Tag Archives: MA student

Can’t Go Over It: Dismantling the Writing Wall

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.

Katherine Karlin’s ‘Send Me Work’: A Review

I first stumbled across Katherine Karlin’s work in the Winter 2015 edition of The Cincinnati Review.  The story, “We Are the Polites,” is told from the point of view of the youngest daughter of five children born to a large, famous Greek family.  Her name is Honey, all of her other siblings have normal, “non-stripper” names, and they lead clean-shaven, non-stripper lives.  Not that Honey is a stripper (she’s not); Honey is an uninteresting accountant whose life pales in comparison to those of her theatrical siblings.  

You’re probably thinking sad story, I’ve read it all before.  But you haven’t.  Not the way Karlin tells it.  Through Honey’s eyes, everything is alight with quotidian beauty—the small things are her bread and butter, and Karlin lives in those descriptions.  Here is a passage, one of many from “We Are the Polites,” that converted me to Karlin:

In the winter, the sun slides from my apartment by two in the afternoon.  I live in the second-story of a cottage in Somerville, a vantage point from which I can watch the neighborhood change.  That
check-cashing place is now a dress shop, and the Chinese takeout turned into a tapas bar.  The beige paint on the living room wall is frizzled like pencil shavings.  The hot water knocks…These familiar defects are comfortable to me, like the battered wok hanging on the wall or the smell of diesel from the street.  Stick your head out the kitchen window and look sharp to the left: You’ll see a sliver of the Charles.  I like that.”

You may say, “but you’re supposed to be writing about Send Me Work.”  I’m getting there.  The point I have been trying to make is this: how often is it that a short piece you read in just another literary review audibly takes your breath away?  Karlin gets comfortable with the awkward in-betweens that often accompany lofty career expectations.  Honey is just one example of one of Karlin’s characters in a period of transition.  

Send Me Work, Karlin’s 2011 debut short story collection, tells of women in the workplace, often aspiring to become masters of their respective crafts, and many times ultimately failing but realizing something about perseverance along the way.  The stories are the painful yet intricately rendered tipping points that Karlin’s women must face.  Karlin’s stories are heavily inspired by her own experiences, which makes sense when considering the strongest areas of her stories: rich descriptions and realistic dialogue.Send Me Work

Three stories are central to the development of themes in the collection: The Severac Sound, Muscle Memory, and Send Me Work.  This trifecta appears early in the collection, one after another, more reminiscent of sneak attacks than gut punches.

In The Severac Sound, Rachel lingers as a lady in waiting of sorts—she’s the perpetual second chair oboist in a respected symphony orchestra.  Second to Peter, and second in the eyes of their cancer-riddled instructor.  Nothing trumpets the persistent horrors of the stereotypical, overshadowing male figure like the opening line, “Water sprang from the fat penis of a bronze cherub and splashed in a turquoise pool glittering with pennies.”  In the opening scene, Rachel is admiring the fountain in the lobby of her hotel, but the moment is ruined when she realizes the statue reminds her of Peter.  She imagines her aloof colleague as the cherub, “urinating on her hand.”  Karlin uses such subtle moments of humor and elegant detail to avoid reducing her characters to sorry puppets used and pounded into dust by the misogynist societies in which they work.  In the end, instead of realizing dreams or shriveling into crumpled wads of self-pity, Karlin’s women find something to hold onto, the equivalent of a secret that keeps their spirits alive and their nihilism at bay.  I can’t really give much more away without spoiling the ending, but just know that Karlin consistently establishes and undercuts traditional feminist tropes to give her character Harriet a newfound sense of autonomy.

The impetus for The Severac Sound began with Karlin’s experience.  One of Karlin’s good friends was a professional oboist, and she actually travelled with his orchestra on tour across Europe and the US, carrying luggage and doing laundry for them.  She knows the tediousness of readying a reed before rehearsal because she’s seen the process dozens of times.  The story is so strong due to Karlin’s immersion in the subject matter.

Muscle Memory, perhaps Karlin’s most widely read short story to date, is the story of Destiny, a young New Orleans woman whose father died in Hurricane Katrina.  Her father was a welder, and Destiny, in order to learn the craft and support her mother, tries to earn the respect of a welder at the shipyard where she works.  Karlin, drawing upon firsthand experience as a woman working the shipyards, once learned how to weld from the men she worked with.  Augustine, a washed up, bitter character who once recorded a hit record as a one hit wonder, takes it upon himself to school Destiny in not only welding but in his musical heritage, a journey of discovery that parallels the development of Destiny’s education as a welder.

Send Me Work, the title story, is perhaps the most heartbreaking of them all.  It’s the story of Harriet, a failed standup comedienne who was recently fired from her temp job as an accountant and kicked out of her apartment.  Izzy, her longtime best friend, works as a circus clown, and he meets up with her in New York every year.  The moments leading up to this year’s meeting are freighted with Harriet’s memories of past adventures.  And when the two meet again, Harriet holds onto the new memories for dear life:

She would need to memorize all of this: the singing, the taste of tangerine and the seed he spit on the pavement, the fog his breath made.  Someday she would need it.  Holding his arm she glanced up to see, on top of the buildings, the black silhouettes of water towers, staved and coopered and quaint.  She shivered.

The two have an exchange about a radio segment in which listeners call in with popular song lyrics they’ve misheard.  The title takes its name from a misinterpreted Bruce Springsteen lyric from “Drive All Night,” a song from his 1980 album The River.  (This also made the Springsteen fan in me scream with joy like nothing else I’ve ever read before, but that is beside the point.)  Harriet explains to Izzy:

It starts out, ‘I wish God would send me word, send me something I’m afraid to lose.’  And this dude [who called in] always heard it, ‘I wish God would send me work, send me something I’m afraid to do.’”

The misheard lyric, in addition to its function within the story, could be construed as a commentary on Karlin’s writing philosophy.  She writes from experience, meaning that she picks out scenarios or events from her life and transforms them into short stories.  Karlin, and perhaps all creative writers, wait for those little moments worthy of remembering, each one a challenge laden with potential and begging to captured.

Carly Plank

Creative Writing MA 2017