The screenwriter’s process is a production bottleneck. Nobody else can do their jobs until we do ours. That’s why writers are so necessary—and sometimes so detested. There’s a great section about this in The Way We Work: On the Job in Hollywood by Bruce Ferber, comedy teleplay veteran of Growing Pains, Coach, and Home Improvement. But Ferber’s book could never have predicted the pressures and complexities writers are now facing in the Coronavirus pandemic.
Writing requires focus, creativity, clarity and presence of mind. These don’t come easily under stressful conditions like, for example, being trapped at home without childcare by a deadly virus combined with unprecedented wildfire smoke. Even though a writer can work from home in theory, it’s often completely impractical. But the actors are waiting. The director and producers are waiting. The studio execs are getting madder by the minute. You have to deliver. Here’s what you do when the pressure’s on and you’re blocked.
Borrow a Fresh Set of Eyes
Assuming you’ve already consulted your writing partners, producers, and the usual go-tos who inform your writing, find someone outside your professional circles who knows very little about your project. A friend, neighbor, family member. Get their perspective. Explaining your idea to someone who’s not in the entertainment industry is the closest thing to hashing out your story with the audience before the film or episode goes into production.
My friends and family have helped me on countless occasions. Sometimes they offer up gems. But even horrible ideas can jolt you outside the box and open up pathways to innovative turns. So don’t discard them too easily!
Be Kind to Yourself
Pandemics in history have resulted in incredible works of art, including some of Shakespeare’s best. Nevertheless, it’s easy to let the pressure get to you. You don’t have to bang out 40 pages per day trying to be the next Willy S. Be kind to yourself.
One of my mentors once reminded me to be patient with the creative process, which ebbs and flows. One week, you may come up with three new shows, log lines for each, and you finish that stubborn pilot you’ve been working on. The next week, nothing. Remember that as a writer, you’re always writing. Everything you take in will inform your future work. So do your best to be attentive and engaged with your world, and have faith that it will reflect in the stories you tell.
The pandemic has brought out fears and anxieties most of us have never experienced before. It’s healthy and okay to acknowledge that. It’s helping you identify with the pain your characters are feeling so you can express it more clearly. That’s actually a good thing for your writing.
Switch to a Different Project or Genre
Nothing gets a project moving like starting another one. It’s easy to feel frustrated and bogged down, especially working on a deadline. But starting to develop another, completely unrelated project can bring back that feeling of creative euphoria that comes with a new, fresh idea and its seemingly limitless potential.
It helps remind you why you got into writing in the first place. It’s also a way to hack the mind into remembering how pleasurable writing really is. Working on something unrelated can give you instant perspective on your main project. Plus, it never hurts to have more than one project in development when you’re in a pitch meeting and the question comes up: “what else are you working on?”
Don’t get too bogged down by one genre, either. Your comedy is going to make people cry. Your drama is going to make people laugh. That’s okay. Try to go with the flow and let your characters be themselves. Writing a flippant joke into your somber memento mori could get the wheels turning again. Or taking a break from comedy to invoke a spontaneous horror piece could be a refreshing palate cleanser. Change it up a bit. See what happens.
Leave Your Writing Desk and Pull Up a Couch
The real piece of advice you’ve been waiting for: just watch TV! In what other job can you justify countless hours of quality vegging? If I’m really being honest, it’s one of the reasons I went into screenwriting in the first place. Not only can you sit in front of the TV totally guilt free, but you’re actually doing the work.
I try to watch as many different genres as I can, because it’s all story. You really never know where an “aha” moment will strike, and solve a problem in the story you’re trying to tell. Right now, I’m hooked on HBO’s Lovecraft Country, Raised by Wolves, The Vow and I’m watching Insecure for the first time as well. Do your homework. Pull up a couch!
The pandemic doesn’t make it any easier to work, despite how it may seem to non-writers. But go easy on yourself. Catch those creative winds when they arrive, and be present with your world during the between times. Seek fresh perspectives from industry outsiders. Switch it up with a new project or genre, and check in with your streaming services to see what other creators are up to. Your pandemic writer’s block won’t stand a chance!