WRITER'S BLOCK ISN'T REAL
wherein ANGELINA BURNETT tells us "Unless you’re dead, you can write. "
ANGELINA BURNETT has written on some of the coolest shows on TV: Hannibal, The Americans, Memphis Beat (created by WS co-founder LG) and now Halt and Catch Fire for AMC. When you write on those shows, there is no excuse for not delivering your best , and on time. Certainly not writer's block. Herein, Burnett tells us how to get over ourselves and be the writer we want to be.
The most frequent question I get from young writers looking for advice is “How do you deal with writer’s block?”
So here’s my secret, revealed for all the internet:
I don’t. Writer’s block isn’t real.
“Of course it’s real!” you say. “I’ve felt it!”
What you’ve felt is fear and self loathing. Let’s call it what it is. Because when we name those feelings “writers block” we are externalizing them, placing them outside of our control where we can claim victimhood. Something is happening TO us. But it’s not.
Unless you’re dead, you can write. You may write shit but so what? Everyone writes shit. Even the best ever have put pen to paper, reread it, then crumpled it and thrown it in the trash cause that’s where it belongs. You’re a living, breathing imperfect human, you lucky bastard. Congratulations. Own that shit.
I am one of the rare writers who will gleefully admit that I fucking LOVE to write. Not all the time. But most of the time. It wasn’t always this way. Early on, things could get torturous, fast. I’d hit some problem I couldn’t solve, everything flying from my fingers would read like hacktastic shit and I’d end up back in bed convinced I was a fraud wasting my time, and who the hell did I think I was anyway, thinking I had a unique enough perspective on life to warrant telling stories? Suddenly I was “blocked”.
I don’t feel that way any more. That doesn’t mean writing doesn’t get hard. It does. Or that I don’t run up against problems I can’t immediately solve. I do. I still have plenty of days where I write hacky shit that I know will never see the light of day, but none of it is freighted with fear or self loathing. Most of the time I’m able to stand just outside the unpleasantness, observing it with curiosity. Other times I have to sit in the discomfort and displeasure, blinded by a fog I know will lift. How do I know?
Because I trust my process.
Trusting your process requires that you take the time to know and understand your head and heart, and how they’re connected to your art. It takes conscious, active observation of how you work and why. It takes constant awareness of your emotional state, your productivity, your environment and the stories you tell yourself.
And by stories you tell yourself, I don’t mean the stories you want to tell the world. I mean that tape that plays in your head, reinforcing behavioral and emotional patterns. Sometimes, those stories are full of shit and you need to rewrite them. Like “I’m blocked” (no, you’re not). Other times they’re your best friend, carrying you through the hard times, “Oh great, this is the part where I write trash. Oh well. It’ll get good again. Eventually” (It will). You need to be able to recognize the difference.
You also need to learn the difference between procrastination and your brain demanding space to background process. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Background_process) Procrastination, you should push through. Back ground processing is as crucial to your work as the active writing. Sometimes you absolutely have to step away and do something mindless. Binge on cookies and old seasons of the Real World Road Rules Challenge. Walk the dogs. Reorganize the sock drawer. Meditate. Whatever your pleasure. And you should be able to do those things with out the guilt and self loathing that so often comes with “Not Writing”. Because you are. Those mindless activities are part of your process and you must trust that the work is getting done.
Unless of course you’re just procrastinating. Stop that.
I can’t tell you how to tell the difference. That you have to figure out for yourself. It might not come quickly, or easily. But if you are actively observing your internal life and working to become aware of how it affects your work, eventually, your natural creative rhythm will reveal itself to you. Then all you’ve gotta do is ride the groove.
And when you do, writing gets SO MUCH MORE FUN, so much more satisfying and joyful and exciting. (And sometimes still shitty but now it’ll feel like driving over a pothole, not off of a cliff.) And I promise, you’ll never be blocked again.