Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Dangers of Writer's Block

Bet you didn't know writer's block could kill a guy.

Neither did one writer at Tuesday's Jabberwocky event.

I was attending the joint event at the Indy Fringe Theatre, hosted by the Storytelling Arts of Indiana. The theme of the night was "Writer's Block," and the premise was that different writers from Indianapolis would stand up and tell their experiences with writer's block and how they overcame it, or didn't.

Shari Scales Fennell, editor-in-chief of Indianapolis Woman, Dennis Ryerson, editor of the Indianapolis Star, Lou Harry, arts reporter for the Indianapolis Business Journal all spoke about their experiences with writer's block.

For Shari, her own experience led her away from and then back into journalism, taking her down the editorial path. Dennis was at the Iowa Writer's Workshop when he witnessed a woman break her 8-year dry spell and write one of the most beautiful essays he had ever heard. But Lou had never had an experience with writer's block, but he very nearly didn't become a writer.

To keep a long story short, Lou's first writing experience was nearly his last. Back when he was a teenager, he typed his very first screenplay. (For you young people, a typewriter is a machine that puts characters directly on paper and is not hooked up to the Internet.) The screenplay was 180 pages and as thick as a brick. One page usually equals one minute in movie time, so it needed some editing.

On stage, Lou even pulled a thick stack of papers out of his briefcase to show us what 180 pages of a screenplay looks like.

Lou gave his manuscript to his best friend, the very friend who it was about, and asked him to read it. The friend agreed, took the stack of pages in their manila folder, and set it on the hood of his car.

And then drove off.

"If you've never seen what a 180 page screenplay looks like flying off the hood of a car, it looks something like THIS!" And Lou hurled the stack of pages out into the audience to illustrate his story.

I should probably point out, Lou is a nice guy, and a hell of a writer. He's meticulous. He had probably rehearsed this. Had written his script, and probably even practiced it a couple of times. So I don't think anyone was more surprised at what happened than Lou. Except maybe the other guy.

The pages flew through the air, and four pages flew off and fluttered harmlessly to the ground. I even watched the stack whiz past me, and then I heard a WHAP! The audience ooh'ed, laughed, and murmured, followed by a cone of silence somewhere behind me that just sort of grew as we all realized another guy had just been hit by the remaining pages.

Lou stopped his monologue, and asked the guy, "Are you okay?"

"Mumble mumble," said the guy.

"No, seriously. Are you okay?"

"I'm mostly okay," said the guy, and we all laughed. (The guy really was okay. I saw him after the show was over.)

Lou looked relieved and continued on with his story. Ultimately, he wrote another screenplay, since the only copy of his first one was lost forever. And that launched him into a lifelong writing career, filled with books, plays, and countless articles. He even reconciled with the friend who destroyed his first dreams of Hollywood fame and fortune.

Afterward, a few of us got up and told our own stories of writer's block. I even told one of my own, about how Garrison Keillor managed to shake me out of my writing doldrums with an off-handed piece of advice that ultimately led to 7 radio plays, and extended a 4-year humor column writing gig that has now entered its 16th year. But regardless of what I've done, I have never managed to assault an audience member with the written word.

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but paper is a cruel bitch.

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