Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script magazine and a screenwriter, having written the narrative feature adaptation as well as the 10-hr limited series of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which was honored in the Top 25 Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition, the Second Round of Sundance Episodic Lab, and as a PAGE Awards TV Drama Finalist. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.
I’m knocking on wood as I say this, but I have never had writer’s block. Never. I have no problem sitting down and writing whichever project I’m working on at any given time.
Until this one.
I keep procrastinating. I’m procrastinating my outline right now by writing about procrastinating my outline. In fact, I’m procrastinating so much I am actually procrastinating by watching other people procrastinate. Lucky for me, it’s not hard to find a procrastinator with two teens on summer break.
My normally very-motivated and disciplined daughter woke and declared she was going to the gym. Six hours later, she was curled on the couch, procrastinating by sleeping with the pup, never having gone. Like mother, like daughter.
I needed to work on my outline, she had to work out, and we both looked at each other, declaring we’d rather be eating ice cream and watching serial killer shows.
As she finally pulled her tired body off the couch, tied her running shoes and left, it hit me that we often procrastinate at doing the things we know are good for us. My girl knows she feels better after a workout, yet she didn’t want to get in the car. I always feel better during and after writing, yet I couldn’t manage to pull out the file.
Why? Avoidance of pain.
She didn’t want to go to the gym because her muscles ache from our training for a 9-mile “fun run” we’re doing next month. Don’t ask. These are desperate things mothers do with their daughters who are leaving for college in two month’s time.
My pain is more complicated. My new story is based on a very personal, real-life experience that was excruciating to live through, let alone write about. Every index card feels like a repeated stab to my heart.
Which is precisely why I am writing it. No pain, no gain.
While I am fictionalizing much of the story, the core of the main character, and the emotions she will evoke in my readers, is very real, compelling and jaw-dropping. This is a story only I can write. No writing partners this time. Just me.
I’m familiar with writing emotional stories of pain. Slavery by Another Name made me cry every day. Based on the real-life events of African Americans being wrongly imprisoned and enslaved forty years after the Civil War, this script brought me to my knees when I wrote it and every single time I read it. I truly cried a river.
Some people write comedies. Some tragedies. Some in between. Lucky me, I seem to be drawn to darkness. I suppose that explains the size of my therapy file.
People always say, “Write what you know.” What if what you know is too painful to write about? Pretend you’re a character in your script. Why is that character avoiding sitting at the computer and pushing out the words? She’s probably avoiding pain. But if she’s avoiding the pain instead of facing it, she’ll never evolve.
Her life will remain a blank, white sheet. Feeling nothing. Experiencing nothing. Writing nothing.
We write to elicit emotion. That emotion has to come from within us. To tap into it, you need to feel it. Even if it sucks the life out of you and leaves you drained at the end of the day.
Screenwriter, journalist and novelist Joan Didion wrote the award-winning book, The Year of Magical Thinking, in just 88 days. A remarkable feat considering the memoir reveals the events of her husband’s sudden and tragic death. One minute they were eating dinner, the next minute, he was dead. In losing her husband of almost 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, she also lost her writing partner. If that's not haunting enough, that same year, their only daughter would die before her book was published.
Imagine sitting down to write for the first time without your partner in life, love and writing with this enormous weight of loss enveloping you. The two people she loved most, gone. Joan did what a writer does to survive. She bled on the pages. It was a Best Seller because she bravely allowed the emotions of the most excruciating time of her life pour out, unfiltered.
I dare you to read it and not be moved.
I admire writers who do that. Ones who remove their veneer, snatch your hand and bring you to dark places. I stumbled on some quotes from Joan on Huffington’s site:
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
Which is precisely why she has had such a long and successful writing career.
What most writers fear isn’t just facing our emotions, it’s also the fear of criticism, either from readers or from people who suspect they are one of our characters. Yes, the world is full of narcissists who see themselves in our words. This thought by Joan reminded me of Stephen King advising to write with the door shut:
“To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great singular power of self-respect.”
So tonight, I am going to close the door to my writer’s room, pull out the index cards and continue to stab myself until the story unfolds and my blood covers the bulletin board.
No pain, no gain.
One last note about procrastination – ask yourself why you’re doing it. It is almost never because you’re being lazy. There’s usually a deeper reason. Tap into that with honesty and then use it.
I’ll leave you with one more quote from Joan Dideon.
“Time is the school in which we learn.”
We learn by living. We learn by writing. We learn everything… in time.
Watch ScriptMag Editor Share Her Advice on Facing Your Writing Fears
Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares her personal story of facing her fears in order to propel her writing and her career. Click on the image below to watch Jeanne's advice. In just eight minutes, you might have a whole new perspective.
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