Comfort zone and pre-learning tantrum in writing


I seem to be writing about comfort zones and discomfort lately, as I go through all of the steps necessary to assemble a book and put it up for sale.

I wrote this Drabble (100 words) on my Wattpad account (

[Comfort zones are for old ladies.

When you want to be a self-published author, you realize early on that EVERYTHING you do will push you out of your comfort zone.

You will have to actually write, all the way to ‘the End.’

Revise and polish your own work.


Learn the business side: choosing where you will publish.


You will have to take yourself seriously as a professional and have standards.

It will cost money. Your money. You can replace some money with time. Your time.

But there will be things you CAN’T do. They still have to be done.

Most people you know will not understand.

Comfort zones are overrated.]

In answer to a question about dealing with self-doubt, I wrote:

For every scene I write, I go through a chunk of time with a very uncomfortable feeling in my gut, some time between gathering what will go in the scene and being able to write it.

Behaviorist Karen Pryor writes in her book Don’t Shoot the Dog that this time is called the ‘pre-learning tantrum’: what used to work doesn’t work, and you haven’t figured out the new pattern, and you are horribly uncomfortable.

I expect it now. I keep digging deeper into the subconscious – sometimes the tantrum means I haven’t faced the deepest truths yet – and I KNOW I won’t like the feeling.

But the scene won’t gel, won’t get written, until after I’ve gone through that.

For me, it is EVERY darn scene. Fear is part of it: fear of not doing the material justice, of being found out a poseur. Fear I write down in my journal until it is all out of my head.

But it isn’t really fear that makes the gut uncomfortable.

It is, rather, my brain learning what it means so I can write it – and not quite having it yet.

I just let it keep going around and around, reading what I have, asking myself what ‘digging deeper’ means in the context of THIS material.

And eventually a first line suggests itself, or the critical missing piece surfaces, and I start seeing words on the page as a way out of the pain.

I love it, because what follows is the sense of ‘flow’ where you lose yourself, and the subconscious takes over, and the writing seems to come more easily.

No pre-learning tantrum = no writing.

So I shrug and do my job, which is to sit with that discomfort and keep reading my own notes over and over, and thinking, and writing about it, until writing fiction happens.

I think some people fear this stage, and call it ‘writer’s block’ when it hits them.

Using the discomfort to write

The first thing to note about the pre-learning tantrum is that it practically guarantees I’m about to have a breakthrough: my brain is literally oscillating back and forth between the old and the new, trying desperately to trust that I know what the heck I’m doing.

I don’t – but it doesn’t matter, because every time before when this discomfort (okay, PAIN and FEAR state) has happened, sometime very soon after that, if I stick with it and keep poking it with a stick, the state breaks, the discomfort passes, and I’m on the other side of the chasm, writing.

It means I may need to keep digging just a little deeper, to ask myself – in writing – what the problem is, whether there is enough conflict or motivation or angst.

But it doesn’t happen at all until I’m very close to where I need to be.

The farther away I am, the less uncomfortable I am – so I can use it as a measure of distance from the change in state.

The KEY: stick with it. Don’t go looking for something ‘better’ to do instead. Stick with routine. Trust the process.

Writing this formally here will help me remember next time that it isn’t fatal.

Have you heard about the tantrum? Do you notice it? Does it work for you? (Writing is NOT the only area it happens in – almost any change can lead an outbreak.)


15 thoughts on “Comfort zone and pre-learning tantrum in writing

  1. Alice Audrey

    I’m out of my comfort zones more often than in these days. It actually caught me by surprise to realize I was working outside of my comfort zones with Suzie’s House.

    I generally write my episodes the morning I’m going to post – which is why they go up some time between 11 am and 1 pm my time. Some days I’m slower because the writing doesn’t flow as well.

    For the first couple of years of this, I didn’t really think anything of it. But my brain is a bit Byzantine so the story line began to twist around on itself. I know where I want the characters to end up, and I have a few real clear scenes in my head that I intend to include, but for the most part I’m flying into the mist.

    One of my readers got very upset with me because I admitted it in the comment stream of a post. She had no confidence in my ability to actually bring about a resolution to the story. Until her comments, I hadn’t worried about it at all. Then I went back over what I’d written to date and questioned myself over what she could be missing.

    I noticed all kinds of things in the story that I hadn’t really been paying attention to. There are clear themes and motifs running rampant. A lot of them are not exactly pretty where family is concerned, and my mother reads my blog. Yet so many things dovetailed beautifully. I rarely make gross errors despite all the typos. The characters are solid and distinct from one another; enough that I’m often told they feel like real people. And I’m doing it all subconsciously.

    Out of my comfort zone? Yeah.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      They really DO feel like real people.

      Though I cannot see where you are going with things, it matters not (and I’d probably know better if I went back and read the beginning), but the pieces make sense individually, and fit with the storylines I’m comfortable with because I’ve followed them for a while.

      I’m not sure true serials, like Suzie’s House (, always lead to books. Yours did. It’s on my list. Kind of like Dickens, writing about the same group, or an ongoing soap opera-style story. Or a long-running TV series.

      Pride’s Children was always intended to be a novel; I serialized it because it works for me that way. But it was created, outlined, organized, and written as a unit.

      I go to your site, get my fix for the week, go back to work. You are writing in a world – of course it will have linked stories, and one story will resolve while another continues.

      Not every reader will understand that. But it works for you and Suzie’s House.


  2. Janna G. Noelle

    I can’t say I experience fear like that when I write, perhaps because I’ve taken to heart the words of author Nancy Lee, who says that a writer can’t not pull their ideas off – that if you were able to come up with it, you’ll be able to write it.

    I do get frustrated sometimes when I’m not satisfied with how a scene is coming together or I get “stuck”. But when that happens, that usually means I myself am not clear on what it is I’m trying to say/convey, and I need to give it some more thought. But it will come.

    Regarding that time you describe as the “time between gathering what will go in the scene and being able to write it” where a lot of your uncomfortableness occurs, I always try to pass that time away from the computer – to continually mull it over as I go through the rest of my day – so that once I do show up at the screen, I already have a good idea of what I need to write.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I like that – if you can come up with the idea, you will be able to write it. Especially now that the writing has been learned better. When I first started writing, I’d have a very clear idea in my head – and what ended up on the page was simply not the same thing. Now they’re closer.

      And I KNOW I’ll be able to write it – but I still have to recognize that the knot in my stomach IS there, and what it means is not that I’ll never be able to do this, but that it’s on its way.

      I will try to acquire the self discipline to move away from the computer when that’s what I need. Right now, the closest I come is to block the internet – but stay where the writing will happen. If I move away now, all that happens is that I write more notes in longhand – and then they have to be transcribed, and added to the rest, and I’m only a tiny bit closer. The notes get repetitive after a while.

      But blocking the net? That’s crucial for me.


  3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

    Wow. You should write a story about the epic struggle between them for the accolade of ‘worst fear’.

    Mine have more of a tendency to ambush me when I’m not expecting them. (But SHOULD be expecting them.)


  4. D. Wallace Peach

    I love that term – pre-learning tantrum. It describes every writing learning curve I’ve experienced. I lie down on the floor, kick my heels, pound my fists, and RESIST. Then after a time-out sulking in my room, I calm down. My resistance abates, and I apply my new knowledge and move on. (Only to do it all over again….)


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I’ve known the term for a long time – I love Karen’s books and animal training methods. She says the training methods can be applied to humans, but it is hard to do it yourself (do you give yourself the piece of chocolate for doing something, and withhold it when you don’t perform?).

      But it didn’t occur to me to apply ‘pre-learning tantrum’ to writing until recently, and then, when I found myself mentioning it in a comment, I decided it deserved a wider audience – so blog post.

      Hope it helps. It helps ME to know what is going on inside my own head, especially when I discovered I ALWAYS get to that point. Hmmm..

      The only problem is that I KNOW I’m close – but not HOW close. So it still drives me crazy to be in that state. I’m lucky in that if I dig deep enough, my subconscious seems to get to a satisfied place (I’m emotionally wrung out and panting), and lets me get to the fun part. So I use the feeling to keep digging. There may not be much of me left by the time I finish this trilogy!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Thank you, Julia. That puts it firmly in the right category.

      I actually value the stage now – it’s a badge of honor to survive it each time. And I KNOW I will survive. Isn’t that funny?

      The worst that can happen to an author these days is to sink to the bottom of the Amazon. If you don’t engage with the wrong readers, nobody is probably going to go after you – not noticing you is more likely (I tell myself). That I’m used to – but I would forever regret it if I didn’t try. Besides, that point already passed – the thing is up, in its almost final form, on my blog – and no one’s come after me with a pitchfork yet.

      Yup, jitters. Enjoy them, Alicia – you only get to experience them once, and you may need that experience to write about something.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. J.M. Ney-Grimm

    When I was writing Troll-magic, every writing session felt like jumping off a cliff. I had learned by then that I would never feel ready, that the fear would never ebb before I jumped, that I just had to jump and I would feel better once I was in the air. And that often I would feel fantastic in the air. 😀

    But somewhere between then and now, my experience changed. The biggest variable now is how much time has elapsed between writing sessions. Sometimes, when I’m really on a roll, I sit down and write with only the smallest shiver of fear, which passes very quickly once I’m actually writing.

    Other times I have the full quota of fear to ignore as I sit to either pre-write or to write.

    And yet other times I’m confronting a howling tornado of fear. Like now, when I’ve just spent 3 weeks fixing the mistakes found by a first reader in one novel, and now it’s time to go back to the novel I was in the middle of. Big. Howling. Tornado. of. Fear. 😉

    Monday is the day. I hope I can remember to write about my fear, because that will help me to transition into writing more of the story. I think I will write myself a reminder note to that effect.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      If you have the energy, you can write a list today of all the fears you will face Monday – JUST the list.

      I think the brain likes specifics to work on subconsciously.

      Fear sometimes responds to writing it out exactly – and then poking holes in it. Sometimes you can do an end run, or ignore it for a while.

      Let me know if you need moral support – I’m good with that. And there can’t be anything, ultimately, worse than NOT writing what you are going to write.


      1. J.M. Ney-Grimm

        Interesting idea about the list and specifics.

        I think listing specifics works for me, because the instant I write it down, the gaping hole in the fear appears at the same time.

        For which reason, I will reserve the writing it down for Monday morning.

        The vague niggle of anxiety that troubles me now is merely uncomfortable. When I will need the full power of the fear-interrupting list is at the moment that I sit to write.

        If I make the current crop of anxiety dissipate, a whole new crop will have grown by Monday. 😉


        1. J.M. Ney-Grimm

          Just realized that my first description of my waiting fears was misleading.

          They really are just a niggle of anxiety at the moment, but I know them so well that I also know they will become the leviathan maelstrom when I actually approach the the moment of truth on Monday. I can see them in both guises, like a 3D movie without the glasses. 😉


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