Two Kinds of Writer’s Block

For the last couple of episodes we have been talking about Talk to Me, a fabulous little horror movie. (Check out Part 1 and Part 2 of the Talk to Me Podcast)

We’ve looked at this little horror movie from every different angle. We’ve looked at the first 10 pages. We’ve looked at mirrors and foils. We’ve looked at the genre elements. We’ve looked at world building. We’ve looked at theme. We’ve looked at a character’s journey and structure.

We’ve dissected it and pulled it apart and analyzed it and developed some really awesome skills that you can apply whether you’re writing a horror movie or anything else.

But what we haven’t talked about is actually the most palpable form of horror for most screenwriters, which has nothing to do with horror genre movies.

Writer’s block. Procrastination. Being stuck. 

A lot of writers don’t realize this, but there are actually two different forms of writer’s block. 

The first kind of writer’s block is when you’re just not writing. 

If you have the not-writing block, you probably know it. It’s obvious.

You know you have it because you’re not writing. Or you’re procrastinating. Or you’re stuck waiting for the muse. You feel like you have no control over your own art or your own life.

You can only write when you are inspired. 

And sometimes months, years, decades go by without that inspiration. You don’t know how to get yourself writing or you find yourself procrastinating– pushing it off, pushing it off, pushing it off– and then rushing, rushing, rushing, to get it done.

You never really have the time you need to do something beautiful. 

You’re not writing. And that is probably causing you pain. 

Now for some writers, it causes so much pain that they quit. But for a lot of writers, that pain eventually forces them to seek help. 

And the good news is you don’t have to suffer with writer’s block.

In my Write Your Screenplay class, we get an entire class full of people– sometimes people who have been blocked for 20 years– past writer’s block in one session. And I’ve yet to work with a single writer where these skills did not work.

There are really simple cognitive behavioral skills that you can apply to writer’s block and procrastination. If you’re blocked from writing at all, these skills will break you through your block nearly instantly, with very little effort. 

So the good news is, if you’re not writing, you can take care of it. You don’t have to live with this. You don’t have to be dependent upon the muse to come to you. You certainly can be in control of your own dream. 

We’re going to talk about some of these strategies that you can use to get yourself writing again in a few moments, but first we need to talk about the other kind of writer’s block.

The second form of writer’s block is flat, uninspired writing.

If you have the second kind of writer’s block, there’s a good chance that you don’t even know it. Because you’re still writing… it’s just that you’re not writing anything very good.

Which means there’s a good chance it’s having an even more deleterious effect on your writing than the first kind— not only on your writing but on your vision of yourself as a writer.  

Rather than recognizing that they have a block, most writers with the second form of writer’s block tend to mis-diagnose their writer’s block as, “Oh, I’m just not very talented. I’m just not very good.” 

This is why flat, uninspired writing is actually the most damaging form of writer’s block.

It’s so damaging because writers with this form of writer’s block might write 15 screenplays— they might be writing four or five times a week on a consistent basis, they might be putting hundreds of hours into their writing— and still not be ending up with a product that they can sell. 

Even worse, they might not even end up with a product they feel proud of.

And the effect of that very rarely is to say, “Oh, oh, I get it, I’ve got a block I have to get past.” Because unlike the not-writing block, this form of writer’s block is an invisible block. 

What’s actually happening is that we can’t get our voice onto the page.

So we’re going to talk about how you get past that invisible block in order to get your authentic voice onto the page. 

If you have either form of writer’s block, the not-writing form or the flat-writing form, the problem actually comes down to one word: doubt.

If you are suffering from either form of writer’s block, somewhere inside of you you have a doubt.

You may be consciously aware of your doubt, or it might exist on the subconscious side of your mind. But somewhere, there is doubt.

There is doubt in your ability … there’s doubt in your skill … there’s doubt in your craft … there’s doubt in your knowledge … there’s doubt in your ability to succeed … there is doubt in your value … there is doubt in your worthiness to write. 

Maybe you doubt your ability to stick to something or to complete something. But somewhere, there is doubt.

Where there is writer’s block, there is doubt.

So the first step, if you want to get past either form of writer’s block, is just to get really curious about where your doubt is. Where does it reside? 

You can get really curious about what stone you’re going to look under to find it.

Some people have had a lot of trauma and abuse in their lives. They had somebody tell them, “You’re not good enough” all the time.

And honestly, for those people, it’s much easier to figure out where the doubt came from.  It came from that voice! And so we just have to deal with that voice in order to get past the doubt. 

But for a lot of other writers, that voice of doubt was unintentionally put in place by a well-intended person, often a teacher or a parent who really loved you and believed in you. 

This is a concept that I call the talent trap.

The Talent Trap is one of the most common sources of the doubt that feeds both kinds of writer’s block. 

If you’re falling into the talent trap, there’s a good chance that, somewhere along the way, somebody with totally good intentions said something like this to you:

“Oh, my goodness, you have so much talent, you are so gifted, you’re such a beautiful writer, you’re such a beautiful artist, you see things in a way nobody else sees, you are so special.” 

They put this “talented” label on you.

And that was a well-intentioned thing. That was a beautiful thing for them to do.

But for a lot of people, that label ends up creating all kinds of problems.

Because now, rather than just expressing our authentic voice (“Hey, this is me, I’m Jake, this is how I talk. This is what I believe, this is what I just heard in my head. This is the image I just saw”) instead of just letting that out on the page, we’re trying to express the talented voice that we’re supposed to have.

We’re trying to live up to this other person’s belief about us. And as we try to live up to that belief, something complicated happens. 

We actually lose our authenticity. 

Instead of asking ourselves, “Well, what would Jake say?” we instead ask ourselves, “What would a talented writer say? What would a good line be? What would a good image, no, a great image be? What would Martin Scorsese do? What would Charlie Kaufman do?”

We are starting to ask ourselves “What would somebody truly great do?” As opposed to finding inspiration in our own instincts, looking inside and asking “What would I do? What do I see?” 

To overcome either form of writer’s block, we need to cultivate our trust. 

Trust in our voice, trust in our instincts, trust in our intuition. Trust that if we don’t have the craft, we’re going to go out and develop it. Trust that if we don’t know something, we’re going to learn it. Trust that if we start something that matters to us, we are going to finish it. Trust that if an obstacle occurs, we can navigate it. 

You all– every single one of you, I don’t care how many things you have failed in your life– you have areas of your life where your trust is well-placed, where you actually succeeded. 

Maybe it’s something simple like: I trust that if a video game console is in front of me, I’m going to play that video game. And eventually, I’m going to get really good at it

Even that can be a place to start. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with writing or creativity. It might not be something that our society thinks is amazing. (Anyway, a lot of things our society thinks are amazing are actually terrible).

It’s just about finding a place to start– a recognition that this trust already exists in you.

So what I’m asking you to do for a moment, is to contemplate the idea that maybe you already trust yourself at some level. 

I want you to get in touch with that. 

What does it feel like to trust yourself? 

What would it take for you to bring that feeling of trust into your writing? 

What would it take for you to trust yourself with your writing like you trust yourself to play a video game or to make the bed or to chew your food before swallowing it or to walk down the street without thinking?

What would it take for you to bring that level of trust?

Maybe you also have a place where you’re excellent. 

Maybe you’re excellent at work, maybe you’re an excellent parent, maybe you’re an excellent chef. 

What would it take for you to bring the same level of trust to your writing that you bring to your excellence in that area? 

Here are three things you can do to start to bring that kind of trust to your writing and begin the process of overcoming writer’s block. 

Here are three things you can do to start to There are probably a couple of different things that it would take to bring that kind of trust to your writing and begin the process of overcoming writer’s block.

#1 – You need to find a place to put your doubt. 

Trying to get rid of doubt is almost impossible… so, what if you were just to take that doubt and set it outside for a moment? Give it a nice comfy chaise lounge, and let it hang out in the sun for a while. You don’t have to try to get rid of it, just give it a new place to hang out. And if it pops back inside, just gently remind it that you’re busy growing right now, and that you’ll be happy to come check in with it later.

#2 – You probably need some skills. 

If you’re a great chef, you didn’t come out of the womb as a great chef. You probably learned some things and gained confidence as you learned more. So there are probably some skills you need to develop. 

#3 – You need to find a way to tap into the emotional state of trust that already exists in you. 

Trust, by the way, doesn’t mean things come out well all the time. 

There’s probably somebody in your life that you trust. And they have probably messed up from time to time. They’re human. But you trust them. You trust that even if they mess up, it’s gonna get figured out. You trust their intentions are good. 

So if we’re going to succeed as writers, we have to cultivate this feeling of trust.

Because it takes time to cultivate trust, if we’re not writing, we need to learn how to write, even when we don’t have trust. 

Trust is something that gets cultivated. 

You meet somebody brand new at a bar, no matter how strong the connection may be, you don’t instantly decide to trust them with your life. You recognize that they’re a random person you met at a bar, and that trust is going to take time to develop.

The same is true in your writing. If you’re sitting down to do this for the first time, and maybe you’ve never done it successfully, trust is something that will develop over time. 

It might not be there at the very beginning. That’s OK. You’re just going to ask yourself, “There’s something in me that already knows how to trust, so how do I bring that into my writing? How do I bring more trust in myself?”

Having that kind of trust in yourself also means letting go of a lot of the voices and a lot of the ego that goes along with being a writer.

Every time you sit down to write, you’re actually serving three “writing gods.” 

The first god is The Project.  

What does this thing want to be? What is this thing that I am making?

If you’re asking questions like these, you’re serving the project. 

If you bring your mind back to serving the project, serving the project, serving the project, everything gets easier.

But unfortunately, we’re human beings, right? So it’s hard for us to just serve the project. That means we have to be aware of the other gods that we may be serving as well. 

The second god is our Career

And trying to serve the Career god makes it so much harder. 

Now we’re not just trying to write a project and write in service of that project, learning what it wants to be and making it as beautiful as we can make it.

We’re also serving ourselves. 

How is this screenplay going to serve me? Is it going to get me where I want to go? Am I going to be able to sell this? Are people going to like it? 

Suddenly, we have all those voices in our head that we’re going to have to please in order to have that Career. 

Whoa! As soon as you started asking those Career questions, it suddenly became harder to find your voice, right? 

There are all these people looking at you– not real people, your worst projections of who those people might be. You can probably hear those critical voices already: Oh, it’s not good enough. Why would you do that? Oh, you’re not very good, are you? Oh, this is not commercial. 

These are the voices of fear and doubt. 

If your mind is listening to those voices, it’s not listening to the Project. Your mind can’t be in two places at the same time. If you’re focusing on what the screenplay needs to do commercially, you’re not focused on what it is. 

What is it? puts you in a place of creativity, of exploration.

How is it going to serve me? Is it going to be commercial? Are people going to like it? These questions put you in a place of performance. 

Are you performing for others or are you exploring what it is? You can’t do both at the same time.

Overcoming writer’s block does not mean giving up on your career goals. 

I’m a screenwriting teacher. And I’ve been fortunate enough to have a career as a screenwriter and as a producer. I’ve been incredibly lucky. 

I would not be doing my job if I didn’t teach you how to make your stuff commercial.

Of course, “commercial” can mean different things for different writers.

If you’re writing a little tiny $1 million independent movie, or even a $10,000 independent movie, “commercial” might mean finding a way to make it both affordable to shoot and resonant for a small, passionate niche audience.

If you’re writing a $300 million action movie, “commercial” might mean making it more expensive, more cinematically powerful and resonant for the largest possible audience. 

There is a time to ask those commercial questions. But not now. 

Later– after you know what the project wants to be. After you know what it is. 

Once you know what something is, you can get creative about putting it in the right “clothes” or the right “package,” the right shape, so that other people can see the beauty of what it is.

But if you start performing for people before you know what it is, you’re never going to find out  what it is. 

And that’s why you’re going to have so much doubt.

Instead of exploring your screenplay with curiosity– what is it?– you’re trying to force it into a form you think other people will like. 

You’re trying to perform for a bunch of invisible people who don’t even exist yet.

So we have the god of the Project, the god we want to be serving, and we have the Career/Commercial god, which we’re probably serving too early.

But most of us are also worshiping a third writing god, one even more damaging than the Career/Commercial god. Our vision of ourselves as artists. Our ego. Our identity.

The third god is your Identity as an artist. 

When you’re serving the Identity god, it’s really hard to just look at the project with curiosity: Oh, look at that. I wonder what it is… 

Instead, we’re frantically asking ourselves with every word we write: 

Am I an artist? Am I worthy? Am I good enough? Does my life have meaning? Can I do the thing that I was set out to do?

As soon as the Identity god gets involved, as soon as we get into the talent trap, now we have to battle against our fears. 

Those fears take different forms for different people, but they’re all the same thing. 

Some people have a conception of themselves as not very good. Maybe you’ve been through some trauma, people have said some bad things to you. You’ve had some bad experiences. You failed in some profound ways. Some of us have a belief that we’re not very good. 

If we have this kind of conception of ourselves, rather than being able to enter a project with wide-eyed excitement and curiosity:  Look at that. I wonder what that is. That’s so interesting. I want to look at that more closely. I want to explore that. I wonder what tools I need to figure this out. Oh, I’m so curious. I’m so interested… 

… instead, we’re more likely to say: Well, I’m not very good. What chance do I have to make this beautiful thing commercial? What chance do I have at all? 

So our ability to be creative gets compromised by our pre-existing, predetermined beliefs about ourselves.

The god of the Project ends up subsumed by the gods of the Career and the artist’s Identity.

In fact, the very idea of actually sitting down to write gets in the way of our identity as a crappy person. If we did it successfully, we would have to change our entire view of ourselves! 

And the ego is a very strange thing, not just for artists but for all people.

Once the ego attaches to something, it doesn’t want to let go of it, even if it’s negative. And this becomes another obstacle that fuels both kinds of writer’s block. 

By the way, if you think you’re great, and that drives your writing, you likely have the exact same problem. You’re still serving the Identity god. 

I went through this personally. I won a major award for my first produced movie, The Matthew Shepard Story. I won the WGA Paul Selvin award. This movie was nominated for Emmys. Stockard Channing won her first Emmy. We were nominated for a Gemini for best screenplay. 

Whoa! Suddenly, I got all this validation from the universe. 

The universe said, “You are freaking great!” And it was probably for me the most damaging thing that happened in my career. 

Because I didn’t get great by trying to be great. I got great by serving the Project god: I wonder what this is? I’m so curious. I wonder what this wants to be

I got great by following my intuition and allowing the process to happen. Allowing it to be bad before it got good. 

I got great by being creative. 

But now suddenly, I needed to be great. 

Not only that, I wanted to capitalize on this opportunity. Here was an opportunity to launch my career to the next level. 

So I have the Career/Commercial god whispering in my ear every time I sit down to write: Can I sell it? Can I sell it? And then I have the Identity god asking all it’s crazy questions: What if I’m not great anymore? What if the next screenplay isn’t as good as The Matthew Shepard Story? What if I can never live up to that level of greatness again? What if I’m not as great as they think I am? What if I got lucky? What if I can’t access that again? 

What I’m suggesting is that doubt comes from trying to make the project work for you, and trying to live up to whatever you believe about yourself– whether it’s great or terrible or somewhere in between. 

We’re always serving three gods– the Project, the Commercial and the Identity. 

I’m suggesting that if you want to get past your writer’s block, the first step is to save the Career/Commercial god for later. Let “Can I sell it?” come long after “What is it?”

And don’t even bother to ask “Who am I?” as you write, because serving that Identity god is only going to obscure you from seeing what actually is.  

If you’re not asking your screenplay What are you? with total curiosity, your chances of having anything real to sell are very slim.

You may think you’re serving the Career/Commercial god when you make “Can I Sell It?” the primary question, but really, you’re turning yourself into a snake oil salesman: trying to convince someone else to buy something… and you don’t even know what it is! 

Because you’re not thinking about the Project, you’re thinking about what it’s going to do for you. 

If this were a relationship with another human being… well, that wouldn’t be a very good relationship, would it?

If you had a child and your primary question was… Well, what are you going to do for me? 

If you had a friend, and your primary question was… What are you going to do for me? 

If you had a boss, or an employee reporting to you, and your primary question was… What are you going to do for me? 

If that’s your approach to life, you’re probably not a very good parent, friend or employee or boss. 

You know that the way you really want to interact with people (and the way you want people to interact with you) is a lot more like this:

What are you? How can I help you? How can I add to you? How can I grow you? How can we grow together, right? 

What you want in your relationships is partnership. 

But you can’t have a partnership if you’re only trying to climb over that person to get to the next place.

The same is true with your script. 

Your screenplay is a part of you. If you’re only thinking about how it can serve you, you are losing your ability to learn about that part of yourself.

If you are only thinking, What does the script do for me? Can I sell it? as opposed to What are you? I’m so curious… It is almost impossible to get past your doubts. 

You’re  going to be a much worse writer because you’re going to be performing for other people.

(And unless you’re already successful, you’re probably performing for people who don’t even exist. You’re performing for the projections of the most insecure part of yourself).

If you’re trying to be a writer, stop!

If you’re trying to be a great writer, stop!

Even if you’re trying to be a better writer, stop!

Those things are all Identity. That’s just ego.

And when you get connected to the identity of being a writer, what ends up happening is you’re now performing for yourself. 

Instead of asking, I’m so curious, what are you? You’re asking, Was I good today? Was I as good as yesterday? If I’m not as good as yesterday, does my life have meaning? What if I’m not a great writer? What if this project comes out bad?”

And now, when everything isn’t tying together, you’re not just dealing with the project… Oh, I didn’t figure out what you were yet. I didn’t figure out what was beautiful about you yet… 

…you’re dealing with all of the weight of your identity: If it comes out bad, I have to confront the fact that maybe I’m not a writer. I have to confront the complete destruction of my identity.

And if you actually are a person who’s born to be a writer– which I’m guessing you are if you’re reading this– if you actually are a person who was born to do this, the idea that maybe you’re not good enough is terrifying. 

So, no wonder you have doubts. 

No wonder you keep on rewriting it even after it’s done. 

No wonder you’re not sending it out to other people. 

No wonder you’re blocked and not writing at all. 

No wonder you’re flat and not putting your authentic self out there, taking big risks, being honest, following your voice, doing the radical disruptive thing. 

No wonder you’re not really making yourself vulnerable on the page. 

Because then at least, if it’s a rejection of the script, it’s not a rejection of your Identity as a writer.

You can protect yourself: “Well, you know, I never really got my voice on the page. Yeah, no, it wasn’t, really … like, I didn’t put my whole self into it.” 

So if you’re trying to be a writer, stop. Instead, be a person who practices writing

Make writing a practice, not an identity. 

And this is true for literally anything. 

Don’t be a parent– be a person who practices parenting.

Don’t be a jogger. Be a person who practices jogging. 

Put your focus on your action.

Because if you’re doing the action, you cannot have doubt. 

Are you doing the action? Are you looking at it and going, I’m curious, what are you? What do you want to be? How can I help you become what you want to be? 

If you put your focus on serving the project, everything else grows organically from that focus. 

The terrifying thing about identities is they change. You can win an award one day and write a bad screenplay the next. 

And if you’re looking at those things to tell you who you are, writing becomes terrifying. You don’t want to put yourself back out there for fear of letting it all crumble.

If you’re only thinking, What can it do for me? you’re probably not having any fun writing it. 

Just like in a relationship, if you’re only thinking, What can this person do for me? you’re probably not having any fun, you’re not learning anything about them, you’re not actually having a collaboration.

And it not only makes it less likely that they’re actually going to help you, but also takes away from your present experience. 

What is the self-talk of a person who practices writing? 

I am a person who does the practice of writing. I look at this thing. I get it out of my head, and I look at it carefully. I ask, what are you? I’m so curious. How do I help you grow into what you want to be? How do I discover this? What do I need to learn in order to discover this? What are the skills I don’t have that I want to learn? What’s the confidence I need to bring? What’s the trust I need to bring? What do I need to trust about you? 

So when we’re talking about breaking through writer’s block, what we’re really talking about is learning to trust yourself 

The process of trust is not trusting that you are a writer or you are good or you will sell it.

The process of trusting is reminding yourself, I am a person who is curious, who does the practice of writing, which is a practice of curiosity, who trusts that if I keep doing the practice, I’m going to write some beautiful things. 

And some of those things will sell. And some of those things will not. And some of those things will receive accolades and love and wonderful words from other people. And some of those things will not. And some of those things will make you feel like you are a writer and like you’re a gifted, talented person. And some of those things will not.

Those parts of writing are not under your control. 

But the process, the process will start to become beautiful.

Because rather than writing from a place of doubt, you’re going to be writing from a place of love.

Rather than writing from a place of doubt, you’re going to be writing from a place of curiosity.

Rather than writing from a place of doubt, you are going to be writing from a place of trust.

And rather than trying to be a writer, you’re going to be looking at yourself and saying, What are you? 

Instead of trying to write like Quentin Tarantino or Diablo Cody or whomever your favorite writer is, you’re going to be looking at yourself and saying, Who are you? I’m so curious. I’m so curious on how you are going to develop, I’m so curious about how you’re going to grow. I’m so curious about what your voice sounds like.

Instead of being trapped by your identity, This is who I am now, or This is who I’m supposed to be, you’re going to get curious. You’re going to look at your voice, and you’re going to ask, What is beautiful about that?

If this podcast is helping your writing, and you want to learn more about how to build screenplays organically, then come check out my school. We have fabulous foundation classes in Screenwriting and TV Writing that will teach you seven-act structure and how to build the engine of a TV show. For more advanced writers, we have my Master Class, which is the equivalent of a grad school education, but it will only take you one Sunday a month, and it will leave you with zero debt at a price you can afford that fits your real world life. And our ProTrack mentorship program will pair you one-on-one with a professional writer who will read every page you write, every draft you complete, and mentor you for your entire life. For a tiny fraction of the cost of grad school, you can meet with them weekly, bi weekly, whatever works best for you. It’s an incredible program, and built to allow you to become a professional writer in a way that fits your life and your budget.

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    • You represent and warrant that you have the full right and authority to grant Company the rights provided in this agreement and that you have made no commitments which conflict with this agreement or the rights granted herein.  You agree that your participation in the Course is entirely at your own risk and accept full responsibility for your decision to participate in the Course.  In no event shall you have the right to enjoin the development, production, exploitation or use of the Course and/or your Contributions to it. 
  5. Governing Law and Venue.  This agreement shall be governed by the laws of the State of New York without regard to its conflict of laws provisions.  The parties hereto agree to submit to personal and subject matter jurisdiction in the federal or state courts located in the City and State of New York, United States of America.
  6. Dispute Resolution.  All claims and disputes arising under or relating to this agreement are to be settled by binding arbitration in the state of New York or another location mutually agreeable to the parties.  The arbitration shall be conducted on a confidential basis pursuant to the Commercial Arbitration Rules of the American Arbitration Association.  Any decision or award as a result of any such arbitration proceeding shall be in writing and shall provide an explanation for all conclusions of law and fact and shall include the assessment of costs, expenses, and reasonable attorneys’ fees by the winner against the loser.  Any such arbitration shall include a written record of the arbitration hearing.  An award of arbitration may be confirmed in a court of competent jurisdiction.
  7. Miscellaneous.  Company may transfer and assign this agreement or all or any of its rights or privileges hereunder to any entity or individual without restriction.  This agreement shall be binding on all of your successors-in-interest, heirs and assigns.  This agreement sets forth the entire agreement between you and the Company in relation to the Course, and you acknowledge that in entering into it, you are not relying upon any promises or statements made by anyone about the nature of the Course or your Contributions or the identity of any other participants or persons involved with the Course.  This agreement may not be altered or amended except in writing signed by both parties.
  8. Prevention of “Zoom-Bomber” Disruptions; Unauthorized Publication of Class Videos. Company will record each class session, including your participation in the session, entitled “The Videos”. To prevent disruptions by “zoom-bombers” and provide Company and

    participants the legal standing to remove unauthorized content from platforms such as YouTube and social media sites, you agree that

    (1) you are prohibited from recording any portion of the Course;

    (2) in exchange for the opportunity to participate in the Course, you assign to Company your verbal contributions to the session discussions.

    To be clear, you assign to Company only your oral statements during recorded Course sessions. You retain all copyright to any and all written materials you submit to the class and the right to use them in any way you choose without permission from or compensation to the Company.

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