It was involuntary. They sank my ship.
-John F. Kennedy
(when asked how he became a war hero)
The unexpected happens: you react.
Not because you want to or choose to or are following a premeditated plan, but, instead, like the ship that scuttled JFK’s PT boat, you act in order to survive. Lose a loved one. Lose a job. Lose a home. Lose health. With your back against the wall and nowhere to go sometimes there’s no choice but to act in the face of fear and the unknown.
This specific, heart-rending spot of getting shoved out of a comfort zone is what I’ve been trying to zero in on this week for my book. The moment of no return when my protagonist Johanna must act because of events completely outside of her control. It could be when her husband, Theo dies, or perhaps when he’s sick. Or perhaps when Vincent van Gogh commits suicide. What I do know is that it must be when an external event is so forceful she has no choice but to act.
It’s the point where the book will start.
She will be her own worst obstacle because she will be so resistant to change.
Her resistance is normal. As human beings we are wired for survival. We resist change because a new idea can mean leaving the familiar — even an uncomfortable, horrible familiar — in order to move into the unknown or unexpected.
So a comfort zone may not be good or healthy but it can be really tough to face the resistance to leave it. It can create the urge to take the easy way out. The problem is the easy way out can mean delaying inevitable change and even losing the chance to leave behind the old and, instead, break through to something new.
I have two examples that make this point:
- Nora Ephron, writer and filmmaker, relates in her book, I Feel Bad About My Neck, how she was struggling with writing her first movie script when she heard about a hefty inheritance she would be receiving. What a relief - she could stop grappling with her writing and use the unexpected financial gift to pay the bills. Instead, the actual amount turned out to be much smaller so she had to return to the script and finish it. It was When Harry Met Sally. This hugely successful movie — plus Nora’s succeeding films Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail — are romantic comedy classics. Nora is credited with creating the rom-com movie genre with these films.
- Will Terry, children’s book illustrator, shared in a podcast interview, of a low point in his career when he'd gotten himself into a financial pickle during 2008’s economic downturn by taking on too much debt. At one point, his father offered to ask a wealthy relative for financial help to save Will's house. Will describes how a voice in his head said, “Yes! Yes!” but out of his mouth came, “No.” And, subsequently, he discovered new ways for his illustrations to generate revenue. Today he credits that single decision to determine his own way as the impetus to discovering new creative ventures. He says, “If I had taken that money, I don’t think I would be doing the things I’m doing today. Today my life feels so much better and happier, almost zero stress."
These are success stories, but, If you’ve ever resisted leaving your own comfort zone, then you have an idea of how this struggle feels. In a way, right now, I feel like I’m doing this every week by choosing to write. So many voices in my head tell me I’m an imposter: "Who are you kidding, Joan?” I saw an estimate that 81% of adults feel they have a book in them. In my writing class I found out the majority of people never get beyond writing three chapters. The numbers add up to more people failing, then succeeding, at writing.
But I do feel sure that if I don’t persist, I will be far more miserable in the long run. It would be so much more comfortable to stop, but the regret will carry a higher cost of feeling disappointed that I didn’t try.
Perhaps this will be how Johanna feels about her struggle too.
How I'm Writing the Book
Story Genius: Week 6 is this week with a scary assignment from my writing class to write the opening scene of the book, pinpointing the moment of no return for Johanna.
Books I'm reading: Still reading the non-fiction Chaos Monkey by Antonio Garcia Martinez about Silicon Valley. I’ve also just started the novel Blindsighted by Karin Slaughter, a murder mystery thriller in a small town for my Villa bookclub.
I’ve been under breathtakingly pure blue Tucson skies this past week at an exercise/spiritual/no-cell-phone spa with a group of girlfriends. It took me a few days of unsnarling mentally to reach a wonderful sense of mental and physical balance. There’s something about the sound of a gentle babbling stream and blooming cactus and mountain vistas that magically melts away tension.
Then on Saturday I travelled to Flagstaff to hug Eric and Angela and take care of fun wedding stuff (67 days away!) as well as meet their goofball greyhoundish dog, Kota. Several times a day he greeted me with startled barking that sounded like, “You’re still here?!!!” Mother-in-laws-to-be get no respect.
Here’s a final word from JFK:
Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past and present are certain to miss the future.
Time for a change?