My 8th grade English class was legendary. I was in honors English, and it was a smaller class of relatively intelligent, eager minds for a bunch of kids still stuck in junior high school. But it wasn’t us that made the class memorable for all-time, it was our teacher, Mrs. Temples.
Mrs. Temples never accepted our phone-in efforts, and she somehow figured out a way to push us beyond what we thought we could do to develop our minds and tastes. She introduced some of us to our first Stephen King and Shirley Jackson stories (“Survival Type” and “The Lottery”), quizzed us on the Abbott and Costello skit “Who’s on First?”, let the girls and boys compete with who could perform a better rendition of Bing Crosby’s “Melekalikimaka,” and assigned us the most influential stories and books I would read as a young adult. We never knew what to expect from her every class, and that’s one reason she was such an exciting teacher. To our credit, I once went back to visit her after I graduated from high school, and she told me my class was the best she ever had, because we actually went along with and understood her challenges and her mantra of trying to push beyond our limits.
But one of the most indellible lessons for me may have only been an aside; truthfully, I can’t remember what author she was talking about at the time (It could very well have been Shirley Jackson), but I do remember the idea being posed to me as a sort of challenge in disguise. Mrs. Temples said the author we were about to read did something very rare, in that he or she wrote from either side of the spectrum. Most authors, she said, (And I’m doing a horrible job of paraphrasing, so I do apologize, Mrs. Temples…) have a sort of specialized niche they focus on, and it’s the rare writer that travels far outside of that comfort zone. I don’t think she was merely talking about genres; that was only part of it. It also had to do with themes, concepts, and values. Ever since I heard that statement, I’ve been looking for authors who do write at both ends of the spectrum, and now I am trying it in my own fiction.
After I finished my first novel, an epic fantasy, I wanted to cleanse myself of the world I’d fabricated. I was burned out, to tell the truth, after about the third complete rewrite, and I didn’t want to even think about constructing another fantasy, or writing a sequel to what I’d just finished. But I was quickly falling into post-novel depression, and had to start working on a new project before I felt like I could never write again. It was my new story that pulled me out of my blackest hole of misery, dusted me off, and gave me something fresh to look forward to.
What I begun was something completely different, something I’d never tried before: a non-genre Young Adult novel. My comfort zones are fantasy and horror, and this featured neither elements in it. I thought it would be a nice new plain to venture out on, a fresh start to a clouded mind. As it turns out, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
The research. Oh, the research! This is the single thing that has caused more road blocks than anything wtih my new story, as my WIP is set in the early 90s, before I really locked on to the current culture and arts. For someone who was used to just making up shit whenever something needed explanation or backstory, actually having to put the writing aside to fact-check and authenticate little details was torture. Is torture. I’m still in the middle of it, though most of my research is probably stretched to where I can pull off the story without needing to look more facts up at this point. Thank God.
I still feel remnants of that post-novel depression, and it is coupled with writer’s block when I can’t simply make something up to get my characters out of a jam. Now I know why most writers don’t write at both ends of the spectrum: it’s torture! It’s not natural; it goes against the instincts and knee-jerk reactions. My own imagination isn’t hardwired to think about how stuff would happen in the real world; I’m much more apt to throw in a magical or horrific element than simply try to figure out a realistic way for my characters to escape dire situations. (This is where I kick myself for being a hermit and rarely getting in trouble as a kid. I could’ve been researching life for future stories!) Since I didn’t experience a lot of hard times or major trouble in my teenhood, my novel is probably more on the light-hearted side; that’s why I’ve decided to keep it in the vein of all of those John Hughes movies that are so beloved by the world. I was a wacky kid, so I understand how to write that, at least.
I hope this exercise in writing outside of my comfort zone pays off through developing areas of my imagination I may not have otherwise tapped. I’m realistic enough to know I’ll never be a legendary writer like Shirley Jackson or Stephen King, those highest tips on the pyramid we all aspire to be, but at least I’m trying to broaden my writing so that I’m not pigeon-holed as an author who sticks to one area of the story spectrum. I don’t want to recycle the same stories and ideas over and over again, and if I should ever find myself doing that, I’ll hang it up. Because if I’m not challenging myself, and therefore not pushing the limits to be better than I believe I am, what point is there in writing at all?