2002: Let Writer’s Block Be Writer’s Block–A Praise Chorus

A couple of people have asked me how I find time to write so many words about movies, TV shows, and songs of the past for this series. They also ask what my process is or how things get picked. Here’s the lowdown:

I know myself and know that I can neglect my personal page very easily without some sort motivation, so I have to create projects for myself like my Lenten 40 blogs in 40 days project, my classic movie adventure of 2013, and now this survey of my life through the lens of pop culture. So I came up with the idea. The next step was picking what to write about for each year. Over the course of a couple of hours, I mapped out 31 years of stuff picking not based on any theme, but based on what struck me as something meaningful to my own life.

When the day comes to write about a year, I start thinking about the three things in context and see if I can come up with a theme or through line to tie them all together. You’ve seen where I’ve stretched a bit, but most of the time I am surprised at how well they fit together.

Sometimes though, I get stuck. It happens to every writer, and it’s really not as fun as the movie Adaptation makes it out to be. If you haven’t seen it, my friend referred to it as the weirdest movie he’s ever seen. As story goes, the movie came out of Charlie Kaufman’s case of writer’s block trying to adapt the book The Orchid Thief, which is a pensive tome about searching for rare flowers, not exactly an action blockbuster. In the film, the screenwriter, a fictional version of the writer of the actual movie, Charlie Kaufman played by Nicholas Cage (like I said, it’s weird), struggles with writer’s block, resorting to screenwriting seminars, stalking the book’s author Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), and committing several crimes along the way.

My writer’s block is much less adventurous than Kaufman’s. In the movie, it is a beast, spiraling out of control, eventually leading to total mayhem, while mine rarely makes it off the living room couch. It usually involves falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole or playing too many Sit N Gos online. As a writer though, the movie my friend could only sum up as, “Nicolas Cage, a swamp, alligators maybe? And a lot of weirdness and something about writing,” is something as relatable as a break up or a job interview. When you’re stuck on what to write, you come up with a list of remarkably bad and out there ideas, most of which will never be shared with anyone but yourself. If you look through my recently watched movies on Netflix or what I’ve been buying on Amazon, you’d probably think I was a little strange, but when you get in a headspace where you feel like you are stuck in one place, you’ll do anything you can to get out of it.

For Toby Ziegler on The West Wing, writer’s block is bouncing a rubber ball off a wall. The characters on this show about the executive branch of the government deal with much bigger problems than writer’s block. Other things are constantly transpiring that make President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his staff feel like they are stuck, be it the bureaucracy of the government, a deadlocked Senate, or having to give up one goal in order to achieve a more important one.  That’s the beauty of Aaron Sorkin-penned stuff though, the constant discussion and debate that results in these “stuck” moments.

While Adaptation focuses on how these moments and ruts can make you crazy, Sorkin, who is often one for idealism, likes to roll around in the mess and get a little dirty before emerging with an answer that is so good it is well worth the time and frustration. Even though I politically disagree with a lot of what Sorkin believes, I admired at how he let the other side speak eloquently (you’re my girl, Ainsley Hayes and I’ll love you forever, Christian Slater).

He sees these blocks as opportunities, and they have resulted in some of the most iconic moments of the series. When the President is starting to falter in his decision making, erring on the side of caution way too often as campaign season nears, the team hits a wall before four words changed everything: Let Bartlet be Bartlet.

What is simultaneously funny and sad about Aaron Sorkin and The West Wing is that it is his personal blocks that lead to some of the largest points of criticism and the downfall of The West Wing. It is inevitable when you write thousands and thousands of words that you use the same turn of phrase more than a couple of times. Heck, I’ve written less than 20,000 words in this blog series and I’ve already harped on ideas more than once. Sorkin though, has a peculiar pattern of speaking, so when he repeats himself, it is glaringly obvious, as indicated by this supercut (which, coincidentally was shown to me by the same guy who finds Adaptation incredibly weird).

The other issue was that when Sorkin hit the wall, he also hit the drugs pretty hard. When you are writing every episode of a 22-episode series, it is inevitable you’re going to burn out. Because he was so nervous to share the workload, he turned to drugs to keep him energized and motivated to push through those tough stretches where the ideas just don’t show up. As a result, he headed off to rehab and the show was turned over to other people after Season 4, leaving just a shell of this near-flawless in his wake.

As a writer, moments like that give me pause. I certainly don’t think I will turn up with a coke habit, but I do wonder if the emotional and mental strain that comes with writing day in and day out is something I can handle. If you’ve read my blog before, you know I open up quite a bit on this thing. It isn’t for some people, which is why my mom gets annoyed and constantly asks, “You aren’t going to put what I said on the internet, are you?”

When you feel like you have things to share though, you have to learn to get past the fear and just put it out there. Instead of quoting something trite and overused like, “Dance like nobody’s watching,” I instead present Jimmy Eat World’s A Praise Chorus, which might very well be the anthem for this blog series of mine. With lyrics like, “Stick around, nostalgia won’t let you down,” and “I’m on my feet, I’m on the floor, I’m good to go, all I need is just to hear a song I know,” I get a nice little emo kick in the ass about the fact that there is virtue in putting yourself out there.

The song is the third (and least known) single off Jimmy Eat World’s breakout album, which was originally titled Bleed American, changed to Jimmy Eat World in the wake of 9/11, but now goes by its original title. Like Rockin the Suburbs, it is one of those albums that was so integral to my college experience, it is impossible for me to ever forget it. While my favorite song of the record will always be If You Don’t, Don’t, A Praise Chorus is one of those songs perfect for college kids, as it rallies you to go out and try the new and unfamiliar, yet couches it in a slew of song references. In essence, it is a song about not just experiencing something in a song or a book, but going out there and seeking and experiencing the feelings that come with listening Crimson and Clover or Our House to make your life worthy of its own song. It is a rally cry against simply repurposing pop culture like you’re Jurassic World. It is about taking something familiar, doing something different with it, and pushing yourself out there beyond the wall of blocks your mind has constructed in order to make sure at least a little part of the world you live in is distinctively yours.

Scoring My Life Archive

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