There is a particular thrill when your screenwriting career is moving. When you win a contest, option a feature, connect with great talent, or make a new collaborative connection there’s a jolt of creative adrenaline.
Last summer, I optioned a feature screenplay. I made a short with an incredible director and cast. I attached a top-level director to one of my TV shows in development who, as a bonus, is absolutely the kind of person it has been incredible to work with. I saw positive interest from producers and actors that I have been watching on screen for years.
The creative adrenaline was turned up to 11. I was writing faster and more passionately than I had in years. I was expecting to drive into autumn like Odysseus coming out of the Trojan Horse. “Surprise, suckas! I’m here for your women and wine!”
But the fall went dry. My projects stalled in the machinations of budget considerations. My short film was, justifiably, moved down the ladder of post-production importance. The filming of the movie was pushed to the spring by weather considerations.
I finished the final draft of my feature, had it edited for grammar and punctuation by my favorite grammar-tyrant, and emailed off the Final Draft files. With no work on the horizon, I looked at the garden of dirt being covered by snow with nothing to harvest but hope.
I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I had no particular project to work on and nothing was selling. Every project I was passionate about was off doing its underground work in someone else’s care. My savings account was printing my paycheck. And right on time, the low fuel light popped on next to the motivation gauge.
Here is the list I have compiled on how to refill that motivation tank when the scripts aren’t selling - a few practical ideas and a few mindset modifying questions that have helped me push back the gloom.
Telling stories on the screen is a collaborative art. We writers are notoriously bad at it. If it is part of our craft, though, we can practice it. Find someone that you can help. Offer to read someone's script and give thorough notes. Invite someone out for coffee and ask questions about how they’re doing creatively. If you are bad at that, do what my wife had me do early in our marriage before we went to a party, make a list of questions on a card and put it in your pocket.
When the well runs dry, helping someone else crank up their bucket will help us refill our own. It’s inspiring, but it also helps us get out of our own heads.
When nothing is selling, your head can be dangerous, dark, and deep. Getting out of there to be of use to someone else just might give you the distance you need to find your way back to your own creativity.
I found a spark in conversations with an old novelist friend about his developing process. I’ve also had helpful conversations with a new friend working on a historical drama about the US dealings with Native Americans. A script way outside what I write was exciting to read and discuss. Partners in creative crime opened their thoughts and work to me and gave me opportunities to reflect on story (and ignore the loop in my head hissing, “You’re a fake”).
Looking for ways that you can be a help to others might light the way back to your own creativity.
It’s easy to not set the alarm when you don’t know what you’re going to write in the morning. I let the writing schedule go. I didn’t have anything to write.
I read the Guru’s of productivity. They were like Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates: morons. It was inconceivable. I knew it was bad when beer was whispering from the fridge, “I could be on the lunch menu, right?” But the words of José Molina and Javier Grillo-Marxuach on The Children of Tendu podcast kept haunting me. Are you a professional writer? Then keep a schedule like a professional writer!
I restarted the writing schedule even though I wasn’t sure what to write. I would flip through my idea notebook just to hate all the ideas. I pulled the pile of scripts that I had been intending to read out of the drawer and stared them down. Baby Driver, by Edgar Wright is an incredible script! A superb piece of writing. I even tried the Finding Forrester method. I started typing out one of my favorite scripts, High Noon.
It didn’t get me writing again, but it kept me in the chair and under the lightning rod so that when inspiration struck, I was at the keyboard.
It did eventually strike, just not where I expected.
I am most comfortable writing awkward family comedy. It’s my favorite genre to watch, read, and write. When I had nothing to do, I was talking to a good friend who directs documentaries and produces political talking-head. Not the most natural collaborative partner, but he’s smart. Significantly smarter than me. He said, “Ask the kind of questions a producer asks, then write a screenplay with the answers.”
That advice inspired an action feature so far out of my normal genre that I had to do the process anew. It got me out of my rut. The rut I had needed to keep the wagon on track the previous year had become the prison in the present. Writing in a different genre helped me break the wheels and free the wagon.
Again, it was a conversation with a friend that helped me see it. I can’t stress the need for a community of collaborators enough.
The practical advice that I received along the way, though, would have been nothing without a few mindset-bending questions:
Art changes lives. It gives vocabulary to the winds within us, a proton pack for the ghosts that haunt us, and a human connection in the wilderness wanderings of life. C.S. Lewis says that friendship begins at, “Really? You too?” We underestimate the importance of the human connection art offers across the minutes and miles.
I had to spend some time remembering how art has been important in my life.
Here’s some of my list:
It goes on, but you get the point.
Remembering how art has changed your life for the better is an excellent path of retreat when you are losing the shouting match with the voices in your head. It may even convert those voices to shout for you rather than at you.
That bearded Victorian Charles Spurgeon wrote, “Mercy often rides to our door on the black horse of affliction.” When months refuse to meet our mind’s expectations, it’s easy to swirl down the drain—clockwise if you are in the southern hemisphere. But let Monty Python ring, “Always look on the bright side of life.”
Actually listing good things that have come from this drought has been extremely helpful.
For me and mine, we have been able to get our monthly budget trimmed to a place that it hasn’t been since we had our first two kids in a double stroller. Budgetary fat builds so quietly and invisibly. The force of need has helped us reevaluate every line. It’s been superb for our relationship and our habits.
It has also led to great conversations about money with our kids about what’s truly important. Those were conversations that wouldn’t have happened without the slow down.
Also, we’ve been eating through the deep freezer. It’s as satisfying as any spring cleaning I’ve ever done. Finding the steaks you forgot you froze is like spelunking in an old mine and finding a forgotten gold nugget.
Lastly, if you have a story to tell that will improve lives, then you will find motivation even in the darkness. Jeff Goins’ book, “Real Artists Don’t Starve” is worth the read, but creative pursuits and starvation share clichés for a reason. There are easier ways to make money than writing. If this enterprise is simply about you being recognized, you’ll give up.
The power that a story has to flex and fill our neighbor’s lives with joy, meaning, and rest is real, though. The hours that my nine-year-old son spent in my lap as we watched The Mandelorian make me want to thank Jon Favreau and every other person even remotely involved in that enterprise. The nights of rest and common memories The Avengers, The Last Airbender, and Pixar have given my family are priceless. The peals of laughter squeezed from my children by USA’s 8 seasons of Psych are more valuable to me than all the Emmy’s you could strap to a flatbed.
Movies like Malcom X, Chariots of Fire, and shows like Hamilton introduce characters from history to a new generation. When Harvard was founded, their History Department was named the Moral Philosophy Department. We learn who we are,and who we ought to be, from the stories we tell and take in. As Neil Gaiman put it, "People take on the shape of the songs and stories that surround them, especially if they don't have a song of their own."
You might not be able to keep pressing on through the dark for yourself, but do you have a story to tell that the world needs? Let their need motivate you to press on. It was the children that kept Leonhard and Togo running in the storm on the “Serum run to Nome” of 1925. You might just write the story that resonates at the frequency that breaks the glass of someone’s prison and sets them free.
The dry spell is tough. People don’t get it. You feel alone. Your own head becomes an echo chamber of doubts, fears and regrets. But we are in the business of story! There’s no better way to prepare to write the black moment for our next protagonist than going through one ourselves.
If you have ways that you keep motivated, I’d love to hear them! Share them in the comments below.
Jason Farley is a screenwriter and author. He is General Editor at Jovial Press, a poetry and children’s book press in Spokane, WA. Keep an eye out for his upcoming feature Sasquatch, produced by Origin Productions.
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