What to Do When You Hit Your Writing Wall

What to Do When You Hit Your Writing Wall

“Are you sitting down?” asked my agent.

“Oh good grief, just tell me,” I said, not only not sitting down, but breaking out in goosebumps and hating the sound of my cracking voice. And when had I started wringing my hands?

My scream of triumph just about shattered the library. I didn’t care. I couldn’t. Gotham Books had purchased my book. They’d publish it in 2013.

At that point I had written five chapters in order to sell the memoir. I would only need to write eight more to be done. I laughed when they told me they would give me a year to do it. I had enjoyed the process so much I thought I could probably deliver it a week later if they asked.

And so it was that after calling everyone I knew, I went into the land of literary bliss. The life of the Author, finally with a capital A.

Oh, how I would love to write “The End” after that sentence.

Fast forward to March of 2012 and a conversation with my editor. She had just returned from instructing a gaggle of writers at a workshop. “Do you have any questions about anything?” she asked before we hung up.

“Yes,” I said. “What do you tell your authors when they are suddenly, oppressively, sick of what they’re writing and what they’re writing about?”

“So you’re sick of yourself?” she asked, laughing.

“Yes!” That was exactly right. “Of myself, and of the book, and of writing.”

“That,” she said, “is when you know you’re a writer. Everyone – and I mean everyone, editors and authors alike – hits that wall at least once. Some people hit it on every single page! And memoirists seem particularly susceptible to it. You’ve earned the right to hit it. You’ve been at it for a long time.”

That made me feel better. It didn’t make the writing any easier, however. It was specifically one chapter that had me all stymied and sweaty.

Up to that point the writing and even the revising with my editor had gone easily. Then this chapter… 241 pages in, and wham!

I hit my writing wall.

The subject matter of the chapter was difficult – I didn’t want to focus on it – but that wasn’t anything new. Even the most emotionally challenging parts of the book had flown by without much effort, at the great pace of about 30 minutes a day.

But now I didn’t want to write. And when I did write, it was dreary and took way more energy than made sense.

This was something new to me. I love writing. I look forward to it every day. There is nothing worse than having the joy sucked out of something you love.

Here are a few things I’ve learned from hitting that wall:

  • If this has happened to you, don’t be too hard on yourself. It doesn’t mean that what you’re doing isn’t worthwhile or that you’re a crappy writer or that you’re an ungrateful buffoon. It means that marathons aren’t easy, and you’re crazy to expect projects of great length to be easy every step of the way.
  • If I hadn’t been under contract, I probably would have just tried to wait it out. I would have focused on the blog, a journal, or the short stories I’m always messing with. But I couldn’t.
  • If you try to wait it out, set yourself a date: I will try again on this date. It’s too easy for days to become weeks and months.
  • Just because the writing feels hard doesn’t mean you’re not doing a good job. I look back at pages I wrote when I was miserable, and they’re some of my favorite parts of the book. If I didn’t know better, I’d have no idea which pages I wrote under duress and which were a breeze.
  • My editor would tell you that my humor and lively style are the strongest parts of my writing. I have no idea if she’s right, but I know there’s nothing harder to do than sit down and try to be lively and funny when you feel like crap and don’t want to write. But it’s possible.
  • On that note, just showing up to write every day has been way more useful to me than any talent I naturally have or have cultivated on my own.
  • In the beginning I was committed to a word count of 1000 words each day, no matter what. It worked until the wall happened. I’ve made my peace with it. I touch the work every day, but that touch might mean a flurry of 3000 words or it might mean that I revise a page or trim the fat off of a paragraph.
  • It’s never going to be perfect. If my editor signs off, I stop when the mysteries of a chapter no longer sustain me. If I’ve answered all of my own questions about the material, at that point I’m just moving stuff around.
  • If I can’t make the pages I’m writing cohere, I’ve started thinking about the process as simply “collecting pages.” I’ll figure out if they go together later. Or I’ll beg my editor to do it.
  • It takes me about 20 pages of writing to find 10 that are salvageable. I’ve had to make my peace with this. I will probably write nearly 800 pages to get the 350 page book. If I try to make it too perfect as I go, I freeze up and overthink.
  • I can write on anything. My phone, laptop, pen and paper, or an iPad. The available tool never gets to be the excuse for not producing. I could write a book with a crayon in my mouth if I wanted it bad enough.
  • I’m very happy that I don’t have to write a book with a crayon in my mouth. I prefer to work on a laptop.

Here’s the answer to just about every question about writing, whether it’s writing a book under contract or trying to grow a blog:

Keep writing.

Keep writing whether you enjoy it or not. You’ll get better at it.

Eventually, the paragraphs will add up to pages. You’ll eventually have at least a book-length mess to work with.

Hitting the wall can teach you how serious you are about writing.There’s always a way to knock it down or sneak around it.

Now then, ask questions if you’ve got ‘em. If I can answer them, I will. If I can’t, I won’t pretend I can.

James, it’s always fun to be here, thank you.

Post by Josh Hanagarne

To his constant befuddlement, Josh Hanagarne is an increasingly in-demand speaker and writer. His extremely strange memoir The World’s Strongest Librarian will be published by Gotham Books in 2013. He runs an online book club that’s picking up about 50 members a day. You can always ask him questions over on the blog or on Twitter.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. Great advice, Josh. I especially resonated with the parts about being kind to yourself, pacing yourself, and forgetting about perfection!

  2. Hi Josh,

    I can’t imagine a harder job than writing your own story. Especially after you’ve told it so many times to so many audiences in so many different circumstances–long version, short version, condensed version, edited version…. But you do it because it is an important story.

    Best wishes on your book and you’re right, the best advice is to just keep writing.

    • Thank Mary. Choosing what to include, what to omit, and learning that my editor has different ideas about many things has been a fun, exhausting process. I don’t think I’ll be doing any more memoirs.

  3. I think it’s a bit like the wall that runners hit when running a marathon (at the 18-mile mark, I’m told.) I hit a similar wall when I wrote my book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better, but, like you, I managed to stick with it.

    It wasn’t fun. For me, the main secret was to keep my “editor self” as separate as possible from my “writer self.” You can’t write if you’re engaged in self-criticism. Those two tasks are mutually exclusive.

    Congrats on working through this obstacle, Josh. I’ll be interested in seeing your book.

  4. Simple yet effective. Keep writing.

  5. This post came at a perfect time for me. I have been against a writing wall for some time now. I have JuNoWriMo coming up and I’m going to start back up again. I will accomplish something, damn it!

  6. Hi, Josh! Are you a mind reader? Because this post couldn’t have come at a better time for me!

    First of all, CONGRATULATIONS on selling your book! That’s wonderful news. 🙂

    Second, I love your tips for breaking down the wall, especially your mention of “collecting” pages at first and seeing where they go later. Lately, I’ve been forcing myself to produce a specific word count for my novel just to get the words out, and I convince myself that it’s better to get something out than to stare at a blank screen waiting for the perfect words to flow. This approach seems to work for me, but I’ve been feeling guilty because part of me feels like that’s a waste of time. What if I can’t piece that together when I have ample material to work with? What if I’m wasting my time? It’s good to know that there’s still hope for me.

    And for the record, I get sick of myself and my writing ALL the time. I reach points where I feel like banging my head against the wall, and all I can think about is how crappy my work is. It’s tough to push forward when thoughts like that happen!

    Anyway, thanks for the excellent boost this morning. I’ll be sharing this post for sure. 🙂


    • Yes, I am a mind reader, but that’s another post. I should probably be making more money, with that talent.

      I’m pretty sure I stole that “collecting pages” bit from Philip Roth. Makes sense either way, right?

      And thank you for the congratulations. It’s been a lot of fun and very surreal.

  7. Whenever I get stuck , I just stop and get out my working place to get more energy. That is it.

    If you new what I did some few minutes ago when I got trouble with health translation document !!!!!….. Just the same think. I am now going through one door to the other trying to find out some key words that can no be found in mother tongue KInyarwanda.

  8. Great and timely advice. Right now, I’m staring at two open projects, one with a very short deadline and the other nothing more than a diversion. So what am I doing? Checking email.

    Knowing that everyone else out there has exactly the same challenges helps. Misery loves company? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just knowing that successful writers only have one secret weapon: they keep writing.

  9. Hi Josh.

    I think that we can all emphasise with the frustration of having writers block on some level or another. Luckily most of us will never feel the same high levels of stress as you have because we do not have the same constraints, expectations or requirements to meet dictated deadlines.
    I do believe that the advice you have given is just as valid on many levels, whether we are working to publishers deadlines or merely updating our personal blogs, if we take your points onboard we should manage to keep going and come through the other side.
    So thank you, for sharing your knowledge with us.


  10. Great post, Josh! I always find myself having a hard time blogging because i don’t keep it consistent. I do agree if i started writing more, things will be easier!

  11. Thank you!

    I hit that wall a months ago and decided not to break it. I went off and published four eBooks and wrote a video game story, and now find that I need to break that wall after reading your post.

    Off I go with hammer in hand to break it.

    Thanks again Josh.


  12. Great article. I especially like the part about “not being too hard on yourself.” It truly doesn’t seem productive to have the block AND be hard on yourself. Let it flow…. Thanks!


  1. […] I wrote, then the momentum slowed down, and I stopped. Dead halt. This, my friends, is The Wall. (excellent description of The Wall) Instead of trying to figure out the problem, I put everything away and played The Sims […]

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