• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?

This is a post about something very difficult to come to grips with that no one likes to talk about — it’s about hitting the wall. And by that I mean when you are stuck, whether you’re crashing into the wall or the wall is crashing into you. I’m not talking about a bad day or even a few months of writer’s block. I’m not talking about a string of rejections or seeing your book on the remainder table where no one wants it, even for $5.99. What I’m talking about is something deeper and more terrifying. It’s when you realize you’ve been writing the same book over and over. Or when you can no longer stand writing in the register you’ve been writing in and don’t know how to get out.  This isn’t a slump, a bad patch, a bush-league case of writer’s block or stage fright. This isn’t about not being able to come up with a new idea. This is bad. It’s when you understand the limits of your imagination, intellect, creativity, skill, or drive. It’s when you no longer know when you’re faking it; when you’ve succeeded at fooling yourself. I’ve seen it in writers over the years. You can’t say anything. It would be cruel, like waking a sleepwalker. You know the writer is in agony even if he can’t admit it to himself, even if he’s on the couch five days a week, it’s almost impossible to admit.

What I want to know is: have you  hit the wall and what did you do?

47 Responses

  1. Counting on my fingers … I’ve been impaling myself on that wall for 8 months. Okay, hell, let’s call it 9. Two readers said, “It’s brilliant, keep going” and one person — one fucking nobody — said “You’re lost” and I wandered off into the woods.

    I’ve been hurt, then pissed, and finally moved on. The nobody-power has subsided, and I’m finally, finally working again. I like what I’ve got. I even kind of love it. 9 months of learning.

  2. Yes, I hit a wall about 3 months ago. But it was a wall of my own construction, and now I’m in the process of tearing it down, brick by brick.

  3. This post makes it so I can hardly breathe.
    Back to you…

  4. In 2004, a story of mine was published in a litmag respectable enough for an NYC agent to send me a letter where he wrote–and I’m paraphrasing now–“I read your story and I’m wondering if you have a novel you could send me.” I responded–and I’m paraphrasing again–“Do I? I got two or three of them bad boys, I’ll send you one right away.” And so I did.

    Over the next year or so, I subjected him or his underpaid, overworked assistant to all three of them. One was a novel I had been working on for so long it had been approximately eight, or maybe nine or ten, different versions of the same story “crafted” over the course of about twenty years. Earlier incarnations had already been rejected by several houses. The other two were a cri de coeur I’d written ten years previous and which had already received rave rejections from two prominent editors whose names I won’t drop here. It had also received rejections from houses and agents the names and quantities of which I no longer recall and no long have complete records of. The first time this NYC agent rejected it, I did something to it and sent it again. That’s why it’s two while it’s one. Sort of like a marriage. And sort of not.

    When the agent sent the rewrite of the second novel back, he included a letter where he wrote (paraphrasure again), “You wrote a good short story, but there are some crucial things about novel-writing you just don’t seem to know about. You need to find yourself an MFA program and take some workshops.”

    This wasn’t crushing, but it was a dope-slap right upside my writerly head. Demoralizing. It was July of 2005 and I felt so bottomed-out I sat down and re-read several novels and poetry collections I had just read the month before, and I wrote a new story from scratch just to prove to myself I could still do it.

    The following year I enrolled in a couple of workshops at the local university’s MFA program. While I had studied fiction writing in a private class in NYC in the early 90s, these were my first university workshops. Into one of them I toted the first of the novels referenced above. While it wasn’t wantonly eviscerated by my fellow writers, its faults were quickly made apparent.

    The upshot was, or the upshots were, I was able to free myself from those two novels. They were anchors. Oh, I had worked on them many long years, and they were shiny, but they were anchors. The obsessions I had for them, for the stories they contained, stories that meant much to me but couldn’t be expected to mean anything to anyone else when presented with insufficient craft, simply vanished, like waking from a dream. The secondy-third one of them I rewrote as a short story cycle, while the first, the one I had labored on for decades, I set aside. It contains material I may rework at some point, but maybe I won’t. Maybe I won’t live long enough.

    The agent was right. I’m glad I had the sense to pay attention to him. Along with the two workshops, I took a symposium, and from those three classes I came away feeling like a new Prometheus, stealing skill and fire from the gods. While I had done good work before I went back to school–one of my best stories was published in an NYC litmag the same week the first classes started–I have since been able to do even better work, and get it published. Lately I’ve been working on something that’s unlike anything I’ve written before, and I feel it’s going well.

    So that is my story of when I hit the wall and what I did about it.

  5. Haven’t hit the literary wall yet, but my life seems to be meandering through some sort of maze and I’ve hit a few walls of a different sort. Broke my heart to have to turn around and retrace my steps in one instance; suffered through some searing humiliation when my crash became spectator sport and years ago, spent too much effort refusing to accept I was running in place in a corner. None of these “collisions” were insurmountable, but they left scars. I try to use them as learning experiences and not the foundations on which to build bigger obstacles.

  6. For so long I have been feeling my way along the wall blindly searching for an opening. Sometimes I find one. Most of them don’t lead anywhere.

  7. For me, the wall disguises itself as Apathy. I don’t care anymore…about anything. It’s hopeless, pointless, and takes time that I could dedicate to…what? I think it’s endless sadness. This sucks!

  8. At one point not long ago I thought of just stopping. Afraid I was too broken a soul to knit a good story together right. That I had to be perfect to be publishable. Confused life with work. It happens.

  9. While I can’t necessarily speak from a writing standpoint, I will say that I’ve been frustrated artistically and what I’ve found that is helpful is if I close up shop and get outside for a moment. The simple nature of interacting with the world loosens me up. Then, when I do get back to my work, I’ve either got a new way of looking at my project or I’m willing to let it go and start something new.

  10. I didn’t hit The Wall, perhaps, but when the novel I wrote didn’t snag an agent (though a few good ones asked for partials and a full) after about 100 query letters — admittedly with some steady tinkering and improvement in them — I decided to carve up the novel into short stories. Yes, it was very painful but one of the stories got HM in a competitive contest, and that was enough to keep me writing. When I look at the novel now, I think there are some wonderful parts to it but boy, have I come a long way. By the way, I had been working on that novel in one way or another for about five years…

  11. I haven’t hit The Wall, perhaps, but about five years ago I decided to carve up a novel I had been querying into short stories. I had been working on the thing in one way or another for nearly ten years, and while I had received some requests for partials or fulls after 100-or-so query letters (admittedly, not the same letter…the second 50 were steadily awesome), I decided to pick up the knife. One of the stories got HM in a competitive contest, and that kept me writing. When I look at the novel now, I think parts are wonderful but can see how far I’ve come.

    So I opted for destruction of the wall and re-creation.

  12. Does “writing the same novel over and over” mean writing more than one novel using a recurrent underlying theme?

  13. This happened to me. Worked on my first novel off and on b/w having babies etc, for years. Sent it to dozens of agents – lots of agents liked it – none of them loved it. After trying to edit and revise and edit it again, I finally decided that I needed to put it on the shelf and start another project. I hit the wall hard. I cut my teeth on that novel and while it was profoundly disappointing to put it aside, it was also freeing. I’m working on another project now, a middle grade novel. And I’m truly excited about writing fiction again, which is a great feeling.

  14. My first book was a classic first book. I thought it was wonderful at the time (no, that’s a lie. I knew there were issues) and my agent took it to everyone she and I could think of. She was enthusiastic and creative and resourceful…but no dice. After countless rewrites, it became obvious that there was just no one else to go to with that book and she had to find a way to tell me that it was time to call it a day and move on. As she had signed me based on her enthusiasm for that book, I was facing the loss of my book AND the loss of my agent. It was heartbreaking.

    I took a vacation from that book, licked my wounds, and a couple of months later, I started hacking it to bits. The book was non-fiction, about my education in all things rural New Hampshire, and I realized the chapters could stand alone as essays. I spread all the chapters – 18 months of my life on paper – out on the living room floor and stuck post-its on the stacks with the names of various magazines. I then submitted the best of each stack to the magazines on the post-its.

    It went pretty well. I sold five chapters, all for small paychecks, and even sold photography for two of them. I ended up with a respectable list of publications for my cv, but I still managed to be pissed off that my three favorite chapters did not sell anywhere. The experience allowed me to walk away from the project and not feel as if it was a total loss.

    I did part ways from that agent a year later, but it was good for both of us, and I found a new agent [more like a fairy godmother] who is excited about my new WIP. My first book was my own personal MFA in writing, failing, getting a grip, editing, and making the most of a bad situation.

  15. When I hit the Wall — or, rather, when it falls on me — I have an overwhelming urge to switch genres.

    Surely there’s a place where the words always come easily and the research is negligible and I don’t have to dig up or throw out any of my own psychological baggage?

    Problem is, I’m running out of genres . . .

  16. Yes. Meandered aimlessly for awhile and just couldn’t get parts of my book to flow with the rest. I was as broken down and stuck as a Kia a month after the 5 year warranty expired. I started re-reading everything, nit-picking with a fine metal comb. I’d turn to random passages to see what would happen. One I read was about my
    mother making me get back behind the steering wheel after a horrible accident (fortunately no deaths or serious injuries), a kind of get back in the saddle and ride philosophy. I wondered if I was receiving a message from the grave or some other kind of HueyLouieDewey type of mysticism. Did things come together and magically fix themselves? Nah, but I’m still trying.

  17. Change genres and see what happens. (You might find out you write the same thing genre after genre. Sometimes, though, it works better in one than the other.)

  18. It’s a terrible feeling. And I hate when writers who don’t hit walls say that thing about just showing up and the material will come. Well, it doesn’t. That’s like telling a clinically depressed person to cheer up.

    When it happens to me, I tell myself that I don’t want to write anymore. My husband and two kids have all had books dedicated to them. There’s nobody left for that otherwise blank page at the beginning of another book anyway. Then I close up shop and try to act normal like my friends who don’t write and always seem oh so happy.

    But the guilt and sadness keep eating away at me so I call my agent and tell her that I can’t do it anymore and that I need a co-writer or a ghost writer to finish the book. Can she please find somebody to write the thing and then I’ll add the voice? She tells me no, she can’t. I tell her again that I can’t do it. She doesn’t remind me that we’ve gone through this before, just lets me wallow in my misery. I do–sometimes for a very long time.

    Then one day I open the file and words come. When I send the finished book to Wendy, she doesn’t remind me of my pitiful whiny self or tell me that she knew I could do it. She reads it, helps me make it better, then sends it out. She’s probably thinking how did I get myself mixed up with this one?


  19. I have never hit the wall, though I’ve considered quitting the writing business entirely. But, as you say, that’s different from THE WALL.

    It sort of breaks my heart to hear about this. I really didn’t know it happened, but it makes sense that it does.

    If something isn’t working, there’s a reason. In all the parts of my life, I’ve always discovered — painfully — that’s how it is.

    If you leap, you’ll fly.

  20. Typically when I say I’ve hit a wall it’s because I’ve actually tripped, slipped or fumbled my way into an actual wall. But, I’ve definitely hit the writing wall before. It is a scary, anxious feeling that I might never create a single good idea ever again. I read this post yesterday by Kathy at Reinventing The Event Horizon about the same issue, and I loved the comments to the post just about as much as I loved her honesty about feeling stuck without words. Hope you enjoy!


  21. I hit the wall as a photographer. I have–have only ever had–a simple eye and a way with kids. It was more than enough for years of happy, productive work and a small town’s worth of grateful mothers who told me over and over how talented I was. But my talent was too narrow to be of any use in the long run; it takes business skills and fearless self-belief to make a living as a photographer, and it takes an innovative mind.

    Now I spend my days rearranging paper clips and acting as file clerk to a woman who writes things like “my two sense” and who couldn’t wait for 2012 to put up her new Ronnie Reagan calendar, right next to her framed puzzle of three labradors in a meadow. Who has wondered to my face whether any of my previous employers has ever forgotten that I work for them.

    Now I realize that I am encased in the wall, having told myself since February that I left photography to save the money we’ll need to move out of my hellish hometown. That’s the practical reason; that’s been my cover. But it isn’t the truth. What’s true is that I discovered the limits imposed by my timidity and lack of real-world savvy; what’s true is that I’ll never go back to it and risk my family’s money on a dream that won’t come true.

    Now I understand why I’ve always cringed when people say, You’re talented. Talent is only a promise, and sometimes promises are empty.

    I have not come close to the wall as a writer, but I’m running at it hard. So, so hard.

    • I completely relate to this, Averil. I had the same thing happen to me when I was an actor. Talent wasn’t enough and I crumbled.

      Maybe this new arena is your second chance to make it right. To go after what it is that is rightfully yours. To finally (as you say) sit at the big kids’ table.

      If these agents had any sense at all, they’d scoop you up fast. You strike gold every time with your words.

      • I struck gold with my friends, for damn sure.

        My son is an actor. He loves it passionately, and he’s good. But I’m afraid for him, because I can see empty spaces in his tool kit and I wonder what will happen when he discovers them for himself. For now I’m trying to build wrenches out of clay.

    • Averil, I was a photographer for thirty-five years, and I also hit the wall with it. Not with a hard smack or anything like that, but it just went away. My photographer’s eye went dark. I haven’t taken a photograph in over six months and I don’t much care. The technology changed and I changed and I ran out of time and interest. And money.

      I’ve hit the wall with photography a couple times before and both times went back to it later. This time, I don’t know…. There’s so much to write, and that takes so much time. And being married, too–and having a day job–and a house–so many things to keep balanced.

      More walls. Or maybe they’re not walls, but they’re doors. I used to paint and do mixed-media work. I even had shows in galleries. This went on for about fifteen years, then that river ran dry. Nowadays, sometimes when I look at the paintings and collages and other things I made and that are hanging on nearly every wall in my house, I wonder, “Who was that person? That person who made these things–who was he? Because he’s gone. He didn’t die, he just went away. Went through one of those doors that sometimes looks like a wall.”

      • Is it a door, Tetman? I really hope so. It gives me courage to see what you’ve built on the other side.

        I always imagined a photographer’s eye as a kaleidoscope, and mine seems to repeat the same pattern no matter how many times I twist it. Today I’m going to change the name of my blog, and try to put the whole thing to rest.

      • excellent point about doors, Tetman. i’m thinking creativity morphs over time and why not? we should try different things, different ways of expressing ourselves. trying means everything, i think.

  22. Usually when I hit that wall it’s right before I turn a corner. The hitting the wall part is definitely not fun, but I also know that I am either about to stay stuck forever or grow in a way I never knew that I could as a writer. It’s the pushing through the wall that is the hard part, but once it’s done, there is a light on the other side… or is that just an oncoming train??? 😉

    Sarah Joy, an associate agent-in-training

  23. i hit a wall in a creative writing class, once. it had to do with other students perception of my writing and was rooted in competitive behaviour. that was tedious. in the end, i learned what i was–a fucking writer.

    after that experience, something shifted in me. i started taking risks, pushing my writing. i conclude that hitting the wall (self imposed or externally imposed) is painfully positive.

    fucked if i know what i’m talking about.

  24. Ay. You talkin’ ta me?

  25. Lower your expectations.

    Put your head between your knees (at yoga or wherever you may be) and admit you know nothing. Nothing.

    Become a beginner again.

  26. Surrender to it.

    Then pick myself up and try again.

  27. for me this whole writing journey has been a series of walls, hit one, fall back dazed and reeling from the impact, try to stand before i should and finally get my legs to hold firm and start back where I left off, bruised but wiser…in retrospect, I think most of the walls have been developmental milestones, coming up against some aspect of craft beyond me or some pivotal place in the story I can’t see past. I circle my wagons, write, eat, drink, delete, read widely and wildly, swallow nootropics, e.g., modafinil, piracetam, choline, hydergine (I’ve spent a fortune and probably damaged my liver and kidneys), give up and stare at the wall until it goes all blurry and I move ahead, for right or for wrong….mind you these walls are creative barriers, don’t even have the balls to test the marketplace, the real wall….

  28. I’m a young writer, so I have little room to talk, but the best thing to do with walls is to keep on walking and write through it. If that means you painfully sit yourself down and push through the rest of the book you aren’t into writing anymore bit by bit, you do it through gritted teeth. You tell your friends you’re not home, and you lock the door. If it means you sacrifice your babies– cut your favorite lines, throw out your manuscript, and start over, you do it. If it means you swallow your pride, join a writer’s group, take a class, you do it. If you have nothing to write about because you aren’t living, go and live it. And if you’re not willing to do all of the above, you don’t really want to be a “writer,” maybe you just want to “write.” Or maybe you don’t want to be a writer or write at all. Blow a kiss, turn away from that wall, and find another path.

  29. jeez this has gotta be the most depressing blog ever. Why does everyone in here seem to wallow in it?

  30. Fuck me. I eat it. I lick it, I suck it, I fuck it, and then I fuck it up. And then when I realize the concrete is much stronger than me, I get down and dirty. I get fuckin’ scientific. I get my mind all revved up on science and I borrow a little understanding from that Jew kid Einstein and I figure if, when it comes right down to it, everything that I think is important is empty endless space as all atoms are more empty space than concrete and everything we see is some sort of vibration of something we can’t see and all life is really theory except the kissing and the punch in the face and the six pound kids coming out of a three inch pussy and hitting your head on the concrete can make you a decaying lump of has-been, and I think that we take life too serious and I can’t stop being afraid of not living and I lose my thoughts as I am now and this question that I don’t want to answer seems like an ambush by a snake oil salesman who wants to make money from my life because the life they live isn’t producing the dreams they had as a child of greatness but really I’m just tired of this whole thing and you can keep it. I’m tired. Keep it. Really. It isn’t that important. I’m going to die someday.

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