Posts tagged: writer’s block

Jump Start Creativity

By Kitty Felde

Sometimes facing a blank page on your laptop can be the most depressing sight on planet earth.

Nobody said playwriting was going to be easy. But the email rejections, the harsh feedback from your writing group, the statistics on the tiny number of new plays that get produced every year (and the even smaller number by female playwrights not named Lauren Gunderson) can just shut you down. Or, as I put it, take the heart out of the writing.

How do you get your mojo back?

 

I had the pleasure of interviewing writer Laurel Snyder whose middle grade novel “Orphan Island” is a very odd book – orphan kids on a desert island who come as toddlers and depart as teenagers to parts unknown. Needless to say, it’s not like anything else Laurel has previously written.

She says the book started as her own prescription for writers block. She was stuck in the “business” of writing and forgot about the joy. So she bought herself some toys – markers and paint and notebooks and her favorite mechanical pencil. She vowed to write the entire project in longhand and take the time to illustrate the characters. She drew islands and maps. She drew animals that didn’t exist that didn’t make it into the book. She had fun – the same fun she felt when she started writing when she was eight years old.

She promised herself that she wouldn’t show the project to anyone until it was done and if it didn’t get published, that would be okay, too. She would write a book just for herself.

Laurel got back in touch with the reason she started writing in the first place. She was writing out – putting on paper something inside of her that needed to get out in the world. In the process, she rediscovered the joy.

And of course, the book she created was so unique, it made the longlist for the National Book Award.

We’re not guaranteed such a reward of public recognition, but we can at least make the journey more enjoyable. Slow down. Buy a fabulous red gel pen with sparkles for the editing process. Find some fun stickers and reward yourself when you put down 500 words. Take yourself out for an outrageously fattening Toasted White Chocolate Mocha at Starbucks when you’ve written every day for a week. Give yourself permission to watch hours of Hallmark Christmas movies. Find a way to make the writing fun again.

And share YOUR secrets with us.

You can hear the whole interview with Laurel Snyder here. You can even hear kids dissect the book on this episode.

Compartmentalizing and the Female Brain

by Tiffany Antone

Have you read this post about women and submissions on Donna Hoke’s blog yet?  It’s super interesting.  In it, she talks about how women statistically submit fewer plays than men do, and so how in the world can we hope to achieve gender parity when we’re not even kicking out as many plays as they are?  She posits a few ideas as to why we’re not submitting as much work as men, one of which might be that we’re simply not writing as many plays as they are (while admitting she’s not quoting scientific data on the subject) and I think that she’s probably on point with some of it.

Because her thoughts echo thoughts that I’ve been personally mulling over (and freaking out about) the past few months – and it all comes down to a very self-judgmental “Why haven’t I been writing as much as I know I should be/want to/need to if I’m going to reach my goal of becoming a real-live playwriting SUPERSTAR (hahahaha) sometime soon?!”

Tina knows what I’m talking about… I think

I mean, I’ve got time.  I’ve got actual time in my schedule to write right now, and instead of being a hyper-productive story machine, I’ve been dragging my feet, occasionally circling the creative drain, and beating myself up about it every step of the way.

And I know that part of my problem is that I’m never JUST thinking about playwriting… When I’m dragging my feet on my written work, I’m dragging my feet on ALL of my work.  When I feel creatively stumped, I feel stumped about life.  I’ve been down and out and confused about just what the hell was wrong with me for months – which was of course not helping me write anything – and then it hit me:

I don’t know how to turn off the very loud, very panic-stricken part of my brain that is constantly worried about finances and health insurance and the unreliability of my fragile adjunct positions and whether or not I’m making something of myself fast enough to save myself from a life of obscure forgotten penury…

Ever find yourself pulling one of these as you just walk into the bank?

And this monumental (and very loud) worry about my own survival has been clouding the creative waters from which I work. This worry about unmet goals and far-off dreams has been pressurizing every unrealized sentence, turning them into huge ugly stones of depressing non-accomplishments that I don’t know how to move.

And once I realized this, the solution seemed clear:  I needed to chill the f*** out!  But how?

Maybe I need to look to some of my male contemporaries who have a (seemingly) easier time compartmentalizing tasks and worries.

I imagine inside every guy there is a Peter Griffin telling him when he’s approaching critical mass.

Because I really think that the gents are better at turning off parts of their brains in order to focus on each thing in turn, one at a time.

What a concept.

I mean, I have always considered my ability to juggle multiple ideas/projects/and thoughts at once as one of my biggest assets, but when the juggling gets out of control, it’s no longer a strength but a very paralyzing weakness.

And I don’t think I’m the only woman out here trying to do too many things at once while mentally beating myself up at each step for not being able to give any one of those tasks my full, undivided attention.  I feel guilty writing because I’m not out earning money by picking up extra paid freelancing gigs, and I feel guilty working on those paid gigs because they are doing absolutely nothing to move me further up the theatrical or academic pipeline.  I worry that the things I want to do aren’t yet earning me a living, and yet I know that they’ll never ever earn a living if I don’t continue to labour away at them in the un-paid now.

But what if I put some of this obsessively negative energy to work through focus.  What if I could shut up the Chicken Little part of my brain and double down on patience and faith in myself and learn to work on one thing at a time?  What if I can learn how to tell my constantly-thinking-worrying-about-3-different-things-at-once mind to let go of some of those worries for a little while, and to believe that putting down a few of my “balls” for a little while won’t bring down the entire circus.

This cat knows what I’m talking about

What if I can cultivate a practice of healthy compartmentalization?

What do you think?

~Tiffany

Playwriting Stall

By Tiffany Antone

Eight years ago, I was excitedly sitting in on my first graduate classes as an MFA playwright.  E.I.G.H.T. Whole. Years.  Ago.

I didn’t know what the future would bring – I just knew my Muse was alight with passionate glee.

Oh, and I also knew that I had three years to write “something awesome” because after graduation, The Real World (and Sallie Mae) would come crashing down around me with all of its grubby demands.  Demands like “You better pay for that education!” along with other necessities such as gas, food, somewhere to live – you know, the basics.

Well, the basics plus student loan and credit card debt.

(sigh)

But I read an article today in the Huffington Post that has me re-evaluating the way I’ve been handling The Real World since graduation.  The article was titled “Where You Should Be vs. Where You Are”.  I clicked on over to check it out because, like many an artist, I am constantly compelled to compare my actual career trajectory to the one I think I should be on by now.  Also, like any good perfectionist, I like to read up on all the ways I’m not yet meeting my fullest potential so that I can berate myself about it later.

Which is, of course, exactly what the article’s author, Emily Bennington, is telling us not to do.

Emily tells us that she had her “Just what the heck is wrong with my constantly unsatisfied self?!” moment when her son told her how sad she was making him, what with all her yelling and irritation – you see, her shortage of patience with her self had dribbled over and onto her family as well.

I don’t yet have kids to hold a mirror in front of my face, though – so I suppose it means I have to find a way to hold one up by myself.

I’ve always been a fairly positive “You can do anything if you put your mind to it!” kind of person.  It’s why I work so hard to improve my own short-comings: If I’m doing my best, I will get as far as my best can get me, right?  But I how can I be doing my best, when I’m constantly picking myself apart in search of said shortcomings?  Don’t you, at some point, start to peck into your own self-confidence with all that drive to improve?

Well, somewhere along the way, I got so bummed out by the constant self-analysis of my own “slow” trajectory as an artist that I froze – mid-takeoff – in abject panic.

Because the business of theatre eludes me.

When I’m wearing my Playwright hat, I sit in a room and type and type and type and TYPE.  Then I send it out to play contests and theatre companies, and I wait.  I wait and wait and WAIT.  Sometimes the response is “Hey, we like this!  We are going to give it to actors and invite people to hear your words!” and sometimes it’s “Hey, we like this!  You should keep writing!” And, of course, sometimes it’s crickets.

That’s the nature of the business for a playwright, right?

I mean, is that really all we can do?

So about two years ago, I took a hiatus from all the pitching and mailing and waiting, and instead began producing small play festivals in a small town in AZ.  I expanded my producer skills, learned that I was not actually afraid of directing (and that I, in fact, actually enjoy the high-stress immediacy of it), and dedicated myself to creating other theatre opportunities to feed my creative soul.

And I enjoyed it.  I really did.

But I never escaped the feeling of heartbreak and ineffectiveness of a writer whose plays weren’t getting produced, nor the guilt-ridden dissatisfaction with myself for neglecting to write.

I’m not good at feeling powerless.

But I’m realizing that part of my “problem” is that I turned the mystery and frustration of my playwriting career’s seeming lack of progression into a mentally insurmountable hurdle.  I sat down and stared at that hurdle for a while, kicked some stones its way, and decided to go left instead.

Only, left has really just been this other trail alongside the one I disembarked, and I’ve been looking over my shoulder the whole way.  It’s like walking along a length of wall guarding the palace you built.  And I put up more wall with every blessed step.

You’d think knocking down a metaphorical wall would be super easy…

But I don’t know how to knock it down except to maybe stop counting up the things I “don’t have” and just get on with my bad self.  So…

Okay.

I don’t have money.  Who does?  I’ve really got to move on from this one.  I’ve got to stop lusting after “things” and realize – at this juncture especially – how much simpler my life will be when I stop tallying up how much money I’m NOT making and all the things I CAN’T do with an empty wallet.  Instead, I’ve got to figure out how much I need to earn in order to create space and time in my life to focus on all these words needing to be put down on paper.  I repeat:  It’s. Time. To. Move. On.

But then what am I going to do to make that money?  A small amount of money is still an amount.  Just because I stop hating how small my sack of coin is doesn’t solve where I’m going to get the coin from in the first place?   I mean, I really hate working desk jobs!  And I don’t know how to get a teaching gig, and, and, and…  Holy cow!  How can a person display so much ingenuity on occasion and yet find herself stuck again and again on others?  I just moved to Waco – there’s time to explore and get creative and get serious about this desire I have – this strong instinct towards saving my own sanity – and to carve out a pleasing paying gig.  Instead of bitching about not knowing where to find those elusive university teaching gigs, how about creating my own opportunities to teach and write?  (Massive DUH thought bubble)  I need to focus on figuring out how much I really need to earn to survive – and then make it happen.  There is no reason not to feel confident in this.  Move.  On.

Okay, but the saddest bit of truth here is that I don’t feel happy when I look at my plays anymore because I just see the unmet potential.  WAAAAAHHHHH (crumbles into a mess of ugly, fat, tears of disappointment)  Ummm… Gross.  That’s just gross.  And sad.  And it just feeds my guilt about not writing, thus making the whole ugly thing worse.  This will go away when I stop being angry at my plays for not being scooped up by producers after I’ve sent them out into the world.  I need to forgive myself for not even really knowing how to get my plays to the people doing the producing.  I need to forgive my plays for not getting a big production yet.  But I also need to celebrate my plays who have had productions or very nearly.  I need to tally up the pats on my back instead of just the unmet hopes.  And I need to just write more damn plays – to get the machine working again instead of cursing my rusty hinges for being “ineffectual”.  In essence, I need to knock.  It.  Off.

And write.

And move on.

Because here’s what I’ve realized:  When I’m honest with myself, I can see just how much energy I’ve spent these past few years developing other great theatre skills at the cost of neglecting my own passion for the written word.  I love writing, and I love teaching – and that’s where I need to put my energy.  I did learn that I also, strangely enough, love producing and enjoy directing… but I can’t be a whole (or healthy) artist if the part I most readily identify with – my playwright self – has been put in the corner for the crime of not traveling up the Playwright Ladder fast enough.

It is time for me to stop comparing myself against all the things I haven’t yet done… it’s time to find joy in where I am now, and that it is MUCH harder to put into practice than I’d like to admit.

But that’s where I’m at, right now.  And I’m going to celebrate it.

 

Progress!

One of the cleverest pieces of advice I ever saw for writers was aimed at those brave souls who crank out the first draft of a novel in one month.
http://www.nanowrimo.org/
The advice was to have a “bible” nearby. Not THE bible. YOUR bible. In other words, the writer who inspires you, the book you wish you’d written, the book you read over and over again.

The idea was that when you got stuck – had a question about style or pace or dialogue – you could turn to your “bible” for answers.

I’ve decided to do this for my new play.

I’m actually keeping two “bibles” nearby. One is a book I love and find full of wonderfully funny dialogue. In fact, I’m going to write a modern version of it.

The other is a basic book on playwriting.

Admit it, you have a few on your shelf. I randomly flip through a few, hoping one will strike a note with me at this time in my writing career. It’s a reminder of all the things we already know about building characters and dramatic structure and how hard it is to write. But it’s a nice reminder that I’m not reinventing the wheel.

So this morning before starting work, I set out for a short walk down to the waterfront, read a little from each of my “bibles” and wrote three pages of morning pages. Mostly lists of the hundred and one things I could be doing instead of writing. A wasted morning.

I then put in a days’ work.

And just as I was about to kick myself for wasting my life, imagining I’m a playwright, as the sun was setting, I sat down one more time. And managed to write five first draft pages! It’s not brilliant, but it’s more than I’ve been able to pound out in weeks.

So, success!

At least for today. Check in again with me tomorrow.

24 hour switch

I have a confession… I haven’t written anything much lately.  I could (accurately) claim the busy-bee-nature of my calendar

has left me less than energized, but there’s a bit more to it than that; I just haven’t felt particularly inspired to actually make the writerly effort.

And I don’t mean “inspired” in the sense that I’m waiting for some hot-commodity-idea either.

(From my blog on Little Black Dress INK a week or two ago)

Writer’s Block… They should call it “Emotionally Disadvantaged Creative’s Block”.

There are countless essays and processes devoted to understanding and conquering the writer’s enemy, mostly involving baby steps of free-writing, calendering oneself, forcing it out like a stubborn turd, etc.  But I always thought these things were a crock – the reason we stop writing is because we’re harboring some deep fear or resentment – not because we’ve run out of ideas – and no amount of straining ourselves over the proverbial toilet is going to make them come out if the tunnel is plugged by baggage!

(I know, that’s a disgusting analogy)

But then, I haven’t written anything new in months (besides blog posts) so I had to ask myself, might I be stricken with a fog of literary stasis?  I mean, I’ve been really busy; I’ve been teaching and producing and directing and dating…

I have been doing any number of things besides writing…

(this is when my inner guru/muse/whatever it is within that is plugged more keenly into the source of things, lets me know that I am indeed hiding in the fog…)

Sigh

(and then I have to ask myself why….)

Double Sigh

But I think the answer is this:  I’m not writing because I’m afraid that whatever I’m working on still won’t be good enough to produce, and quite frankly I’m a little more than tired of all the back-patting and head-nodding and open readings leading to naught…

My demon it seems (the first in my history with the pen) is fear, chased by an ugly little thing called anger.

And it’s time I process it all, chew it up, and spit it out, and stop giving myself excuses.  I’ve collected seeds of anxiety and doubt and now they’ve spouted into a full blown emotional forest that needs cutting down.

Perhaps I can turn all that lumber into paper?

Then this past weekend I was invited to participate in a 24-hour play fest.  I’d never done one before, so I jumped in with a lot of willful trepidation and more than a little attitude (pointless as it is, attitude always makes us feel a little safer in the un-trod, doesn’t it?)

I was terrified – How was this going to work?  Was I going to be able to write a whole play (minimal page length be damned- would it have a beginning, middle and end?  Would it make sense?) in one evening?  Would my brain and The Muse be able to stand each other after so long apart and under the pressure of such short turnaround?

Turns out, the answer – just like my answer to the challenge – was “Yes!”

We gathered at 9 p.m., started writing at 11, and I had a 9 pager ready to hand over at 3:30 a.m.  I was exhausted, and I was seeing a little double, but by God, I crafted a funny enough piece to forgive it it’s whimsy, and the actors and directors who memorized and staged it in the morning/afternoon/evening did a great job and seemed to find it quirky and enjoyable enough that I could feel I had indeed done well.

And now I can’t get my little Muse to stop poking me, pushing me, demanding me to get back at the keys.

It seems that the “cure” was to just stop worrying about my attitude and the sheer overwhelming nature of my theatrical hopes, and just write already!

Now – if I can just get my calendar to listen, I’d be a much happier, even-busier-(but writing, damnit)-bee!

~Tiffany

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