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4 successful Hollywood screenwriters on dealing with writer’s block

Everyone gets stuck. It’s about learning how to deal effectively with mental blocks, say these pros.

4 successful Hollywood screenwriters on dealing with writer’s block
[Photo: Anomaly/Unsplash]

Writer’s block can happen to anyone—whether you’re penning the next Great American Novel or simply trying to come up with a creative intro to the weekly company newsletter you write. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of thing that goes away with practice, either. Take it from wordsmiths behind TV shows such as Fresh off the Boat and 30 Rock: All the Emmys in the world won’t rid you of those pesky blocks that accompany the creative process.

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“It happens to every writer,” says Leon Chills, who recently sold his debut movie script (an action drama that Kerry Washington and Sterling K. Brown are set to produce and star in) while also writing for the forthcoming Netflix show Spinning Out. For Chills, writer’s block comes on strongest when he needs to generate completely new ideas, as in: What’s the next film?

Success, Chills says, is about learning what coping strategies work for you and how to deploy them effectively in those inevitable moments. Here, he and three other Hollywood screenwriters share what works for them:

Step away from the screens

When Chills left his career as a software engineer at a New York City investment bank to be a screenwriter in Los Angeles, the learning curve was steep. He hit the books. One in particular helped drill into him the power of freewriting: The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, about navigating the creative process. In the beginning, he followed Cameron’s recommended ritual of writing daily “morning pages.”

These days, he adapts his freewriting practice when he’s really blocked and a running break isn’t helping. Chills reaches for the journal on his desk and writes freehand for 30 minutes about the particular project, jotting down whatever comes to mind. More often than not, he’ll make his way to a solution to whatever was stumping him. He says he’s also learned that mornings are his peak creative time, when he has the most brain power, and he optimizes for that. He wakes up at 6 a.m. most days, leaves his phone on his nightstand, and, when he’s not hitting the gym, delves into whatever script he’s working on.

Allow yourself to dream

Colleen McGuinness’s résumé is no joke. In addition to writing for 30 Rock, she has developed pilots for bigwigs such as Tina Fey and Reese Witherspoon. Yet for all the scripts McGuinness has written, there isn’t one she has churned out without facing a creative block. “Every single project has its [moment] of not knowing where to turn next,” she says.

Another realization she’s had: “A lot of times when we’re stuck, we’re just afraid. Or we’re dredging up all this stuff, overloaded with words and images. All these different things distract us from our own ideas.” Over the years, she has learned that combating fears and distractions can sometimes be as simple as taking a break. A change of location—anything to get her subconscious going—is important.

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She’s also a huge proponent of creating mental space through visual thinking, meditation, and therapy. She learned transcendental meditation through the David Lynch Foundation and picked up helpful tips from Lynch’s book, Catching the Big Fish, about the connection between meditation and creativity. As for how this translates into her process? She aims to give her brain a rest by meditating for 20 minutes twice a day: once in the morning, and again around lunch.

In the middle of writing, if she feels blocked, she lies down and closes her eyes. “I’m a visual thinker, so I’ll try to get through the scene and seek solutions that way,” she says. Getting to more of a dream-like state helps her picture where a particular story should go and try out different versions of solutions to see how they play out.

Team up

Writer/producer Josh Kirby has spent the past decade in Hollywood, with the last several years on ABC’s Fresh off the Boat. His not-so-secret weapon for getting unstuck—and bolstering his productivity and wellness more generally? His writing partner, Jon Veles. In a cutthroat industry, the trope of the tortured, self-loathing writer can be all too familiar, he says. Kirby swears by the value of finding your people. “You feel crazy or you get into this implosion mode where, if you have another person, they’re usually not in the exact same place,” he says. “It helps everything.”

For him, that’s Veles, whom he met on a cruise ship they were both performing on. The pair started writing sketch comedy and realized their voices were very similar. Now they’re a package deal. If they’re not next to each other in the writers’ room or meetings, they’re screen-sharing while crafting a new pitch or script. “If we’re working a scene, I’ll know the meat, but he knows the way they walk in the door. He knows how it starts, and I know how it ends,” Kirby says. They’re also best friends. The only downside to having a writing partner, he says, is splitting a single salary.

Then again, they enable each other to move through the process and actually turn around material people want to buy. “I’d take half of something over all of nothing any day,” he says. Even if you’re not seeking an accountability partner or a work soulmate, Kirby recommends keeping good company. Take classes and workshops and form a group. You will always have an ebb and flow, so surround yourself with people in similar mindsets and creative spaces. “You hear a mountain of no’s and hopefully an occasional yes, and in the process . . . the moral support you can get from and give to others is huge,” he says.

Shift into student mode

Writer/producer Kristi Korzec has worked in many a writers’ room, from Madam Secretary to her current post on the CBS dramedy God Friended Me. She says that sitting around the table workshopping a show for network TV has taught her some of the most valuable strategies for navigating blocks when working solo. Chief among them: showering. While in the writers’ room working on the Scream series, her boss would ask if anyone had any “shower thoughts.” He was referring to those breakthrough ideas that occur when you zone out and give yourself permission to stop actively trying to solve a problem.

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Now, when she finds herself staring at the same document until her eyes are dry, she pulls back. “You fall into that spiral. Step out and go and get in the shower and let the water run over you and something will click,” she says. It can help to remember that ideas need to marinate and that storytellers have spent decades grappling with this same process.

Korzec also recommends taking the time to read a powerful story or watch other films and shows—a process she refers to as being a student of great storytelling. So, while she does set deadlines, she isn’t shy about stepping away in the name of research (which, yes, can mean watching TV). While working on a sci-fi movie, for example, she realized that it was at its core a father-son story. When she got stuck, she googled “best father and son movies” and got her research game on. Doing this loosens up her mind and helps spark ideas. “We’re retelling stories that have been told for however long. We’ll look at recipes that have already worked and add our lemon zest,” she says.


Katie Sanders is a freelance journalist in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @KatieSSanders.

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