Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Overcoming Writers' Block

First: A brief announcement. I hope to do another free Teleseminar in a few weeks, discussing writing and answering your questions. Anyone interested in the details (when they become available) just register at THE SITCOM ROOM site. If you've already registered no need to do it again. The last one was a lot of fun. I discussed stuff like this:
A reader asked how you overcome writers’ block. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. Different writers use different methods. So instead of just sharing my approach I thought I’d ask a few working writers for their take. One said, “Music, crying, and/or Ativan. Any one, but preferably all.” Here are the others. Many thanks to the contributing scribes.

Note: As you know I like to include photos to spruce things up. But other than
this spiffy cartoon I can't think of what to post about writers block. So instead I'll just offer pictures that might serve as incentives -- pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. You know me -- anything to help. Enjoy.

BILL KELLY (ENCHANTED)

I'm not sure I believe in it, at least for myself. To
me, "writers block" suggests a tormented artist
searching for the muse in some wretched Parisian
garret, which is a much more glamorous image then some
lazy slob splayed on the couch watching Love Boat
reruns instead of working (guess which one I am).

I'm not one of those people who "hate
writing". I just hate getting started. And you have
to write 'something', even if it's bad, in order to
have 'something' you can make better.

My work days usually find me trapped between the twin
tensions of my inherent laziness and my increasing
self-loathing that I haven't done anything yet.
Eventually, the self-loathing desperately overtakes me
and I start feverishly working.

Surprisingly, that's the best part of the day.

IAN GURVITZ (BECKER, WINGS, author: HELLO, LIED THE AGENT, writer/director of the feature LA BLUES, blogger)

I think the best solution is to do something else. Take a walk. Go shopping. Sleep. Anything that takes you away from the way you've been thinking about the problem because that road has run you into a wall and to continue to think that way will result in your just banging your head against the same wall, like the marching band during the riot scene of Animal House. Even though you can never really get your mind off it, doing some other activity often lets the mind settle so that whatever part of you that comes up with ideas can make new connections, which often results in a new way through the problem, whether it's a clever solution or deciding that the problem really didn't exist. If that doesn't work, then I would suggest just blasting your way through it and hope a connection hits you along the way. Or working on something else and seeing, over time, whether the story really wants to be written.

In either case, since a story rarely come out fully formed, these moments are simply part of the process and the desire or need to write it will drive you through. That is my assessment of writer's block and it is correct.

ELAYNE BOOSLER (writer/comedienne)

I feel one cannot hope to successfully write anything without first alphabetizing the linen closet.

DAVID POLLOCK (MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, MASH, FRASIER)

I completely give in to writers block and distract my mind by throwing myself into obtaining the answers to obscure research questions distantly related to the project. For example: Why was Schulyer Colfax kicked off the ticket as Vice Presidential running mate for Grant's second term? Who were the ten best righthand hitting Dodger left fielders who platooned with lefthand hitting Gene Hermanski in the late 1940s and early 50s? Which ethnic group was put out of business when the Vietnamese took over all the manicure boutiques. Etc., etc.

CHERI STEINKELLNER (CHEERS, BOB NEWHART, TEACHER’S PET, SISTER ACT (musical heading to Broadway)

Morning Pages (Julia Cameron, Artist's Way). I
don't do the full Artist's Way regime, and I usually
don't even do this - but when I do it usually works,
and is always interesting at the very least. Morning
Pages = free-writing 3 stream-of-consciousness
notebook pages first thing in the a.m., still in bed,
fresh from sleep and dreams, and not yet distracted by
the day's to-do list. It's a habit you need to get
into (and it's easier to get out of, that's for sure)
but it invariably gives more than it takes!

JANE ESPENSON (BUFFY, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, GILMORE GIRLS, blogger)

I always tell people that nothing cures Writers' Block like having a job. If a script is due, if you HAVE to write it, then, magically, there is no block. Conversely, of course, writing projects of your own, spec projects with no deadline and no one waiting to read what you've done --- that gets harder after you've become used to hard deadlines and guaranteed payment. I force myself to complete those only sometimes -- when the idea strikes me as so good that I really feel driven to complete the project. Maybe, in cases like that, Writer's Block is actually acting as a good executive -- keeping me focused only on the best ideas!

ROB LONG (CHEERS, author: CONVERSATIONS WITH MY AGENT, host of MARTINI SHOT on NPR)

I give into it.

(Well, honestly, I've never experienced writers block, if by that you mean the desire to write but the inability to actually do it. I suffer from what experts call "laziness," which is a much different thing. I don't want to write. I can't really concentrate. I surf the web aimlessly. I lie about how much work I've done; I lie to editors about being "five minutes from emailing the piece"; I lie to myself, especially, when I say, "You know what? I'll get up early tomorrow and...")

LEE GOLDBERG (PSYCH, MONK, DIAGNOSIS MURDER, FAST TRACK feature, blogger)

I have never had writer's block...what I've had are scenes I couldn't make work...and that's almost always because the initial conception of the scene or story was flawed. Fix the structural problem and the "block" will disappear.

DAVE HACKEL (BECKER, WINGS, FRASIER)

No magic answer for this one. Mostly I try not to sit at my desk and try. I do anything else. Take a walk, go to the gym, read a book -- anything. I find that that's when the solution to what I'm blocked on comes to me -- when I'm not trying. Guess I can't take the pressure. And if I do sit and try to beat it, the only thing that works for me is to start posing questions to myself, i.e. pitch to myself. And just at it is in a writers' room, I pose everything I can think of from the ridiculous to the ridiculouser and shoot myself down mercilessly. In the end -- a solution comes because, quite frankly, it has to.

JENNIFER FISHER (TITUS, ELLEN, WANDA AT LARGE, HOME IMPROVEMENT)

I put my fingers on the keys and just start stream of consciousness typing everything I’m thinking about at that moment – the complete inner dialogue. “What the fuck is wrong with you? Why haven’t you finished this yet? You can’t write. You’re an asshole. A lazy fucking asshole.” You know, all the good self-loathing usually comes to the surface first. And I’ll even write about the fact I have writer’s block and ask myself what it’s about, all the while typing it out. I just let all those voices tire themselves out and usually that unblocks me so the rest can flow.

Either that, or go to a movie so I can later lambaste myself for, once again, procrastinating.

More tomorrow.

26 comments:

Eric Weinstein said...

Thankfully, my block is only on my blog, which is why there are so few posts...

Interesting factoid taken from this post: Elayne Boosler spells her name the same way as my wife. But I have always thought Boosler was a funny name for a woman.

Wait, there's a thought for the blog!

Eric

Anonymous said...

Ken --

Thanks very much for responding to my email and collecting these strategies from working writers.

I've printed this post and taped it to the wall so I can refer back to it when I'm writing. Or not writing, more likely.

-- Your Protagonist
www.gaudypatter.com

The Crutnacker said...

I found the perfect way to end writer's block. Quit writing and take a lousy corporate job. (sniff)

D. McEwan said...

I'm of the "Don't think about it" school. Find a mindless distraction (Easy) and goof off until something pops. Porn is good. So are computer games. A couple rounds of SCRABBLE or an hour of ROLLERCOASTER TYCOON on the computer, frees up the creative part of my head.

Often a nap works too. I find solutions and fresh ideas often popping during that lazy, half-awake/half-asleep moments after a nap. A Director once asked me for a complete rewrite of a play I'd written that he was going to stage, that involved restructuring it from three acts to two, and a bunch of other major changes. I put it out of my mind for two weeks, and then woke up one morning with the whole new, restructured draft flowing out of my head. I was seeing it all done in front of me. When the play was staged six months later, it basically was the play I watched in my bed waking up that morning.

If I don't have the time to put it off to simmer, I just write it as is, badly, sleep on it, and then go back over it and fix it. Often I just write it straight, with no humor at all, and then, the next day, the jokes are there, telling me where they go.

But as I get older, I find writer's block less of a problem, as I developed the faith that my own creativity is always there, and can't dry up. Having the confidence in myself to relax and just let it flow is the real secret.

gwangung said...

Deadlines.

Deadlines ALWAYS overcome writer's blocks.

Even if it's nothing but crap, there's usually enough there to re-write, re-shape and re-mold into something useful.

blogward said...

Great, worth the price of admission alone...and there's always the P.G. Wodehouse one, 'Apply seat of pants to chair.'

Bitter Animator said...

Ooh! Ian Gurvitz has a blog? He's one of those writers I've noticed on particular episodes I like of Becker.

I find with sitcoms writers are usually so good at retaining the character, tone and whatever else about the show that it's not easy to find a pattern in terms of writers I like. So it's nice when I see a name I've noticed I like (like I can guarantee just about any episode of Cheers by Phoef Sutton I'll love - and of course yours and David's, ken!).

I had a hefty writing job last year (not in Hollywood sitcom league but a writing job nonetheless) and I tackled writer's block by devoting a ridiculous amount of hours writing in a frenzy right at the beginning but not telling anyone I had done that. So, effectively, I managed to bank a few scripts on the sly.

I kept that reserve for the days when I just couldn't get a word out, so nobody ever noticed I had writer's block.

Not sure that would ever work with your deadlines and it's not really a tip for curing writer's block. Just a cheat.

Anonymous said...

In the 1970's, I wrote banal Norman Lears sitcoms. When stuck, I'd have Barbara and Julie and Schneider curse and do things wildly scatological. Read 30 years later, it's funny. Unless your wife or kids find it.

Alan said...

Personally, I'm a big fan of a brisk walk around the block. Also, standing in front of the sink, doing the dishes strangely works for me.

I think it's the pressure of having to write something when I'm in front of the keyboard that causes my particular form of writer's block. Anything that gets me and my mind away from the computer for a bit takes the pressure off.

And by the way, you couldn't have posted a picture of Phoebe a few frames after that one, could you?

What? I'm just saying...

Doktor Frank Doe said...

Curing Writer's block? One word, Ritalin. On Ritalin I can focus down to a single fruit fly hovering about my head for four hours, it's wonderful!

I start off by getting up at 3am, take a shower and head to Denny's where by the third sip of coffee that stuff has kicked in and away I go, fully concentrated, extaordinarily focused and highly productive, as long as there's no fruit flies around.

Mary Stella said...

Love the comments! When I'm blocked in a manuscript, I'll write things like, "Jack gets mad. Victoria does what she wants anyway. Something else happens. Blah blah blah." I highlight those sections in yellow so I remember to go back and fix them later. Eventually, enough blahblahblahing dissolves the block and words again flow.

It's like mental Draino.

A. Buck Short said...

Elayne Boosler, Jennifer Fisher, Rob Long, Bill Kelly I’ve got just one word for you, lantzman!

Sadly, I find writing to be my preferred method of procrastinating through life block. Some find sex to be an effective cure for writers’ block. I have been blocked since 1993.

Constance Reader said...

I had my first evening with a writers group the other night. I was having trouble working through a scene and was doing my usual humming, wild gesturing, cussing, growling and hitting things. My friend at the same table asked if I couldn't agonize quietly. I am very proud of my virtuous restraint in not replying "No, and if you can, you're not a real writer." Which may have been more true because nobody actually seemed to be writing. They ate, drank, socialized and read over their laptops, but they didn't write.

The true answer, which I did give, was that this wasn't a problem when I could pace around with a cigarette in my hand. Unfortunately, I quit smoking. But yeah, for some reason, going for a long walk also works to burst the dams for me, too.

But I got that scene worked out and written and cleaned up a few more. So even if everyone else is quietly not-writing, it seems a productive timeslot for me.

Gaylord Swaby said...

Thanks for writing about this. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who experiences this. I write scripts and music and encounter writers block in both realms sometimes. My advice: walk away from it. I think the mind works on problems or ideas subconciously when one is actively doing something else.

emily litella said...

I get Reuters Bloch...is this normal?

John said...

I've got two main options for writer's block, at least for news story/feature writing:

1.) Write whatever sections you're comfortable with, or put down the quotes to be used in the story first, and then fill in the areas around them later, as you figure out some sort of unifying theme and/or lead for the story. You sometimes get a story that doesn't flow, but at least you're getting something down on the keyboard to work with (I suppose for comedy writing, the equivalent would be to take whatever premise/key scene/key gags you've got to start with, put them down on paper and then try to fill in around them to come up with a coherent story that makes those scenes and gags work).

2.) Sit around putting things off by surfing the Internet or some other time-killing activity, until you're right up against deadline, and the adrenaline kicks in from the panic realization that you've only got 45 minutes to put something coherent into words. Fear of punishment/job loss can be a fabulous way to focus the mind and motivate creativity.

jbryant said...

constance: Wait, there are writers groups in which writers actually sit around writing? And on their own projects, not a group project? That seems really weird to me.

charity said...

well, when i wrote the only block i ever had was getting the lead PERFECT. you hear me, PERFECT. nothing less than - PERFECT.

after that, everything came easy.

yes, goddamit, IT ALL CAME EASY. YOU HEAR ME, EASY. AND PERFECT.

did i mention i no longer write?

---------

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I have a two-step approach.

(1) Find a beautiful, willing woman.

(2) Have wild sex with said woman until totally exhausted.

I've spent the last 30 years looking for (1), but as soon as I find her I intend to write up a storm.

Okay, I actually write a lot and have a debut novel under my belt. I like my method anyway.

D. McEwan said...

"(1) Find a beautiful, willing woman. ...
I've spent the last 30 years looking for (1)"

Ah, now I understand your "Hitlery" crack a few days back - resentment of all women.

pat reeder said...

gwangung is right: deadlines are the ultimate writer's block killer. I write a daily humor service for radio that has to go out at 4:30 a.m. or phones start ringing from all over the world. Somehow, writer's block has never stopped it from going out in 15 years. Neither has flu, my mom's funeral, my father's death and a nearby tornado that caused us to hide in the closet for two hours, writing jokes on laptops.

For those who do suffer this problem, George Kaufman had the best advice: type your name on the paper (this was back in the paper and typewriter days). He said there's nothing so intimidating as a perfect blank page of paper, but as soon as you mess it up with your name it isn't blank anymore, so you can continue ruining it with your writing.

The Crutnacker said...

--I write a daily humor service for radio that has to go out at 4:30 a.m. or phones start ringing from all over the world. --

Any stations in Louisville use your stuff?

When I am serious about writing, I find that doing nothing except kicking it around in my head helps kill writer's block.

Also, if you need some severely snarky funny to get you in the mood, read this:

http://www.buffalobeast.com/122/50mostloathsome2007.html

41, 9, 2, and 1 are my favorites

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

mcewan: Hitlery is a woman? I'd like to see some DNA evidence of that.

Constance Reader said...

jbryant:

Well, I THOUGHT they were supposed to write. Pretty naive of me, isn't it? Maybe that's why I was able to actually get that scene written -- I'm an ornery cuss who lives to be contrary to everyone else!

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I find that when I'm stuck trying to write something, I go back and look at what I just wrote. Then, instead of moving the story forward, I take the same scenario and write it in another character's perspective. This allows me to keep "those creative juices flowing" and also develop other characters and make more than just the main character dynamic and round.