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This year I committed to an inordinate amount of new course creation for various organizations and events, which means I’ve been spending a lot of time sitting down and drafting what are essentially tiny versions of my craft book Intuitive Editing.
Each presentation needs to offer not only a solid overview of the topic I’m presenting, but enough detailed guidelines to make it practical and actionable, and of course examples to help the concepts resonate and come to life.
Here’s what course creation usually looks like for me: Once I settle on a specific subject for presentation, I start reading novels—a lot of novels. This is the research part of creation, the equivalent to fiction writers doing character development, or world building, or research on setting and situation.
Not only am I looking for good examples that will help clarify and illustrate the ideas I’ll be talking about, but I am constantly analyzing everything I’m reading with the concepts of the topic in mind, trying to dissect how the author does what they do relative to the specific subject I’m focusing on, and what makes the writing effective (or not).
This is some of the most important work of understanding craft, and it’s the basis of my constant exhortation to writers to learn to analyze like an editor. Nothing shows you how the sausage is made more than going to the sausage factory and picking apart every step.
Read more: “The Main Writing Skill You May Be Neglecting”
Unlike my fiction, in my nonfiction work once I have a general idea what areas I want to hit on, I make an outline. Organization and flow are an enormous part of what makes a presentation effective and useful, so it’s important to me to get those right and think about how I want to structure the presentation before I begin.
And this is usually when I hit the first Wall of WTF.
What Is the Wall of WTF?
I’m guessing I don’t even have to expand on what I mean for most of you authors to get it. The wall can take any number of common forms:
- “WTF, this makes no sense/is superficial/isn’t new or fresh/[insert demon here]”
- “WTF, I’m off topic.”
- “WTF am I forgetting or leaving out?”
- “WTF, how will I present all this material in X amount of time?”
- “WTF am I even talking about?”
All these WTFs are the little self-doubt demons coming out to play. Every creative, every human, has their own personal cast of those.
Like the most demanding of irritating home buyers, they like to let themselves into the house as it’s being constructed and start trashing it before it’s anywhere near finished: The closets aren’t big enough. The hallways aren’t wide enough. How will their living room furniture fit with the fireplace in that corner?! It all looked so much better in the blueprints….
Like little hoodlums, if I don’t get hold of them they might start defacing the joint or knocking out support beams or stealing my copper pipe–they might even try to crack the foundation.
Something like that can derail the whole construction if you don’t sit down with the finicky home buyers and establish some boundaries—and if you don’t get hold of those little vandals before they do damage.
How to Scale the Wall of WTF
1. Accept the wall
Getting past the Wall of WTF starts with understanding that it’s just a stage—a normal one in the process of creation.
That’s my first line of attack. I take a deep breath and remind myself that this is normal.
Read more: “Needing Help Doesn’t Mean You’re a Bad Writer”
Read More: “Forgiving Your Failure”
The drafting process is messy just as the construction process is messy. There’s dust and dirt and scraps that result from the process of building and clutter up the site. There are miscalculations that may not reveal themselves right away, but which have to be dealt with or they may affect the entire edifice. There are changes that may be made as the building goes from 2D to 3D and you see what it’s like to actually move around in it.
This is how a house gets built. This is how anything creative gets built. It’s normal for there to be chaos and mess before there is structure and order.
2. Know that you can conquer the wall
The second thing I have to do is remember to have faith: in myself, in the idea, in my knowledge of my topic and my ability to convey it. And even though there may sometimes be things I also don’t know, I have faith in my ability to learn them.
Read more: “Getting Unstuck in Your Writing—Or: POV Is a Bastard”
I remind myself to have faith that I have information of value to offer authors that can help them in their process. Not all of it may be applicable to every writer. Not all of it may be fresh and new to them. Not all of it is even fresh and new period—just as in story, in writing craft there’s nothing really new under the sun.
But what I can do is find my own ways of analyzing and interpreting and presenting complex ideas into a form that may resonate with a certain author at a certain moment and allow them to more deeply understand something they’ve been struggling with. That’s all I have to ask of myself, and that I know I can do.
As a writer your equivalent of that is reminding yourself that you don’t have to tell a story that’s never been told. You don’t have to tell a story that changes someone’s life in major ways. You don’t have to write a story that appeals to everyone, hits every bestseller list, or gets nothing but five-star reviews.
The noblest purpose of story is to connect—whether that’s with one person or one million people doesn’t matter. Your job is simply to find a way to tell a story that is meaningful to you and find the people to whom it also connects in a meaningful way for them. That’s all. And you are capable of doing that—as an artist, and as a human being who shares many of the wants and longings and drives and fears and experiences and desires of other human beings.
Some of the most important faith I have in myself at this stage is that no matter how difficult or dark the slog may seem when I’m face-first against the Wall of WTF, eventually I’m going to get to the other side. I know that I have the tools and the skill to do it.
And I know that I also have the other most important ingredient, the third element of getting through the WTF stage: persistence.
3. Never let the wall stop you
Legion are the stories that get stuck against the Wall of WTF and never make it out. It may be because a writer has let the demons run rampant and failed to corral them. It may be because they’ve lost faith in their ability to make it through this stage, or they’ve forgotten that this stage happens to everyone and is a normal and regular part of the creative process.
But perhaps most often it’s because battering against the wall over and over hammered away at a writer’s determination. At their persistence and spark and fire. And at some point, when all these WTF walls begin to spring up, they stop trying to surmount them and give up.
Read More: "What Do You Do When the Worst Happens?"
There’s a difference between good quitting and bad quitting. I’ve written about good quitting before, when something is no longer serving you and you reevaluate your goals and priorities and where it’s worth dedicating your energy and time, and let go of some things that are no longer serving you.
But bad quitting is where you walk away from something you still really want because it got harder than you expected, or took longer, or you believed the screaming demons who convinced you you’d never achieve it.
I often say that the biggest secret of building and maintaining strong personal relationships is just showing up. I may not always say the perfect thing in a tough time, may not buy the perfect gift for an occasion, may not be able to be there day in and day out with distant friends and family.
But I show up in the lives of the people I care about, whether that’s just through dropping a text or email to let someone know I’m thinking of them, sending a little gift for no reason, setting up a call or video call, or flying into town for an important event. With the relationships that matter most to me, I just make sure that I’m present in whatever way I’m able to be, over and over and over.
I think this applies similarly to writing. So much of success is simply showing up at your computer, in the chair, with the manuscript you’re working on. You may not always have a home-run writing session. You may not always have time to spend hours and hours working through thorny plot points or drafting or editing.
You may butt right up against a Wall of WTF and get stuck there for a while, like a Roomba in a corner. But successful writers show up, whatever that looks like, day after day—one minute, five minutes, five hours; it doesn’t matter.
A lifetime of those little incremental show-ups for people creates the most meaningful relationships.
A lifetime of showing up for your writing creates stories—ones that you finish—and a writing career.
Talk to me, friends, about your Wall of WTF. What do yours look like? What do you do when you run into one? What gets you past the mental block of being stuck so you can find a productive way around, over, or through the wall?
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