How To Bust Writer’s Block

writer's block

It happens to the best of us. We sit down in front of our computer ready to summon genius from the void and nothing happens. It’s frustrating even if all you’re working on is a thank-you note to grandma for the reindeer sweater she knitted you. But for those of us writing against a deadline, it can be terrifying and potentially career-ending.

Alas, there’s no Cialis for writer’s dysfunction and if you’re a bit OCD like me (hold on a sec, have to go wash my hands for the 47th time), ruminating on your lack of productivity becomes a vicious circle that only makes the problem worse. Of course, a deadline can be a great motivator. And there’s nothing like a pending mortgage payment to set quill to parchment. But sometimes, even the pros need a little help popping the creative cork.

“Don’t think about the whole script or the whole book or the whole play, that can be too abstract and overwhelming.  Write a sentence.  Just one.  How hard can that be?  If you can’t write one damn sentence then why are you pursuing writing?  Good, now that you’ve done that try a second sentence.  Repeat as necessary.” – Adam Rifkin, screenwriter/director, Reality Show, Detroit Rock City, The Dark Backward

“Set the bar low, start writing, and don’t worry about it; you are going to rewrite it anyway.” – Mitch Watson, writer/producer, Beware the Batman, Scooby-Doo! Mystery Inc.

Just write through it. Take the scene you know you can’t write and write it. Write it badly. Own the fact that it sucks and revel in it. Because the thing we all forget when we’re in the throes of ‘writer’s block’ is that we’re going to be rewriting the damn thing anyway. Writing is a muscle, and sometimes it just needs to be worked out. Start writing the scene badly, and you’ll surprise yourself how quickly it stops being bad. You just have to throw yourself into the groove and trust your muscles. They know what to do even when you don’t. – Josh Olson, screenwriter, A History of Violence, Masters of Science Fiction, Puppy Love

Just. Write. Anything.

It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t even have to make sense. Sometimes the simple act of churning out word salad is enough to get the wheels turning. If this brings to mind Jack Nicholson typing “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” for hours on end in the Overlook Hotel, well it’s not that. Unless you happen to be living in a haunted hotel possessed by murder-demons, in which case missing a deadline is probably the least of your worries (redrum!).

And don’t be afraid to suck.

After all, writing badly is still more productive than not writing at all. Assuming you’re not writing with a tattoo gun and using you face in lieu of paper, pretty much every word can be easily revised. And chances are there’ll be some nuggets of gold there among the turds (please wear latex gloves for this metaphor).

Know your ending. Once you have a destination, the journey is easier to plot.” – Kay Reindl, TV writer, Millenium, Legend of the Seeker, Twisted

“If you are having problems, don’t write the scene… write the pre scene.  Characters driving to the location, parking, checking in at the front desk.  Eventually you’ll get bored and actually write the scene.  And every once in a while, something good pops out of these moments.”  – Larry Karaszewski, screenwriter, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Ed Wood, Big Eyes

Compartmentalize.

You don’t have to write the whole damn thing at once. If you’re an outline person, sketch out the major beats first. If you’re a fiction writer that means plot points, character arcs, conflicts and resolutions, beginnings and endings. If you’re working on non-fiction or an essay, make sure you know your position and have bullet points to support it. You can always flesh it out later, but if you have the map charted out beforehand you’ll get there a lot quicker.

“Take the idea you are stuck on, put it in the back of your head, and let it marinate.  Walk around, take a shower, have a cocktail.  Every so often check in with the idea to see how it is coming along.  See what sparks and write it down no matter what it is.” – Mitch Watson, writer/producer, Beware the Batman, Scooby-Doo! Mystery Inc.

“In the past when I was stuck, I would beat myself up.  The taskmaster inside my brain would be cracking the whip and shouting, ‘You’re a professional! You have responsibilities and commitments!  Get to work!’ That part of me still yells and screams, but now I politely thank him for his thoughts and take my dog for a walk.  Or go for a swim.  Or prepare a fancy dinner.  Something physical or something that uses my mind in a different way.  Just to alter my thinking and de-stress.  A mental “palate cleanser,” so to speak.  I’ve learned that there’s usually a REASON why I’m stuck.  Some part of the story’s not working, or some character needs more work.  I’m not writing because my creative ‘gut’ is telling me to wait until I’ve got it right.  Of course, you have to be careful of the part of you that thinks it would be a great idea to marathon watch Game of Thrones, but that ‘taskmaster’ part of me will get REALLY loud if I try something like that.  Ultimately, what I do is remind myself of the pure simple joy I used to experience as a kid and as a teenager writing and drawing my own comic books, making Super 8 movies, etc.  Creativity is fun.  It’s not a chore.  I push aside thoughts about deadlines, or if producers will like what I’m doing, or if the movie will get made, and remind myself to have fun.  Instead of saying, ‘Ugh, I have to write,’ I say, ‘Let’s tell a story.’  If you’re enjoying yourself, there’s no reason not to sit down and start writing.” – Mark Protosevich, screenwriter, I Am Legend, Thor, Oldboy

Find a distraction.

Sometimes our best work happens when we’re not writing at all. So rather than bang your head against the keyboard hoping the results are legible (which never works, or as my forehead likes to say, “aAsd;ojasdiohadsfkl;asdf”), step away from the word machine and  do something else. Take a walk, call your mom, beat up a hooker in Grand Theft Auto (note: ONLY do this if you’re playing GTA). Don’t just sit there staring at a blank page hoping it’ll rouse the muse from her slumber. As Yakov Smirnoff used to say, In Soviet Russia, the muse strikes you.[1]

“Don’t do anything else. Stay at your desk. Don’t check out Facebook. Don’t read a book. Eventually you’ll write out of sheer boredom.” – Michael Theobald, copywriter, Walt Disney Company

Eliminate all distractions.

Don’t you just love it when advice columns contradict themselves? But here’s the deal: No one method works for every person every time. And sometimes your situation will demand complete immersion. In such instances, remove all those shiny-blingies — the cell phone, the TV, the internet — that make slacking off oh so easy.

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Or maybe… have a drink.

This is a tricky one. I know some extremely talented artists who’ve fallen hard to alcohol and drug dependency because they erroneously believed they needed their [addictive substance of choice] to create. Needless to say, I’m not suggesting you go full-on Hemingway. If you’re using [addictive substance of choice] as a crutch to get work done, you’re not going to get very far in life, unless a tour of Malibu’s better rehab facilities is on your bucket list. HOWEVER, sometimes a glass of wine or dram of scotch can help you relax after a stressful day and shed some of those pesky inhibitions and anxieties standing between you and your beautiful words. Similarly, there are some naturally grown substances now legal in Washington and Colorado that have been known to compliment the creative process. Just remember that it’s not the [addictive substance of choice] doing the work; it’s you. And if you find yourself looking forward more to the drink than the act of writing, perhaps you’d best stick to Lime Diet Coke.[2]

“Few of us can just do a crossword puzzle question by question. Answer the questions you know, and it’ll give you a couple key letters for the ones you don’t know. Go to directly to the stuff you like, even if it is a single line of dialogue. Scribble it in a notebook, stay away from your f**king computer. Computers cause stage fright and premature ejaculation. What’s worse, when you place a sh*tty idea in Final Draft, it takes on an instant, undeserved validity ala It can’t be awful, it looks so nice in proper script form! When you’re just scribbling on a notebook, it’s all ‘hey, this doesn’t really count’ fun and games…which is an awesome arena for actual creation.” – Daniel Waters, screenwriter, Heathers, Sex and Death 101, Vampire Academy

Pick up a pen.

As I mentioned in a previous column (10 Morning Routines To Boost Your Creativity), studies have shown that writing by hand may be better for the brain. This is especially true when we’re creating. From a  neurobiological perspective, writing by hand is far more complex than typing. It involves motor, visual and cognitive skills. You might think that all this extra work would tax the brain, like trying to run Word and iTunes while a McAfee[3] scan goes on in the background. But unless you’re a replicant[4], your brain does not function like a computer. Activating those additional clumps of gray matter may actually help kickstart the creative bits in the frontal and temporal lobes.

“Read something from the genre you are working in (drama, sci fi, horror, etc.) for inspiration.” – Mitch Watson, writer/producer, Beware the Batman, Scooby-Doo! Mystery Inc.

“‘What would a Wayan do right now?’ is a great one for comedy writing.” – Dave Anthony, comedian/TV writer, Walking the Room, Maron

Steal from the best.

No, I’m not advocating plagiarism. Actual theft of another writer’s work is not only morally reprehensible, it can get you sued.[5] But sometimes it helps to see how writers you admire traversed similar paths. Perhaps it’ll help you figure out what to do, or even what not to do, about a particular section that has you stumped. Or maybe it’ll simply inspire you to write because if you don’t, you’ll never be as good as them.

“Luckily, there isn’t much time for writers block on a TV show.  The monster of production is eating a new script every eight days so you better start cooking its next meal.  You also have plenty of colleagues (or a boss) who can help.  Everyone understands that it’s a process of getting it better and better with each draft.  Sometimes you gotta just barf out fifty-five pages just so to see what your story looks like and see what it needs.  My only advice is to just write, write, write and know you’ll make it better the next morning.  Going to the gym also helps because for some reason trudging mindlessly on the elliptical machine often shakes something loose, making the answer to a story problem seem suddenly obvious.  Now if I could just get other gym-goers not to stare at me when I shout, ‘A-haa!’” – Daniel Truly, TV Writer/Producer, Under The Dome, Blue Bloods, Law & Order: SVU

“The way to never get writer’s block is to quit when you’re on the uphill side. Quit. Stop cold. When you come back to it, you’ll still be on the rise.” – Harlan Ellison, master of speculative fiction, A Boy and His Dog, The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World.,” Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman

Talk about it.

Call up a friend and vent. Let them know your frustrations, ask them for advice. Sometimes all it takes is an objective outsider’s point-of-view to help you crack that nut. They don’t even have to be a writer, just someone whose opinion you trust.

But if they are a writer, all the better. Because they know your pain all too well, having been through it countless times themselves. Let me let you in on a little secret: Writers love to talk about writing. For instance, when I started working on this article, I sent out a few emails to my writer friends asking for some pearls of wisdom. I expected maybe one or two brief responses. Instead I got all of these wonderful quotes included herein.[6] Bear in mind, I’m just a schmuck who freelances on the side while banging out screenplays that will most likely never get made. If not for the sage advice and encouragement of my more talented and successful friends, I might’ve given up writing a long time ago. Thanks to them I persevere, despite the fact that sometimes it seems like it would be easier to run a marathon[7] than write another word.

“You must write. Yesterday, today, tomorrow. If you don’t feel like it, you should take up brain surgery.” – Harlan Ellison, master of speculative fiction, A Boy and His Dog, The Beast that Shouted Love at the
Heart of the World.,”
Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman

“Every writer experiences ‘writer’s block.’ But what most people don’t understand is that a great deal of the writing process is overcoming it on a routine basis. Like Nietzsche said, when you stare into the void, it stares back into you. So don’t think when you’re sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper that the white void of nothingness isn’t staring you dead in the eye, taunting, ‘Yeah, what have you got to say that’s so important, dummy?’ But as any artist will tell you, when you’re truly making art, you aren’t really the one doing it. You’re just the conduit through which the art flows. And every time the universe opens and rains this gift upon you, it’s a blessing. So you have to practice constantly even when what you’re writing sucks and feels uninspired. You do this because it’s how you learn to unlock that cosmic door. The same way a wide receiver drills the same route over and over and over until he can catch the ball one-handed in a pitch black stadium. The more you write and face that block – face the fear of the void – the easier it is to push it aside so that you can hear the universe whisper those words.” – Jacob Mauldin, screenwriter, Bigfoot Wars

“Remember that nothing you do matters.” – John Brancato, screenwriter, Terminator 3, Terminator Salvation, Surrogates


[1] And look where that got Yakov Smirnoff

[2] My screenwriting partner and I created this concoction specifically for marathon writing sessions:

GAY LIMEY

  • Diet Coke with Lime
  • 2 oz Malibu Rum
  • Garnish:Lime
  • Glass: Highball

Pour the rum in a highball glass filled with ice. Top with cola. Garnish with a lime wedge.

The caffeine in the Diet Coke and the relatively low alcohol content of the Malibu allowed us to write well into the night without getting too sloppy. Plus it was pretty low in carbs because yeah, Hollywood and stuff.

[3] If ever there was an argument against mixing mind-altering substances with the creative process, it’s John McAfee.

[4] You’re in a desert walking along in the sand when all of the sudden you look down, and you see a tortoise, Tony, it’s crawling toward you. You reach down, you flip the tortoise over on its back, Tony. The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over, but it can’t, not without your help. But you’re not helping. Why is that?

[5] Especially if you plagiarize Harlan Ellison.

[6] You can imagine my shock and surprise when Harlan Ellison, one of my favorite living writers, was on the phone to give me “the answer.” Heed his advice! He’s been doing this longer, better, than all of us!

[7] I’ll be running the LA Marathon in 2014. It will be my second 26.2