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We’ve all been there. In fact, as part of a global community living under “safer at home” quarantine orders, you might feel less like writing now more often than you’d like to admit. I certainly felt that way the last few weeks despite having more time to write than ever before.
Perfect example – I tried to write this article a few days ago and ended up turning it in a day late. If that isn’t a testament to the power of procrastination, lack of motivation and difficulty concentrating this time period has over me, I don’t know what is!
While there’s been plenty written about how to get help when you’re feeling low or anxious due to current events, I want to take some time to discuss writing and “writer’s block” more generally, and specifically how it affects me, a writer, in the hopes that it will help you – another writer.
Don’t be mistaken – this isn’t expert advice from a productivity guru. In fact, lately, I’ve been considering how our culture’s focus on productivity has led to one of the more fundamental philosophical failings of our entire socio-economic system.
So if you’re looking for a quick fix answer to optimize your flow state and maximize productivity, look somewhere else.
Instead, I’m going to go through my process and analyze it in the hopes that it can shine a light on experiences or cycles I go through that can help you as you analyze yourself and your own process – and maybe help you get closer to breaking through one of your own blocks.
Let’s start by asking ourselves an important question:
“What drives you to write?”
Writing is one of the most important skills you can acquire. That’s why it is one of the first subjects we learn in school – it is fundamental to almost everything else we do.
Writing is one of the purest forms of communication – and without proper communication, to quote the TV show Community, “the lights go off, and the ice cream melts.” Nothing would work.
There are a lot of different types of writing. Academic writing, journalistic writing, journal writing, copywriting, code-writing, music-writing, email writing, writing an insta-post, writing on the walls, writing in cold blood, writing lists to procrastinate (like this!) – and then there’s creative writing.
Creative writing is when you make everything up, from the story to the people in it and everything they say or do. While all other forms of writing have practical applications across other industries if you are a creative writer, something specific drives you.
Maybe you want to tell a good story that makes people think. Tell a funny story that makes people laugh. Tell a sad story that makes people cry (you monster!) Retell a true story in a creative way that informs people. Or retell a fake story as if it were true to parody reality.
Whatever your reasons, something is driving you. That something is your motivation. Motivation is the key driver behind everything we do, and it’s different for everyone.
Why “Motivation” matters.
Whatever your motivation, it’s important to understand now more than ever what that motivation is. That’s because it will be a guiding force in those times when you don’t know what to write or when you don’t know how to move forward on a particular project.
Maybe you’re motivated by a particular story, a particular character, or a particular theme. Maybe you’re motivated by making a living using your imagination. Maybe you’re motivated simply by the joy of writing. Or maybe you’re like me and motivated to write because you can’t imagine doing anything else – believe me, I’ve tried!!
Sometimes thinking about why writing something is important helps you write it. You might not fully understand why it matters to you, but questioning yourself can help – to a point.
The thing that’s important to remember about motivation is that it can be different from project to project and story to story, and that’s okay. Not every project has to be motivated by the same themes, concepts, or life goals. Your motivation can be as simple as, “I have this story inside me, and I need to put it on paper.” It can even be, “I need to get paid this month, so this is what I got.”
Another thing to remember about motivation – motivation comes and goes, and that’s okay too. While you might feel motivated and fired up to write in the morning, you can lose your steam by noon. It is important to capitalize on your motivation when it comes – and not beat yourself up when it doesn’t.
That’s because there is another force at work besides your motivation. Something that is doing the opposite of motivating you. Something, or multiple somethings, that are holding you back.
How fear impacts your motivation.
“You’re a writer – and you can’t write?…then are you really a writer?”
Even if no one ever said this to you directly, you may have thought it about yourself at some point. I think it about myself occasionally, even though I rarely take the thought seriously. But why would I think something about myself I don’t think is true? Because somewhere, deep down, the thought exists as something that could be true. As a fear.
Fear can be useful – it can be a tool to motivate us to confront issues or to be careful in dangerous situations. Fear can also be very destructive – it causes many people to think and act irrationally. Worst, it can hold us back from doing things we want – like writing.
Thinking just because you can’t write today, or didn’t write yesterday, means you aren’t a real writer, or aren’t a good writer, or will never be a great writer? That is the destructive and frankly total bullshit type of fear I’m talking about.
When you can’t write something, don’t know how to write something, or hold yourself back from taking a stab at writing something, it’s usually because you are afraid that you will simply confirm one of these bullshit fears by attempting to write.
Let me tell you something: writing something bad doesn’t make you a bad writer.
You need to let go of this notion that for something to be good, it has to start well. The truth is everything starts badly. Most things stay bad. The only things that get better get better over time. But just because it starts badly doesn’t mean you are bad. It just means you started.
Writing is iterative. You need a first draft to revise to get to the next draft. And to get the first draft, you need to be okay with writing something that could be bad. Only once it’s written can you make it better. It’s impossible to improve something that doesn’t exist yet.
This doesn’t mean you have to rewrite things hundreds of times for them to be good finally. Personally, nothing kills my motivation more than thinking about that. Yes, it is important to recognize that writing something good takes work. But… what is good, anyway?
Time to throw out “Good” and “Bad” writing.
Let’s throw out the concepts of good writing and bad writing. Those qualifiers aren’t helpful. Writing is communication – and yes, there is good and bad communication. But the thing that makes a message good or bad comes down to, “Was the message received successfully?” Boiled down even further: “Was it understood?”
So instead of getting caught up in whether or not your writing is good or bad, focus on “was it effective?” Did the scene you wrote effectively communicate the important parts of the story? Did your story leave the reader with the impression you wanted? Did the joke you wrote “land”?
Your goal with writing shouldn’t be to write something amazing.
It should be to write something that effectively communicates your intended vision.
Think like a director.
Did you know that the only requirements to be a movie director are to A) have a vision and B) be able to communicate it? You don’t need to know anything about cameras, editing, lighting, or anything else. It’s helpful but not required. That’s why you hire people to do all that stuff!
See, a director only needs a vision that they effectively communicate to their team.
That’s all you need to do to be an effective writer. You simply need to be able to write in a way that effectively communicates your vision to the reader. That’s it. How the reader receives that vision, well, that’s another story.
Now, another layer on top of comprehension is specific to creative writing. “Was it entertaining?” Effective storytelling is both comprehensible and compelling – especially when writing screenplays for movies and TV.
You can write an entertaining story that doesn’t make sense – Hollywood does it all the time! It’s a lot harder to write a story that makes sense but is boring and then expects to get hired to write again.
Being paid or not, you didn’t set out to write this story to bore your reader to death, did you? Oh, you did? Okay, by all means, continue as planned, you filthy murderer!
For the rest of us: let’s now focus on what to do when you can’t write.
Is it always writer’s block when you can’t write?
First, what is writer’s block?
Writer’s block is that thing we’re always fretting about as a community. I looked it up and found two definitions I think are helpful (and different):
The first definition of writer’s block is being “unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing.” (source).
The second is “a condition in which the author loses the ability to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown.” (source).
It’s a somewhat subtle difference, but these are two different issues. The first is a very relatable condition that affects anyone trying to accomplish anything. The second is what I’ve always considered the traditional definition of writer’s block as it relates to the career writer.
The difference between these two definitions is why you’ll have articles or think pieces written about “how to overcome writer’s block” and “why writer’s block isn’t a thing,” Both can be helpful in their own way.
That’s because the traditional definition of a writer who doesn’t know how or what to write anymore is largely just a trope. Some writers get paralyzed into stasis when they reach a certain point in their career or get hopelessly stuck on a specific project. That happens often and just as often to working writers as to non-working ones.
Whenever I have experienced writer’s block, it seems to come in two different styles. Either I’ve got to a point in the story I’m writing that I can’t see clearly how to write, or I’m between projects and can’t decide what story to write.
In both situations, it isn’t necessarily my motivation to write that is the problem. Instead, it’s my motivation to make a decision that is the issue. This could be due to several factors. Usually, the fear of making a bad decision plays a pretty prominent role.
The fear of picking an idea.
When it comes to what story to write, my fear comes down to a worry about wasted time. For me, “if I start this project over that one, will I be wasting my time?” Or another example: “If I don’t write this story now, will I miss my opportunity to write it at all?”
Those fears are valid – but when we’re talking about the business of screenwriting, the market is so volatile it can be impossible to predict what will be popular to buyers at any given time.
If you just try to write a script in a genre or style for the current market, by the time it’s ready to go out, that trend could be long since past. If your only reason for writing that movie was to sell it and be done with it, then whoops! It looks like you might have hedged the wrong bets.
Meanwhile, suppose you write something you’re passionate about, regardless of whether you’re wasting time. In that case, chances are it will be better written, better received, and most importantly, easier to finish without getting burnt out or blocked.
What if you’re passionate about a lot of different ideas, though? This fear can manifest in another way: keeping you in a perpetual state of stasis, or what my first screenwriting professor Jon O’Brien called “playing in the sandbox.”
The sandbox is where all you do is come up with cool ideas and never do the hard work of forming them into actual stories. It can be easy to get lost chasing shiny new ideas and never get around to writing any of them. After all, what’s perfect in your head can never be bad on paper, right?
The fear of making a story decision.
This mental block can also be applied to problems writing scenes. Let’s say you have a scene that you started but now don’t know how to finish.
Maybe you have an outline and can’t decide how the scene should go down now that you’re writing it for real. Or maybe you came up with a new idea, but if you implement it, it will fundamentally change your story, and you have to think through what needs to change.
This fear of making a wrong story decision could paralyze you from moving forward on your script and keep you from progressing even when 90% of the story is good to go. This fear is bullshit, but it’s still draining and makes you feel unmotivated to move forward.
However, it’s not always a fear thing. Sometimes you just don’t know how you want to proceed and need time to think it through.
After all, writing is a series of decisions, and making decisions takes energy. Problem-solving takes up a particular amount of mental energy, so sometimes, lacking the energy and motivation to solve a story problem is an issue, making anything and everything an easy distraction.
Distractions that interrupt story problem-solving.
Let’s review a list of ways I regularly procrastinate problem-solving a scene. Count how many are relatable to you! Here goes:
- You need to eat. This can be a powerful creative block. There’s no fancy solution. Make yourself lunch. Or a snack. Or a second snack. Or a second lunch. “What about second breakfast?”
- You’re afraid of missing out. You’re on Twitter following a breaking news story or part of an ongoing conversation in the middle of a group chat. If you disappear to your imagination cave where everything is made up, you’ll miss what’s going on!
- You’re caught up in some other world. It’s a show, a video game, or a good book, but you’re somewhere else that’s a lot more fleshed out where you can escape to in real-time, and you’re not able or willing to go back to making your own just yet.
- You’re sitting still too long. You need to stand up. If it hasn’t happened yet, it’s not going to happen, so you might as well get up and walk around.
- Chores are everywhere. Now that you’re up, you see that you have dishes left over from your first and second lunch, and the dog needs to play, so time to throw the ball in the backyard but wait, the dishes! The kitchen! You might as well clean it all!
- You’re stressed out about procrastinating. Great, you just wasted two hours fretting about writing and cleaning, and now you only have an hour and a half before taking a break for a zoom call with your extended family. That’s not nearly enough time to write!
- Now writing just feels like pain and suffering. …thus depleting the energy you saved for solving your current story problem, draining your motivation completely, and leading you to escape somewhere safe and comfortable that requires very little brain power.
- You read something that inspires a different story. Now you are all caught up on this new, shiny idea that’s a lot more interesting than that boring schlock you were working on before, and you never even used the word schlock before in your life, but it just feels appropriate now because this new idea is so much better, but…
- You’re intimidated to start this new project. Because it’s a lot of hard work, and now you’re starting from page zero, nothing is more intimidating than a blank page, and this will take a ton of research so you…
- Spend hours researching and saving links. Going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole looking up all kinds of related and semi-related and not-related-at-all but just damn interesting Wikipedia pages or deep-dive historical entries and commentary pieces until you have more links than you could possibly read so you save them all for later but then-
- You’ve wasted the whole day! Plus, you missed your family Zoom call, and now they all think you’re dead with coronavirus. You have to spend the first half of tomorrow answering a bunch of missed calls and texts from all your aunts, telling them you are okay but giving just a little fib to make it sound like you had a legitimate reason to miss the family zoom call instead of just zoning out into a k-hole of Reddit research like a druggie lost in a fog of Russian conspiracies in an all-night opium bender…
- …Then do it all again tomorrow! Rinse and repeat, day in and day out, with no outside deadlines or social obligations, keeping you on target tracking towards whatever goal of finishing your story you had back when you had some semblance of a regular schedule.
And now you find yourself asking whether or not this quarantine will ever end so you can go back to having actual excuses for your unproductivity as opposed to the glaringly obvious problem that maybe you are just “bad at writing.”
Wow. That’s… a lot. So what can you do instead?
So obviously, not all of you will experience all or any of those issues.
Maybe your issues are much more legitimate, external problems keeping you blocked.
Like working extra hours at a job deemed essential or dealing with you or a loved one being affected by health issues that similarly drain your energy.
– Keeps you from being able to problem-solve your increasingly less-important-seeming kid’s story about a fox and a dog falling in and out of friendship
Either way, what do you do? How do you break yourself from these cycles of procrastination, unhealthy habits, and self-torment? How do you get motivated to get back to work?
The short answer is “I don’t know.” If I knew, I’d be a lot more successful than I am now. Or maybe that’s a lie that I tell myself that keeps me from simply rolling up my sleeves and getting back to work.
Or maybe it’s true, and I need to seek outside help, like a life coach, to help me get back on track because I can’t do it all myself.
The long answer, however, is that I believe there’s a lot that we can do. It all starts with getting back to the reason we started writing in the first place.
What do you want to accomplish with your writing?
I’ll tell you one thing right now: we need stories. When all else fails, the world crumbles around you, and you need to escape, where do you go? To your favorite book, TV show, or the new movie that just came out on Netflix.
There is a reason you felt called to be a writer. You want to write stories because they matter.
They are important, and your story, no matter what lumpy shape, imperfect form, or unintelligible scribble-ific state it’s in right now, is no exception.
If you keep working on it, crafting it, and perfecting it, it will say exactly what you mean it to, and that meaning will mean something to someone who will need to read it. Hopefully, many someones reading it. But even if it’s only one or two someones, that will be enough.
Your work might not always get a standing ovation or five stars on Amazon, but those doctors working 20-hour shifts saving lives will certainly appreciate being able to come home and escape into whatever you’ve written for them. You just have to finish it.
Ideas on how to cure writers block
Okay, so let’s get specific. What are a few practical applications you can use to help now that you’ve been reminded how important the work that you’re doing is?
1. Stop trying to write.
Just stop. Do something else. If it isn’t happening, it isn’t happening, so don’t beat yourself up over it. Read something you love or watch something new, and let yourself be alive for a couple of hours. You never know what inspiration might break through when you let your guard down.
2. Try to write at least one page the next day.
At least open the damn file you’re working on. Maybe try reading a few pages back to where you left off. Or read the whole thing back from the beginning. The goal is to try to re-immerse yourself in the story you were working on before all the trains went off the tracks.
3. Time to make a playlist.
This is a great way to help see the movie in your head. There were some key images or feelings that inspired you on this project. Try to create music that recalls those things so you can visualize and daydream in the world you’re creating.
4. Take a walk while listening to said playlist.
Creativity seems to occur when we create synapses between neurons that allow us to connect thoughts and ideas creatively.
Going outside and experiencing the world around you while listening to the music you’re using to build your own world is a helpful way to create new connections that you can use to inspire and develop your story.
5. Work on the car that has gas in the tank.
Maybe the stories you’re working on or were working on before now aren’t as important to you anymore.
Maybe something else feels more relevant and necessary and is dying to jump out, but you’ve been trying to tamper with it to make progress on your current projects.
If you’re feeling inspired by something, follow that path. It’s better to be working on something than nothing, right?
6. Send what you have to a friend.
Your friends will hate me, but get another opinion if you’re stuck on something. Let’s say you have a project you’re stuck on, and you have another that’s getting you fired up. Send that project you’re stuck on to someone you trust and let them read it.
First, they have no excuse not to read it – what else are they doing right now? Secondly, it will give your mind a mental break from ruminating about it and, even better, recharge you on that project when they get back to you with their feedback.
7. Switch up the format.
Maybe the story you are writing doesn’t work as well as a feature. Would it make a better pilot? Short film? Short story? Just because you set out to write a movie doesn’t mean it has to be a movie. Hell, you don’t even have to be a screenwriter if you don’t want to – it doesn’t mean you aren’t still a writer.
If you can’t get rid of the ghost of a good idea, but it won’t conform when you try to exorcise it out of your brain and onto paper, try writing it out in another format.
Writing a short story or outline could help you crack it. And if it exists in at least one form, it exists. Better to have a finished short story than a half-finished first draft of a feature, right? It doesn’t mean you failed – it just means you adopted!
8. Don’t work on too much at one time.
One of my problems is taking on six projects at once. First, it’s unrealistic to assume I’ll be able to finish even one project in the timeline I set for myself, let alone six of them. So do the opposite of me: set out to work on no more than three things at one time.
Why three? One is practical but could be a slog, two is realistic, so you have multiple projects to jump between when you get stuck, and three is good, so you don’t get bored and burnt out working on just two things.
9. Don’t work on more than two things that are the same.
Diversify. Don’t work on two projects in the same genre, same format, or same stage of development at the same time.
If you’re working on a feature film script, try to write a short or develop a TV pilot instead of writing another feature.
If you’re developing two features, try writing the full first draft of one while outlining or rewriting the other.
If you’re developing two pilots, try not to work on two in the same genre at the exact same time, so you can keep them tonally unique and don’t confuse yourself.
This is all to help your mental state as you manage multiple projects simultaneously.
10. Set realistic expectations on draft one.
Seriously, just try to write a page a day.
You’ll have a half-hour TV comedy if you write a page daily for thirty days.
You’ll have an hour-long drama if you write a page daily for two months.
If you write a page daily for three months, you’ll have a 90-minute feature film.
Chances are, if you set out to write only a page a day, you’ll probably surpass your goal more days than not.
If you don’t light the fire under the pot, put in some ingredients, and start stirring, nothing will happen, and you’ll go to bed hungry.
You don’t get a full stomach just by thinking about the food! Food doesn’t magically appear when you have the right inspiration.
And if you’re waiting for divine inspiration, you will wait forever. Just because your first meal sucks doesn’t mean you aren’t getting fed.
You’ll learn to cook differently and try something new the next time.
You might even have some leftovers you can use as a basis for your second breakfast!
11. Rewrite smarter, not harder.
Nothing kills my momentum more than struggling with a rewrite. Make it easy on yourself and only set one goal per rewrite. There’s a great book by legendary screenwriter (that you’ve never heard of) Jack Epps Jr. called Screenwriting is Rewriting.
In the book, Jack recommends trying to solve one major problem per revision so that you don’t get carried away trying to fix every little thing in your second rewrite. Instead, focus on a major issue like a story problem you want to solve or a specific character you want to develop and let that guide your revision process.
This is also good for staying as true to your original vision for a project as you possibly can, as you can often get carried away revising a story until it gets so far away from what you originally intended that it loses its meaning to you – another reason you might not be able to write it right now.
12. Still Stuck? Just try something!
If you are stuck between two story decisions and can’t decide which to choose, just pick one and see what happens. Or, in the words of Brian Eno, “Faced with a choice – do both.”
I know that sounds like unhelpful advice when you’re struggling to write anything, but the worst that can happen by just picking something to write is you read it back after and decide you don’t like it. Yes, you’ll have “wasted time,” but now you know you like it better the other way, so was it wasting time?
Sometimes writing something bad and reading it back can feel physically painful. That’s where it’s important not immediately to dunk yourself with negativity.
Remember: something that reads super cringey is not permanent. Just delete it and try again. At least you know what not to write this time.
Or in the words of Thomas Edison, “I didn’t fail. I just found 2,000 ways not to make a lightbulb; I only needed one way to make it work.” When in doubt, do what Thomas Edison did – buy other people’s ideas and put your own name on it!
13. Last but not least – be kind to yourself.
You are not a machine. You’re not a computer, and you are not an algorithm, nor do algorithms run your life and dictate what you must do to succeed. It might feel that way sometimes, but it’s one of the worst lies our society tells us.
“Productivity” is not the end-all, be-all of the human condition, nor am I nearly qualified enough to tell you what is, but I can tell you for damn sure it ain’t productivity.
If you don’t write today, don’t beat yourself up.
If you don’t write tomorrow, don’t worry. Don’t sweat it if you don’t write this entire year.
You could never write again in your entire life, and it still wouldn’t matter.
Just take care of yourself. Be kind to yourself. Listen to yourself, and be honest.
Take the time and cook yourself your favorite meal. Watch your favorite movie and read your favorite book. Listen to your favorite music. Get lost in your favorite video game.
Talk to your friends and family. Don’t isolate too much, but don’t cave in too much.
This might sound ironic coming from me, but don’t get too caught up in what online articles tell you to do. They’re written by writers like you and me, who also have their own inspirations and shortcomings in writing.
The important thing is you are alive. You have time. You have a story to tell.
So take your time, work on your story, and remember – there is no bad writing, and you aren’t a bad writer for not writing.
Even if you write something bad, you aren’t a bad writer. You’re just getting started.
So go on then!
Grant Harvey is a freelance writer, screenwriter, and filmmaker based out of Los Angeles. When he’s not working on his own feature-length screenplays and television pilots, Grant uses his passion and experience in film and videography to help others learn the tools, strategies, and equipment needed to create high-quality videos as a filmmaker of any skill level.