BLUE SKY: The Blessing of Writer’s Block

Lisa Alden has written on Entourage and Lipstick Jungle and speaks at conferences on the art of pitching Hollywood executives. Visit Lisa’s website and follow her on Twitter @lisaalden3.

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As we begin the New Year, I invite you to consider an anti-resolution that flies in the face of everything you’ve ever heard about creativity. While the rest of the world quits smoking, stays off Facebook, and starts some kind of cleanse, and while every writer in the world re-reads the The War of Art, vowing to rise with the roosters and write until noon EVERY SINGLE DAY FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES, I invite you to DO NOTHING.

Take a deep breath. It’s gonna be ok. I’ve worked on high-pressure television shows. I’ve taught in structured academic settings like UCLA, and through the years, I’ve encouraged writers to commit to strict writing schedules (a minimum of ten hours each week). I’ve espoused the value of writing “vomit pages,” and I’ve pushed the “kitchen timer” tool (credit Don Roos) that requires you do not get up from the chair for exactly one hour, no excuses. But I’ve also been crippled by horrible writers block that none of these tools could cure. I once worked through the night on one scene for an Entourage episode only to bring it into the writers room the next morning, looking like a giddy zombie in Ugg boots. I handed it to the showrunner and he rewrote the whole thing in five minutes. (It was better).

For years,  my copy of The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield was my dog-eared, Starbucks stained Bible. As most of you know, the book’s thesis is that resistance is fear, and it is something that has to be conquered. If you look at the cover of the book, it says that it will teach you to win “your creative battle.” So there’s this idea that you’re fighting something. Another of my favorite books, The Tools has a similar philosophy but a slightly different approach, having to do with inviting as much pain as possible into your writing process. All I’m saying is maybe it’s not so crazy to think of your life’s work as a little less battle and little more… fun?

The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.  (The War of Art)

wwii trenches I’m not against being a warrior at all. I do a lot of yoga and a big position is “Warrior 2.” It’s a great mindset when you go into battle. But what if your arm is hanging off the side of your body? Would it make sense to stay on the battlefield and wait for the arm to fall off or maybe walk away and get some medical attention? Maybe it’s time to consider a different metaphor for the creative process that doesn’t involve grinding it out with a life or death scenario. In your lifetime, how many wars have you seen that have ended well?

A little backstory… In the fall of 2008, as you may remember, it felt like the battle lines between the rich and the poor had been drawn and the stakes were our homes, our livelihood, and for many of us, our identities (if we defined them by our careers). Not only did the world economy nearly collapse, but if you were in the WGA, you were in the middle of a David and Goliath strike. As somebody who is about to start writing a web series, with benefits gained from that strike, I’m the first one to say it was worth it.  But at the time, it completely freaked me out. I was the soldier on the battlefield who just stands there with his sword in the air, hoping nobody attacks me.

During those months, when I wasn’t picketing (and trying to eavesdrop on Larry David), I got in the chair and tried to write. I wrote and re-wrote the first act of a movie. Every day. Eventually, I accepted that I wasn’t going to make it into the second act, so I looked at my effort as something to do to pass the time, as a way to keep from panicking that I would run out of money before the strike ended and I could go back to work on the NBC show I was staffed on at the time.

The strike of course ended and I didn’t run out of money. However, the showrunner on the NBC show unexpectedly replaced every single writer. Suddenly, I couldn’t even write that first act.

In the spring of 2009, as staffing season approached, my agent began to pressure me for new material. A casualty of the strike was that writers rooms had gotten much smaller. People with bigger credits were taking jobs I was up for. The competition was as fierce as the panic was intense. Like a good soldier, I sharpened my sword and became determined to fight the creative battle to the death. Or until I got my next staffing job.

Day in and day out, I embraced the fear. I stayed in the chair. But it didn’t work. I had come down with a paralyzing case of writers block. My shrink at the time decided I had ADD and wrote a prescription for Adderall. Over the next two weeks, I wrote like I was on fire. I came out the other end with a short story that I still consider the best piece of writing I’ve ever done. My agent loved it. I got lots of meetings. I watched Patton and read the Churchill letters and felt like I’d been brought into the tribe of warriors.

But the victory was short-lived. I didn’t get staffed. My agent dropped me. I lost my apartment. I had gone to battle, but lost.

I was utterly defeated.

And in that defeat, my intuition had its moment. It said, “Get off the battlefield. Now.” Then it told me to throw away the Adderall. “If this drug is what it’s going to take to write, then forget it. You’re not writing. It’s not worth it.”

And in that defeat, in giving in to the resistance instead of fighting it, the panic went away. And in its place my intuition became stronger.

So I offer you this crazy idea. It’s okay not to write. It’s okay if you don’t want to. It’s okay if you do want to, but you have writer’s block. In fact, not writing may be the greatest course of non-action you will ever take. Consider it a sign that something else is going on that needs to be addressed. How about we stop seeing the blank page as something that has to be attacked and conquered every single day for the rest of your life and see it for what it is – simply a blank page.

Being a writer is like having homework for the rest of your life. (Credited to James Brooks)

For five years, I didn’t write. I worried that I’d lost my career. I confused my career with my talent.  You can’t lose talent like a set of car keys that can fall down a storm drain and land in the ocean (which happened to me recently). Talent doesn’t go anywhere. It can’t be lost. But it does need to be respected. The perspective I have now was hard won over those five years. It’s not easy seeing your friends’ credits on TV shows, their pilot deals on “Deadline,” or their vacations to Aspen on Facebook.

But a funny thing happened on the way to this article. Without trying to make any of this happen, I’ve recently been staffed on a web series, been accepted into a pretty prestigious WGA drama pilot writing program, and I’m writing this column without much stress at all.

So in three easy steps, I invite you to consider joining me in the pursuit of non-resistance and surrender. Because beyond the fear, is the idea that your intuition can lead you to places as a writer and more importantly as a human being, than you ever dreamed possible while sitting chained to a chair.

So here’s a place to start…

Pick a project, any project. It exists on your computer or in your head. Ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Why am I writing it? Be honest if you’re writing it for the money, to get an agent, or keep the one you have.
  2. What do I want from writing it? A feeling of accomplishment, to work out my anger over my last stupid boyfriend, to figure out what I have to say about the world…
  3. What do I want anybody who reads it to get from it?

I’m proud to say that because of this adventure called “writer’s block” I am now a warrior of a different kind than I ever believed possible. I am a warrior who assesses the battle before I go onto the field. On any given day, that might mean writing pages, or it might mean going to yoga or watching Singing in the Rain for the millionth time. I agree with Pressfield and his tribe that the way of the warrior is not easy, but I refuse to live my life chained to anything, especially my creativity.

And so I make you this promise…

The really good writing… The writing that shines your light into the world, that gives your life the purpose and meaning every human being instinctively desires with their work, will happen if you learn to trust it a little more. Follow your intuition in your life and you can’t help but follow it on the page.

Let me know how it goes. I can be reached on my blog.

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