Thursday, May 17, 2012

Desperate screenwriters, and other tales of writer's block

Oh, how I relished ABC’s recently concluded Desperate Housewives, a series stuffed with so many hooks and quippy one-liners that it would put a fisherman’s tackle box to shame.

I was full of admiration for the screenwriters, who managed to create story arcs for the ladies of Wisteria Lane that blended the sympathetic and the sinister and tapped into the dark side of suburbia without becoming dark. Quite a feat.

So when I came across Tanner Stransky’s excellent  roundup of the highs and lows of the series in Entertainment Weekly, (#1200, March 30, 2012) I was fascinated to read about the “back end” of the series – the feet paddling furiously under the surface to keep the storyline moving smoothly forward:

“As the show burned through stories, plotlines became more outlandish, as evidenced by the annual ‘disaster episode,’ in which the ladies' hometown of Fairview was struck by a tornado, fire, plane crash, and riot, consecutively,” Stransky writes, going on to quote coexec producer Bob Daily: “A great part of our day in the writers' room is spent saying, ‘We've done that...’ We did, toward the end, start to think, ‘Are there any natural disasters left?’ We're not in the right climate for volcanoes and floods.”

Writer's block happens – even to the cleverest  writers.

It also happens to people who aren’t writers.

In the April 2012 issue of Vanity Fair, Sam Kashner interviews Julia Roberts and Mike Nichols:

“VANITY FAIR: I always wondered if actors feel the way writers sometimes feel when they haven’t written in a while—this fear of shutting down. What they call writer’s block, for lack of a better word.
JULIA: I think all creative people feel that way.
MIKE: Yes.
JULIA: I’ve certainly felt that way. Every first day of any job, you’re getting ready and you think, I hope it’s in there. I hope it comes out when it’s supposed to. You have to feel that way; you have to be nervous.
MIKE: It’s not something you can count on, by definition. I do think people go through cycles. The people I’ve admired most have gone through cycles, lost themselves briefly, usually in the middle, and then they’d found a way to keep generating it. I think it’s like Dante’s Inferno—you do find yourself in a dark wood one way or another. And then you get stronger after that. It’s such a fleeting and mysterious thing.”

But what can be done about writer's block when it strikes? On March 19, NPR's Robert Siegel spoke with author Jonah Lehrer about his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. In the NPR segment, Lehrer says that when you encounter an obstacle, you should step away from your work:

“What you should do then — when you hit the wall — is get away from your desk. Step away from the office. Take a long walk. Daydream. Find some way to relax. Get those alpha waves. Alpha waves are a signal in the brain that's closely correlated with states of relaxation. And what scientists have found is that when people are relaxed, they're much more likely to have those big 'A ha!' moments, those moments of insight where these seemingly impossible problems get solved. So when you hit the wall, the best thing you can do is probably take a very long, warm shower. The answer will only arrive once you stop looking for it."

During a May 8 talk at the National Geographic Society, travel writer Joyce Maynard revealed that she also believes in stepping away.

“I’m such an active person,” she said. “ If I’m sitting at my desk and it’s not going well, I get up and take a hike, swim, scrub my floor. And I consider that writing.”

While she is engaged in these other activities, Maynard said, her mind is still at work, mulling over the story she is writing in a process that is “just as important as typing time.”

Based on this collective wisdom, there are two key points to take to heart when you are struggling unsuccessfully to solve a creative problem.

First, remember that you are not alone, as even the most talented people experience this occasionally.

Second, do not sit staring blankly at your keyboard. Step away. Do something else. And maybe when you come back, the desperation will be gone, and in its place will be the hooks, plot twists and quippy one-liners that have been eluding you.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The weight of words

Words can be heavy. Choosing them carefully can be difficult. So much thinking, so much typing, so much chewing of the pen. But words can also be light and fun. Crosswords, Scrabble, Boggle for the game lovers. Words that rhyme or just make you giggle. I've been playing with word clouds this evening, pasting different texts into TagCrowd. Here's a word cloud of the posts from this blog:

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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Joyce Maynard: On diving in and sometimes failing

Travel writer Joyce Maynard had many stories to share during a May 8 talk at the National Geographic Society – and a few cautionary tales.

In a wide-ranging discussion moderated by fellow travel writer Don George, Maynard spoke of her most memorable journeys, her love of water – she now owns a home on the shores of Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan, the deepest in Central America – and her joys and missteps as a parent.

Chief among these was her story, told publicly for the first time, of her failed adoption of two Ethiopian orphans, and of her decision to take them on a disastrous road trip around Ethiopia before returning with them to the United States.

These decisions were “foolish and na├»ve, but my impulses were honest and well intentioned,” she said, noting that this nuanced story,  neither simple nor quick to tell, served to illustrate “how easily, especially in the culture we live in now, failure of understanding of the depth of a story can occur.”

Speaking out forthrightly about painful and personal matters such as this is part of Maynard’s appeal as a writer. Her “deep and abiding belief in telling the truth” springs in part from her own experience as the daughter of an alcoholic father – “a brilliant and extraordinary man who got drunk every night, and we never spoke about it.”

“I know what it would have meant to me to have some girl out there write about a father who got drunk,” she said. “As long as people don’t tell the kind of story that I sadly have to tell, there will be more.”

Maynard, now 58, also has been criticized for speaking out about her relationship as a young woman with reclusive author J.D. Salinger, now deceased. She described Salinger as “a bitter person” who she claims wrote “hundreds and hundreds of letters to teenage girls.”

Not all the evening’s stories were bad ones, of course.  Maynard spoke of the importance of traveling with children, and described her three natural children as her “biggest adventure.”

Without travel, “you think that life in your particular culture is the way it is,” she said. Afterwards, you realize it is just one way of living. “As soon as you have entered a culture and sat down and broken bread with them, you experience their lives on a whole different level. … I haven’t traveled to a place where I haven’t made a friend.”

But that is not to say that you ever truly belong there.

While living in Guatemala, Maynard said she had finally accepted that “I will always be a foreigner there,” and had come to terms with her status as an outsider.

That can be a good thing, she said, as writing about a place requires that you “recognize with humility that you don’t know it.” At the same time, “when you distance yourself from the familiar place, you see the familiar place better.”

Asked about traveling to dangerous places, Maynard said she was “just about never afraid,” as her most dangerous life experiences had occurred in her home state of New Hampshire.

“There’s danger everywhere,” she said.  “And the biggest danger is going through your life and not experiencing it.”