Fans of the audio storytelling group Celestial Navigations should recognize the title of this post.
It’s also the title of what I consider to be Celestial Navigations’ signature piece: The Wall.
If you’ve not heard this track, or if you’ve not heard of Celestial Navigations, I highly, highly, highly recommend both.
The Wall is also a perfect analogy for aspirant fiction writers.
Consider the first words of the piece:
I stood before The Wall.
And it was a Wall.
Stretching to infinity in either direction.
It was dark, it was thick, it was massive and it was solid.
It was not something you could see into, but rather it stopped sight.
And it was directly in front of me.
That’s a very accurate description of what it’s like to start out as a beginning aspirant. You don’t know the craft, you don’t know the market, and you don’t know the avenues necessary to attain professional publication. All you can see is a gargantuan barrier between you and the Others: the people who somehow managed to make it as professional writers, and are now Authors, being paid for their prose. You want to be where they are. They were once where you are now. And in between the two of you is a high, endless, seemingly impossible Wall. The Wall is what you must defeat to reach paid Authorhood. The Wall is so fearsome and indimidating that most people, upon seeing it, turn around and go back the way they came.
Those who have not turned back, often litter the base of the wall. Defeated. Vanquished. Everyone who couldn’t bear to give up on their dream, but who found The Wall too tough for them to manage, and so they lay at the bottom, broken.
Some will heal, re-gird their loins, and make new attempts.
Most will eventually drag themselves away from The Wall and try to forget it ever existed.
You? You’re fresh to the fight. All you have going for you is your belief in yourself and your desire to be one of those mystical few who make it. The Wall towers over you, and you approach it nervously, but with anticipation. The defeated at the bottom may try to encourage you, but mostly they will try to pull you down. You have to leap over their bodies and scramble up The Wall’s base, seeking any kind of toe-hold.
As you cling by your fingertips, legs kicking wildly into The Wall’s frigid surface, you notice that the face of The Wall is covered from end to end, top to bottom, by other aspirants. Some of them, like you, are making their first ascent. You share eager, frightened glances with them, and begin inching your way up. Others, above you at various levels, are the aspirant veterans: old fighters from the Long War who have been on The Wall for years. Sometimes they’ve fallen back down to the bottom, and been forced to make several attempts. Others have simply gone diagonally, gone sideways, even gone back down a little, until at last they find a clear path up — stubbornly refusing to let go.
The higher you look up The Wall, the fewer bodies you see. Until, near the very top, there are only a very, very few. Their clothes are ragged and wind-whipped, their frames gaunt and starved from exertion and constant effort. You see their hands and legs move, as yours must move: forever making progress, however small.
Once in a great while, one of the veterans finally pulls him or herself to the top, and giving a long, victorious whoop, disappears over to the other side, where new challenges and new quests await.
You watch the spot where the victors once clung, and you swallow hard at how impossibly high The Wall is. You shake your head at how much work it’s going to take to get to the top, and how much it will hurt if you slip or lose your grasp. Falling from too great a height seems as if it will kill you. Indeed, it has killed many. If not physically, then creatively. Emotionally. Spiritually.
This is clearly not a task for the faint hearted.
But like the Celestial Navigation piece says, you are not normal. Normal people don’t do what you’re fixing to do. Normal doesn’t climb The Wall. It takes extraordinary determination, willpower, stubborness, and a little bit of luck, combined with a little bit of talent. So you keep your eyes on the top of The Wall and you ignore the pain in your joints and muscles and you make yourself go up. Up, up, up. No stopping until you’re on top, like those rare, jubilant human beings who managed to keep at it for months or years or even decades until, finally, success was theirs.
I’m not sure where I am at on my Wall right now. I’d like to think I’m right at the top, within a few yards of the lip. I’ve slid back down my Wall many times and have occasionally contemplated getting off it altogether and declaring it a hopeless project.
But there are certain realizations I’ve had in my life. Certain moments of clarity that have directed my feet down certain paths. One of those was when I married my wife. Another was when I joined the military. Still another was when my wife and I decided to have a child. These are the moments of no return. You can’t go back. You can’t quit when it’s hard. Quitting is unacceptable. Quitting is not an option.
And so it has been with writing. Because once I said to myself, “I can do this, I can become a paid Author,” my path became fixed. Each year I’ve spent on the path, traveling down it, I’ve become more determined to see that path to its end point. Moreover, I’ve become determined to exploit the new paths that lay at the trailhead called Publication. Making the first sale is not the end. It’s the beginning!
Just like The Wall.