Psychology for Writers

Insights for the writer and the writing

Writer's Block and Burnout: Getting Unstuck

Emmy-award winning writer Gene Perret's advice on getting unstuck.

Gene Perret

Emmy award-winning writer Gene Perret

Today I'm thrilled to welcome Gene Perret, whose writing has won three Emmys! Gene was the head writer for the Bob Hope and Carol Burnett shows, and was also responsible for episodes of well-know sitcoms like Three's Company and Welcome Back Kotter.

More than most, Gene appreciates how important it is for a writer to be able to handle fear, rejection, and writer's block, and over time he's developed a system for starting and finishing great projects. Now he's sharing that system with readers in a new book: WRITE YOUR BOOK NOW! A Proven System to Start and FINISH the Book You've Always Wanted to Write. Below, he talks about getting stuck...and getting unstuck.

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Q: What are some common reasons writers have trouble getting their books written? At what stage of the writing process do people most often get stuck?

A: Most of these reasons are based in fear – fear that you won’t be able to write a complete book, fear that you won’t be able to interest publishers in it, fear that it won’t be good enough, fear that others won’t like it…and so on. None of these ideas are fact; they’re all suppositions of what’s going to happen in the future. The best way to overcome these sort of fears is to convert them to reality. Why not just write what you want to write as well as you know how and let things happen as they happen. Why make a publisher’s decision about your book before you even write the book.

Of course, these are problems that keep us from starting a book. Once we begin, we have different problems. The biggest one is destroying our enthusiasm. When we begin a book we do it with sincere passion. We begin to write this book because we want to write this book. The task is to maintain that enthusiasm. We can lose it by being too judgmental about our writing. We want everything to be superb. We’re not people who can be superb 24 hours a day. We must allow ourselves to be mediocre at times…maybe even semi-terrible at times. I’m sure even Shakespeare read over his plays after they were published and said, “Boy, I should have said this here.”

Our enthusiasm can also be threatened when others pass judgment on our work that is less that laudatory. Aunt Mabel reads part of our book and says, “It didn’t knock my socks off.” The cure here is to not let Aunt Mabel see the manuscript until it’s completed. In fact, not until it’s published. You can then send her a signed copy. Whatever she says then is moot. Protect your project. Show it only to those whom you respect or who can help you improve your writing and presentation. Others must wait.

Q: Could you give us some tips for overcoming those roadblocks?

A: Dorothea Brande wrote a book many years ago called “Wake Up and Live.” One of the main suggestions in her book is “to act as if it were impossible to fail.” This may appear rather simplistic, but it can be beneficial. As I mentioned earlier, “failure” is something that is in the future. It may happen; it may not. But why should we hamper our pursuits and even abandon them by presuming that failure definitely will happen? It’s wise for the present to act as if it won’t – “act as if it were impossible to fail” – then if it does happen later, we can deal with it then.

Q: As a writer for sitcoms (among other things!), you certainly had to come up with new and interesting ideas on a regular basis! How do you keep yourself open to new ideas and avoid writers block and burnout?

A: Burnout, especially in TV which demands so much product, is a real phenomenon. Writers get weary of turning out so much similar material. I worked on one sitcom where in the middle of a show, one of the writers stormed out of the viewing room saying, “I hate this family.”

The best cure I’ve found for this situation is to retreat to some sort of vacation. Get away from it all. In fact, this was cranked into most television scheduling. We would work for about three weeks and then have a week off. However, I’m talking more about a brief vacation. Get away from your desk and take a walk, watch something on television, read a chapter or two of a book, take a brief nap. Then come back to your task refreshed. Many times my partner and I would struggle to get a new sketch idea. It would be so hard that we would often have words with one another and sometimes partners almost came to blows. Then we go to lunch, tell each other a few stories, trade insults, pay our bill, come back to work, and discover that one or the other had come up with a great idea for a sketch.

Writers block is a whole different animal. A writing colleague of mine said that we writers are the only people self-indulgent enough to name an affliction after ourselves – writers block. He said once, “Imagine that you have to travel cross country. You fight the lines at the airport, endure a five-hour flight, struggle to find your baggage, haul it out to the curb, hail a cab, load the luggage into the trunk, sit in the back of the cab and say, ‘Take me to the downtown Hilton.’ The guy then says, ‘Gee, I’m sorry, fella, but I’ve got cab-driver’s block.’” We whack him with our briefcase.

Yet we allow ourselves to have writers block. Bob Hope writers were never permitted to have writers block. We had to turn in pages. They could be good, they could be mediocre, but they had to be typed pages. And that’s pretty much the solution to writers block. Force yourself to write. Sometimes it’s a struggle, but then as you do it, you get back into the writers rhythm and your material improves.

Q: You specialize in writing comedy. Do you think a sense of humor is important for any writer? How come?

A: I think a sense of humor is important for everyone. A true sense of humor is based on realistic thinking. We see the facts as they are, recognize the facts as they are, and accept the facts as they are. Realistic thinking is generally less painful than the horrible fantasies we can somehow create for ourselves. As we stated above, we fear the publishers, the opinions of others, etc. Those are all fantasies that we create. The reality is much more pleasant.

Writing is a difficult chore. Often the business of writing can be upsetting. Rejection is a part of the writer’s life. Humor is a wonderful way to deal with writing setbacks.

Q: To my understanding, you've been teaching a workshop for several years to help writers get their books written. What made you decide to put your plan into a book?

A: Years ago, I worked for a comic. Her husband was a publisher. He asked me to do a book about my two careers - electrical engineer and comedy writing. I declined. Why? Because I felt I could never write 80,000 words. I was a joke writer. I wrote one sentence, added a punch line to it, and I was done. I took a nap. But then I worked on a show that I didn't care that much for and didn't require too much effort, so I consented to the book. Since then I have published about 40 books on various topics.

So I know the fear of not being able to write a book. I wanted to put that down in "How-to" book form. The publisher agreed and that's how Write Your Book Now! was born. The teaching based on the ideas in the book actually came later.

Q: What’s the best writing advice someone else has ever given you?

A: Once, as a beginning humorist, I managed to convince a sound technician that he should make a recording of one of my humorous talks. I was going to join the ranks of people like Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman and others with a hit comedy album. I performed in front of a live audience, but you couldn’t tell from their reaction that they were indeed live. My bon mots got nothing. The evening was a disaster. At the end of the evening, over a couple of cocktails, I asked the technician if he would consent to do another taping. He quickly said “no.”

When I respectfully asked why, he responded quite frankly. He said, “Tonight went badly, but you gave up. You totally surrendered and delivered most of your gags with no enthusiasm at all. He admonished me that when things got tough, the response should be to work harder, to deliver more and better. I didn’t do that and he didn’t want to work with me again. His wasn’t strictly writing advice, but it served me well in my writing career.

Negatives happen in any career, but the real successes are those who struggle through despite setbacks.

Some sportscaster once remarked about Walter Payton’s football career. He said, “If you do the math you’ll find out that during his career he carried the ball over 20 miles.” The other sportscaster in the booth said, “Yeah, but every 4.3 yards someone knocked him down.”

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to say about yourself, your creative process, creativity in general, or anything that wasn’t covered by my questions?

A: One thing I might add is that all writers should remember that there are readers out there. In working with young comics, I try to impress on them that comedy is not just a performer and a microphone. A major part of that equation is the audience -- the people out front – the ones doing the laughing. Writing is a solitary profession. Many of us sit in a quiet room with only a keyboard for company. But to be a good writer, you must remember that there are readers out there. They’re waiting for what comes out of your printer. Keep them in mind and your writing will be all the better for it.

Carolyn Kaufman, Psy.D., is an Assistant Professor at Columbus State Community College and author of The Writer’s Guide to Psychology.

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