I couldn’t come up with an idea for today’s article. Fortunately, screenwriters have proven time and time again that it is perfectly acceptable to use writer’s block as your subject if that is the thing that finally gets you writing. So we end up with an inordinate amount of movies whose main characters just want to finish their books or screenplays. Here are the lessons to take from seven of them.
The Lost Weekend (1945)
Problem: Even before finishing his writing degree at Cornell, Don Birnam was convinced he was the next Hemingway. So he dropped out of school, like you do. Eventually he realizes that he is in fact not the next big thing and hello writer’s block.
Solution: Booze. Lots and lots of booze. Pro tip: the next Great American Novel is not at the bottom of that next glass of whiskey. That doesn’t keep Don from trying though. Soon writing is so unimportant to him that he pawns his typewriter. Surely he is done for and will never write again. But no! The love a woman succeeds in doing what none of Don’s rehab trips have managed.
Success: Don’s typewriter is returned, he swears off booze, and finally commits to writing a novel, entitled The Bottle, which he of course dedicates to his lady love.
Lesson: When you can’t think of what to write just go on a six and half year bender and then write about it.
The Shining (1980)
Problem: Busy suburban and family life just isn’t the proper setting for Jack Torrance to write a book.
Solution: A winter away in solitude is, on paper, the perfect place to write with no distractions. Given the opportunity to stay in a hotel virtually alone for a few months, as Jack was, most writers would take it.
Success: Sadly, due to some problems involving telepathy, an Indian burial ground, a snowstorm, and some ghosts, Jack died before he was able to finish his book. This is even more disappointing because of the extremely original narrative structure he was exploring.
Lesson: When you have writer’s block, just write through it. Write anything, even if it sucks, even if you end up typing the same sentence over and over again. At least you’re writing.
Throw Momma from the Train (1987)
Problem: Larry Donner wrote a great book. Then his ex-wife stole it, sold it herself, and became a household name. This experience left him so stuck that he is reduced to filling up his waste basket with crumpled attempts to finish the sentence, “The night was…”
Solution: Attempted murder. After seeing the movie Strangers on a Train, one of Larry’s students tries to kill Larry’s ex-wife. In return the student now expects Larry to murder his overbearing mother.
Success: After numerous failed attempts at killing and getting seriously injured, Larry realizes he needs to concentrate on his own life instead of fixating on his ex-wife’s success. He writes a book about his recent experience and becomes a best-selling author.
Lesson: When you’ve got nothing, steal your plot from a better writer.
Barton Fink (1991)
Problem: After the success of his first Broadway play, the titular character is invited to Hollywood to become a screenwriter. Once there though, no ideas come and he becomes paranoid that he only had one good idea.
Solution: After turning to a drunken writer suffering from his own serious ennui, and an accidental association with a serial killer, Barton finds his muse thanks to the gift of a box which may or may not contain part of one of the killer’s victims. Barton churns out a script in one night.
Success: It turns out Schrodinger’s Severed Head wasn’t the great inspiration he thought it was. With his script a self-plagiarizing mess, Barton’s employer promises he’ll never work in this town again.
Lesson: When faced with the harsh reality that you are a hack, look to other’s whose lives are even worse and you’ll feel better.
Wonder Boys (2000)
Problem: After the success of his first book, Professor Grady Tripp is saddled the other big problem writers face: the inability to stop writing. Unable to come up with an acceptable ending, Grady is eventually stuck with a two and a half thousand page book, which, unless you are Leo Tolstoy or George R. R. Martin, no editor is going to accept.
Solution: Forced editing. Since he writes on a typewriter instead of a computer, Grady’s work is lost for good when most of the pages fly out of a car window. While losing even a page of writing leads most writers to contemplate suicide, in Grady’s case it is exactly what he needed.
Success: Having learned his lesson, Grady finally finished his novel (on a computer this time) seven long years after he started.
Lesson: Sometimes forgetting to back up your writing can be a good thing. Honestly. It will be okay. Step away from the ledge. Nice and easy now.
Problem: In the most meta writer’s block themed movie ever, character Charlie Kaufman is having trouble adapting a popular non-fiction book into a screenplay, which is of course the exact situation with which the real life Charlie Kaufman was struggling.
Solution: The character of Charlie Kaufman starts writing a self-referential screenplay, which is of course what the real life Charlie Kaufman ended up doing.
Success: If we are to assume that art imitated life, then the completed fictional screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award.
Lesson: There is none. You are not Charlie Kaufman and could not pull something like this off. That won’t stop people from trying though.
Secret Window (2004)
Problem: Successful author Mort Rainey has a big ole case of writer’s block thanks to catching his wife cheating on him, followed by a tumultuous and drawn out divorce.
Solution: Mort’s problem is nothing a move to the country, serious mental breakdown, and killing spree can’t fix. (Since this screenplay, like The Shinning, was based off a novel by Stephen King, we can safely assume that the inability to write makes King feel homicidal. He might want to talk to someone about that.)
Success: After using an alternate personality to kill everyone who was giving him problems, Mort’s writer’s block is lifted. Despite being a suspected murderer and town pariah, we can assume he goes on to complete more great literary works.
Lesson: Don’t piss off a writer. We’re all totally unstable. (I’m looking at you, commenters.)