lilt to come, no moment of redemptive understanding; and I decided that as an artist, I had an obligation to try to make art that took that possibility into account. Art that didn’t braid itself to hope quite so tightly as my stories had done up until that point. Yes, those works had dealt with tragic situations more often than not, but they hadn’t revealed the chasm of pure, unwavering tragedy that runs alongside all our lives. And so I set myself the challenge of writing a short story that was a complete bummer. But still a story. But still a bummer. But still good.
The result was the title story of my collection If I loved you, I would you tell you this - first published in the Southern Review as “A Fence Between Our Homes.” And it is definitely a bummer. It is also, decidedly, not to everybody’s taste. I spoke with more than one publisher about my collection before signing with the one I have, and while the editor who ultimately took the book told me that that story was what sold her on me, someone else who was interested in the collection, added the caveat that the same story would have to be cut. “It’s just too much. Too over the top. I’m sure you understand.”
And, as perhaps always happens in matters of taste, both turned out to be right. Right, and in plenty of company. When the collection came out, it was the rare review that didn’t single the title story out as either the high point or the low point of the book.
One more related anecdote: When writing my novel, Life Drawing, I realized at a certain point that there was going to have to be an event in the book quite unlike anything else I’d ever written. I won’t go into details (Hey! Maybe you’ll read it one day!) but it’s definitely not something that fits in with the general tone of my previous work. And writing that part of the book felt risky to me; but necessary. To avoid writing it felt, well, like avoidance. Like choosing safety, choosing comfort, over what I believed artistically correct. So into unfamiliar territory I stepped. . .
And, sure enough, once again, this element of the novel is the thing most often singled out by readers and reviewers both, as either the high point or the low point of the book.
I recognize that what I’ve written here about the responses to those two works sounds pretty resigned, pretty thick-skinned. Some love my work, some hate it. C’est la guerre. But in fact, I have found the criticisms of these two examples to contain in them a spark of what I think of as my Genevieve Moment. I’m not just upset or bummed when someone hates that tragic story or says that this un-Robin-like element of my novel doesn’t work, I’m also oddly embarrassed. Because I know that I tiptoed onto unfamiliar ground. I presumed to try something new, and some noticeable percentage of the people who read those pages kind of wished I’d just done what they’d seen me do before. Maybe because this isn’t what they read me for. Maybe because, unpracticed at what I attempted, I made mistakes or went too far. Maybe tucked into those moments of my bravery there are, unknown to me, inadvertent funny little rhymes – or an equivalent. Resonances of clunkiness, just where I was going for delicacy.
Whatever its genesis though, there is no question that criticism for something I feel was a risk has a different quality to it, a greater potential to make me feel foolish, a potential to make me meeker about challenging myself next time.
Oh, never mind. It’s back to muted drawing-room dramas for me. . . Sorry about that.
But then I – we - have to take the other side into account: the people for whom these experiments of mine ended up being the most powerful aspect of the work. I have to remember them, even though, for us all, it is almost magically easy to let any criticism eclipse all praise. . . And I’ll go further here. I not only have to remember those people, I have to somehow imbue their encouragement with the same power, the same unique quality I so easily give to the detractors of work about which I feel most vulnerable. If the critics make me feel foolish for having tried, then those who appreciate the risks must have equal power to further embolden me.
And in fact, I will even go a step further, because I think this is perhaps the lesson here: When dealing with responses to work that helps one evolve and change and grow, missteps and all, the voices of encouragement should not only balance those that are critical but negate them entirely. Not because one shouldn’t ever to listen to constructive or helpful criticism, but because in the specific case of writing that takes you out of your comport zone, and that seems to have succeeded for some readers, there is no role for voices that may push you back to where you feel safe.
No role. Hands over ears. La-la-la-la-la- la. . . .