Comfort Zones

I came to Alaska as a generalist, one of two teachers plus a principal charged with teaching all courses at a high school with an enrollment of thirty-three. Back then, being a generalist was a good thing. You could consider yourself a Renaissance person of sorts, despite the other, less-flattering label of being Jack of all trades, master of none.

These days, you’re supposed to specialize, in education as well as in business and, by extension, in life. Not specializing early in one genre was probably a mistake in my mostly-agentless writing career. I suppose it’s never too late to settle into one niche, and perhaps I will now that I’m writing full-time and not quite so frantic to prove myself financially.

My generalist tendencies were all the excuse I needed to attend the screenwriting workshops last weekend, hosted by the Alaska Film Office and led by Dave Hunsaker. Though chances are good I’ll never attempt a screenplay, I’m glad I went. Looking at scripts forced me to think about stories in a different and more fundamental way.

Even when we don’t specialize by genre, our writing styles become a specialization of sorts. Certainly one of the toughest parts of writing is balancing what we naturally do well with what we could do better. While I suspect I’d struggle with the stripped-down style of screenplays, I love working with landscapes, about which David Vann posted yesterday. (If you haven’t read David’s post yet, by all means do; it’s one of the finest craft pieces we’ve had the privilege of posting.) Not surprisingly, he cited some of my favorite books and writers as fine examples of honing landscape. But I know good, intelligent readers who more or less detest those same books. So they may not be overly impressed with my style, either, though I suspect they’re too polite to say so.

In politics, I force myself to read and listen to those I disagree with. It’s not always pleasant, and I admit to some unflattering backtalk, but I think it’s an important exercise in balance. In literature, I mostly read what I admire, the kind of writing that would please me to produce. But there’s still enough of the generalist in me to believe it’s good to read – and to write, if only as an exercise – outside my comfort zone.

4 thoughts on “Comfort Zones”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Good to see you at the workshop, Deb. The room was packed with about 70 writers, many of them without previous screenwriting experience but interested in finding out whatever they could. I thought it worth commenting on this example of the Alaska spirit — we all seem more ready to take the leap into the unknown. Lack of degrees or experience be damned, Alaskans love to take chances, and I love them for it. (I know this is also how we got our present governor, but let’s focus on the positive.)

  2. Yes, the dichotomy. But in stretching ourselves, we can still take time to blink, right? I’m fascinated by the tension between confidence and grandiosity and plan to post on that one of these days.

  3. nothing wrong with being a generalist.if you know where to get pertinent information when you need specifics.
    but you are right when you say writing a play is totally different.i had a history college professor that wrote a short play on the colleges history for a dog and pony show in my senior year.normally an excellent teacher,erudite,funny.i loved him to death.well, the play sucked! boring!.but we still loved him!

  4. And so back to my preoccupation with confidence: did the prof know the play sucked and was boring? I assume not, or he wouldn’t have let it go on. Is there just an assumption that because one is literate, one can write in all genres? I don’t think this happens as much in other arts – a terrible painting or crappy piece of music doesn’t get shown around with pride.

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