I remember the first time I had writers block. I was in my early twenties and I’d just taken up writing. In
It was pretty bad and, needless to say, I made no sales. I’d go into a funk for about a month, then start something new. In those days I wrote short stories, emphasis on the word “short.” It wasn’t until I moved to New York and took a playwriting class that I saw the light. I still wasn’t doing any rewriting. Maybe a touch up here and there, but it was all first draft. those days, if I got three-to-five pages it was time for celebration. Back then, I never did any rewriting. Whatever came out first was it.
After about a year, I finally saw the light. If I was going to get any good I would need to write, revise, rethink, and rewrite several times. I began doing it. That’s when I first experienced writers block. I could go weeks without writing. Sometimes months. Then I’d get an idea and sit down and stop on Page 52 or Page 78. When I was writing a screenplay it seems I would also hit the wall at the end of Act Two, somewhere in the 80s.
Now I must point out that during, let’s say, my twenties and early thirties, I did manage to complete things. But I’m talking about the post-completion days and nights.
I was disgusted with myself so I decided to do something about it. To me, I had an addiction problem, only I wasn’t addicted to a substance or a liquid or anything like that. What I realized is that I could not, no matter how hard I tried, write.
Over 20 years of being a script consultant showed me that lots—and I mean lots—of my private clients had the same problem. They couldn’t finish or if they did manage to complete a first or rough draft, they couldn’t muster up the courage to return to it.
That’s when I started thinking about the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, but not in the conventional way. I decided to use those Steps and apply some of the things I’d learned as I broke through writers block or my clients did.
I figured out that there were four areas that most blocked writers clung to: being stifled creatively, running into brick walls, losing confidence and experiencing writer’s block to the point of depression and creative collapse.
The end result is Writers Rehab, which is designed to be a comprehensive self-help book in the form of a 12-Step Program for writers dealing with emotional or psychological roadblocks with their writing.
Joseph Campbell’s 12 Stages of The Hero’s Journey is the foundation of storytelling. As exemplified by Christopher Vogler in his classic work, The Writers Journey, Mythic Structure For Writers, the 12 Stages are laid out and clearly explained as they pertain to writing.
However, depending on the story you’re telling, you may not need to utilize all 12 Stages. You only have to use the ones your plot needs to keep the dramatic tension going. It is, however, important to understand what each Stage means towards building your story.
For example, using screenwriting as a point of reference, if you were writing an epic adventure along the lines of Raiders of the Lost Ark or Lord of the Rings you would use all 12 Stages. But if your next script is an earnest drama like Little Children or Enough Said you might need only four or five of the Stages.
You would figure out which Stages would best serve the story you are telling.
Another good example is Step 11, which is about the negative effects of being a people pleasing screenwriter.
Let’s say you have a wise-ass cousin or brother-in-law who likes to bust your chops about your writing career, which he perceives as lackluster. Needless to say, he’s the kind of insensitive jerk who’s never had a creative idea in his life, has no idea how the writing process works and has zero knowledge of what it means for a writer to be blocked, depressed or feeling hopeless.
Depending on your personality, it’s very easy in situations like that to make excuses, be defensive or just let him mess with you until he gets bored.
Step 11 would be right up your alley.
But what if you are not, by nature, a people-pleaser? You may feel that this Step won’t necessarily be of value to you. And you might be right–for the moment.
But as legendary acting teacher Stella Adler liked to say, “Life intrudes,” which is a classier way of saying that shit happens.
Down the road you travel as a novelist, screenwriter, television writer or playwright, you may find yourself in a situation where you must capitulate to the ideas of a director, agent, manager, editor, development executive or producer who has the ability to get you a deal. If you don’t agree to the changes, the deal is off.
And you want that deal!
You need that deal for the money, your pride, to make your significant other proud of you (and to shove it in the face of that obnoxious cousin or brother-in-law).
Perhaps you won’t know how to handle the confrontation. Step 11 will help you understand what to do, what not to do and most importantly, why you’re even considering being a people pleaser in this situation.
If you’re questioning the kind of projects you’ve been writing and scratching your head as to why they’re not generating interest, Step 8 is for you. Maybe you’ve been told by agents, editors or producers that what you’ve written is well-written, but lacks commercial appeal or they’re too “indie” or too European in style, i.e., strong on character, soft on plot. Maybe your novels and plays have been viewed as old fashioned or not edgy enough.
If that’s the case, Step 8 will motivate you into changing your wheelhouse and getting out of your comfort zone.
If taking criticism and feedback rankles you, Step 7 will give you a wake-up call and explain why you need to get your ego in check to prevent you from experiencing a major crash and burn.
You come from a work ethic with the understanding that if you spend a year working your butt off on a project, you should get some kind of response soon after it’s done. You’re a results-oriented person. Unfortunately, the film/television/publishing/theatrical industries are a delayed-gratification world.
As you go through each of the 12 Steps, just as you would go through each of the 12 Stages of the Hero’s Journey, process everything and act on that which can help you.
But remember: as you move forward both in your regular life and your life as a writer, things are always in motion, always changing: sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.
Just as you create problems, obstacles and complications for your characters, the future may hold setbacks, conflicts, and situations currently not in your frame of reference.
But if and when they come, you’ll know where to look for help.
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D.B. Gilles teaches screenwriting, television writing and comedy writing at New York University’s, Tisch School of the Arts. He also taught in The Dramatic Writing Department at NYU, the Graduate Film Department at Columbia and The Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU. His fiction includes the comic novel, I Hate My Book Club and the mystery, Colder Than Death. He is the author of The Portable Film School, The Screenwriter Within: New Strategies To Finish Your Screenplay & Get A Deal! and You’re Funny! Turn Your Sense of Humor Into A Lucrative New Career.Tags: DB Gilles I Hate My Book Club Moving Write Along Screenwriter Within Screenwriting The Hero's Journey The Portable Film School The Writer's Journey Writers Rehab You're Funny: Turn Your Sense of Humor Into a Lucrative New Career