Writer’s block can happen to anyone, whether you’re writing the next great American novel or just trying to create a creative introduction to the weekly newsletter of the company you write. Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of thing that goes away with practice either. Take it from the wordsmiths behind TV shows such as Fresh off the boat and 30 Rock: Not all the Emmys in the world will rid you of those pesky blocks that come with the creative process.
“It happens to all writers,” says Leon Chills, who recently sold his first movie script (an action drama that Kerry Washington and Sterling K. Brown are set to produce and star in) while writing for the next Netflix show Spinning Out. For Chills, writer’s block is strongest when he needs to generate completely new ideas, as in: What’s the next movie?
Success, Chills says, is about learning which coping strategies work for you and how to deploy them effectively in those unavoidable moments. Here, he and three other Hollywood screenwriters share what works for them:
Stay away from screens
When Chills left his career as a software engineer at a New York investment bank to become a screenwriter in Los Angeles, the learning curve was steep. He hit the books. One in particular helped him discover the power of free writing: The artist’s path by Julia Cameron, on navigating the creative process. At first, he followed Cameron’s recommended ritual of writing daily “morning pages.”
These days, he adapts his free writing practice when he’s really stuck and a break from running isn’t helping. Chills grabs the journal from his desk and writes freehand for 30 minutes about the particular project, noting anything that comes to mind. More often than not, he will find a solution to whatever is holding him back. He says he’s also learned that mornings are his peak creative time, when he has the most brain power, and he optimizes for that. He wakes up at 6 a.m. most days, leaves his phone on his bedside table, and when he’s not hitting the gym, immerses himself in whatever script he’s been working on.
Allow yourself to dream
Colleen McGuinness’ resume is no joke. In addition to writing for 30 Rock, she developed pilots for such bigwigs as Tina Fey and Reese Witherspoon. Yet for all the scripts McGuinness has written, there isn’t one she’s produced without facing creative block. “Each project has its [moment] not knowing where to turn next,” she says.
Another realization she had: “A lot of times when we’re stuck, we’re just scared. Or else we flirt with all that, overloaded with words and images. All these different things distract us from our own ideas. Over the years, she’s learned that fighting fears and distractions can sometimes be as simple as taking a break. A change of location – anything to get your subconscious working – is important.
She is also a big proponent of creating mental space through visual thinking, meditation, and therapy. She learned Transcendental Meditation through the David Lynch Foundation and found helpful advice in Lynch’s book, Catch the big fish, on the link between meditation and creativity. As for how that translates into his process? She aims to give her brain a rest by meditating for 20 minutes twice a day: once in the morning and once around lunch.
In the middle of writing, if she feels stuck, she lies down and closes her eyes. “I’m a visual thinker, so I’m going to try to cross the stage and look for solutions that way,” she says. Getting closer to a dream state helps him imagine where a particular story should go and try different versions of solutions to see how they play out.
Writer/producer Josh Kirby spent the last decade in Hollywood, the last years on ABC Fresh off the boat. His not-so-secret weapon for getting unstuck and boosting his productivity and well-being more generally? His writing partner, Jon Veles. In a cutthroat industry, the trope of the tortured, self-loathing writer may be all too familiar, he says. Kirby swears by the value of finding your people. “You feel crazy or you go into this implosion mode where if you have another person they’re usually not in the exact same place,” he says. “It’s good for everything.”
For him, it’s Veles, whom he met on a cruise ship where they were both performing. The couple started writing comedy sketches and realized that their voices were very similar. Now it’s a flat rate. If they’re not side-by-side in the room or at writers’ meetings, they’re sharing their screen while crafting a new pitch or storyline. “If we’re working on a scene, I’ll know the meat, but he knows how they get through the door. He knows how it starts and I know how it ends,” Kirby says. They are also best friends. The only downside to having a writing partner, he says, is sharing a single salary.
Again, they allow each other to progress through the process and transform the material that people want to buy. “I would take half something out of anything any day,” he says. Even if you’re not looking for a responsible partner or soul mate at work, Kirby recommends keeping good company. Take courses and workshops and form a group. You will always have an ebb and flow, so surround yourself with people with similar mindsets and creative spaces. “You hear a mountain of no’s and hopefully the occasional yes, and in the process . . . the moral support you can get and give to others is tremendous,” he says.
Switch to student mode
Writer/producer Kristi Korzec has worked in many writers’ rooms, lady secretary to his current position on the CBS comedy-drama God has friend me. She says sitting around the table preparing a show for network television taught her some of the most useful strategies for navigating the blocks when working solo. Chief among them: the shower. While in the writers room working on the Yell series, her boss was asking if anyone had any “shower ideas.” He was referring to those breakthrough ideas that happen when you walk away and give yourself permission to stop actively trying to solve a problem.
Now, when she finds herself staring at the same document until her eyes are dry, she recoils. “You fall into this spiral. Get out and get in the shower and let the water run over you and something will click,” she says. It may help to remember that ideas must marinate, and storytellers have spent decades struggling with this same process.
Korzec also recommends taking the time to read a powerful story or watch other movies and shows, a process she calls a student of great storytelling. So while she sets deadlines, she isn’t shy about walking away in the name of research (which, yes, can mean watching TV). While working on a science fiction film, for example, she realized that it was essentially a father-son story. When she got stuck, she Googled “best father and son movies” and started her search game. Doing this relaxes his mind and helps spark ideas. “We tell stories that have been told for so long. We’re going to look at recipes that have worked before and add our lemon twist,” she says.
Katie Sanders is a freelance journalist in New York. Follow her on Twitter at @KatieSSanders.