Creative Writing MA student Katy Shay talks the writing life and about how to beat the writer’s wall.
In my life as a writer I’ve encountered “the wall” several times. By the wall I refer to that feeling you get as a writer where you suddenly cannot write and you cannot believe that you were ever able to write anything. The wall is also known as a block, but runs deeper, as it isn’t simply “I can’t think of anything to write.” The wall, to me, feels like a physical impossibility, not just creatively and mentally, to write. Sometimes the circumstances of life and death can erect the walls and sometimes it seems that they just build themselves. Like you were out running your errands or working and when you came home to write: BAM! Who put this up?
Whenever I hit the wall I get freaked out and feel like I’m never going to write again. Then I start having thoughts about being a fraud, wondering if I was any good to begin with, or falling into a pit of self-loathing about my inability to create/write/do something other than stare at the wall dumbly.
As someone who’s encountered this, I’ve tried to figure out solutions for it. There are a few ways to get around a wall: up, under, around (for walls do not circle the earth). The best and most badass advice is Patti Smith’s who says, “When you hit a wall, just kick it in.” It is extremely good advice; however, it hasn’t always worked for me. I think this is because some sort of anxiety or depression often accompanies the wall brought on by wintertime and eighteen-month-long election cycles and general ennui.
The wall hits me, usually, before I have to start a new project. Sometimes starting projects can fill me with existential dread and so this dread reinforces the wall, making it un-kickable. What I’ve found works best, for me, in these times is to try dismantle the wall. I look at it and ask, what are the bricks are made of? What holds them together? Eventually the bricks begin to loosen and I can switch them around. Instead of trying to move past the wall I attempt to manipulate it, move it, test it and see what’s in there.
So what does this look like in terms of writing? Usually at this point of wall-induced frustration I’ll just sit down and free write, maybe considering the questions above, maybe just writing the word “butts” over and over again (there are some free writes that I’ve done that easily could be turned into Tina Belcher erotic friend-fiction). The point of this is to free myself of the expectation that everything needs to come out perfectly and be immediately a work of great brilliance and genius. Usually I’ll perform this free-writing/reflecting on the block/putting whatever nonsense happens in my brain down on the page a few times in a week (if the wall comes up around a deadline I rapid-fire this process). Once the week is over, I’ll look at what I’ve written down. I handwrite so I usually type up what I’ve written. Then I take it, cut it up, put it through filters, and play around with writing the same sentence five different ways. Generally the finished project is garbage, sometimes it’s decent, and occasionally it’s good. The finished project is less important than the process. By meditating on how the wall got there, taking down the power of expectation, and manipulating the very words the wall is made of I remind myself that I am fully capable of the real work of writing: asking and answering to the self.
The process reminds me of how I write, how I actually get the work of writing done. I am sure your process looks different. Maybe you type at the computer and never edit or always edit or always write with a glass of wine. Honoring and reminding yourself of your process brings the ability to create back into your life. It begins to dismantle the wall.