“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 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.