For the record, writer’s block is no fun. I’ve struggled with it many times, especially while wrangling a two-year-old, wondering if my true calling was folding laundry or making organic porridge.
But although I’ve complained about writer’s block to all who would listen, I’ve never sought help from someone who draws stick figures and "YOU ARE MARKED TO BATTLE THE FORCES OF JUDGMENT" on an index card.
That’s because I don’t work for California’s entertainment industry, and I’m not a character in a Carl Hiaasen novel.
Reading Dana Goodyear’s hilarious “Hollywood Shadows” in this week’s New Yorker, I realized there’s a reason why shrinks in movies and on TV bear no resemblance to the real thing.
I can say with 99-percent certainty that this technique wouldn’t mobilize me: Being told to imagine myself “falling backward into the sun, saying ‘I am willing to lose everything’ as you are consumed in a giant fireball, after which, transformed into a sunbeam, you profess ‘I am infinite.’”
Barry Michels and Phil Stutz, the therapists who employ such visualizations, may be putting on Goodyear—but I think not. If any place is the Realm of the Emperor with No Clothes, it’s Hollywood. As Goodyear tells it in her straight-faced, anthropologist-amid-the-aliens story, an array of industry emperors pass through these offices—screenwriters, agents, directors, producers—the many who make a career out of conjuring something from nothing.
Maybe that’s why these therapy veterans are comfortable in what sounds like a movie set. She describes Michels’s West L.A. office as “generically therapeutic in its décor, with a black leather couch and, on the walls, carved wood African masks.” Diplomas? Got that, too: Harvard (Michels was an undergrad there), Berkeley (law school?!), and USC (master’s in social work, 1984).
Michels’s hourly rate starts at $360. (His mentor Stutz, who in a more interesting twist conducts therapy sessions out of his rundown apartment, charges as much as $400 a hour.) A number of producers and writers have been so grateful to Michels that they’ve created characters based on him—such as psychiatrist “Barry Landes” of 24.
The bizarre assumptions generated by the cash swirling around Hollywood deserve even more underscoring than Goodyear gives them here. Michels and Stutz ask patients to visualize the worst possible scenarios in a “strategy of ‘predisappointment.’” Or they can try Cosmic Rage: For writer-director Adam McKay, who couldn’t stop himself from visibly shaking on Charlie Rose—“People are, like, ‘Oh, my God, are you all right? Do you have Parkinson’s?’”—this meant “shouting ‘Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!’ in his head to a roomful of faceless critics.”
Okay, I feel sympathy for this guy’s stage fright, even if he’s the creator behind Will Ferrell vehicles like Talladega Nights and Step Brothers. I’ve had plenty to say to critics in my own head. But my personal therapeutic journey has involved getting beyond toddler tantrums. Michels does sensibly note that the rageful and hypersensitive “Part X” in us all resembles a two-year-old. The problem with Hollywood is that two-year-old behavior often gets rewarded.
(As for predisappointment, I don’t need to pay anyone $360-plus an hour to visualize the worst. For hoi polloi like me, that comes naturally.)
Goodyear makes clear that writers are the “pasty losers” of Hollywood and can rarely get away with public tantrums. The stakes are high—big money, an Academy Award, rubbing an occasional elbow with the stars—which is why screenwriters submit to the humiliation of script changes and endless pitches to stonefaced executives. It’s why the cycle of procrastination-despair-breakthrough takes such a melodramatic turn and so many blocked screenwriters flock to therapists.
In the words of Carl Hiaasen, via a paparazzo photographer in his latest novel Star Island: “When you’re doing a red carpet, you shoot everybody in a tux, just in case. But, swear to God, name the five hottest screenwriters in L.A. and I wouldn’t know those fuckers if they hanged themselves over the 405.”
I have no doubt that the act of taking charge of your writer’s block by walking into somebody’s office could feel like progress. It probably is progress. The thing is, going to a psychic who casts chicken bones might feel like progress, too. For those of the desk-bound, mind-trapped profession, any change of scene can provide a creative spark.
For all Michels’s chicken-bone waving—he calls procrastination "a spurious form of immortality”—the advice amounts to what most writers have heard many times before: You just need to get your butt in the chair (Stephen King) or have a regular schedule (Rod Serling, who Michels knew as a boy) or to think of it as a process and to keep writing no matter how bad your drivel is.
Which means that blogging is probably just as much of an “open secret” as these Hollywood therapists and far less expensive. Blogging is all about the process. It can be treated as a daily or weekly practice. It has certainly broken all sorts of blocks for me.
I’d venture that for successful screenwriters, in particular, starting a blog offers a cheap yet incredible catharsis: Your blog is your own. You create your own persona, trash who you want, control every word. Some blogs do sound like the ranting of two-year-olds, but in order to build an audience, you can’t really behave like a two-year-old.
Butt in the chair. Write every day. Experiment. Let it go. Most of all, forget the money—oh, freedom! That’s the most radical mantra on my index card.