Podcast has been edited for length and clarity.
Does Your Writing Feel Boring?
This week, I’m going to be talking about how to get underneath your writing. This will help if your writing is flat or if you’re blocked in a more subtle way, where you’re putting words on the page but not fully connecting to your characters, your images, or your dialogue.
This subtle form of writer’s block is the feeling that there’s a wall between the ideas you know are somewhere within you versus what’s actually coming out on the page.
We’re going to talk about what to do when you’re writing, but you’re not inflow.
Before we do that, I want to talk about some of the responses I received on my last podcast, in which I discussed the traditional form of writer’s block. Some writers were kind enough to reach out and share how that podcast helped them, and I’m grateful for that.
But we also received some responses where writers said things like, “I don’t even accept that writer’s block exists,” or “There are just lazy writers and not lazy writers. If you’re a lazy writer, you shouldn’t be writing,” or, “Real writers show up and never experience writer’s block; it doesn’t exist.”
Let’s address the idea of “lazy” for a moment. A long time ago, when I was struggling and on my way up, I used to make a living as an SAT tutor. Being an SAT tutor, you learn something very interesting. You discover there’s a specific kind of mom or dad that calls you up and, just from the way that parent talks, you already know their kid is going to be diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, or laziness.
You’ll get that call and the parent will say, “You know, he’s a lazy kid. He doesn’t work and he doesn’t care. I don’t even know why I’m paying you for this.”
I loved working with those kids. Even though all I was teaching them in those days was the SAT, which is probably the most boring subject to teach, somehow when we were working together with these lazy kids they were suddenly transformed into not lazy kids.
Then, the parent would come to me and say, “I don’t know what your magic is. I don’t how you get this lazy kid to study his vocabulary.” They couldn’t conceive how I got these kids to do the work. Of course, the secret was because I believed in them.
If you’re branding yourself a lazy writer, if you think maybe you just don’t have what it takes because you’re lazy, I want to suggest that’s probably not the case.
There are very few actual lazy writers, but there are a lot of blocked writers.
Having worked with thousands of them, I can say sincerely that while some people really do struggle with writer’s block, some people don’t.
There are writers who are never blocked; they’re able to just show up at the page. For them, it can be hard to comprehend a writer who struggles to do the same.
There are also other writers who have been unblocked for most of their lives and then once they hit a block, start to beat themselves up. They’ll call themselves lazy, tear themselves down, and say, “Maybe you don’t really want this.”
There are very, very few lazy writers. There are a lot of scared writers. There are a lot of writers who possibly don’t have some of the skills of the craft they need to conquer a longer or more challenging piece, so they get stuck not knowing what to write.
If you put me in a nuclear physicist’s office, while I’m a pretty smart guy and curious about nuclear physics, I would probably feel pretty overwhelmed if I didn’t know the fundamentals required to do nuclear physics. I might just tell myself, “Oh my God, I’m lazy,” or, “Maybe I don’t really want this.”
But what would really be happening would simply be a missing skill. Though I can begin to grasp a simple concept of nuclear physics, no one has taught me the more advanced ones. In the same way, there are a lot of writers who get blocked because they struggle with those craft issues.
Then there are writers who get blocked around the art issues, which is what we’re going to talk about today.
This is where the feeling of connection gets blocked in them. They’re showing up at the page, but they’re starting to wonder why and thinking, “Do I actually have any talent?” They’re able to write things that make sense, but they’re not able to write things that move them or other people. We’re going to talk about how to deal with that in this podcast.
The last type of blocked writers are those who simply never learned the structure required to build a life as a writer. What I’d like to suggest is: if you’re beating yourself up as a lazy writer, or even if you’re beating somebody else up, you might want to recognize we tend to get lazy and procrastinate when we’re missing a skill we need.
If you can simply provide the skill, the belief, or the structure that’s required, even a writer who seems lazy can suddenly blossom.
We’ve seen this in our Studio so many times. Writers who come in struggling to even build a rhythm end up becoming the most prolific writers in our program when they learn those fundamental skills.
Now, if you don’t want to be a writer, that’s different. Go find something you want to do. If you spend your life doing something you want to do, you’re going to have a really awesome life.
But if you do want to be a writer and you’re struggling to get in, please recognize that calling yourself lazy is part of the cycle that gets you blocked.
Instead of calling yourself lazy or trying to discipline yourself, what you want to do is ask yourself, “What is the skill I don’t have? What is the structure I need? How do I build this for myself so I can’t fail?”
Way back in my SAT tutoring days, that was my secret. I would build a structure for my students so they could not fail. When you build that structure, when someone who is struggling with failure, who has been judged, or had other people say they don’t have it, is given a structure where they’re set up to succeed, suddenly, magically, the laziness disappears.
If a “lazy” high school student can get sucked into working on the SAT and get excited about it, you can certainly get sucked into doing this writing thing that you’ve always wanted to do.
The first thing to ask yourself is, what do you need to be successful? What will it take for you to be successful? Maybe it’s some of what we covered in the last podcast and maybe it’s going to be some of what we cover today.
Today, we’re not working on the typical form of writer’s block, that feeling “I can’t write.” Instead, we’re working on the feeling of, “I do write, but it’s not connecting.” This is a much more complicated issue and is going to take more work to overcome.
Getting a writer writing again is easy. Getting a writer connected again is hard.
The reason for this is that we live in a society that’s not really built for artists. We’re taught to wear masks.
We’re taught to wear masks from a very young age and we get very, very good at wearing those masks.
If you watch kids at play, the younger the child, the less mask they have. You might remember when you were a kid and somebody asked you a question like, “Do I look good in this?” and you said, “Oh, you look fat.” And you said it without any judgment because it was actually what you were seeing. You didn’t have a mask; you didn’t know that isn’t what you say or isn’t appropriate.
Maybe you learned from your parents, your teachers, or friends that if you just said what you wanted, followed your instinct, and sometimes, even just told the truth, you were labeled a bad kid, a mean or nasty kid, and people made all kinds of judgments about you.
You learned that if you dressed in a way that wasn’t appropriate, did things that weren’t appropriate, or followed your instincts in a way that wasn’t considered appropriate, people would turn on you, make fun of you, pick on you, hurt you, judge you.
You learned all this, so you learned how to wear masks.
You learned how to wear different masks in different situations. You wear one mask when you’re with your friends, on Facebook you wear a different mask, and with your family, you’re suddenly wearing your 6-year-old mask again. We learned to wear these masks and these masks keep us safe.
Unfortunately, as writers and artists, those masks also have a very negative effect.
When you’re a child, you actually recognize the mask is not you. You can probably remember being a kid and knowing you were supposed to say something in a specific way, but instead you ended up blurting out the truth. Then, remembering what you were supposed to say, you tried to take it back by saying a different “truth,” the truth you were taught to say.
You knew you weren’t the mask; you weren’t the inner censor. This was something you had to learn and apply on top of yourself.
If you watch kids play, you’ll see the creativity of children comes from having no mask. It comes from the idea that everything is okay.
Kids are masters of improv; they simply react to each other and their own impulses and their games are fun for that reason.
Little kids don’t worry about whether the My Little Pony story arc is correct or whether their Matchbox cars are achieving catharsis. They simply play.
As adults, the older we get, the more successful the mask is at keeping us safe and the smaller the gap between us and the mask. Eventually, we reach a place where we can’t tell the difference between us and the mask; we start to think the mask is us.
This is what’s happening when your writing and your words seem so thin. This is why when you go into your mind to try and come up with an idea, to see something, hear something, feel something, find a line of dialogue, write a moment, or connect to a character, your mind goes completely blank. That’s the mask, the inner sensor you’re confusing with yourself, saying what you’re trying to do doesn’t fit into this very complicated filter you’ve created over years and years.
Becoming a successful writer and artist is about learning how to strip away the mask.
But it’s a very challenging mask to strip away because we’ve confused it with our identity. Because of that, our ego is attached to that mask as well. There’s a part of us that actually believes in and needs that mask.
On the page, that mask helps your writing look like other people’s writing. That mask makes sure you don’t get any ideas that might be disruptive, be uniquely you, or put you at risk. It helps you play within the lines.
There’s a time to shape your writing and to make sure other people can get your writing. It’s just not at the beginning.
I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to become an experimental artist; that’s simply not true. We’re screenwriters, which means we need to write stories other people can connect to and invest in. We need to write stories that are clear and make sense.
Before we can shape something, we have to learn what it is. Before we can learn what it is, we need to learn to see it, hear it, and feel it. In order to learn to see, hear, and feel it, we need to learn to strip off the mask that cuts us off from seeing, hearing, and feeling.
How do you do that? There are a million ways to do it and which tool you’re going to need depends on you and on what kind of trauma you’ve experienced in your life. It depends on how in touch you are with your voice, who your mentors were or are, and what situations you felt safe in.
The first step in pulling away a mask is to make it safe enough for the person to start to remove it. A lot of us make it impossible for ourselves to even think about removing the mask because of this thing called “judgment.”
Writers are the most judgmental people towards themselves.
We’re lovely toward other people, but when it comes to ourselves we can be incredibly judgmental and cruel. If anyone heard you say the things you’re saying to your little inner artist child, they’d be calling Child Protective Services!
What we say to ourselves as writers can be really scary. We beat ourselves up, we pick on ourselves, we tell ourselves we don’t have enough talent, and we tell ourselves we’re never going to make it. We do all of this. It doesn’t come from a bad place; it comes from a good place. We want to be perfect on the page.
But the way you become perfect on the page is not by striving for perfection.
You become perfect on the page by making it safe enough for the little child writer that lives inside of you to peel away the mask. This means creating an environment where it’s safe enough to do so.
One of the ways you can begin to do this is by having a conversation with the editing part of your brain. A lot of times you don’t even realize your editing brain is there, but it’s there all the time.
Here’s how you know: there’s a soundtrack playing in your head 24/7. Unless you have a very deep, spiritual meditation practice, there’s a monologue running constantly in your head of a thousand thoughts, a thousand ideas, and a thousand crazy things. That’s what is happening for most of us. It’s what the Buddhists call “monkey mind.”
Yet strangely, when it comes time to sit down at the blank page, your mind goes completely blank and even that “monkey mind” voice can’t seem to suggest any ideas. You might try to write a line of dialogue and, despite that monologue running 24/7 in your head, suddenly when you sit down to write, your mind goes blank.
Your mind going blank is just the hand of the inner censor covering your ears, eyes, mouth, and heart. It’s your inner censor saying, “No, no, no, too dangerous.”
What you want to do if you see nothing, hear nothing, and feel nothing, is say, “Well, what does nothing look like?” You might notice that nothing isn’t actually nothing. You might ask whether that nothing is moving or if it’s still? Is there a feeling to it? Is there a temperature to it? Is there an image inside of it? Is there a very subtle sound you can hear?
Depending on the modality by which you learn, and we’ll talk about modalities in a different podcast, there may be different ways of accessing information to get past that nothing.
What you’re looking for is the something underneath the nothing. It’s about getting yourself to a place where no matter what that something is, it’s okay, even if that something has nothing to do with your story. It’s about accepting that this is what you’re seeing so it must be important.
Learning to say “yes” to whatever you see, hear, and feel, and learning to put it onto the page, not in the best way but in exactly the way you see it, is one of the ways of dealing with these writing blocks.
Sometimes the nothing doesn’t look like nothing and sometimes the nothing looks like a word. You might think, “Okay, I need a first line from this character,” and you hear, “Hey, how you doin’?” Write down, “Hey, how you doin’?” Then you step into the other character, “Hey, how are you?” You write down, “Hey, how are you?”
You’ve just written two lines of dialogue and they are totally boring. Now you’re beating yourself up and telling yourself you suck, but those are the lines you heard. The key is, instead of beating yourself up, to learn to look, listen, and feel more closely.
Here’s the truth about people: everybody in the world is really, really weird. There is no normal; normal doesn’t exist. If you’re writing normal stuff on the page, it just means you’re not looking, listening, and feeling specifically enough.
If you find yourself writing boring dialogue, boring action, boring images, boring structure, don’t get upset. It’s cool. Put yourself in a place of acceptance because at least you’re writing something and that’s more than most people will ever do.
You’re sitting down at the page! If what you’re writing is a little blunt or if it doesn’t feel connected, who cares? You might think, “Oh my God, it’s cliché.” Who cares if it’s cliché? Right now, we’re just opening the door. In the next step, we start to peel back the mask.
How do we peel back the mask? You close your eyes and, if you’re a strongly visual person, start looking. If you’re a strong auditory person, start listening. If you’re a strong kinesthetic, start feeling.
You’re just going to watch this scene play out, hear this scene play out, or feel this scene play out on that little movie screen in your mind. You’re going to keep looking until you find something you didn’t expect. When you find that one little thing you didn’t expect, that’s where you build from.
The art of creativity is not actually about making stuff up. The art of creativity is about learning to look, listen, and feel.
It’s about learning to look past the generalizations we tend to see to find the specificity that we really see.
For example, if you’re looking at a table, you might keep looking until you notice that there are three little scratches on it. If you’re looking at somebody typing on a keyboard, you might notice there’s an ink stain on their finger. If you’re looking at somebody walking, you might notice they’re wearing two different colored sneakers.
All you’re doing is looking for that one specific thing. This one specific thing is your way in. This is the place you want to get to with every line of dialogue, every line of action, and every piece of structure in your script.
To start pulling back the mask, all you have to do is look more closely and listen more carefully. Take that line where your character says, “Hey, how you doin’?” and turn it into something you didn’t expect. Maybe you expected him to say, “How you doin’?” but instead he said, “Race cars are better than SUVs.” Great, now you have something specific about him. It’s not the best line of dialogue, but you’re not looking for the best line of dialogue. All you’re looking for is that one specific thing you can build on.
To pull back the mask, the first step is to create a world where everything is acceptable, even if we’re writing something normal and boring.
Then we work our way back from that normal and boring. We want to identify every single thing in the script that seems normal or boring and simply look at it more carefully.
This is the real art of writing. And this is only the beginning. The truth is, I teach a 12-hour class on this topic. And I could teach a 12-year class about it. There is so much to learn. This is the core of our job as writers.
If no one was blocked, then everything would just come out. But almost every writer has some kind of mask they’re wearing that they need to pull away, even experienced writers. You become a professional writer, you win an award, and now you’re wearing the mask of being a professional writer and your writing gets tight because you’re trying to be so damn brilliant on the page.
Writing is a lifelong pursuit. It’s like meditation or golf; it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing it, you’re always getting better at it. You’re always learning new skills and new tools to do it.
This is a place to start: finding that place of acceptance, telling your editing brain to go chill out for a while and accepting everything you write on the page, even if it’s cliché or boring.
Then going back in, finding anything you could write the word “normal” next to, and just allowing yourself to see it more clearly. To keep looking, listening, and feeling until you find something you didn’t expect.
If you start to do that, you’ll begin to notice the mask becomes thinner and thinner. You’ll start to recognize the mask is not you and that your wildest stuff is actually your best stuff. You’ll find that the stuff that seems like it won’t work is actually the stuff that will.
This is where I want you to start. Then, come back and check out my next podcast because we’re going to talk about some more tools of the craft you can use to shape that raw material once you start to develop it.
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If you’d like a full transcript of this podcast, information on our screenwriting classes in New York City and online as well as our one-on-one ProTrack Mentorship Program, or details on any of the other wonderful community events happening at the Studio, please visit my website at www.writeyourscreenplay.com.