To grow and develop as a writer you need to face challenges and problems that are new. This means plunging into projects that you do not have a clear road map for, and somehow trusting that you will find your way to a successful completion. This can be difficult to do, or even agonizing, as a blocked Nicholas Cage discovers in the movie “Adaptation.”
Cage plays an uber-neurotic Charlie Kaufman (the real-life screenwriter for this movie) who has taken on a project he doesn’t know how to do. He has monumental inner struggles trying to figure out how to write a screenplay adaptation of a non-fiction book about an eccentric scientist who harvests protected orchids from the everglades.
A writer confronting the unknown is fertile soil for orchid blocks to sprout and flourish in. When the right answer or a clear direction is not apparent, fears and doubts readily arise. The voice-over for Nicholas Cage’s confusion, desperation, self-loathing, and fear of failure as he struggles to write this screenplay is one of the best, and funniest, cinematic depictions of a blocked writer’s tortured thought process that I’ve ever encountered.
The hopeful miracle in the movie is that the protagonist eventually finds the answers to his literary conundrums in ways he never could have anticipated or planned. He just keeps trying different angles and groping in the dark until something unexpectedly clicks into place. The process of struggling with writing can itself be the best path for clarifying and discovering what it is you want to say. Sometimes you can’t figure it all out ahead of time and there is no other way but to wade into the confusion, continue to write, and see what emerges.
The good news is that you don’t have to know all the answers when you are learning to write something new. Whether you’re embarking on a dissertation, book, article, or screenplay for the first time, if you keep at it, something will emerge, and it may be quite different from what you originally expected.
This approach requires developing the ability to tolerate those times when you are lost and searching without panicking or pulling the plug, even when your inner voices are self-critical and discouraging. And as Cage finds out through the course of his travails, when things seem hopeless, it helps to find people who can offer support or advice that encourage you to open your eyes, or to just keep going.
Taking on new projects and challenges as a writer may require a lot of inner and outer work. Orchids sometimes take a long time to bloom. But writing would probably be much less interesting if you never had to adapt, and always knew what the final flower will look like.