Hitting The Wall in Writing
When I was much younger and in much better shape, I was a runner. That’s me, in the lead on the far left in this old newspaper clipping. (Don’t judge my jungle print shorts, it was the 80’s.)
I’ve never run a marathon (10K’s were more my thing), but among marathon runners, there is a common experience they call “hitting the wall” — an intimidating physical and mental barrier that blocks them from running as hard as they want to, late in the race. Most runners hit the wall around the 18- or 20-mile mark of a marathon, after they have depleted stored fuel (glycogen) in their muscles. At such times, not only are the muscles tired, but the runner’s brain also wants to reduce activity, as a preservation method, which can lead to the negative thinking that often comes along with hitting the wall.
Writers also encounter walls, but instead of suffering from leg cramps and shortness of breath, we typically refer to these brain cramps as “writer’s block”. When we’re on pace, the sun is shining, and the pages are flowing by smoothly; we have all the energy and words we need. But when the road turns uphill, we get off track, and our writing muscles run short of content carbohydrates, that’s when we “hit the wall” with our words.
Next month, my daughter and I will be “competing” against ourselves (and maybe each other) during NaNoWriMo. (For more information about National Novel Writing Month, look here.) During the month of November, both of us will attempt to write the first draft of a novel. I participated in the event last year, too, but my mental glycogen started running low somewhere around the 10,000-word mark, and I hit the wall hard. I felt like I was running (and writing) in circles, and my ideas and progress dried up. I had plotted and “painted” a lot of the story and structure, with events and confrontations and twists that I wanted to happen, but mentally it was really tough to push through to the finish. This year, I am hoping and planning for things to be different.
To avoid crippling physical and mental fatigue, runners sometimes play games with themselves and mix things up in training. One of my favorite running terms is, “fartlek” — Swedish for “speed play” — which is typically a mix of slow and fast training. Like a Mary Poppins in Nikes, the goal is for the author to add an element of fun that (snap!) makes the task into a game. For example:
- Sprinting for two mailboxes, jogging for one, going fast for two, then slow for one, etc.
- Running at whatever speed is dictated by the chorus of the current song on their playlist.
- Pushing through a sprint, “just until that trash can” or “that third telephone pole.”
Writers can also “mix it up” and keep the writing process interesting:
- Doing “word sprints” of free association, without editing, to generate ideas.
- Listening to motivating playlists of music that suit the types of scenes created.
- Briefly writing in another genre — in my case, “meta” blog posts about my NaNoWriMo progress.
Recognizing that “hitting the wall” is a common barrier to writing success, you can plan ahead to work around it and break through the “writer’s block” that seems so insurmountable. During the month of November, don’t be surprised if my How To Be A Truthspeaker and I Write Half blog posts have a recurring NaNoWriMo theme; it’s just me doing a fiction fartlek!