How to Create the Ideal Writing Session

Multiple Emmy-winning screenwriter Erik Bork (HBO's "Band of Brothers") maps out exactly how to create the ideal writing session and trigger the best flow of ideas.
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the ideal writing session

I’ve been writing five days a week for about thirty years.

Whether it’s an 8-hour session or a quick thirty minutes just to keep things moving forward, I’ve seen the value of a daily block of time devoted to the writing “practice.”

And really, it’s all practice. That’s a good attitude to have.

In fact, the single most important thing I’ve discovered is that the quantity, quality and enjoyment of my daily output is mostly dependent on one thing.

My attitude.

By that I mean: playful, casual and easygoing is always better. Compared to driven, analytical and critical.

Sure, there’s a place for the latter, especially when reading over one’s work to see what works and what doesn’t. But most days, that’s not the main focus.

Instead, it’s about creating.

Which means coming up with something from nothing. Ideas. Ideas for a story, ideas for an act or sequence, or an individual scene, or just a line of dialogue. Or even a single word.

[Script Extra: Overwhelmed Trying to Break Into Screenwriting? Get a Positive Attitude]

When you get right down to it, that’s what writers are mostly doing. Looking for ideas.

How and where do we find ideas?

Well, that’s hard to answer. They show up in our minds. Sometimes really good ones, in a nice steady flow that we can’t wait to write down and explore. And sometimes... not so much.

So I’ve learned that a big part of my job – maybe the biggest part – is doing all I can to make myself the best idea receiver. To be in the state of mind in which they tend to really come.

And I’ve definitely learned that this happens best when I’m not trying too hard, making it all too important, or, especially, being too hard on myself or what I’ve written up to that point.

That’s not easy to do, because my daily pages often seem lacking in a variety of ways. So do the projects and ideas behind them. As well as what’s happening with them out in the world.

There are so many things to get “down on.” And good writers who have some experience tend to be highly critical thinkers – or at least have that skill – and are quick to see what isn’t working.

But finding something that does work doesn’t tend to come from being so focused on what doesn’t.

In my experience, the best creative flow comes from being extremely forgiving toward all that. Seeing it with acceptance. Even gratitude. And facing the day’s “blank page” with the mindset of “it’s all good.”

There will always be time to put on the critical hat and give oneself notes later. But when the goal is to find good ideas (as it almost always is), that critical mind will tend to strangle everything. So will the ambitious mind, or the goal-oriented mind.

When I sit down focused on how much progress I need to make today, and what needs done or fixed, I usually find that the ideas needed to achieve that are slow in arriving.

So I’ve learned to employ a kind of Zen approach, where my conscious goal is not to achieve something, or make a certain amount of forward progress today. Even though of course that’s what I want and am there for, ultimately.

Instead my goal is to enjoy the process.

And only that.

I can’t enjoy the process if I’m down on what I wrote yesterday, or the project, or myself. That’s the opposite of joy. And I can’t enjoy it if I’m hyper-focused on all that’s not working yet.

I enjoy it when there’s a good flow of creative ideas. And they come when I’m not trying hard to make anything happen. Instead, I’m relaxing. I’m at peace. I’m curious but not pushing. I’m allowing.

What does that look like in actual practice?

Say I’m trying to figure out what might happen in the next scene. Or a scene I’ve already drafted that’s lacking something.

My job is to drill down to the most micro-specific level about what I’m looking for – what I need an idea for.

I usually start with centering myself in where the characters are at – what each wants, and feels, and what their situation is now. What they might enter the scene focused on. What seems real.

[Script Extra: Ashley Scott Meyers talks with writer/producer Erik Bork about how he broke into the business and eventually ended up writing and producing the hit TV series 'Band Of Brothers' for HBO.]

Then I look for a question I need an answer to. Like “what might this person do next?”

It’s great if it’s a specific small question like that. Not “what would make this scene work, or be better.” Those kinds of general and evaluative questions aren’t as helpful.

It’s more a simple question of what’s the next minute thing needed, in terms of an idea. An idea is usually an answer to a question like that.

Most people know about brainstorming. Usually it’s described as coming up with as many possibilities as quickly as you can, and listing them without taking the time to stop and consider any of them, or shoot them down. You generate a list of at least ten possibilities off the top of your head. Often late in the list some interesting ones will come.

And this can work. It’s based on the same principal – getting out of the critical mindset.

But I often don’t have to even do that.

When I find that I’m really in the right, positive frame of mind, with a very clear and specific question that I’m posing to “wherever it is ideas come from,” some idea usually comes that I can work with, pretty immediately.

Now I’ve been doing this a long time, so that’s part of it.

But I also know I can have days where nothing good comes. And if I employ the following mindset at the beginning of a session, and stay with it, things tend to go much much better.

[Script Extra: Download our free S.M.A.R.T. writing goals worksheet!]

Here’s what I tell myself:

This is not “work.” This is my play time, my fun time, my relaxed time, my easy time.

I’m in no hurry and I’m at peace about everything that’s come to this point.

I’m eager and expectant of more but not trying to make it happen.

I’m not even trying to get something done. I’m letting something flow, and trusting that.

It’s not about strict discipline, other than the discipline to show up on a daily basis and work to get myself into this mindset, and then consider what’s before me.

Ironically this approach leads to more forward progress, more time spent, more productivity and success, than doing it the way we would tend to do it if we approached the creative process like we approach most “things that have to be done.”

And we have a lot more fun in the process.

More articles by Erik Bork

Learn more on how Erik creates marketable ideas in his book, The Idea: The Seven Elements of a Viable Story for Screen, Stage or Fiction

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 Buy Erik's new book to help create a marketable story idea!

Buy Erik's new book to help create a marketable story idea!