|HOW TO TACKLE WRITER'S BLOCK
At last there is hope for suffering writers
by David Trottier
Originally appeared in Script Magazine
Few people realize that Writer's Block is a progressive disease that not only attacks the verbal processing lobes of the brain, but also debilitates the emotional response center as well. What starts out as a minor case of idea retardation can eventually deteriorate into acute blithering idiotus. The final stage of this horrible disease is anonymity.
Until recently, there was no hope. Now, recent research has shown that Writer's Block is actually a broad category of many related diseases, each with its own characteristics and symptoms. Identification of these specific diseases (or blocks) has made it possible to find a cure. If you have recently experienced any of the following common symptoms--finger paralysis, plot disorientation, or coagulation of the creative juices--then take heart! Help is here at last.
This is one of the most common of all blocks. What makes this disease so insidious is the victim is often oblivious to the problem until it's too late and the script is rejected. Afterwards, the writer may recall a dull awareness of a flat and lifeless main character, or of a hero who is passive, perfect, and who has become an observer of the events of the screenplay.
At the core of this malady is the writer's past. His writing is so autobiographical that his characters have no life of their own, but have become mere appendages of the writer. As such, they can only act and speak in accordance with the writer's memories.
Once I read a script about a wife who was abused by her husband. The wife did nothing but complain for 90 pages. On page 100 a neighbor rescued her. The only reason I read this all the way through was because I was paid to evaluate it. I thought to myself, This is often how real people behave, but movie people are willful and active.
The writer had painted herself into a creative corner. She was too close to the truth. She needed to use the energy of her personal experience and create a drama with it. Even "true" stories combine characters and condense time for dramatic purposes. She was suffering from autobiographicosis.
The cure for this condition is a radical charactectomy, or removal of the characters from the writer. The result is characters that emerge on the page with a life of their own--active, imperfect, and volitional. Sure, they may be patterned after aspects of the writer or of the writer's life, but they speak with a voice of their own.
In the early stages of autobiographicosis, the writer can be rehabilitated through a temperance program in which she learns to be close enough to her characters to love them, but distant enough to be objective and creative in her relationship to them.
Scribaphobia is characterized by a conscious or unconscious avoidance of writing the script. Writers with this disease would rather do the dishes than face the computer terminal. Often there is an underlying fear of not being equal to the task.
When scribaphobia was first discovered, it was widely thought that it was transmitted through casual contact with a computer diskette or even a keyboard. Now we know that this disorder, like all other blocks, is not communicable. Here's a progressive treatment that has helped thousands overcome the heartbreak of scribaphobia.
First, stop comparing yourself to William Goldman. In fact, don't compare yourself to anyone. You are unique and will make your own unique contribution.
Second, identify your fears about writing and courageously face them off, one by one. They will gradually shrink until you're in total remission.
Third, have a definite writing schedule and commit to it. Force yourself to write. Invariably, the first three pages will be crap, but once they are written, the creative juices will begin to flow.
An athlete never jumps into a major workout or a game without first doing warm-ups to work out the kinks and to prepare the body for optimal performance. Writing is no different. Try a few reps of letter writing to warm-up, or a few laps with a shopping list, or even the obligatory three pages of crap already mentioned. Once your mind is warm, it can more easily perform.
Chronic Ambivalence Syndrome and Museheimer's Disease
These two ailments are related because both deal with toxic befuddlement. Chronic ambivalence syndrome (or CAS) is nothing more or less than not knowing what to do next. In many cases, you may not need to know what to do next--just keep writing and trust the process.
However, if you are experiencing a loss of equilibrium, get feedback from a professional. Writing Groups can also help you in talking the writing problem out. Sometimes a seminar or a good writing book will help you gain the perspective and orientation you need.
Museheimer's Disease, on the other hand, is the false belief that there is a Muse assigned specifically to you who will come down from Olympus and whisper in your ear all the narration and dialogue for your script. The obvious symptom for this disease is suddenly finding one's self staring at a blank page or computer terminal for hours on end.
The problem here is not the existence or non-existence of the Muse. The problem is trying to write a script from scratch without first creating a premise, designing a core story with plot twists, and developing the characters. Even then, you should consider outlining the story before you actually sit down to write it. This progressive, therapeutic approach will get you back on course in no time. Remember, you don't have to write the whole screenplay today, just a few pages.
This is actually an advanced case of chronic ambivalence syndrome where the writer suffering from CAS lapses into a stuckitic coma. The way out? Mental concentration. The writer must draw on all her mental and analytical powers in trying to solve the writing problem.
The next step is to relax, wait and concentrate on something
else--badminton, pottery, anything. Meanwhile, the subconscious mind will work on the problem--this is the incubation phase. It is followed by an involuntary benign stroke, an inspiration that usually strikes during a shower, at bedtime, or at some other calm moment.
The fourth step is a conscious evaluation or analysis of this offering from the subconscious. Once done, you may continue with your writing project.
Intrusion of the Inner Critic
If you've ever been in a creative fever and then suddenly found yourself correcting spelling and punctuation, then you've experienced this pernicious affliction which has blocked many a creative flow. To understand this disease, you must first understand how the mind works.
The mind has two sides, a creative side and an analytical side. Great writing presupposes the ability to alternate between the two sides. While in the creative mode, often called "writing from the heart," it is important to keep the "head" out of the way. And that's the problem. The analytical side often intrudes on the creative side. The cure is to teach this "Inner Critic" to wait its turn.
The key to the cure is to remain relaxed. Just brush these intrusions aside--don't give them a second thought. Tell yourself, "I don't need to get this right. I just need to get this written. I can evaluate it later." When creativity fades, many writers induce its return by closing their eyes and visualizing the scene they are writing. Some listen to music. Others take a walk with a note pad. Anything to retain a relaxed but alert state of mind.
Measures can now be taken before you are stricken with any of these diseases. First, end any writing session in the middle of something. Hemingway advised, "Leave some water in the well." By ending in the middle of a scene, paragraph or sentence, you make it easy to get back into the writing flow at the next session.
Second, realize that writer's block is an occupational hazard that every writer faces. When encountering a block, don't panic, just say, "Oh, this is normal, no biggie, I'll just work through it."
Third, trust yourself, trust the creative process within you, and trust the writing tools in your possession. Believe that everything is going to work out fine. Most of all, take the pressure off. Make writing fun, and you'll have fun writing.