Unstuck March 6th, 2008

People seem to always be complaining that they are stuck in their lives.  I hear a lot about it because of Groundhog Day – one of the ways that people relate to the movie is because they are feeling stuck in repetitive patterns, stuck, unable to change anything. 

As I begin one of the monumental upheavals of my own life, leaving my home of sixteen years to move to a new city, new rhythms and opportunities, new sights and scents and sounds, I wonder whether I have just become unstuck.  If so, perhaps I could offer some insight into how change came about for me.

But no.  The answer is no.  I was not stuck.  Everything was fine.

One of my dad’s dad’s favorite expressions was, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  And look what I just did.  It wasn’t broke, but I fixed it anyway.  What was I thinking?

I was thinking that a person can live many lives, and I’m not done yet. 

The only thing that was keeping me “stuck” in my present Santa Fe life was an enduring feeling of satisfaction.  I was basically in the “happily ever after” portion of things, and could easily have ridden this one into the sunset. 

And yet there is a restlessness in satisfaction.  There is an enduring part of me that is attracted to challenges, but more than that, I have this perspective of multiple lives, that many locations and ways of living and types of people are desirable and worth experiencing over large chunks of a lifetime.   I’m not trying to collect them.  I don’t have a little book of lists, setting out goals I’d like to check off before I die.  Instead, I’m going with the flow.  I open my eyes from time to time to see what opportunities are available.  I open the door to see who pokes his head in.  That’s how I got to Santa Fe in the first place.  That’s how I got to L.A. and the movie business in the first place.  That’s how I got to Chicago in the first place. 

Screenwriting for me is both a practicum in life studies and a reflection of my own way of living.  While writing a screenplay I’m constantly getting stuck and unstuck.  But I’ve never had what is commonly called “writer’s block”.  I’ve developed a fat toolbox of methods for getting unstuck, mostly because staying stuck is not an option.  If I’m not adding pages to the script, the script is not getting written.   When I feel stuck in my life, I find that simply paying attention and being a little creative – and willing to let go of things – I can usually get back in motion.  Just like in screenwriting.

And when one script is done, I start a new one.  It’s completely different from the last one, but usually just as interesting, exciting, and entertaining to me.  The scripts do have some traits in common, perhaps the irreducible aspects of my own values and personality, and these will apply to any life I wind up living as well, no matter where, no matter what.


Comment by J
2008-03-08 13:41:47

I never get writer’s block.

Whenever I can’t write anymore, I just go and watch shitty TV for hours.

A surefire cure.

Comment by A Long
2008-03-09 09:39:44

(I’m not sure this is the place to ask the following questions, but I’m curious enough to ask them anyway.) You mentioned that you are constantly getting stuck and unstuck while writing screenplays. How about in collaborative situations? Do those situations help keep you from getting stuck? Or do they create additional ways (maybe not of your own making) for getting stuck? Have you done much collaborative writing? How would you describe that experience?

Comment by Danny
2008-03-11 10:05:23

Early in my writing life I did a lot of collaboration. At that time what I learned was that I was a lousy collaborator. I was a “no” guy. The other person tended to be full of ideas, and they’d say “How about this? How about that?” and I would hear myself saying, “No. No. Huh uh. Too obvious. Too stupid. Too…” Too not my idea, probably.
I am better now. If fact, last year I worked in collaboration with Vicky Jenson to write a screenplay for Dreamworks Animation. I tell you, it was really fun. It was delightfully not lonely. I worked really hard on saying “Yes and…” instead of “No”, and I think I’ve come a long way as a collaborator.
In terms of stuckiness, I think your intuition is telling you what you already know: having a partner becomes like having another voice within yourself. Sometimes the second voice keeps ideas bouncing and flowing, and sometimes it offers unique opportunities for getting stuck. What if you have an idea that’s gotten you excited and engaged, but your partner is someone like me (the old Danny) who is always knocking you down, negating your enthusiasm? What if your partner is usually positive and helpful, but this week they’re in an emotional funk? Now you’ve got to manage their funk in addition to your own. Alternately, the right person can get you out of a funk that you would have otherwise been stuck with, can give you good, exciting ideas that you didn’t think of, give you encouraging feedback right when you need it.
It’s like marriage, Al.
In comedy writing it is particularly helpful to work with a partner – that spirit of fun, inventive playfulness really gets the comedy vibe going. Also, with a comedy partner you are testing your laugh lines on at least one other person before it hits the page.
I guess that’s sort of like marriage, too.

Comment by E.C. Henry
2008-03-11 18:06:23

Danny, thanks for sharing about writing comedy with a partner. Being an undiscovered screenwriter in Bonney Lake, WA, and totally writing everything on my own I was curious what you had to say about writing comedy with someone v.s. without.

I got “stuck” in a scene I was writing for a new romantic comedy I’m penning, and I panicked. Thought I’d lost the ability to create, but then I went to work at breaktime I started drawing out the scene, and that helped get things percolating again. I think sometimes with all questions that have be answered to creating something authentic and original we writers can get overwhelmed.

Currous to know, do you ever physically draw out the scenes you’re writing?

– E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Comment by Danny
2008-03-12 10:31:03

Drawing doesn’t help me visualize – mostly because I don’t do it very well – so that’s not my own method of choice. But that kind of thing can certainly be helpful, as you’ve probably found. For instance, if you can visualize the details of what’s in a scene – there’s a guy walking a dog, there’s a bakery that smells really good – that can give you ideas of what your characters might be saying or reacting to.
On the other hand, you shouldn’t be directing your movie. The script has to work regardless of whether the shot starts as a close-up or as a sweeping helicopter zoom razzledazzle thing. So draw it any way you see it best, but be careful to keep that vision more generic in your script.

I got a note from a writer recently who gave his/her method for getting unstuck: “I just go watch a few hours of network television. That always cures me.”

Comment by Gregory K.
2008-03-19 21:02:32

Odd as it sounds, I tend to get unstuck by writing ANYTHING else. It’s why I’ve always written poetry. Sometimes it’s even the sense of completion I get from finishing a piece (hey, a good couplet can be a whole poem!). Sometimes it’s the forced concentration on something else that frees me up to look at the old ‘stuck’ issue with fresh eyes. Sometimes, of course, it doesn’t work… but at least I have new writing to show for the effort.

Comment by A Long
2008-04-12 18:25:18

As it happens I’ve just finished reading Ted Kooser’s book The Poetry Home Repair Manual. It is modestly described as being a book for beginning poets, but it is really a book about eloquence. Written with humility and humor, it is a remarkable book. I think it could help someone get unstuck with any kind of writing.

Comment by Danny
2008-03-22 07:57:03

This is a great strategy, GK. I frequently do something similar. I’ve always got more than one project going on at any one time – one primary project and several background ideas I try to kick a little ways down the road whenever I get the opportunity. If I’m jammed up on the thing I’m working on I just start working on one of the other things. Invariably, my mind will soon start solving problems and coming up with new ways of looking at the project I’m NOT working on. I don’t know why,, but it happens all the time. I suppose that when you’re looking at a problem dead on it’s more difficult to see it sideways as well.

You know, these notes from everybody about getting unstuck are probably helpful and useful. Keep ’em coming.

Comment by A Long
2008-03-30 04:30:15

Reading a good book or watching a good movie restores my creative energies. (Or, at least, provides a good excuse to read that book or watch that movie.) Do you draw inspiration from books or films?

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