Thursday, February 26, 2009

Screenwriter's Block?

Last month, the Writers' Guild held a survey asking its members if they believed in writer's block (the possessive apostrophe donating a singular writer, as it's a personal affliction in my view). The results can be found here.

So, that's a 'no', then.

'An excuse to procrastinate'. Hmm, that seems a bit harsh to me. I would wager, and I'm playing Devil's Advocate here, that you can only appreciate and understand writer's block once you've actually experienced it yourself. Perhaps it's like when a friend moans of back pain, and you nod with some sympathy but don't give it much thought. Then, when you find yourself seized with a spasm, you suddenly realise the true nature of your friend's misery.

Also, I think the term writer's block conjures up images of writers not doing anything at all; gnashing and procrastinating, avoiding their desk like the plague. People who don't believe in writer's block will tell you to sit down and just write anything. Get the rubbish out of your head. Find the good stuff again. Sounds like a neat solution but I don't think it quite fits the action required to get out of the funk.

Here's my view: it's not that the writer CAN'T write anything, it's that he/she knows that what they're coming up with has little or no value. The conflict emerges when the writer becomes too aware of every single word they're processing, and nothing satisfies their creative sense of expression. They could write a whole chapter, book or script, but still consider themselves blocked because they wouldn't be happy or it wouldn't be up to their standards, and the work quickly finds its way into the bin.

That's a terrifying prospect but one I suspect is all too real for a lot of writers. Yes, it is self inflicted and psychological - fear of failure, whatever you want to argue - but even so, does that mean that writer's block is any less real, regardless of the reasons or self-imposed embargo?

Perhaps there is no such thing as screenwriter's block. A screenwriter has no choice but to finish a script, especially if he's working in TV. You can't avoid a deadline forever, and you won't get paid until you finish what you signed up for. Even a script in development hell needs to be worked on, and a screenwriter may experience frustration and blocked moments there, but in the end, something will out. I would imagine when a screenwriter works through writer's block, the resulting script is never to their satisfaction, and quite possibly the producer's too, which could harm the writer's chances of future work.

So, writer's block? Yes, I believe it. Just ask Truman Capote, Ralph Ellison or JD Salinger. Screenwriter's block? Maybe not so much. I hope never to fall under its spell but I've certainly experienced a time where I anguished over what I was writing, deeming it not good enough to finish, or if I did, to keep it on the computer for my weary eyes only. This period emerged after a harsh run of rejections and near misses. My confidence was low, and I was desperate to find my mojo. I was writing but I wasn't writing anything good, or so I thought. I got out of the slump, but it's not a nice place to be.


Anonymous said...

Hi Danny, not suffered from Screenwriters Block yet but have become acquainted with its poor relation, Red Planet Block!

Is there any news yet, or imminent, or in the near future?


(sorry, put this on previous post by mistake. D'oh! It's not me, it's the RPB)

Danny Stack said...

Hi Martyn, sorry about the Red Planet Block! We're waiting on the judges to pick a winner, hopefully it won't be too much longer.

Piers said...

Best advice I ever heard about how to beat writer's block:

Lower your standards.

Scaramanga said...

I find myself most in a rut when I have just finished a script. It's like I need to give my brain some time to reboot before the next fight. As if somehow my subconcoius is still solving the puzzle.

I was actually just saying on my blog how I have came up with the formula to beating this illness.

Snow + -40 temperatures + 17 hours of darkness = nothing to do but stay in and write.

But that doesn't happen to often in Europe does it?!


Anonymous said...

I have it under good authority that once you're being paid to write and have deadlines that actually mean something it is a whole lot easier to write.

I agree too that negative feedback like constant rejection can block you. It's like running a marathon and getting jeered and booed the whole way. Positive reinforcement does wonders, I think.

Neal Romanek said...

"It's like running a marathon and getting jeered and booed the whole way"

Exactly! GREAT analogy!

Anonymous said...

Just 87 people voted in that poll. And of them, only 60% didn't "believe" in writers' block. Not very conclusive.

Personally I only think good writers can suffer from writers' block. If your standards are low and you're willing to accept the first cliched idea that pops into your head or settle for dull exposition heavy dialogue then, no, you won't have experienced writer's block. (*cough*Russell T Davies*cough*)

Anonymous said...

I'm experiencing writer's block. The worst part is when my brain is full of wonderful ideas, I sit down to write them and not only do the ideas slip through my fingers like sand but I literally drain of energy and nearly fall asleep. It's a physical manifestation of the psychological problem and it certainly makes me dread sitting down to write whether I think it's going to be good or not. I was running a marathon with lots of praise from people by the course and then suddenly everyone just decided to leave. They didn't jeer, they just decided something else was more important. Oh and some people, who were very angry about something else, decided to take that anger out on me and jeered and threatened. I promise you, writer's block is very real. However after a while it's not a block. You're just not a writer any more.