Overcoming Writing Blocks for Scriptwriters

7/21/2018: Workshop: 

Overcoming Writing Blocks and Procrastination for Scriptwriters

I will be speaking from 1:00 – 3:00 pm at the Scriptwriter’s Network in Los Angeles., on Saturday, July 21.  More information about registration for the talk is available at: https://scriptwritersnetwork.com/events/overcoming-writing-blocks-and-procrastination-2/

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Online Class on Overcoming Writing Blocks and Procrastination

Beginning June 25th, I will be teaching a five-week course through Stanford University’s Continuing Education Program. This will be an online class for writers who wish to improve their ability to initiate and sustain an ongoing practice of writing. Class enrollment will be limited. For information about the course and how to register, see:

EGL 96 W — Overcoming Writing Blocks and Procrastination 

https://continuingstudies.stanford.edu/registration-policies/how-to-register

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The Procrastination Wheel of Suffering: Part Six – Writing Binge, Disappointment, Rationalizing

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Binge; Disappointment; Rationalizing

At this point on the Wheel of Suffering, a last-minute, deadline driven frenzy of writing erupts. With or without the use of stimulants of various sorts, long binges of work ensue in an adrenalized state of hyperactivity. Everything else in life is sidelined and forgotten as the monomaniacal focus on writing takes center stage.

You might feel both dread and thrill in trying to beat the clock and perhaps a perverse sense of satisfaction that you were able to procrastinate for so long and yet will still be able to complete the project.

Generally, if you finish in this way, you know you could have done a better job if you had not been forced to write in a manic binge. There may be a sense of disappointment in either the final product, yourself, or both. After this disappointment comes the ego soothing mental exercise where you tell yourself that you really are more capable than the writing shows, and that you could have done better if you had had sufficient time. You might also come up with other rationalizations that explain why things turned out the way they did.

“I’ll Do Better Next Time!”

This is the juncture where, after the work is completed, you make a promise to yourself to change how you approach your writing. You know it would be better to not procrastinate and mentally, you reaffirm your commitment to this goal.

The problem is that you leave out the implementation of a clear and defined plan to accomplish these non-trivial changes in your behavior. Somehow you feel it is enough to simply tell yourself that it will be different next time. But it isn’t.

You start another journey around the wheel.

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The Procrastination Wheel of Suffering: Part Five – Anxiety, Deadlines and Binge Writing

IMG_0039Still spinning on the wheel…

 Overwhelm; Deadline; Anxiety Threshold

As the final deadline for completing your project becomes imminent, reality breaks through and you become motivated by dread and fear of failure. As this fear of failure becomes more powerful than the fear of facing your writing, you are propelled into desperate action.

You imagine the awful consequences of not completing your work on time, and are genuinely baffled about how you could have put yourself in this predicament again. You had promised yourself you would not wait until the last minute to begin, but you did.

Now, however, there is no time for wallowing in self-pity, daydreaming, or lecturing yourself. Somehow you have to do it, and even though the challenge seems monumental, you force yourself to face the task.

Binge; Disappointment; Rationalizing

At this point on the Wheel of Suffering, a last-minute, deadline driven frenzy of writing erupts. With or without the use of stimulants of various sorts, long binges of work ensue in an adrenalized state of hyperactivity.

Everything else in life is sidelined and forgotten as the monomaniacal focus on writing takes center stage. You might feel both dread and thrill in trying to beat the clock, and perhaps a perverse sense of satisfaction that you were able to procrastinate for so long and yet will still be able to complete the project.

Generally, if you finish in this way, you know you could have done a better job if you had not been forced to write in a manic binge. There may be a sense of disappointment in either the final product, yourself, or both. After this disappointment comes the ego- soothing mental exercise where you tell yourself that you really are more capable than the writing shows, and that you could have done better if you had had sufficient time.

(to be continued)

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The Procrastination Wheel of Suffering: Part Four – Avoidance, Worry, Lying, Self-Criticism

• Avoidance; Worry

As you travel around the Wheel of Suffering, your level of concern escalates, as does your motivation to avoid. Worry is a good thing on one hand because it elevates your awareness of what you need to do, but it is also uncomfortable, so it also amplifies the impulse to avoid writing. You may witness yourself engaging in self-sabotaging avoidance behavior, yet be unable to stop procrastinating. The level of distress associated with your project dips temporarily each time you avoid writing, but your internal payload of discomfort continues to grow and weigh on you more and more. There seems to be no way out except to worry more and avoid more.

• Lying; Self-Criticism

Now that a good bit of time has passed with not enough to show for it, shame and self-loathing worm their way into your psyche. If you are asked about your writing, it feels too embarrassing to tell the truth, so you hedge a bit, or maybe a lot.  You may also delude yourself that the situation is different than it really is. At this point you feel badly about both your inability to write and the fact that you are deceiving others. More bad feelings now become associated with writing, making it just that much more onerous to sit down and face the monster. In addition, you are now carrying the fear that some of the people you lied to will find out the truth, resulting in the possibility of painful relationship ramifications. You wonder how you will ever get out of your predicament, and your stress level rises. You feel out of control.

(to be continued)

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The Procrastination Wheel of Suffering: Part Three – Internal Pep Talks and Daydreaming

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 Missed Goals: Pep Talks

Now that the pattern of postponing has been established and your inner turmoil is activated, you attempt to establish goals for productivity to bring yourself to the task. As in the first stage of the Wheel of Suffering, you are still in denial about the seriousness of the problem. You attempt to address the powerful forces of procrastination by generating some inner deadlines, writing them on your calendar, and giving yourself pep talks about why you should get going. The humbling reality is that these attempts to resolve the problem are ineffective, and you cannot make yourself sit down at your desk and type on the keyboard by simply telling yourself that you should.

• Daydreaming

Daydreaming is truly a tricky problem. When you daydream you disconnect from awareness of your immediate life in this world and slip into a realm where your mind drifts along on other currents. In the morning you might give yourself the goal of writing five pages before breakfast but somehow, three hours later, you find yourself in the grocery store buying chocolate chip cookies and renting a DVD. Your mind is not your own. The process of disconnecting and getting lost in the labyrinths of the mind is subtle and quick. You are usually unaware that it is happening.

If this is one of your challenges, it is useful to have external structures and Continue reading

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Spinning on the Procrastination Wheel: Part 2 – Fear of Failure, Anxiety, Resentment

IMG_0039Fear of Failure; Anxiety

As time passes you feel the need to get going and at this point you might experience tendrils of fear working their way into your consciousness. It begins to dawn that the task facing you may be more difficult than you previously admitted to yourself. As you imagine beginning to write, anxiety starts to percolate. Self-doubts about your competence arise, memories of previous failures surface, and a sense of dread engulfs you. One of the problems with anxiety is that it interferes with concentration and short-term memory, both of which are essential to writing. As a result, attempts to write at this point might be false starts, reinforcing your fear that you will not succeed. It feels better to distract and calm yourself by popping open a beer or checking your Facebook page. The Wheel of Suffering gains momentum.

Resentment

As discomfort and stress register more clearly in your mind and body, you feel trapped. You wonder how you ever got yourself into such a hell. You want to strike out and slug someone, but there really is no one to blame. Your resentment might make you rebel against writing, rip up drafts, bristle at friends and family, mentally flagellate yourself, and kick your dog. Sometimes this resentment takes the rebellious form of “No one tells me what to do; not even myself!”

Resentment and fear are close relatives, and it’s important to approach working with emotions so they have less effect on productivity. One key is building the skill of continuing to write even when these feelings emerge. When you are emotionally worked up, it is easy to tell yourself that writing is too hard, or that you are in the wrong mood for writing. You will benefit from learning how to gently lean into your work even when anger and fear are present. It is helpful to remember that all feelings are temporary and pass with time. Sometimes these emotional energies can be converted to fuel and channeled into the writing in a useful way.

(to be continued)

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Spinning on the Procrastination Wheel: Part 1- Unrealistic goals, delay start.

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Let’s take a spin around the procrastination wheel and examine the issues.

1. Unclear, Unrealistic Goals; Denial of the Problem

Even when there has been a consistent, enduring pattern of work avoidance in the past, it is common for procrastinators to be naively hopeful and optimistic before embarking on a writing project. It is a form of denial about the problem. In your mind it seems that it should be fairly easy to tackle the project, and you dismiss any inner voices warning you about long-standing avoidance patterns. You might say to yourself, “This time I’ll just write every day and stay ahead of the deadlines. No more of that procrastination wheel for me!”

This denial has the consequence of interfering with the need to be thoughtful about managing your behavior.  So you get out of the gate poorly prepared to meet the predictably difficult challenges that lie ahead.

It helps if you can acknowledge that you have a problem. If you accept that your patterns of work avoidance will always recur, then you can realistically put some plans in place for diminishing their impact.

2. Delay Start

Time seems plentiful at the very beginning of a writing project. There seems to be no big problem with letting things slide a bit. “What’s the hurry?” There is usually some physical and emotional comfort connected with this postponing, and it is easy to quiet that tiny voice of truth inside that is encouraging you to get started, because there is seemingly such a large cushion of time. “I’ll get to it soon enough—don’t worry!” This is the top of the slippery slope, and without knowing it, you are setting up the dynamics for the rest of the project, which is the pattern of avoiding writing.

It helps at this point on the wheel to remember the benevolent command, “Write first!” This means that no matter what your inner dialogue is telling you, the best way to proceed is to do the more challenging task (writing) before you do anything else. Even if you work for only five minutes, you will start the project by writing rather than postponing, and this is the right formula for improved productivity. Beginning this way will also make it easier to start work the next day and the day after.

 (to be continued)

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Many a blocked writer languishes on the “Procrastination Wheel of Suffering”

The self-perpetuating dynamics of the procrastination/writing binge cycle

Above is a visual depiction from my book of the process of procrastination. It is a summary of the patterns I frequently see in blocked writers, and based loosely on the Buddhist “Wheel of Samsara,” which depicts the cyclic, self-perpetuating nature of human suffering.

While everyone’s style of procrastination is unique, several common features are included in this wheel. The point of presenting the issue in this way is to highlight how we unwittingly create and maintain behavior that we don’t like, and then feel unhappy and controlled by it.

The more times we go around the wheel, the more we reinforce the pattern. The steps become grooved and automatic, and the wheel eventually spins without our conscious awareness. If this cycle seems familiar to you, you are not alone.

In upcoming posts I will address several different aspects of this cycle and discuss how a writer can stop spinning around on it.

The Buddha is sometimes viewed as kind of a buzz-kill prophet because he declared that all life is suffering, but don’t forget that he also said there was a way to end to the suffering. Same goes for writing blocks.

(to be continued)

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Full-Prefrontal Writing Avoidance

Writers must manage the strain of full-frontal brain pain

Wikipedia describes the functions of the prefontal cortex thusly:

The most typical psychological term for functions carried out by the prefrontal cortex area is executive function. Executive function relates to abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social “control.”

In short; many aspects of the writing process (decision making, delaying gratification, organizing thoughts, working toward a goal) rely on the effective functioning of this small, miraculous lump of tissue. The prefrontal cortex is truly awesome, and it does a lot, but it has it’s limits as well.

If you demand too much of the prefrontal cortex, the circuitry can’t keep up, and a brain fuse may be blown. When you try to think about too many aspects of your writing at the same time (perfect word selection, punctuation, sentence structure, paragraph structure, chapter organization, deadlines, etc) writing might feel excruciating because your brain is straining and can’t keep up. The executive function refuses to function. This is felt subjectively as “overwhelm.”

Overwhelm is a common feature in the blocked writer’s profile. You tend to avoid writing because this uncomfortable feeling is attached to the process. Your prefrontal cortex becomes too full and your brain screams for relief.

A useful approach to consider if this rings true for you is to break down your writing tasks. Resist the urge to solve all problems at the same time. Learn to tolerate the gradual pace of a writing project, and trust that you can fine-tune and polish in successive drafts. No need to do everything at once. Choose a piece of the whole and work on that.

Writing can be a process that brings you your answers as you let yourself engage in it. Let the prefrontal do bits of work at a time, so there is adequate energy and capacity. And when you notice that overwhelm feeling arising, take a deep breath, then pick out one section or problem and just work on that.

Your brain will thank you, and your writing will become more enjoyable.

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