The Edge of Discomfort

Hi everyone! I’m back from the other side of another deadline. I swear there’s some kind of gravitational pull between when I signed up on the posting schedule around here and when my books are due. Life works in mysterious ways.

I’m also back with another sports training metaphor. Y’all ready?

Okay, good. Let’s go.

When you train— and literally this is any kind of athletic pursuit— what you’re often going for is finding a place that is just beyond what you’ve done before. A way to push your body further. To make your muscles stronger. But not to push your body too far. That way lies injury. And trust me when I say, I’ve been there before.

Now, different sports have different ratios for this because they’ve got different goals. With boxing, you’ve got to learn to take a hit before you can punch someone else when you spar. This is truly never not scary the first time. Or even the third time. With distance running, you’ve got to do most of your runs at a comfortable, easy pace, while still being able to do a few workouts really outside of your comfort zone. You want to be able to go farther and also go faster. You’re building strength, but also endurance.

You are constantly proving you can to yourself, with these little victories, with these little tests. With every workout.

Writing is like this. Creative work is like this.

You want to push yourself with every work. But not too far, and not too fast.

You want to do the next thing, the thing that hasn’t been done before. But you don’t want to find yourself in the middle of a writing problem with no ability to get out of it.

And also, it depends on the work, doesn’t it?

If you’ve got a year to write a book, you’re going to push yourself in different ways than if you take two, or three years. Crunching down your writing timeline is its own unique form of challenge, which means, you may be sacrificing other additional challenges you would otherwise be able to reach for in terms of craft.

That’s okay, by the way. You’re allowed to give yourself the challenge of finishing a book faster than you have before instead of, say, attempting to write the next Great American Novel.

You’re also allowed to decide that you’d rather dive into some heady and new craft problems. And, usually, that means you’ll need more time. More space to give yourself the ability to learn and grow as a writer. That’s okay, too. Different goals means different challenges and different ways to push yourself as a writer.

There’s that great quote about how Stephen King writes ten good pages a day like a machine, producing book after book like he’s made of words.

Which, by the way, good for him.

But I have a feeling he didn’t start in that place. I have a feeling he slowly built the endurance and the stamina and the strength to be able to write that way. I have a feeling he pushed himself out of his comfort zone, little by little, until he was able to write in what is— to me at least— in this nearly superhuman way.

And just like in physical, athletic training, when you write you have to learn to listen to yourself. Learn when you’re quitting because you’ve given up. Learn when you’re going, going, going and you’re quickly approaching burnout. Learn that the rests are just as important as the time spent actively writing. Learn that you have to life a life in order to make interesting art.

You’ve also got to keep putting your butt in the chair and keep putting words down on the page.

Writing and training, to me, are inextricably linked. They’re things I do that are often uncomfortable— and occasionally painful— in order to get to a goal. I want a finished book, so I keep sitting down to write. I want to be able to one day do a triathlon, so I get on the bike and I train. I go out and I run. I still haven’t gotten to adding the swims to my schedule. Not yet.

That’s okay. I’ll get there.

The only substantial difference between the two for me is that I train to get out of my head and into my body, while I write to get back in my head again. But they’re both these enjoyable forms of suffering that I’ve chosen to spend my time and my energy and my life pursuing.

I’ve learned that the edge of discomfort in a bike ride or in a run is very similar to the edge of discomfort when I write.

There’s this space where you’ve put yourself in a position where you don’t know what the outcome will be. You sit down and you don’t quite know the book you’re going to write. You have a vision for what you could write. You know what you want to explore— the characters, the themes, the setting, even your timeline to get it done.

But you haven’t done it yet. You don’t know you can. You have to prove it to yourself. Every time you go out there, you have to prove it to yourself. Every time you sit down to your keyboard, you’ve got to prove it to yourself again.

So go out and prove it. Show up when you need to show up. And, not incidentally, take breaks so that you’re giving your brain space to reload again— with ideas and with words and with the ability to use those all important glycogen stores.

Keep finding that edge of discomfort. Maybe you too will become the ten good pages a day writing machine. Maybe you’ll write the next Great American Novel. Maybe you’ll write some entertaining books that make people laugh when they need to. I don’t know what you want or what your goals are. I’m just here to tell you that the only way I’ve learned to achieve them is by getting comfortable with being a little bit uncomfortable most of the time. By committing myself to these little challenges along the way to larger goals.

So keep trying things before you know you can do them. It doesn’t have to be climbing Everest. It can just be by going a little further than you’ve gone before. Sometimes just a little further is all you need to prove it to yourself that maybe one day you can climb a mountain.

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