Monday, January 28, 2013

"Have You Ever Had 'Writer's Block'?"

Would it be funny to answer that question by leaving the rest of the post blank?  Or would it be substantially cheesy and thoroughly unhelpful?  I’m going with “The Second One.”  While remaining cheesy enough to still mention it as a possibility.

I wrote recently about routine being a significant element in the writer’s process.  Another “it comes with the territory” component, I’m afraid, is superstition.  You write about “Writer’s Block”, and it is not beyond some writers’ concern – not mentioning any names – that merely bringing the issue into one’s consciousness gives rise to the possibility of contracting it. 

Today, I will look that superstition straight in the eye and courageously take that chance.  For a reader named


Commenting on a recent post entitled “A Glimpse Behind The Curtain”, JED posed a number of questions about the dreaded “W.B” – not the TV network broadcasting series I have never seen, but the immobilizing syndrome that leaves the writer staring at a page or computer screen and feeling utterly incapable of putting anything on it.

I will respond from experience, rather than by giving advice, which I feel uncomfortable passing along, in case someone follows it, it doesn’t out work, and they sue me.  Everybody’s different.  What works for me, may be useless for you.  And who am I anyway?  Dr. Phil?  If that guy’s so smart, what happened to his hair?

I will now reveal my first, and perhaps most debilitating experience of (IN A WHISPER) “Writer’s Block.”  As with every activity, writing inevitably gets easier when you keep doing it.  Not that my (IN A WHISPER) “Writer’s Block” never came back.  It did, no occasion.  But the first time is the scariest.  Because, you know, it being the first time, it never happened before.  And you have no idea how to handle it.

One of my earliest TV jobs, I was on the writing staff of a comedy special in Canada called The Hart And Lorne Terrific Hour, Hart being my older brother, and Lorne being Lorne Michaels.  The assignment was to go home and write “blackouts” for the show – short comedic bursts, ending with a punch line, and then…


Example:  A joke I had written a couple of years earlier.  A young woman looks straight at the camera and says,

“I told my boyfriend if he didn’t want to get married, we could just live together.  He said he would rather get married and not live together.”


So there I am, sprawled out on my bed, a pen and a yellow legal pad lying in front of me…

And I cannot think of anything to write!!!   

And that’s exactly how it felt – italic hysteria, with three exclamation points.  Maybe more.

I had no idea how to do it.  How do you make something up?  Like, there’s nothing on the page, and then something comes to your mind, and you write it down, and it makes you laugh – How exactly is that supposed to happen?

I felt desperate, a non reader who’s handed a book and told, “Read.”  I’d love to but…how? 

There I was, catatonically frozen, hovered over that blank yellow pad with the blue lines and the double-lined red margin.  I was hired to do something – people were counting on me – and I felt viscerally incapable of pulling it off! 

I mean, who did I think I was?  Professional comedy writers wrote blackouts; funny humans did that for a living.  At that moment, I felt congenitally unfunny.   There was undeniably “funny” in me, but, wracked with terror and impending doom, I felt physically incapable of accessing my abilities.  Woe, woe, woe, and maybe one more woe even was – I thought I could do this but it turns it turns out I couldn’t –


I call Lorne and announce my surrender.  I am quitting the show.  I can not not possibly deliver what’s required.

Lorne Michaels – whose last name at the time was Lipowitz, but it was the same guy – calmly and patiently talked me down, like I’m a guy on a ledge and he’s a trained professional specializing in “Jumpers.” 

Looking back, it is easy to imagine how Lorne successfully reassured the NBC executives that, if they gave him the Saturday night timeslot previously occupied by Tonight Show reruns, he would provide them with precisely the show that would appeal to the emerging “TV Generation” of viewers. 

Lorne’s soothing voice and confident demeanor earned him the trust of the clueless and anxious “suits”, even though, at the time, he had no idea what exactly he was talking about.  Some people can do that.  Not entirely fairly, though not entirely inaccurately either, I once said about Lorne, “He made a lot of waves, so people thought he had a boat.” 

Lorne applied the same approach with me – blowing smoke and hoping for the best.  He assured me that he had confidence in me; I was a good writer; if I weren’t, he would never have hired me for the show.  Also, there was no rush in handing in the material, so I should not worry about time pressure. 

Most importantly I believe looking back, Lorne reminded me that there were a number of writers on the staff, including himself and my brother; it was not just me, carrying the load.  He encouraged me to stay with it, and do the best I could.  I told him I would try.

I hung up, feeling perhaps not as relieved as if he’d let me off the hook, but free of the guilt and shame that would have accompanied that alternative.  It felt good that somebody believed in me.  And to know that the burden would be shared; it was not entirely on me.  (And how hubristic of me to have ever believed it was!)

Within minutes, my breathing slowed, the sweats abated, my mind cleared…

And I started to write.

The next day, there were a dozen blackouts on Lorne’s desk, scrawled on two pages of yellow legal pad paper. 

The material was unsigned.  (In case he hated it.)

Later that day, Lorne comes up excited, informing me that somebody’d left these great blackouts in his office.  He quoted a couple to me.  They sounded pretty good.  Lorne wondered who had written this eminently usable material.  I shyly admitted it was me.  Though I’m pretty sure he already knew.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, there is somebody around – somebody credible, not, like, your mother – who will help relieve some of the pressure.  If nobody fits the fill, then you pretty much have to do it yourself.

I have a little more to say about my “Writer’s Block” experiences, including what might be considered an expanded version of the definition.  But I think that’s enough for today. 

It’s not that I’m blocked.  I’m just working on “portion control.”  


JED said...

Boy, I got more than I could have ever hoped when I asked that question. You had my attention from the very beginning of this post.

To tell you the truth, I would have really enjoyed your first suggestion of just posting an empty page with the title Writer's Block (oh, sorry. that should be wb). I hope I don't trigger an episode of that by forcing you to mention it.

Just by this post, I think, you proved that you have little to fear of that...situation. You have such interesting things to say and such a wonderful way of saying them. The TV industry is much the poorer for your absence.

I also appreciated getting to know a little more about Lorne Michaels. He doesn't sound like a typical TV producer. Not that I know what a typical TV producer is like.

Thank you very much, Earl.

Jim Dodd (JED)

Tom Teslyarn said...

Your example joke:

“I told my boyfriend if he didn’t want to get married, we could just live together. He said he would rather get married and not live together.”

...reminds me of a similar statement I've heard in various strains before, but most recently, last night. Bobby Hull was on the Tim McCarver show. McCarver mentioned in prefacing a question that Hull was one of 11 children, to which Bobby replied, 'that's true. I never slept alone till I was married.'

Hull just turned 74 but he still looks pretty good. I believe he was promoting a book - usually the reason a retired athlete is a guest on a talk show. I didn't know this but Bobby was the first athlete of any sport to get a million dollar salary.

I know that has nothing to do w/the topic but I won't charge you for the information!