Tawnya Bhattacharya is currently a writer/producer on Freeform’s Famous in Love, and formerly wrote on NBC’s The Night Shift, TNT’s Perception, The Client List at Lifetime and on USA’s Fairly Legal, with her writing partner, Ali Laventhol. Repped by ICM Partners and Heroes and Villains Entertainment, the duo are former NBC Writers on the Verge fellows. Bhattacharya was also a FOX Writer’s Intensive fellow. A writing instructor for 10 years, Bhattacharya launched Script Anatomy in 2010, a unique TV writing curriculum designed to give emerging professionals practical development, writing and rewriting tools to help advance their craft. Script Anatomy clients have been staffed, sold shows, and won numerous awards and TV writing fellowships. Follow Script Anatomy on Facebook or Twitter: @ScriptAnatomy
In an ideal world, people would be able to take a nice cushy vacation or retreat once a year in order to unplug, re-set, re-charge, and restore endurance and energy for the year ahead. In the real world… well damn, no wonder we’re all so burned out! That’s hardly a possibility in our industry, where even those who can afford to take time off usually can’t because of busy pitching, development, and production schedules. As a writer trying to break in, most of you are probably juggling one or two creative projects ON TOP OF a regular bill-paying gig, which makes generating career momentum feel like driving up a steep hill in a hybrid car. We all experience burnout, creative fatigue, whatever you want to call it… it’s a natural part of the creative journey. But at Script Anatomy, we avoid using the term “writers’ block” because we simply don’t believe in it. Though it’s a creative endeavor, at the end of the day writing is still a job. You’ll have good days and bad days, some days will be more productive than others. You’ll have frustrating days where you can’t figure something out, but rather than declaring yourself blocked— and using that as a justification for stepping away from the page— we like to advise writers on how to work through it.
We believe that writers’ block is a mental construct and it’s one of the most common ways in which talented storytellers get in their own way. At Script Anatomy, we like to help you set positive creative habits so that, on those days when the words don’t flow as freely as usual, you have the tools to work through it rather than get frustrated and step away. We like to work habits into our writing process that will help us better navigate these moments of inspirational droughts when they come. Think of it as a “creative preventative wellness” philosophy. So if you’ve come upon this article because you’ve been banging your head (or your laptop) against a proverbial wall (at least, we hope it’s proverbial — that laptop warranty doesn’t last forever), maybe consider introducing one of these things into your regular routine to see if it helps keep your creative juices flowing smoothly:
We can’t stress this one enough. Studies have shown that regular exercise boosts creativity and, even if those all turn out to be a hoax, it’s a known fact that exercise boosts endorphines. So if you are stuck in a rut and beating yourself up for not getting out of it, 30-60 minutes of any sort of physical activity will likely improve your state of mind about where you’re at, and as our favorite kindergarten classroom poster said, “If you can dream it you can do it.” Most of our faculty keeps up with some kind of regular exercise routine. Whether it’s tennis, spinning, yoga, a hike or a run with our fur children, or chasing our actual children around the house, we work moving around into our routines.
“When I’m feeling depressed, some form of writer’s block sets in and there’s no motivation to be creative or productive. Luckily exercise releases all those good feeling brain chemicals and I’m back on track, ready to work. This is a constant cycle for me, which is why I rely on tennis, a big walk or a bit of yoga. I’d be useless without it. Oh, and it’s cheaper than therapy and you don’t need a prescription!” ~ Ali Laventhol (Script Anatomy Instructor, Writer/Producer, “Famous In Love”)
Some people claim that, because of all the negative ions attracted to bodies of water, it boosts creativity and inspiration. We’re not sure about all that, but we do find it mighty coincidental thinking about how many great wordsmiths found their happy places near bodies of water. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, and all their pals took up a part of Paris right on the famous Seine river. Walden Pond was fertile enough with inspiration to make Thoreau write a whole book about it. Recent Nobel Prize winner and legendary lyricist Bob Dylan calls a part of Malibu called Point Dume home, which is a peninsula protruding off an already coastal city — doesn’t get more aquatic than that. Obviously we can’t all jump in a car to the airport real quick and book a round-trip to Paris en route, but try and find your own version of Walden Pond and work a regular visit into your routine. If you’re located in SoCal, get thee to a state beach! We have a bountiful beautiful coast and the weather’s perfect for driving it right now. Landlocked? Find a local spa or hot spring in your area. Broke and landlocked? Take a long bath and try smudging your bathroom with sage first.
“If I have writer’s block, it’s always related to something else. I walk along the beach, without cellphone or any distraction other than the dog, and try to unpack whatever stressor is making my shoulders hunch. Then I try to make a manageable plan for that issue, be it money or kids or ailing mom. THEN, I set the plan aside and do a walking meditation the rest of the way-really hear the ocean and seagulls and such. I get back to my desk a bit more empowered and a bit more free.” ~ Alyson Feltes (Script Anatomy Instructor, Co-EP, “Ozark” on Netflix)
3. ABSORB OTHER MEDIA
And here’s the trick — you can’t pick it with any sort of professional ulterior motive (i.e. “oh I want to adapt this comic, let me read it and email my reps to inquire about the rights). It’s easy, especially in Hollywood, to adapt the industry’s somewhat tunnel-visioned mindset and forget about all the other disciplines that fall under the umbrella of Visual & Performing Arts. Recent studies have shown that people who read for pleasure tend to be smarter and (duh) have bigger vocabularies. If you haven’t hooked up a library card at your local library yet, get that going and start reading regularly. Try fiction or a genre you wouldn’t normally choose and see how putting yourself in worlds you never thought you could imagine — without the price of airfare — inspires your own ideas. Try to keep up on what’s showing in your local museums or art galleries or maybe take in a contemporary dance show if that’s available, to see storytelling with a very different language.
4. GET OUTSIDE
Remind yourself whenever possible that there is a world outside of your computer. We spend so much time hunched over computers and phones today that people are starting to show noticeable damage in their thoracic spines much, much, younger than they ever have before — we are literally giving ourselves hunchbacks. Which, if you believe in the consequences of improper chakra alignment, also cuts off the flow of energy from the base of our spine to our brains and can seriously inhibit creativity. If you’re really tearing your hair out and stuck on an idea, take a walk for half an hour. If that’s not an option because you write at night after your full-time job and it’s 3am and you’re not keen on possibly becoming bear food, try to set one weekend day a month where you do something cool outside. Maybe it’s a day trip to someplace you’ve always wanted to see but can never make time for, or a hike with a friend you haven’t seen in awhile, or a picnic in the park instead of brunch reservations with friends — but don’t let your laptop screen hog your beautiful face from the world around you. And the natural Vitamin D from getting some sun probably wouldn’t hurt your outlook on your script, either.
“Disconnecting is crucial and we should all do it more especially when dealing with writers block. Sometimes there’s so much news and content and everything we’re taking in, that it can be difficult to come up with something new. This past weekend I went away and turned off my phone and locked it in the safe for two days so I wouldn’t be tempted to use it. It felt so freeing. I read two books, journaled and went on a long hike without any distractions. It made me much more inspired and ready to work when I sat back down to write.” ~ Hollie Overton (Script Anatomy Instructor, Co-Producer, “Shadowhunters”)
5. GET INVOLVED
When you’re trying to break into screenwriting, it can often feel like you are shouting into an abyss, energetically speaking. You’re writing script after script that not only will likely never be produced, but also might not even be read by very many people besides your writers group, reps, and consultant. Most artists get into this business because we want to engage with an audience and effect some sort of positive change on them, so years of being deprived of this opportunity by an industry that thrives on gatekeeping culture can feel incredibly isolating and disempowering. We strongly recommend taking the opportunity to get involved in your community during this frustrating and stagnant time in your career and volunteering — even if your schedule is so hectic you do it once a month or every other month. First and foremost, volunteering will put you in someone’s shoes besides your own and hopefully put some of your anxieties, like that script you’re stuck on or obscure I.P. you’re pitching on against a thousand other writers, into perspective. This is not meant as a shaming tactic, just a reminder that outside our own relatively privileged industry bubble is a world full of complex characters with goals, dilemmas, stakes and stories we couldn’t possibly dream up on our own — so, as artists, it’s our responsibility to remain open to those stories and know when it’s our turn to be an audience and bear witness to them. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when searching for ways to get involved; research volunteer opportunities that speak to your sense of purpose as an artist and person; try to find a gig that accomplishes the same mission you like to accomplish with your writing. If you’re in LA, check out organizations like WriteGirl, Young Storytellers or 826LA for ways to work your writing talent into volunteering. Sure, you might have experiences that leave you with cool stories or inspire new ideas, but that should all be secondary to an experience that leaves you feeling like you’ve made a tangible positive impact on people in the way you’d like to do as a screenwriter someday. Feeling involved will empower you and help you stay focused on why you write. If you’re in a coastal city, look for beach cleanups in your area — a great way to multitask and get outside AND involved at the same time.
6. TOUCH BASE WITH THE REAL WORLD
Something we hear writers say all the time is how much they love having friends outside the industry. It’s so easy to get sucked into the vortex of the business, especially living in Los Angeles, a town dominated by the entertainment industry. It’s as if we all live by our own separate code: we read industry-specific news publications, we have industry-specific schedules (and consequently the most hellish lunch hour on earth), we even have industry-specific phone etiquette (if you hear an assistant say anything other than “I don’t have that exec right now, can s/he return?” then you know they must be new or a temp). But many successful writers know how important it is to have a non-industry group of friends, a pipeline into the real world. Lunches we can go to where the Syrian Civil War and news about pilot pickups are not treated like they have equal stakes. Also, if you’re not doing this already, set aside a portion of your daily news scroll to include news sources other than industry trade rags. The world is scary and tumultuous, yes, but also expansive and constantly full of surprising moments of beauty, spectacle, and story.
7. DO SOMETHING YOU’RE AFRAID OF
Shonda Rhimes’ book YEAR OF YES (much of which can be encompassed in this Ted Talk) sells this last one hard, so we’ll keep it succinct: by pushing yourself past what you thought you were capable of, you become more aware of your own strength. It’s really that simple. Of course, keep this one within the bounds of reason (and physical/mental health!). And it can be something small — maybe you’re mortified of looking like you don’t know what you’re doing in public but finally try Bird of Paradise pose in yoga, or you hate crowds and new people but go to a party alone after your wingman bails. But by regularly challenging yourself and pushing your own limits, you will slowly realize many of those limits exist because you set them for yourself — a brain hack that will come in handy the next time you’re feeling blocked creatively.
8. GIVE YOURSELF A WARMUP
Dancers, musicians, actors, and singers all warm up extensively as part of their rehearsal or performance — so why not writers? Treat your brain like a professional athlete or artist treats their body and put together a warmup routine. Maybe journaling works for you, maybe you like word association exercises, maybe you’re not really sure because writing warmups aren’t something you’ve done for yourself in the past — try new things until you find exercises you can do for 20 minutes or so to lubricate your creative gears and get your juices flowing. When you feel stuck, go back to your warmup. Take more time with it, or maybe change it up and add some new exercises. Talk to your writer friends, especially if they’re successful and established to a degree you respect, about what warmups work for them.
This one is so important! Without enough sleep, you’re taxing your body and brain with way too many tasks to juggle at once, especially in this fast-paced life. If you’re already handicapping yourself for a long workday by only getting 5 or 6 hours of sleep, it will absolutely affect the energy you put into your writing. As a writer your brain is your most valuable asset — and your body is the vault that’s guarding it. So you want to treat it accordingly, with enough water and rest always. There have been more and more studies of how looking at screens constantly are affecting both our bodies and our brains. We’ve heard doctors and holistic practitioners alike recommend to turn off all screens after 10pm, or as close to that hour as humanly possible. Since that’s literally impossible for most folks we know trying to break in, if you’re still writing or handling work or otherwise time-sensitive emails at that hour, make sure you have the brightness turned down on your phone or tablet. Something about bright phone, computer, tablet (and TV, whomp whomp) screens late at night prevents our brains from starting their natural wind-down towards REM sleep. If this is the excuse you needed to carve out some pleasure-reading time for yourself before bed… well, you’re welcome.
Like we said before, these are all things we advise you to consider part of your creative process and work into your routine. There’s a myth sometimes perpetuated by emerging writers that whoever clocks the most hours at their computer is working the hardest, or writing to the most. Thanks to most web search histories, we know this isn’t true (no, YOU have the “Which Big Little Lies Character Are You?” Buzzed quiz open in a new tab right now…) We believe building a solid, balanced, healthy creative process from the ground up won’t help you avoid moments of creative stagnation, because that’s impossible — but it could help you navigate through those moments faster and more confidently, rather than placing a self-imposed “block” on yourself and interrupting the natural ebb and flow of your creative momentum.
All of our instructors at Script Anatomy are also working TV writers, either on staff or in development with one of their own projects, so we feel you on the “too many jobs too little time” struggle to a huge extent. Our rockstar faculty and friends share some more of their “preventative creative wellness” secrets they’ve come up with below:
“This might sound masochistic, but I would say impossible deadlines really, really help with stagnation. Find a way to give an absurdly short deadline some stakes, and then you don’t have a choice. You just have to get it done. Sometimes it’s just a matter of spending money on a hotel room for a night or two. You have to finish in that amount of time to justify the time and expense. We’ve used hotels many times, and more recently, we just worked on really insane deadlines. I sometimes think stepping away can really hurt you because it can make going back to the script really daunting. Sometimes it’s better just to push through.” ~ Sarah Carbiener, Co-Producer (w/partner Erica Rosbe) on “The Cops” (upcoming Louis C.K./Albert Brooks animated comedy)
“[When I experience creative stagnation] I do two things. Switch formats aka I’ll write my story as a short story to work through ideas. AND I’ll switch to pen and paper. I think both of those things really translate to slowing down. If all else fails, you can always sleep it off or play blackjack with yourself for so long that struggling through your script feels like the most fun, sane option.” ~ Marquita Robinson (Staff Writer, “New Girl”)
“This is old school – but I visit the PUBLIC LIBRARY! Great for when I’m shopping for the next idea. I like to go nuts in the non-fiction section and just load up on a bunch of random stories – you never know what they may spark.” ~ Margaux Froley (Script Anatomy Instructor, Staff Writer, “Privileged,” Warner Brothers Writers Workshop Alumni).
“I take a lot of walks in the early stages of pilot writing. I also have a stationary bike desk that I swear by. Your upper body does all the thinking. Your lower body keeps you on rhythm. I also will give a shout-out to Soylent, the meal replacement slurry. Typically when I’m writing, I’ll forget to eat to the point that I’m starving and then I’ll carbo-load into an afternoon coma. Just a steady stream of Soylent, sitting in my bike/desk cupholder, and I’m in the zone all day.” ~ Zach Ayers (Script Anatomy Instructor, Disney | ABC Writing Program alumni, Story Editor, “Sirens” coming soon to Freeform)