The creative well? “The well is where your “juice” is. Nobody knows what it is made of, least of all yourself. What you know is if you have it, or you have to wait for it to come back.”—Ernest Hemingway
It was a few years ago now when I felt great coming out of a creative meeting with my producer on another screenplay assignment job for a proposed feature. I was in the treatment stage of the script and working out the story in a very detailed step outline that ended up thirty pages long. The notes and changes were all smart fixes, but I needed to scale down the scope of the movie and my uber-detailed treatment/story outline to around fifteen pages. It was strange because many of the notes surprised me—it was as if the producers weren’t ever at the same story/development meetings we all had with the proposed and interested director. We had agreed to the story beats and the film’s story direction, but now if felt like they tossed out many of those ideas. When there are changes you become a team player and collaborator and good screenwriters roll up their sleeves and get to work. It’s not about ego or being defensive, it’s about getting the job done to move the project forward. Right?
I took detailed notes during our new meeting and I was ready to jump right into my rewrite of the treatment—simple right? We had the same Act 1, same Act 3, but different Act 2. Not so simple. They wanted to lose a few characters and merge others into one and I also needed to research the tone and feel of a particular TV show they liked, so I decided to binge view the entire first season in two days. I also watched a feature on DVD for research and came away knowing less than I did before hunkering down for two days watching DVDs. I was searching for the answers and I was not seeing the new changes clearly. I started to feel like Barton Fink as he watches the wallpaper peeling while his creative life is literally going up in flames.
Terrified? Sure, because I went back to the creative well and I was coming up empty. I became blocked and could not figure out the new Act 2 and the through line. To my credit, I did not procrastinate as writers do because I knew the only way though this mess was to focus all of my waking day on trying to fix the story. My job was to strip out a lot of the action and simplify the story. So many times in a script you’ll find simple is the better choice and a little does go a long way. After a many texts and a call with the producer, I felt even more pressured as now the clock was ticking for me to turn in the changes. It was nearing a week since our meeting and I didn’t want it to spill over into a second week, but what was I going do?
I pulled out my giant cork board and pinned up the major plot points on 3×5 cards. I put it up on the board so I could have a bigger perspective. Maybe seeing the beats fleshed out again in front of me would help me to “see” the new direction the producer wanted. I went back to the basics – what did my protagonist and antagonist want in the story? And how was I going to make sure they didn’t get it? I stripped the story to its basic structure and completely focused on the character’s motivations and through lines. Magically the characters lead the way through Act 2 as I placed my trust in them and kept pushing forward and asking, “What would they do next?”
This horror show went on for six days. On the seventh day I did not rest, but found myself staring at my laptop in the afternoon. Suddenly, as if I figured out the secret combination, Act 2 sprang to life and I spent the next five hours rewriting the treatment using my week’s worth of notes as a guide. It felt like I was following my characters through the story and it was my job to document their actions as fast as I could type. Seven days of mental work was going into five hours of actual writing. It was a tremendous creative high to finally have this type of major breakthrough. It proved to me again that if I follow my disciplines they will never fail me.
Unfortunately, the project fell apart. Yes, after all of the work on the story treatment and meetings, the producers decided to go a completely different direction and walked away from the whole deal. It was sad because we were so close and I had spent so much time on the treatment with the hopes to be given a green light to start the script. Alas, it was not meant to be. The longer you’re in the screenwriting game you will learn this hard reality: “Not everything your write—or get paid to write—will get produced. You lose some and you win some, but the most important thing is how you stay in the game and survive to write another day.”
But, I learned a valuable lesson that no breakthrough would have been possible if I avoided the work when it became difficult and procrastinated instead. The worst feeling ever is to go back to the well and nothing immediately turns up. Some call it “writer’s block.” I call it sheer terror. When this happens you need to relax and continue to work at your process. I know this too well from experience, but it still proves true every time – the only way to solve specific problems is to sit down and focus on the work. Never give up until you can “see” the new movie and you will solve your story issues. Writing crap is easy, but you’ll quickly find writing well is difficult. If you avoid writing every time the work gets difficult, you’ll never finish anything. Face the difficulties head on and break on through to the other side. Get the work done with no excuses.
Here’s what to do next time you’re UP AGAINST THE WALL.
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“Of the total creative effort represented in a finished work, 75 percent or more of a writer’s labor goes into designing the story… designing story tests the maturity and insight of the writer, his knowledge of society, nature, and the human heart. Story demands both vivid imagination and powerful analytic thought.”—Robert McKee, “Story”
“Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”—Stephen King,”On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”
“Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.”—Ray Bradbury
Lather, rinse, repeat…