Bad Advice Wednesday: Get Up The Wall

categories: Cocktail Hour


wall          I’ve written in this space before about how long, steep bike rides are good metaphors for writing a book. But yesterday, as I pushed and slogged up a ride that once seemed everyday but is now monumental, I thought that what I was doing was also a fairly apt metaphor for a writing career.


It seems to me important to make a clear distinction between the writing itself and the attempt to get the writing out in the world. Obviously, both skill sets are needed to become a published writer in the first place, and also needed to publish books over the course of a career. The writing itself is what we usually talk about here, but for today let’s stick to this other thing. Unless you are insanely lucky, the getting of the work into the world takes almost as much persistence and commitment as the work itself. This is understandably frustrating to a young writer—“But my writing is good”—and remains to some degree frustrating to many published and not-so-young writers. I will not go as far as to say I am in control when I am at my writing desk,but I almost never feel as out of control as I do when I try to negotiate the world of publishing.


Of course the hill seems steepest from the bottom. I am full of admiration for the young writers I know who have been trying for years to get published, working at it every day despite the world’s indifference. By extension this means I’m full of admiration for my younger self, since I labored without any positive feedback, let alone publication, for over twelve years. At the time I didn’t regard what I was doing as heroic, but now, seeing others doing the same thing, I understand that there is at least some heroism involved.

The hardest part of yesterday’s ride was a section we used to call The Wall. It’s brutal and goes on forever. But having conquered it you pretty much feel you can do anything. It would be easy to suggest that The Wall represents that early unpublished stage of the career-ride. Easy but not entirely true. Because, while a young writer might not want to hear it, there are many Walls ahead. And while you may feel indomitable one day when you get up it, you still have to get up it again the next.

One thing you do gain, however—as my wife has pointed out to me—is the knowledge that it is possible to climb the thing. And those past climbs do give you some toughness, mental and otherwise, that will come in handy during the next ascent.

This admittedly has not been the most uplifting of Bad Advices. But I think I can muster a positive, if not ringing, conclusion. Because there is a sort of strange pleasure in trying to do the impossible, or at least the very large, on a regular basis. My former teacher, Reg Saner, a poet, essayist and mountaineer, calls it “the pleasure of the difficult.” As pleasure goes, it may feel a lot like pain. But it is if not a good pain then a necessary one. Without it there is no movement forward. Without it there can be no ascent.

  1. George de Gramont writes:

    Great essay and you and Nina are living it . I saw Jimmy Carter (90 ) last night on TV and he reminded me of your essay . It is good to see you are adding “the mind of man ” to your interests . Jorge .

  2. Jimmy Guignard writes:

    Cool. I usually think of riding as a metaphor for reading, and I’m digging this. I also usually think once you ride The Wall, you can always ride The Wall. Sometimes it hurts more, sometimes less. And sometimes my ass gets absolutely thrashed. Then I walk.

  3. Billy Dean writes:

    Metaphors are so good at helping us better understand both things being compared. My guess is that every metaphor breaks down at some point in the comparison, but yours works on the lines and between the lines. Delightful. Thanks!

    Struggling up a hill, running or cycling, is like writing a book. George Orwell said, “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

    Every now and then, one of my friends would ask me, “Bill, why do you run marathons? How can you tolerate the pain?” My answer would always be something like, “Pain? It doesn’t hurt. I like to run. What you think of as pain is to me simply what it feels like to run.”

    And your comments about the difference between writing and marketing is spot on–two very different skills sets. Most of my poems, stories and memoirs are on the Kindle platform at Amazon. But Amazon is a very large haystack, and my writing is only a few small needles. Writing is about quality and publishing is about quantity. Like you, I have more control over the quality of my writing than the quantity of books competing with mine.

    PS => As a beginning cyclist, I’ve been struggling with the hilly terrain here in Tehachapi, so it’s helpfully coincidental that your cousin-in-law Lisa called my attention to your blog. As a cyclist and a writer, I look forward to reading more of your articles.


    • Debora writes:

      “…simply what it feels like to run.” Yep. Mountain biking the same. It took a long time for me to realize publishing was like that. But even realizing it, I open a submission reply and it’s WTF! all over again. I mean, you know, What The FUCK??!!! And I’m splayed out in the weeds, still clipped to my pedals, squirming around like a little bug trying to right itself.