Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone

 

Today, I read a short story that made me utter, “Damn that was good” at the end. I love finding strong voices that are completely unlike my own style in a setting I know nothing about. 

Eli Cranor’s, “Don’t Know Tough” the 2018 Miller Audio Prize Runner-up for The Missouri Review and won The Robert Watson Literary Prize in The Greensboro Review. 

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Cranor was a football coach for a small highschool in the Ozarks. He writes:

During that time, I came face to face with the desperate lives of some of my most at-risk players. These are the boys I picked up before school, took home after practice, bearing witness to the scars and the pain they fought so hard to hide.

He drew on those experiences in writing “Don’t Know Tough” and the result is a story of a kid so real you want to go out and find him, talk to him, tell him things won’t always be this way.

The audio of Cranor reading “Don’t Know Tough” brings new layers and angles to a story that is already rich and well rounded. Cranor uses dialect perfectly to immerse you completely into Billy’s world, which is as violent and unpredictable as it is heartbreaking.

Still feel the burn on my neck. Told Coach it was a ringworm this morning when he pick me up, but it ain’t. It a cigarette, or at least what a lit cigarette do when it stuck in your neck. Just stared at Him when He did it. No way I was gonna let Him see me hurt, no way. Bit a hole through the side of my cheek, swallowed blood, and just stared at Him. Tasted blood all day.

Tasted it while I sat in Ms. Miller’s class, woke up in algebra tasting it. Drank milk from a cardboard box at lunch and still, I tasted it. But now it eighth period football. Coach already got the boys lined up on either side of the fifty, a crease in between, a small space for running and tackling, for pain.

Which brings me to my comfort zone. I don’t normally use dialect in writing. If I do it is with a light brush because I find it distracts from the story, yet Cranor is able to use dialect to bring the story to life and saturate it with color.

The main character in the story, Billy, refers to his mother’s boyfriend as “Him.” The reader never even is told his real name, a very effective tool to show the reader how Billy feels about “Him” without having to say anything else.

Now for the comfort zone part. A good exercise for writing is to take a story in a style completely unfamiliar and write your own version of it with your own characters and plot. Pay attention to sentence structure, patterns and tone. A good exercise using “Don’t Know Tough” would be to write a scene using dialect in the first person point of view, focusing on using it to bring the scene to life, to immerse the reader into the character’s world instead of distracting from the story, which is often a problem for many writers with dialect. Forcing yourself to pay attention to elements and style you are unfamiliar with is like working out muscles you normally don’t use. You’ll be sore after but stronger the next time you put pen to page. It’s all about adding tools to the arsenal. 

 

 

 

About Heidi Stauff

Ultimately ending up in Atlanta, Heidi's creative impulses followed many paths. She delivered middle-class, white-girl, angst to tens and twenties of Generation-Xers through the now defunct rock-band, Belljar. She designed hundreds of dresses for Disney-bound little girls. She birthed two babies she now homeschools, lost and then found her faith again, and writes about all of it in her free time: which is usually after midnight with a glass or three of wine.
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