Comfort Zone: Enter at Your Own Risk

by Mary Dawson

What is the greatest fear of any writer? Probably the dreaded malady known as writer's block -- that terrifying experience where you sit down before a blank piece of paper and absolutely nothing comes to mind. Not one creative flicker! You may sit there for hours and still -- nothing! Then the Doomsday fears begin... What if you are never able to write again? What if your best days are behind you and your artistic cells are turning to mush? Most writers have been there...done that...and have lived to tell. Writers block, though very uncomfortable, is usually not terminal. When you least expect it, a great idea rises to the surface of your mind and you are back in the "divine flow" again.

I would suggest that there is a far greater danger for the creative soul -- the perilous area known as the Comfort Zone. You know how it goes. First, you become aware that you have a talent for songwriting. You like to do it and people respond to what you have written. You enjoy the creative experience, the recognition that follows -- and so, you do it again. More pleasant feelings and responses. Pretty soon you are cranking out melodies and lyrics by the dozen. They're coming easier now...and faster...but if you are not extremely careful, you will wake up one day to find yourself in the dreaded Comfort Zone -- that place where all your songs begin to sound alike.

Be honest. You know what I'm talking about. Every songwriter has struggled with it. You know four chords well on the guitar, so you write every melody over those same four chords. Your fingers just naturally gravitate to them…that same progression...that same sequence. And in case you are still in denial, there are only so many melodic notes that can connect those same harmonic dots, so pretty soon your melodies start sounding the same. But it's not just guitar players who are guilty here. Keyboardists…time to 'fess up. We do the same thing. Even the great Burt Bacharach admits:
I can't say enough about where your hands tend to go, because they've been there before ...You'll write what your hands can play instead of what an orchestra can play.1
And lest you think I am picking on composers, lyricists can fall into the same trap. We become comfortable with single syllable rhyming words like true-blue-do-you, and we keep using them again and again. After all, it's so much easier to use those familiar rhymes than to force yourself to learn a new vocabulary word that might require some thought and creativity to rhyme effectively. Jimmy Webb states the problem succinctly:

The consistent use of overly familiar language in line after line nudges the writer inexorably toward cliché. Why so? Because generations of industrious rhymers have already applied themselves to wringing out the possibilities of such standbys as "love-dove-above" -- "heart-start apart" -- and "eyes-cries-tries." The cliché is waiting in the tired rhyme with a Cheshire cat grin. 2

In my more than twenty years in the music business, I have seen the Comfort Zone snare many talented songwriters/artists/musicians who never achieved their full potential simply because they were too comfortable to try for something higher or better. Many of these people failed to use even half their "suitcase" of abilities and talents because they were sidelined by satisfaction with the status quo. Do you know that many studies have revealed that the average person possesses from 500-700 different skills and abilities? How many of these can you identify in yourself? Or are you just complacently strumming your guitar or playing your keyboard, using the same chords you did ten…fifteen…twenty years ago? Have you ever considered launching out to try a completely different instrument? A different genre of music? Even a completely different skill altogether (like photography, graphic design, woodworking) that may stimulate your creative juices and increase your options for success?

Change takes courage, so if you need some motivation in this area, I highly recommend the new ABC television series, Dancing with the Stars. In addition to breathing new life into the long-neglected art of ballroom dancing, the program features several very courageous, non-Comfort Zone, celebrities whose fame and talent had nothing to do with ballroom dancing. Take Jerry Rice, for instance. Famous for his sixteen seasons with the 49ers, Jerry may be "comfortable" on the football field, but when he agreed to become a celebrity dancer on Dancing with the Stars, he was definitely out of his element. When the show teamed Jerry with Russian pro dancer, Anna Trebunskaya, Jerry's football accomplishments "didn't impress her much." She was out to train this non-dancer and win the competition.

I remember clearly the first episode of the program when Anna (who believes that "real men play hockey") set out to make a dancer out of this football player. She put him through some paces he had never experienced and deflated his Comfort Zone confidence quickly. When the interviewer asked Jerry why he would subject himself to such punishment, and the possibility of humiliating himself on live television, Jerry simply explained that he wanted to try something new. He had achieved remarkable success and recognition in sports, but he wanted to find out if he could dance as well. The competition has proved that he can -- and it has made Jerry a more multi-faceted and respected celebrity than ever before.

I promise that you have talents and abilities you know not of! Why? Because you haven't even tried them yet. Who knows? That undiscovered gift may be the very one that will set you apart and make you the Star you have always dreamed of becoming.

How and where do you start? I would suggest the first step is to make a list of all the things you enjoy doing or wish you knew how to do. What are you fascinated with? What skills would you like to develop -- musical or otherwise? Then begin with some baby steps. You might take a music theory course at a local college to expand your harmonic options as you write. Perhaps you simply need to read some great literature to expand your vocabulary and stir your soul. Or maybe you could learn a completely new skill like oil painting…cross stitching…sound engineering…graphic design…golf. You may need to just get out more -- meet some new members of your music community and try writing with some different collaborators. It's always scary to enter a new co-writing experience, but I can personally testify that by meeting and collaborating with composers in many varied genres of music, I have been published in styles I would never have attempted on my own.

Whatever you try, it really doesn't matter whether you succeed or fail. Either way, your brain cells will be stimulated, your capacity will be enlarged and you will be amazed by the potential that was in you all along. It is the experience of trying that grows you, develops you, enriches you and keeps you out of the clutches of the deadly Comfort Zone.

Never underestimate yourself. Make it your aim to leave this life with every last brain cell having been used up! As author Ray Bradbury has said so eloquently:
We are the miracle of force and matter making itself over into imagination and will. Incredible. The Life Force experimenting with forms. You for one. Me for another. The Universe has shouted itself alive. We are one of the shouts.
1Bacharah, Burt, The Look of Love Compilation
© 1998, Rhino Entertainment Co.

2Jimmy Webb, Tunesmith, p.54

**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 40 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer and teacher of songwriting in her popular Living Room Seminars. She is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal ®.

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