When I first moved to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter, I was a writing machine. I used to be able to write several scripts a year, I maintained a daily blog, and I could generate pages and pages of stories. I was in an MFA Screenwriting program at a fancy film school, and being in an environment with ambitious people motivated me to get things done. But while my output at the time was amazing, that experience was also extremely expensive. I can’t deny that I had paid to not have writer’s block for two years.
After I graduated and entered the real world, however, my level of creative output started to wane. I was still writing but at a slower pace. In a non-structured setting, I found it hard not to get distracted by work, family, friends, and reading the comment section on Facebook.
Writer’s block is generally defined as a condition where a writer is unable to produce new work or cannot finish an existing project. It’s frustrating because the writer isn’t stopped by a lack of skill or time. It’s purely a psychological inability to access the creative in one’s own mind.
Harper Lee, who wrote the literary classic To Kill a Mockingbird, waited decades before publishing her second novel, Go Set a Watchman. She told a magazine that she had been too busy hanging out with buddies to work on her fiction. "I've found I can't write ... I have about 300 personal friends who keep dropping in for a cup of coffee …”
I’m impressed by Harper’s flex about how popular she is, but it also seems like a mask to hide her writer’s block. Knowing that even A-list authors have “my dog ate my homework” moments can be reassuring, and ironically that reassurance can help the rest of us unleash our creativity.
I’ve found that I work best on a spec when I feel genuine excitement, so strong that I don’t care about external rewards like audience approval or money. But this excitement is rare. I’ve started and stopped dozens of works in the past decade, but for the few I’ve actually finished, I’ve noticed a few commonalities.
One, I finished big projects if I spent the majority of my time in the pre-planning stage. I’ve learned to stop writing act one in scripts or beginning chapters if I don’t know where the story is going. I figure, if I just write blindly, I will eventually get stuck somewhere and never recover. I’ve discovered that if I take the time to look at the project from beginning to end, I can see what the triumphs and challenges are beforehand. Then I can assess whether or not I want to spend my time and energy there.
Next, I block out a time for writing only, I make sure to sit at a desk to make it feel more like work, and I set a deadline for myself. When I write for my freelancing clients, I work during scheduled hours, and they give me deadlines. That makes it easier to not suffer from writer’s block because I have the external and real pressures of making a living and keeping my relationships positive. But when writing something on spec, the only person holding me accountable is myself. So I have to trick myself into thinking my creative work is work. Because it is, but admitting that sometimes seems indulgent and weird.
Getting over myself is key.
And I think that is probably the main thing to overcome writer’s block—to stop beating yourself up. Sometimes there is a fear within us, maybe we’re worried we’re incompetent or that people won’t like our work or whatever. Maybe we’re too busy comparing ourselves to our colleagues or people we read about online. Whatever is stopping us from doing what we love, knowing what it is can help us move forward.
I remember writing my first published novel, Hell’s Game. The process took almost a decade. Six months was spent writing and editing the manuscript, and 9.5 years was brewing on the idea and coming up with the plot and big set pieces. In all those years, I never felt like I had writer’s block because I felt like I was still working on the story, piece by piece, day by day. In this case, I didn’t give myself a deadline, but I did make sure to write on a schedule, giving myself about an hour a day devoted to the book.
My last step to overcome writer’s block is to constantly produce new ideas. Even if I’m not typing up pages, I feel productive and creative by playing a game where I write various loglines of TV shows, movies, plays, books, standup bits, etc. that I’d like to create. Then I think about which ones sound the best, and if there is anything I can do with them. I usually end up never using any of the ideas, or I’ll toss them and possibly bring them back weeks later. But the exercise keeps my brain sharp like a good Sudoku puzzle.
Overall, the best way to overcome writer’s block is to just write. It sounds simple, but it is. You can do it. And like Charles Bukowski once said, “Writing about a writer’s block is better than not writing at all.”
*Feature image by Fran_kie (Adobe)