BY WRITER-DIRECTOR AND AUTHOR BRENDAN FOLEY (NUJ/WGGB) WWW.FILMFOLEY.COM
Writer's block itself is just one ailment in a whole family that is more accurately called Creative Block. Dancers lose their creative spring. Musicians lose their groove and writers extract sentences like Victorian dentists pulling teeth without anaesthetic.
It's an odd thing, but journalists rarely complain of writer's block. Screenwriters, yes. Authors, yes. Actors fed up waiting for someone to write them a decent part who decide to write it for themselves? Most definitely.
The reason for the difference between the journalists who seem immune and the others who stare at a blank page or white screen, or a bare stage or blank canvas until steam comes out their ears, may help to explain the nature of writer's block.
So why are journalists immune? One word: deadlines. Journalists are moaned at by editors. In most cases they are writing short articles and they are due on a specific day or at a specific hour. By and large journalists are not overly bothered by perfection. It is about cranking something out. Something that will fit the bill.
So when I became a screenwriter, I had a very dim view of anyone who grumbled about Creative Block. Whiners and slackers the lot of them. Until I found myself staring at a blank page in the middle of Act Two. It took me years to work out the difference and devise ways to avoid it. In a nutshell there are three root causes:
1. Wanting perfection
The drive for perfection is a double-edged sword. Voltaire described Perfect as the enemy of Good.
Nobody wants to turn in crappy work, but it may be that a short article for a technical newsletter does not need the same level of polish as the novel of a lifetime.
Perpetual dissatisfaction can be soul-sapping and sometimes it is better to get something down and hope to return to polish it later. There are 100 first chapters of books for every finished novel. And there are no prizes for first chapters. Though there is an award for the worst opening paragraph - the Bulwer Lytton.
The problem for a lot of us in the creative industries is that it is damn hard to make a living at the best of times and to have any chance of our work standing out or attracting attention it has to be pretty special. Keeping motivated to do our best work while not beating ourselves up for not attaining perfection is a tightrope act, but most sufferers from creative block err on the side of perfectionism rather than pragmatism and should try tacking over to the other view to see if that helps. When you find yourself churning out unalloyed rubbish, it may mean you have tacked too far.
2. Not knowing what comes next
This Block-bringer is most common in the craft side of the creative business - screenwriters, commercial composers and suchlike: not knowing what comes next. Almost always this is down to a lack of structure in a story or piece of music. Structure is not always cliché or predictability. It can be the recognition of a creative skeleton that holds your story together.
Planning out the structure, whether acts and scenes on stage or chapters and sub chapters in a book gives a very specific freedom. It enables a creator to jump over a problem and come back to it later, because they know what comes before and after it. Much better than hitting a brick wall and head-banging until it or your forehead wins.
3. Not having a short-term deadline
The third head of the Block-monster is the lack of a deadline. Much of our work is carried out under our own steam, at our own expense in the hope that someone else will buy the finished work, record the song or produce the play or publish the novel.
The journey is often measured in months or years rather than days or hours. The secret is to set self imposed deadlines - not just "to finish by Christmas" but a series of sub deadlines.
For a book it might be a chapter a month, a quarter of a chapter a week or a specific number of pages a week. Daily deadlines are tough but great if you set a realistic minimum rather than something that just makes you miserable when you don't achieve it. Monthly deadlines are too long as a first line of defence - missing one is demoralising and missing two results in many abandoned projects. Self-imposed weekly deadlines, like Baby Bear's porridge, seem just right for many freelance creatives, giving enough impetus but also the ability to mend our ways after an off week.
The key seems to be to have large, medium and small deadlines with appropriate self-rewards along the way. I know one author who rewards herself with a trip to the cinema or a meal out each time she finishes a chapter and a holiday each time she finishes a book. My strongest word of warning, whatever micro-reward you choose each time you finish a page, or a verse or a few bars of music, make sure the small unit of reward is not a chocolate biscuit.
One last tip. If you are writing, try not to finish on the end of a chapter. Such Hard Finishes sometimes make it difficult to start again. Leave your work in the middle of a section. Next time you start you will easily get back into the swing finishing the previous section and then be on a roll into the new section. I even know some people who stop in mid sentence for the same reason. And another thing...
For another perspective on creative block, check out these 10 types of writers' block and how to overcome them.