April 1, 2011 12:46 PM   Subscribe

A cure for blocked screenwriters "Michels also told the writer to get an egg timer. Following Michels’s instructions, every day he set it for one minute, knelt in front of his computer in a posture of prayer, and begged the universe to help him write the worst sentence ever written. When the timer dinged, he would start typing. He told Michels that the exercise was stupid, pointless, and embarrassing, and it didn’t work. Michels told him to keep doing it."
posted by puny human (43 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
This was a great article and I loved the part about Final Draft driving this guy insane. That program's terrible!
posted by Victorvacendak at 1:01 PM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Six weeks later, he had a hundred-and-sixty-five-page script. Six months after that, the script was shot, and when the movie came out the writer won an Academy Award.

Hmmm. 166 pages is a bit long for a pro screenplay, given the traditional 1 page = 1 minute of screentime rule. Only a few movies approaching 166 minutes have taken home screenwriting Oscars in the last fifteen years, which leads me to think that our mystery screenwriter is either Stephen Gaghan (Traffic), Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), or William Monahan (The Departed).
posted by Iridic at 1:10 PM on April 1, 2011 [7 favorites]

It would have had to have been written by someone on contract, too, so not a spec script.
posted by empath at 1:15 PM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I dunno, this sounds like some bog standard creative writing excercises plus swearing plus pandering to egos plus some waffle about Jung... actually since this is Hollywood we are talking about I bet it makes him a ton of money.
posted by Artw at 1:17 PM on April 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

For some reason The New Yorker has started running at least one article on psychoanalysis every week.
posted by eugenen at 1:20 PM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

The wife and I have been doing little things that will result in a minor pain in the ass give us what we really want and jokingly calling it "antagonistic magic" every since we were house shopping and couldn't find anything we liked. I bought a table saw, got it all set up and three months later I was carrying it up a flight of stairs.

It never occurred to me to cut out the middleman and just lie right to the universe's face. Or link my little joke to a school of psychoanalysis and charge $400 an hour for my services.

Hmmm. Is it still illegal to own a ferret in California?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:31 PM on April 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

Waffles are a key facet of the collective unconscious.
posted by Babblesort at 1:33 PM on April 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

Aaron Sorkin's script for The Social Network is 163 pages long (though from other hints in the article, the screenwriter can't be Sorkin).

But while the general rule of thumb *is* that 1 page = 1 minute, the actual ratio can vary greatly. If there's a lot of dialogue and less description, it will likely take longer. If the dialogue is deliver uniquely fast (a la Aaron Sorkin's dialogue), it may tale shorter -- for example, The Social Network film is actually only 120 minutes long.
posted by lewedswiver at 1:41 PM on April 1, 2011

For some reason The New Yorker has started running at least one article on psychoanalysis every week.

I see - and how does that make you feel?
posted by benito.strauss at 1:43 PM on April 1, 2011 [17 favorites]

“What about your dog?” Michels asked. “O.K. I’m grateful for my dog,” the writer said after a while. “The sun?” “Fine, the sun,” the writer said. “I’m grateful for sun. Sometimes."

Is this the lost draft of a segment from "Scenes from a Mall" or something?
posted by blucevalo at 1:45 PM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

eugenen: "For some reason The New Yorker has started running at least one article on psychoanalysis every week."

That MEANS something.
posted by Splunge at 1:49 PM on April 1, 2011

Six weeks later, he had a hundred-and-sixty-five-page script. Six months after that, the script was shot, and when the movie came out the writer won an Academy Award.

Reader, I married him.

Also, anything that gets your butt in the chair writing anything is apt to produce better results than you get by writing nothing. It's crazy!
posted by Zed at 1:50 PM on April 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

Six weeks later, he had a hundred-and-sixty-five-page script. Six months after that, the script was shot, and when the movie came out the writer won an Academy Award.

And that young man...

Was Philip Michael Roger Eric Anderson-Schmidt.

And now you know...the rest...of the story.

Paul Harvey.

Good day!
posted by AzraelBrown at 1:58 PM on April 1, 2011 [10 favorites]

Then there is read someone you think is CRAPPY, and get that 'I could do it better feeling!' For me Meave Binchy and Danielle Steele do the trick. Both tend to start off strong, start falling off in the middle and then finish poorly. Hell I know I can do it better. Andrew Greeley should not write any scenes to do with sex. I love Colleen McCoullough when she writes about ancient Rome. She is about as perfect as it gets there but her modern stuff is quite awful.

Think of how you could do it better, and go for it.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 2:01 PM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

These guys and their writers block... I dunno. All that money and they can't get off the dime. I have never had writers block. (Never sold a screenplay, either, though I've written a couple.) Plop me down and say to me, "Finish this screenplay, kid, and you will have the payday of your life," and I will have that puppy done in two weeks or less. I lack empathy for these Hollywood writers. Really, they don't know how lucky they are.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 2:08 PM on April 1, 2011

And then there's Write or Die.
posted by NorthernLite at 2:16 PM on April 1, 2011

Guy_Inamonkeysuit, Michels's clients are no longer waiting for that big break. They've already had it, and now they've got to produce, and keep producing. Writing is still a creative endeavor, but it's also their full-time everyday job. And it still sucks, even if you have an Oscar on the mantelpiece, when someone craps on your work, or takes you for granted.

I think these writers do know how lucky they are, in a sense, but the rush of that first big break, that feeling of walking on clouds that you or I would get if we sold a screenplay, has long departed and now they're facing the day-to-day tribulations of actually being in the movie business.
posted by Mister_A at 2:17 PM on April 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

Knowing how lucky you are is a wonderful way to completely seize up in complete brain-locking terror that you are going to FUCK UP YOUR BIG CHANCE AND DIE. IN. A. GUTTER.
posted by The Whelk at 2:31 PM on April 1, 2011 [10 favorites]

Monsters from the id...
posted by Artw at 2:33 PM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I liked Steve Martin's advice about writer's block.
posted by PlusDistance at 2:50 PM on April 1, 2011

Guy_Inamonkeysuit: He jests at scars who never felt a wound. As far as I can tell, "writer's block" is just another name for burnout, and burnout isn't just complaining about nothing. Or, well, maybe it is in some cases, but genuine burnout is very real, and it's one of the most painful things I've ever experienced. It's like being paralyzed. We tend to take our mental abilities for granted. You get used to being able to make your brain do certain things, move along certain lines. But then you find that it just isn't responding any more. There's one way it's not like physical paralysis, though: if you stop being able to move your arm, it's obvious that you need medical help, whereas when you stop being able to move your brain, you tend to think that all you need to do is try harder, which only leads to frustration and anxiety. If you've never been through this, well, you don't know how lucky you are.
posted by baf at 2:50 PM on April 1, 2011 [10 favorites]

Not to mention baf, that it happens even to the great ones.

"From 1964 until his death in 1996, Mitchell would go to work at his office on a daily basis, but he never published anything significant again. In a remembrance of Mitchell printed in the June 10, 1996, issue of The New Yorker, his colleague Roger Angell wrote: "Each morning, he stepped out of the elevator with a preoccupied air, nodded wordlessly if you were just coming down the hall, and closed himself in his office. He emerged at lunchtime, always wearing his natty brown fedora (in summer, a straw one) and a tan raincoat; an hour and a half later, he reversed the process, again closing the door. Not much typing was heard from within, and people who called on Joe reported that his desktop was empty of everything but paper and pencils. When the end of the day came, he went home. Sometimes, in the evening elevator, I heard him emit a small sigh, but he never complained, never explained."
posted by puny human at 3:17 PM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Do we get a bit of string to put around our wrists now?
posted by Artw at 3:31 PM on April 1, 2011

Whenever I get writer's block, I think of my mortgage. And then the writer's block goes away.
posted by jscalzi at 3:37 PM on April 1, 2011 [8 favorites]

And not just writer's block, but stage fright as well. Ian Holm had been acting since the 50s and reported never having the slightest anxiety about it but during the play 'The Iceman Cometh' in the 70s he had a severe bout of stage fright that forced him to leave the stage in the middle of the play.

He downplays it in this interview, but I once heard him describe the experience on the radio and he thought he would never act again.

"The role was Hickey in The Iceman Cometh. It's a difficult role. But oddly enough it was something I was really looking forward to tackling. I got into my first preview, which I just managed to get through. Then in the second preview, on the following night, I just walked off the stage and into the dressing room and said, "I'm not going back. I cannot go back." And they had to put the understudy on. My doctor said, "The Iceman goeth." Something just snapped. Once the concentration goes, the brain literally closes down. It's like a series of doors slamming shut in a jail. Actors dry up all the time. Well I wasn't just drying; I was stopping. My fellow actors were looking at me in amazement because I just literally stopped.
But it was righted by medication. It didn't take that long. I guess I could have gone back probably a lot sooner than I did, but fortuitously I was gainfully employed in the other two media. I started movies seriously and television, where, as we all know, if you make a mistake you can do it again. "
posted by puny human at 3:56 PM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

We want to believe that writing is hard so we have an excuse when we don't do it.
posted by Ian A.T. at 4:08 PM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's amazing how much writers block I can get over by going toa quiet place and disconnecting the internet.
posted by Artw at 4:22 PM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Monsters from the id..."

That's actually more Freud than Jung, but +1 for the Forbidden Planet reference.
posted by puny human at 4:29 PM on April 1, 2011

I suspect the writers block demons may be from the ego or the superego or somesuch anyway... I dunno. Freud's stuff is a bit silly and made up, TBH.
posted by Artw at 4:55 PM on April 1, 2011

Sounds as if the real cure is embarrassment at having paid $300/hr. for writer's block therapy; after paying that much, you damn well better be unblocked.
posted by bad grammar at 5:15 PM on April 1, 2011

Whenever I get writer's block, I think of my mortgage. And then the writer's block goes away.

You don;t deliberately ruin said house and make it and the relationship within itworthless and then skip town with agents still bugging you while all the while you've got this whole SEPARATE life as a bartender in queens which you keep so you can have a place where you don't tink about how much of a fake and failure you are and then just vanish for about 3 months before mailing off another manuscript cause if you didn't your very nice friends were seriously going to kick you out and your mum isn't returning your calls anymore and it all ends up being for a complete BOMB of a novel that gets you into dying your hair red and doing a bunch of questionable things you regret waiting for test results 6 months after a week before another publisher says they want you to do it AGAIN?

People are different man
posted by The Whelk at 5:43 PM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

I hope the local is looking for barbacks cause....yeah I don't like the shape of this outline.
posted by The Whelk at 5:49 PM on April 1, 2011

Aaron Sorkin's script for The Social Network is 163 pages long (though from other hints in the article, the screenwriter can't be Sorkin).

In one interview I heard, Sorkin remarked on this. The studio brought up the length to Fincher. Fincher went to Sorkin and sat him down and told him to read the script aloud exactly at the pace he imagined it. Fincher timed him to an hour and 59 minutes and wrote on the script exactly how long each scene was. Fincher told the studio the film would be under 2 hours. While filming, Fincher would say things to the actors like, "the performances were good but this scene is supposed to be six minutes thirty five, not seven minutes" and then run another take.

The film is an hour and 59 minutes.
posted by dobbs at 6:25 PM on April 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

I saw this article a week or so ago, I sent it to my friend and occasional writing coach. She said she didn't have time to read it, she was overbooked with clients this week. Then she asked me to give her a lift to the airport and she flew out of town.

Yeah, this was my turf, helping dysfunctional Hollywood screenwriters to become just functional enough to do their work. They thought their bad habits would be eliminated along with their IBM Selectric and white out. But this gave them an infinite source of new dysfunctional habits.

Many of my writers with the new word processors were truly blocked, writing one or two sentences a day and then erasing them. So my favorite remedy was an office call for training. My pretext was to get them to understand the formatting better. I was there to pull a small stunt. I would enter the office and go right to their chair in front of the computer, before they could get there. I'd immediately start messing with the software, saying nothing. Then once I got that reset and in working condition, I'd start talking with the writer. And as we talk, I am rapidly typing everything into the computer in perfect screenplay format, including stage directions. As I got to sufficiently complex formatting I wanted to demonstrate, sometimes the writers would see what I was tying and you'd get into recursive loops like

KATHRYN gets a stern look in her eyes as she reads the computer screen

Hey! You're writing down
everything I say!

CHARLIE starts typing "Hey! You're writing down everything I say!"

Now you just wrote that
I said you're writing down
everything I say

Now this may seem frivolous, but it really did help the writers with their blocks. Just seeing me blasting out a couple of pages of script in one minute, reminded them that it doesn't have to be that agonizing, odious task of organizing written text at a rate of one sentence a day.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:43 PM on April 1, 2011

Thanks Charlie. That is quite possibly the dumbest comment I have ever read in all my years on metafilter. This is the only appropriate response that I can come up with.
posted by puny human at 8:11 PM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know what your problem is, puny human. That was a "script moment" I vividly remember from a real training session. That "Kathryn" is not a hypothetical person, she was my client. In the many years since I helped her, she has gotten much better at her job. She just won an Academy Award for Best Director.

Scriptwriters are a combination of big ego and big insecurities. I go to their office, take over their "throne" and sit in their chair in front of their computer without even asking. This puts them off balance, someone is taking over their position, in their own home or office. Then I start mindlessly bashing out pages of perfectly formatted script. I used to type out a couple of pages of the script of "A Doll's House" that was published in the Scriptor manual. But that didn't have enough impact, I would obviously be making an effort to recall it, aligning myself with the mental blocks of the writer, and I was there to cure that problem.

So I would bash out script of the words we say to each other. It blows their minds. Here I am, effortlessly pounding out script pages without thinking about it, something they cannot do at all, some of them have been sitting there in that chair for a week and have not written a single word. So then the writer starts thinking, of course. And I keep pounding on the keyboard. The writer sees himself on two levels, the person speaking to me, and the person being represented in abstraction, as words on a screenplay page. This also splits their consciousness, the writer is able to evaluate his words as spoken screenplay dialog, aside from whatever impact they had when they were spoken in actual human dialog. That puts them in just the psychological state I need to tear down their mental blocks.

The writer starts to question himself (as he should) and he realizes he is obviously thinking too hard about writing, if I can do it right in front of him without thinking at all. It must appear to the writer like they are like Lance Armstrong, struggling to ride up the side of a mountain, and then a little kid on a 3 speed bike passes him at high velocity. If I break them down enough, I can then jump in and help them re-establish a better approach to their writing.

Some of this writing neurosis comes from the strict screenplay format (and writers in that New Yorker article complained about how this drove them crazy). I helped writers solve those problems by conventional training, so at least they didn't struggle with it so much. But once they had that under control, the usual writer's blocks took over. Writers have a tendency to do neurotic diversionary activities that take their mind off their work, I call them "goal displacements." It's like the olden days when writers used pencils, and some neurotic writers had to sharpen ALL their pencils just to start writing with one. I could help them set up their writing software to reduce those distractions. But the main problems are what techies call PEBCAK (Problem Exists Between Chair And Keyboard). I often quote William Zinsser, "A writer is inexorably alone with himself." A writer sits in his chair, in the center of his own universe, and all his problems are HIS problems. His nose itches, he is distracted and scratches it, and then the thought in his head has evaporated before he wrote it down. Most writers block comes from this problem, the writer is not "in poise" at his job, he isn't balanced and his thoughts fly back and forth, unable to focus on the writing task. Unless writers can be balanced enough when they are alone with their themselves and their work, they can't function. Some people have zero latitude, if their pencils aren't all sharpened perfectly etc. then they can't write at all (even if they're using their word processor and not pencils). I can sometimes help them expand their latitude so the little distractions (particularly computer & software distractions) don't get in the way so much.

Well this was all 80s writing psychology, I had no professional training, I just happened to become good from dealing with dozens of neurotic screenwriter customers, and was referred and recommended by top writers.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:38 AM on April 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Honestly I write much better with another person. It's the single best weapon I have to keep me from entering a spiral of woe. Shit actually gets done if I have a co-writer.

Unless there's a kitty in the room.
posted by The Whelk at 8:43 AM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

All creative writing is weird juju. There is no particular way to do it right. Every writer must come to define his/her own unique method. This makes it an art. What bugs me big time about much of the Screenwriting Biz is how there's an always an expert who's willing to suggest it's a science, an engineering feat that can be accomplished via specific processes and disciplines (just buy my book or my software program).

Which isn't to say there isn't process and discipline required in pretty much all creative writing (screenplay in particular); just that it's secondary to the juju. One day I'll write my book, which will definitely demand ready supplies of quality coffee and marijuana, and include such exercises as partying with your characters to get to know them better (ie: staying home and drinking by yourself, and taking notes that make no fucking sense the next morning).

Did I mention that writing can be fun?
posted by philip-random at 10:28 AM on April 2, 2011

Did I mention that writing can be fun?

AHAHAHAHAHA tell me another one!
posted by The Whelk at 10:32 AM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, I thought it was a great article, and I don't care how long the script was. I'm a writer and have been doing Jungian exercises and they help. I read somewhere that Jung is making a comeback, as Freud deals with young people stuff (sex, love, parents, etc.) and Jung deals with middle aged people stuff (the shadow self, authenticity, burnout). The aging boomers are at it once again?

I have had fear of public speaking forever and writer's block as well. Thanks to the Jungian exercises in Joyce Ashley's book, Overcoming Stage fright in Everyday Life, I have made real progress. Sometimes I even enjoy it. I'm redoing the exercises again because my schedule is so crazy and so I'm not writing much, but this article gives me hope.
posted by PJSibling at 11:48 AM on April 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't understand writers who don't think the process is, at least more often than not, fun. I mean, it might make me a masochist (might?) but if I didn't enjoy the process, there would be something seriously wrong. Now I'm not always in the mood to write. Sometimes I procrastinate. But when I'm sitting down in front of the keyboard writing, I love doing it. Even when I know there's a lot of work ahead of me, I don't hate the writing.

Sometimes I like a collaborator to keep me motivated, but not a co-writer - I'm too much of a control freak for that. I want an actor who wants a part on my back to keep writing. I want a director who likes the idea asking me regularly how it's going - maybe to the point of keeping the idea on track as I'm developing it. And for prose, I might give part of a story to a friend, leaving it on a cliffhanger so they beg for more.

So I'm not always focused on the craft, but I do love writing. And I don't understand these writers who get so pained by the process.
posted by crossoverman at 11:50 PM on April 2, 2011

crossoverman, I agree, writing is fun. But if you procrastinate, it's fun only when you get going. The two therapists in the article might say here that having an actor or director on your back is exactly that authority figure, father figure, that forces someone to do write when they are not in the flow.
posted by PJSibling at 8:42 AM on April 3, 2011

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