Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Overcoming Writers Block Part 2

Thanks again to all the writers who have contributed to this post. Again, for pictures I am offering incentives as to why you WANT to break through your writers block.


Years ago, I actually took a course about writer's block at UCLA extension. We were taught stuff that you and I pretty much already know: put anything down, keep moving forward, etc. One interesting thing was that many people are afraid to mess up the perfect blank page with what they think is shit (obviously, I'm not one of them), so they have a hard time getting started. This was in the pre-compute days, and the teacher suggested that those people draw on the paper, crumple it up, do anything so that it's not pristine. Then they won't feel like they're messing up a perfect page with their first draft attempt.

For me, if someone is paying me or even waiting or expecting what I'm writing, I have no or little trouble with writer's block. I'm motivated by fear -- "fear of getting in trouble," so I put something down.

Other things that I do if I get stuck -- if I've been sitting at the computer, I try writing longhand. Or I may try dictating into a tape recorder.

I do not use a yo-yo to relax me. (Note from me: I do.)


I've never had writer's block. Like some well-known writers, I have a trick. Hemingway supposedly sharpened pencils to get him going. Faulkner supposedly fucked and drank all night and started blasting away at his typewriter every morning. I've heard that Joyce Carol Oates runs five miles every morning.

Here's what I do.

I tape a copy of my mortgage statement above my computer.

Works like a charm.


Sweating blood and hitting your head against the keyboard?
I'd have written sooner but I couldn't think of what to say.


Is not writers block just a romantic notion, an artist in crisis, an excuse to drink absinthe or take some kind of drug...isn't it just a state of depression. I wrote an episode of "High Society", I was working on it as an Exec Prod. Jean Smart (so talented) played a trashy novelist ( a Jackie Collins type) and we tried to tell a story about her missing a deadline because of writers block. The story never took off, the lesson we learned was that writers block is neither dramatic or amusing, perhaps too internal a conflict... as a condition or a narrative device - it stinks.


Here's some stuff that helps me:

Read--Classic novels, works you most admire; Joseph Heller, Hosseini, Hemingway, Palahniuk, Steinback, the greats. Spend a day or two just reading. Read as fast as you can. Gets the brain working faster.

Also--read books about writing. It can be very inspirational.

Journalize--write in a journal, no limits, no boundaries, no spelling worries, no censors, just write. About dreams, about things/people that make you angry. Write a letter to your dead mother, or mine. Or just write gibberish (to free yourself up). Write five pages of rambling, incoherent thoughts. Something will click.

Read biographies about great writers. Read about how they had blocks and drank themselves into oblivion or beat their wives or cats, or shot someone, or committed suicide. Makes you feel a little less alone. Except for the suicide thing.

Then rent the movies you most love/admire. Just watching them can spark other ideas, inspire, motivate.

But, mostly read. Read, read, read.


I walk. The anxiety becomes too much and I have to expend that energy by walking. That's one of the reasons I purchased one of the much-maligned Blackberries. I can type on it and make notes of whatever pops into my head while I'm out walking. I have, on occasion, been very rude to neighbors who see me out wandering around and want to join me. And then I spend the next hour obsessing about whether or not I've hurt their feelings. Anyway, that's what I do.

TOM CLEAVER (Roger Corman classics)

I personally think Hemingway had it right when he said a writer had to sit down in front of the typewriter for an hour every day at the same time, whether anything came out or not. Eventually it gets so boring sitting there, you come up with something. And then the good news is that computers make All Writing Is Rewriting so much easier, so you don't have to worry that everything appearing on the screen is gold.

I also have a rule when working: I can't go fuck off and do something enjyable till there are 5 pages done that day. Hopefully, things get good and the enjoyable thing to do that day is to write. But 5 pages a day will get you through to "fade to black."


If by "writer's block" you mean hitting a wall on something, well, then I turn to other friends and/or family (some of whom are writers, some not) and bounce it off them to see what they think. I have one friend who loves it when I turn to him for ideas. Needless to say, he's an actor.

If, on the other hand you mean running out of ideas completely, well, then I would turn to my agency. They appear to have no shortage of (mostly crappy) properties. I was actually pitched "Life's Little Instruction Book" as a series because as one agent said, "every page in it is an episode idea!"

Yeah. Every episode in it is an episode idea. Just like every relative you have works someplace that "would make a great series!"

Except that what makes a great series isn't the idea, it's the execution. If all you needed was an idea, "Hello, Larry" (Following the breakup of his marriage, radio talk-show host moves from Los Angeles to Portland) and "Frasier" (Following the breakup of his marriage, psychiatrist moves from Boston to Seattle to become a radio talk-show host) would have had pretty equal success.


If you don't care about the quality of what you write, writer's block is never a problem.


I get into a room with six other people and a clock. We look at the clock, realize that we don't possibly have enough time to write the next episode, let alone have a block about it, and then we write it.

ALEX EPSTEIN (Canadian screenwriter, author of excellent book: CRAFTY TV WRITING)

1. I turn off the wireless internet and force myself to actually focus on the problem. That cures most cases, which are really just letting distractions get in the way.

2. I find talking through the problem with my wife, or another writer, or an assistant, helps quite a bit.

3. Analyze the scene. What does each character want? What is the relevance of the scene to the overall piece? Actually writing down the bones of the situation often makes clear what I need to be writing.

4. Look at other people's work that's similar in genre. If I'm doing a horror comedy, I watch horror comedy.

5. Clean my desk (pay bills, etc.). Likewise, this results in a feeling of accomplishment, reduces angst, and gets the bills paid. The theory is that afterwards I'll be better able to focus on the writing. I'm not sure this is true, but I've got to pay the bills some time.

ME (you know the credits)

Start a blog.


MrCarlson said...

I truly admire some of these writers. I don't know them, but I know their names and what they can achieve. Keep up the good work, and let's hope this whole mess ends soon. I'm still not over the shock that Phoef Sutton is a man. He must see how it could go either way. ;)

Anonymous said...

There have been a couple of sitcom episodes dealing (ever so gently) with writer's block from the old "Dick Van Dyke" show, and Season 3 of "The Odd Couple" had a whole episode based on writer's block, where I believe the denouncement was Oscar figured out the theme of his book when he decided he couldn't kill Felix. However, I do think the inability to murder your male roommate is probably a solution to the problem for only a small percentage of writers in the real world.

estiv said...

Here's the Red Smith quote that explains why writer's block exists:

There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.

As quoted at

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Quite a rolodex you have, Ken.

And thanks fro the links to Rob Long and Ian Gurvitz. Ian's blog is hilarious (it's like having Becker walk into a room and rant about politics) and Rob's four minute talks are just what four minue talks should be; funny and warm.

As for the writer's block thing. I wanted to add something yesterday, but I got stuck. Oh, wait. Phoef Sutton already made that joke.

I am surprised no one has yet mentioned John Vorhees's excellent Comic Toolbox. The only 'how to write' book out there that's actually about how to write (and not so much what to write). How to sit down every day and do it. This really clicked with me, because it adviced to do what I already did to avoid having a block - promising yourself that you only have to write half or a quarter of the total job if you don't want to do more. And sticking to it. Which means that you do a quarter of the work every day and more than you have to on days you are really doing well and it all turns out great.

Anonymous said...

I found the Steve Peterman quote to explain so much about the abysmal state of TV and movies: turn out a script no matter what and quality be damned. Honestly, I'm still hoping the producers find a way to pull a Reagan and fire the lot of you WGA guys permanently.

Anonymous said...

hey ya Ken, great posts about writers block, if only i wrote ANYTHING!

I was hoping you would comment on the choice words John Stewart had about the writers demand for royalties for online content...

I can't say I agree with him, I mean, I can see where he is coming from but I cant believe he lives in such a naive word... I mean, if the big wigs make a few BILLION i think writers deserve a chunk! The money IS being made, so give a (still shitty) amount of it up!

Sorry to go off on a tangent, but HEY! love your work...

Tom Quigley said...

To Russ Woody: What's your dead mother's address? Maybe writing her will help me get over my own (writer's block I mean, not my mother)...

Anonymous said...

Great stuff! Not only entertaining and insightful, it's great to know that the pros have the same problems as those of us who write without any good reason except we have to.

Thanks, Ken!

Anonymous said...

Write a 2 part blog posting on "Overcoming Writers Block."

If all else fails, go on strike for several months.

Walk on a sidewalk outside a studio carrying a cardboard sign. Nothing stimulates ideas like pacing back and forth.

Anonymous said...

A great way to get better focus is to use a word processor program that has fullscreen mode. That blocks out all the distractions on your computer. I use Write Room (Macs only).

Dana King said...

A shower almost always works for me. Sometimes with a walk.

JD is quite the off-track wit. I suspect the pressure for deadlines is due more to the networks' need/greed for "product" (there's a flattering word for creative activity) than it is the writers' lack of professionalism.

And, once again, the smart ass answer is sent anonymously.

Anonymous said...

So let me get this straight, jd: You think if the networks dump all the guild writers and replace them with less experienced scribes, they will then allow these newbies to take their sweet time and only work when inspired?

Also, I expect most of the great TV shows and movies were written under the same time pressures as the crappy ones. Quality need not be "damned" (and Peterman never said otherwise). Nice try though.

Ricky said...

Ken, thanks for the words on overcoming writers block. They were very helpful!

Anonymous said...

Okay, then - why are most of the shows done in the UK head-and-shoulders better than any of the "great" TV shows we have in the US? Where are the "Waking The Dead" and "Blood In The Wire"? "Coupling" was the funniest sitcom in the history of the genre - where is it's US equivalent? Cheers? Mash? Seinfeld? While all those shows had their (few) moments, they cannot hold a candle to the UK comedies. So how about we get rid of the WGA folks and have all our shows written by UK writers?

Anonymous said...

jd: It doesn't matter who's writing the shows as long as the production deadlines remain the same. If US networks adopted the same production and scheduling strategies as the UK, then sure, overall quality of US product might go up. Writers of the British shows you mention didn't have to turn out 20-odd episodes per season over multiple seasons. Apples and oranges. Doesn't mean current WGA members are incapable of writing of that quality.

And by the way, I suspect we see only the absolute best of the British stuff here. I doubt their schedule is packed with nothing but gems.

Anonymous said...

Forgive for engaging with this AMPTP shill, everybody. I shouldn't have taken the bait.

Anonymous said...

jd, you seem like a bitter, angry person. i'm from the uk... and our shows are shit. you have Davids Milch, Chase, Simon, Mamet, Shawn Ryan and Joss Whedon! You should feel proud. There's not a single thing made in the UK that I watch.

Anonymous said...

I've seen his work so many times and always wondered--how do you pronounce "Phoef?"

By Ken Levine said...

Phoef pronounces his name "Feef".

Anonymous said...

"Fushing FEEF!" (- Stephen King)

Anonymous said...

I'm like Lloyd Garver - I hate to "get in trouble" by being late for a deadline. I'm a non-fiction writer, and I have daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly deadlines. Just like any other job, you have to get your work done on time or the boss (editor) gets very cranky with you. So you learn to find inspiration anywhere in a pinch, and "just do it," as those commercials used to say. (I once finished an article at the 11th hour after staring blankly out the window for hours. Suddenly I found myself focused on the telephone pole by the curb, and I wondered who makes them? What type of wood is used? How long do they last? Turns out there's a pretty interesting story behind the life cycle of a utility pole.)

I'm a long-time reader of your blog, Ken, and I enjoy it immensely! Keep fighting the good fight - Solidarity!

Anonymous said...

MARC FLANAGAN said that writer's block is neither dramatic nor amusing but procrastination on the other hand...
Part 2

A classic from my Canadian youth.

TCinLA said...

Wow, if I'd known you were going to actually publish my comment, I'd have made sure to run spellcheck and get "enjoyable" spelled right both times.

Seriously, folks, getting the spelling right (and do remember that spellcheck will only tell you if the word is spelled right, not if it's the Right Word) is an important part of writing - like "presentation is everything" to a chef. I mean, if you were out hiring a carpenter, would you want some bozo who can't drive a nail straight?

But thanks anyway, I'm up there with all them Real Riters. Can I trade bank accounts with them? Any of them???? :-)

TCinLA said...

jbryant said:

And by the way, I suspect we see only the absolute best of the British stuff here. I doubt their schedule is packed with nothing but gems.

Several UK friends of mine have pointed out in excruciating detail the truth of this statement. We really do only see the cream over here. Like them getting a night of Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, MASH... oh right, that used to be the standard Saturday night lineup long long ago in a country far far away.