Getting Through Writer's Block is About More Than Writing

The common refrain I hear about writing in any medium, but from screenwriting teachers most of all, is that the most important aspect of writing is starting.  Put words to the page, write everyday, practice makes perfect, and so on.  When I was studying screenwriting, I followed this advice.  I wrote, and wrote.  I could fill a notebook with the half-started random scenes for a movie with no story, endless prose for prose's sake.  On some level I want to believe that the effort was of some value, if only nothing more than to justify my having done it in the first place, but alas, I have my doubts.  

Everything I wrote in those exercises was garbage. My teachers told me that I was learning the discipline of being a writer, like an athlete developing muscle memory.  But, because writing is such a solitary journey, and because getting good feedback is a mighty task, I felt alone and began to doubt myself, and what resulted from these exercises was a feeling of failure, of insecurity.  After all if I was a capable writer why wouldn't I be able to write a few simple exercises well?

My first screenplay, written for those same teachers, was a very different experience.  All of a sudden I had something that had been lacking in all of my previous exercises: a story to tell.  Once there was a story, the writing came effortlessly.  My entire third act was written in one eight-hour sitting, as fast as I could type it.  While, the screenplay wasn't good by any measure, it came easily, and I learned something from the experience: if you don't know what to write, it is because you don't know what the story is.  Aaron Sorkin speaks very concisely about this in an interview about The Social Network, where he says (and I'm paraphrasing here) that if the writing comes slowly you should stop, leave it, until you figure it out.  He says writing the first draft has an energy to it that you want to capture, not unlike my experience with my first screenplay.  He also spells out the secret to writing: preparation.

Preparation can include research, story outline, scene outlines, and anything else that works for you. When I wrote a sic-fi pilot that had many characters, and complicated plot arcs, interrelated backstories, a fictional world history, all of which was difficult to keep track of. So I wrote out detailed backstories for every character even the minor ones, a detailed 20 page history timeline of the events that transpired all over the world from now until 2052, when the story is set. I wrote detailed synopses of major corporations and their interactions, a time line of events in each of my main character's lives.  I assumed, as I ha been told, that now that I had a handle on the world that I was creating, that the writing would come easily, but what happened next was something that no writing teacher ever prepared me for.  I found that, even with all the preparation, and knowing every beat of every scene, I still got writer's block.  

What I found, and I hope others who read this can relate, was that my unrelated emotional turmoil from other parts of my life were in the way.  The fight I just had with my wife, insecurity about finances, feeling unappreciated in general, everyday normal human condition type stuff was holding me back. I felt like the tortured artist, and told myself that I would channel all these unresolved feelings into my work.  And I did.  But you know what, the writing still suffered because I was disconnected from myself.  I hadn't really gotten in touch with any of the underlying issues that I was wrestling with, and so the block continued.  When I would have a breakthrough in one area of my life, the writing would flow and feel amazing.  Then something else would come up and the block would continue.  It felt like pulling teeth to get myself to sit down and put words on the page, then another insight, and I was back at it.  I never drew the connection between my creative periods and periods of relative emotional stability in my life, but in hind sight it seems so clear.

So to sum up this rather long-winded personal anecdote, I will get to the point, which is that, for me, writing well requires emotional health and clarity.  The more I focus on being a better, more grounded, more healthy human being, the better and more effortless my writing is.  The more I fight and resist and indulge in my emotional turmoil, the more sporadic and difficult the writing becomes.  Most people will tell you that all of that emotional turmoil and anxiety is fuel for your Art, and it is, later when the turmoil is over.  At least for me.

I believe that to be the most creative you can be, you need to get out of your own way.  The best writing experiences have always felt like channeling the universe, effortless, powerful.  I have had similar experiences performing music where for a moment you feel connected to it all and an electric jolt races up your spine, and your hairs stand on end.  It's a rush. I constantly yearn to find my way back to those moments, to recreate that feeling. 

There is only one pre-condition to having that experience: losing yourself.  So for me, I find that one of the best things I can do to recreate that experience is to practice losing myself.  I do this through a daily meditation practice.  I have gone to many teachers from many traditions, and learned a number of different approaches to meditation, but the common denominator is finding a quiet place for 20 or 30 minutes, and try to clear your mind by focusing on the breath, or a mantra if you find one. The more you practice, the easier it gets to clear your mind. I still have good days and bad days, but in general I feel more grounded, more balanced, more at ease. If you resonate with my story and would like to read more about meditation and creativity, I suggest this book, and this book.  I hope this helps you as much as it has helped me.