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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

The Risks of Playing It Safe

Never taking a risk is the biggest risk of all

One of my agility trainers once commented, “If your dog does everything in class perfectly, you are failing.” I did a double-take. “Failing,” she explained, ”to challenge yourself and your dog often enough.”

Are you challenging yourself as writer or are you playing it safe? What was the last big risk you took in your writing? What was your last big failure? If you can’t remember or if the risks and failures you can recall are puny, you’re doing yourself and your readers a big disservice.

When our writing is safe, it may be good, but when our writing gets risky, our writing can be great. Or it crashes and burns, and that’s good for us too.

Dr. Michael Unger, author of Too Safe For Their Own Good points out “By bubble-wrapping our lives, we may inadvertently be taking away opportunities to experience the building blocks of psychosocial growth.”

According to Unger, it is essential to experience challenges and the resulting successes and failures. Failing to give ourselves opportunities to do so deprives us of what he calls the “risk-taker’s advantage,” which includes resilience, learned responsibility, confidence, courage and compassion.

Creativity comes from the willingness to go to new places and do new things. You experiment, you get some results you like and some you don’t. You learn from both types of results and keep refining the experiment. No risk — no creativity.

Besides, taking a risk is fun! Remember rolling down hills until you were dizzy when you were a kid? Or sledding? Riding roller coasters? Rock-climbing? Going where you weren’t supposed to go, doing what you weren’t supposed to do with someone you weren’t supposed to be with?

Whatever your current thrill is, it’s important to your mental health and your enjoyment of life. Engaging in a new and challenging experience that involves a reasonable amount of risk releases dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter. No risk, no dopamine, no fun.

Here’s a partial list of the kinds of risks writers can take. You may already do some of these; one writer’s risk is another writer’s routine. Please add to the list. I’d love to hear what risks you’re taking.

  • Send that query you’ve been thinking about, you know, the one that’s sitting in a file while you “do more research” or “revise it just one more time”
  • See how fast you can collect 25 or more rejections
  • Find a magazine you’ve never read that interests you, get the guidelines and get going
  • Tell someone in your family why writing matters to you
  • Say “hello” to an editor, agent or another writer at a conference and ask an open-ended question that will get a conversation going
  • Write in a genre you don’t usually write in
  • Write in a tense or point of view you don’t usually use
  • Kill a perfectly good character just to see what happens
  • Interview someone “strange” “weird” or “different”
  • Write about a family secret
  • Write about your own secret
  • Write without knowing what you’re going to write or why

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5 Comments on “The Risks of Playing It Safe”

  1. publicationcoach October 18, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

    This is really good advice. It’s important to take chances with EVERYTHING in your life. But it’s especially important with writing. Yes, you may fail. But growth comes with failure. I always remind myself of WD-40 — the lubricant that was invented…after 39 failures.


    • rosannebane October 18, 2012 at 8:36 pm #

      Thanks Daphne! I never knew that about the WD-40.


  2. Michael Kelberer October 18, 2012 at 8:09 am #

    When I’m in my “The US is going to fall just like the Roman Empire did” mode, one of the telltale signs I see is our cultures increasing obsession with reducing risk. I firmly believe that to the extent we exclude the possibility of harm in our lives, we are excluding the possibility of good – lop off one end of the bell curve, and you lop off the other.


    • rosannebane October 18, 2012 at 8:41 pm #

      So true Michael. Not to mention that lopping off any potential harm lops off an awful lot of fun.
      Don’t get me wrong — I’m all in favor of safety (I buckle up every time I get in a car), but it’s almost as if we expect that no harm should befall us ever. I’m reminded of M. Scott Peck’s comment about life is hard and it’s supposed to be hard and as soon as we accept that, it stops being so hard…



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    […] To write what you truly want to write, you must take creative risks. […]


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