October, 2020: A friend invites me to take a writing class with him, an L.A. class with an L.A. focus, developing a TV pilot. I was writing a TV pilot, and thought I could use tips on formatting and structure.
Smash cut to:
November, 2020: The teacher is in my head, I’m completely blocked on my pilot, everything sucks, and all I want in life is to go to a packed dive bar to bash my brains into cheap liquor. And basically every decent dive bar is closed due to a global pandemic.
“Blocked” is: This is terrible. Every version is terrible. I can’t even tell which version is slightly less terrible than the last. Can I just make a soufflé? — at least then I know when it’s wrong.
I hadn’t taken a writing class since high school, but for the first time, I was open to it. In my defense, it was Peak Pandemic and all the rules were Xs for Os. I was working on only my second TV pilot, and thought the insider’s tips would help. And my friend and I thought it would be fun to take a class together. Neither of us was really prepared for the class structure, which mostly consisted of listening to other people’s ideas. As far as our own, we initially pitched three show ideas, and while I had the opportunity to develop a new idea from scratch, I instead decided to go with the one I was already knee-deep in. I didn’t think I could work full time (I was fortunate enough to still have a paying gig), work on my pilot, AND develop a new show. So I made what was probably a stupid choice. I opened my pilot up to criticism by a teacher I didn’t know and who didn’t know my work, and who was likely trying to do the best they could during a pandemic, with a real job, with family and obligations and all of the things. And that person got in my head and I hated my work and everything about it.
“Writer’s block” means different things to different people. I wouldn’t classify not having anything to say as “blocked.” Nor not wanting to write, feeling too burnt and damaged from failure-to-publish/failure-to-get-paid, or just taking a break. And fortunately, the clichéd “block” of sitting down in front of a blank page and getting up hours later with the same blank page is not something I’ve endured — I might be too good at letting myself off the hook. If I have nothing, I skip it and do something else.
My definition of “writer’s block” is: I’m stuck. I have a problem and I can’t fix it.
This is actually one degree of difficulty removed from “I have a screaming plot headache and can’t solve the math problem without a remainder.” That’s something I never experienced before writing a detective novel, but turned out to be good practice in writing TV pilots: it’s got to be quick, concise, and complete, while also an open-ended question that launches the series.
But it’s doable. This is a struggle that feels real, that feels ultimately solvable, “I just haven’t cracked it yet.”
“Blocked” is: This is terrible. Every version is terrible. I can’t even tell which version is slightly less terrible than the last. Can I just make a fucking soufflé? — at least then I know when it’s wrong.
And there’s no escape from this trap. I’m a lifelong escapist; when I used to read novels I devoured them. Now, I doom-scroll the news like fiction, binge TV like an alcoholic, and can squeeze in a movie before breakfast — but when I’m BLOCKED everything rubs my face in it. And it’s not the classic failure complex that rules my life ordinarily — How did this movie get produced? How did this pilot get picked up? — it’s the basic shock and horror of ability. How did they resolve that conflict? How did they come up with that solution? It’s like watching an Olympic diver pull off a three and a half somersault pike with no splash: it seems superhuman, impossible when I’ve suddenly become too terrified to even swim.
There is only one escape that’s ever worked for me. Go to the bar. The closest one. The cheapest, shittiest one. (Those who know me well, know well what that bar used to be.)
Preferably on a Friday, around ten when it starts to get packed. Order a shot and a beer and stand in the throng and get pushed around by the pulsing crowd. Step outside and cage a cigarette off someone who will oblige you to conversate. Go back in and snag a seat at the bar, the first one that opens up. Let the person next to you talk at you. Listen to their bullshit. Their patter, their issue, their deal. Communicate silently with the bartender through barely raised eyebrows. Buy the person a shot, have another. Get sucked into a lively pop culture argument with the person on the other side and the person lying on top of you to reach the bar. Have another shot and a beer. Is that three? Go to the dingy bathroom and catch two kids doing key bumps with the stall door open. Give them a grin and take out your keys. Smell the kerosene as the bad Brooklyn blow erases the part of your mind that gives a fuck. Take a piss, wash your hands, check your VCR on the curved metal of the blowdryer since there’s no fucking mirror in the bathroom. Realize you lost your beer and order another over the head of the attractive person who’s taken your seat. Flirt shamelessly until they go out to smoke, offer to “hold” the barstool, and then wonder how you’re suddenly making out with their funnier friend. Enjoy it so immensely in the moment that pushing your luck by asking for a number seems gratuitous. When the one you were flirting with comes back, smell the smoke coming off their jacket, laugh when the friend admits to the makeout, and make self-deprecating jokes as the first one feigns annoyance. Good-naturedly offer to buy a round, get your shot free as a buy-back — this is still Brooklyn, and you and the bartender go back — and have another beer with the first barstool buddy from earlier as you lose track of the person you made out with, the person you did a bump with, the person you did a shot with, as the jukebox music rolls into something annoyingly, nostalgically catchy, half the bar gamely sings along, and you lean in, fully committed, to their deal. To their boss, their partner, their pet. What did you say then? What are you going to say? What can you say? “I don’t know either, fuck it.”
Wake up with a headache and a vague aura of smoke and booze and regret curling around your head like a cartoon. Take a shower. Call a friend. Go for brunch. Maybe some hair of the dog. Watch a movie. Take the day off.
Get up on Sunday and look at the problem. Wait a minute, I know how to fix this, maybe.
Only by submitting myself to the fray of Other People’s Problems can I get out of my own head enough to see clearly. By surrounding myself with the din and commotion of other people’s energies, watching them dump their stories and problems all over the bar, flooding me with narrative and possibility, can I lose myself in the river of human experience and find a tributary to the sea.
November, 2020, will forever go down on record as the worst writer’s block I’ve every had, because I didn’t know how to fix it. Even if a dive bar had been open — and certainly there were some serving on the street, open-air scenes not unlike the one I craved — I was far too pandemic-paranoid to indulge. I had to suck it up over homemade martinis and Zoom calls that repeated themselves as I told one friend after another, “I need total strangers to empty their brains onto me. I need to be battered by bullshit.”
Writing is a function of resistance. It’s a blow back against whatever life is pushing on to me, so if there isn’t anything to push back against I’m only pushing against myself. That’s my writer’s block.
This is why “I’m going to a cabin in the woods to do nothing but write” seldom works, like, not even for Thoreau. Except maybe for those who come prepared with an outline, a strict schedule, and a twinned devotion to an unrelated side project, like frying the perfect over-easy eggs. Distraction is writing. Writing is a distraction. The story cannot be about the story.
I don’t have good notes as to how I came out of it. I’ve long since stopped being much of a diarist, since writing for a living and writing as an addiction to creating works that will likely never be published/produced leaves one generally too keyboard exhausted to take the time to type: today, I did X, Y, Z.
But I know I took that doomed version of my pilot, copied it, and completely and totally restructured it. Then I printed both versions, and read the new one. It didn’t suck. I intended to read the doomed version, too, to see which was better, but ultimately, I just didn’t read it. I put an “x” before the file name, and never opened it again. Eventually the hard copy went to my favorite Brooklyn employees, the guys who pick up my copious paper recycling. “I don’t know either, fuck it.”
And I quit the class. Anyone who knows me could have seen that coming. Probably I should have, too.
Looking forward to seeing you at the bar. Let’s talk about anything but writing.