Monday, September 1, 2008

Welcome Guest Blogger - Janette Barber

Welcome Janette Barber to the blog - but before you do, you might want to fasten your seat belt, or whatever will hold you into your chair, because you are about to move FAST FORWARD into your writing. Janette is here to inspire, motivate and move you into finishing that fab piece of writing you've been ignoring. And you'll have a blast! Funny, smart, and accomplished are all words that describe Janette. Here's just a wee taste of who she is:

Janette Barber is the former 5 time Emmy Award winning supervising producer and head writer of The Rosie O’Donnell Show. She just received her 6th Emmy for her work as Hot Topics Writer on ABC’s The View. Janette produced and co-hosted her own show, Lighten Up, on the TV Food Network which featured ways to turn fattening favorites into healthier alternatives. Janette is the co-author of a best selling book, Breaking the Rules, Last Ditch Tactics for Landing the Man of Your Dreams (Career Press). Her newest book, released in June and also co-authored with Laura Banks, is Embracing Your Big Fat Ass (Atria). Janette has a blog that incorporates both writing and video.

What’s the deal with Writers’ Block?
Janette Barber

“Waiting for my muse…” is another way to say, “I’m a cashier.” The only thing that separates someone who wants to be a writer from someone who is a writer is that a writer writes. We don’t channel. We don’t have to tune our antennae to a cosmic force and wait for an alien to transmit. What a writer has to do is open up the typewriter (yes I know but I like the word) and write. Sit behind your keyboard. Put your hands on the keys and start moving your fingers. If you are a writer, something will come out. Maybe it won’t be what you want, or what you planned or even something you will ever use (as in publish) but once your fingers start moving your mind will too because you’re a writer. Once you remove the dam the water continues to flow. Just get started and you’ll have your script, story, novel.

I discovered this having once had a seven year writers’ block. And now I have 6 Emmy awards for TV writing and producing and a USA Today Best seller that I wrote with co-author, Laura Banks, in two weeks, in my spare time, while working 15 hour days on the staff of the Rosie O’Donnell Show in the early days following a fire at 30 Rock when our hours were longer and more stressful because we had a temporary office in a building under construction and were doing our show out of the Letterman studio. And yet I made every deadline….so what’s this about writers’ block?

The block happened many years ago. I was a new stand up comic when my first book came into my head. Literally in the dead of night. Bang. Right there. It was a murder mystery and the characters crowded into my head at around 1AM when I was trying to sleep. I was enthralled with them. I had a victim; I had characters that I loved. I got up and wrote them down. Then the next morning I sat down and kept writing. I wrote longhand in those days and it would just come faster than the pen and, at times, the plot took its own turns. I wrote seven chapters and then the murder finally happened. Now the detective needed to come. But, to my surprise, I didn’t know who the detective was. All the other characters had just come into my head. I had a dead body gasping it’s last in a townhouse on the Upper West Side and not a single detective, cop or even good Samaritan to solve it. So I put the chapters in a drawer.

Seven years passed. SEVEN YEARS! In all that time I kept thinking about my need for a detective but for SEVEN YEARS nothing was clicking. I was also, during this time, writing constantly on something else. I was a stand up comic and comics write their own acts so, essentially, all comics are writers. I went from the open mic and late night stage to the road very quickly. I became a road headliner and spent most of my time (about 40 weeks a year) out there working clubs. This meant a 45 minute set every night and two and sometimes three on weekends. I taped every show and listened to it and during the day worked on new jokes for the next night. Now and then I’d wonder who my detective was, but mostly I needed new jokes so I could get booked in more and better clubs and somehow achieve stardom or something…whatever…I didn’t even know. What I was certain of was that I had to write, pack and be on a plane to Albuquerque in four hours.

As I neared the end of the seven years even joke writing was getting harder and harder. Some days I didn’t do it, then lots of days I didn’t do it. I was just doing my same 45 minute act night after night. Days turned into weeks turned into months for nearly a year. Doing the SAME 45 minute set. I was weak from boredom but dry as a bone when it came to ideas. And my detective? Up his, was my attitude. Leaving me in the lurch for seven years! He could go ram it if he thought I needed him.

The pressure was mounting because I had a vituperative harpy screaming at me from inside my head, “You’ve got to write jokes to get anywhere and you have to be good. You have to be really, really good or people won’t hire you and then you’ll have no money and you won’t have the rent and then you’ll have to get a day job (rather die) or – move back to your father’s house?! (My response) Are you out of your F-ing mind?!?!?!?!? I can’t do that. So it boils down to having to write really, really good jokes cuz otherwise I’ll have to kill myself. What I had essentially done was turn each writing session into a life/death pressure cooker. What a surprise that I wasn’t writing. I judged every word I was writing by what I thought somebody else would think of it. Would the audience laugh and would the club owners and bookers see it as quality comedy? (“Who gives a crap about my detective,” I thought.)

Eventually I became aware of how much I was pressuring myself so I decided to try something. My New York apartment opened into a small entryway and long hallway. I had the entryway crammed with stuff all over the walls and I had a small table laden with things I had no where else to put. I took a kitchen chair, a red pen and a yellow legal pad, went and sat and wrote an incredibly detailed description of that corner. I did it because it was something I could be certain no one in the world would want to read. I was writing it to write it. It was for me and I didn’t have to judge it. It was sacrosanct. No one would (or ever has) read it. It was a description of a corner! But I sat there for three hours because I was writing and I wanted to and even though my corner would interest no one else, it did interest me. After 3 hours I had to get up to do the necessary. I walked down the hall. My desk was at the end of the hallway. Just as I reached my desk – it hit me. My detective. I stopped and sat down right then and started writing her. Moonbeam Tidwell was her name. She wanted to be a reference librarian but in the Tidwell family every male and every third daughter is a cop. Moonbeam was a Tidwell third daughter. Her roly-poly partner Cromwell Hicks followed her into my head. Then my jokes came back. The important thing for me to know was that “writers’ block” isn’t some outside force that stopped me from writing. It was simply me, scaring myself so badly with the need for perfection that I paralyzed myself.

The best piece of advice I ever got on the subject of writers’ block was from Patrick Kelly who was an award winning commercial director, utterly loved by that community, who has now passed. I had just done a Spic ‘N Span commercial with him. He had called me in to find out what I wanted to do with my career. That was what he was like – said he saw something in me and wanted to know what it was. I talked about wanting to write and how I was having “writers’ block” because instead of writing I kept doing other things. “That’s not writers block,” he said. “That’s writers’ avoidance. Whether you write or not is up to you.” I can’t give you better advice than that.

I went from seven years dry to being able to write under the pressure of a daily live TV show. You can’t not make your deadline in TV - the camera comes on at 10AM. It won’t wait for you. I’ve written two year long national magazine columns. You don’t get to tell your editor that your muse was napping. The deadline is 9AM on the 9th and that’s when you’ll deliver. I can always make any deadline because I know that writing is a choice and I can access my ideas whenever I want, on my schedule.

And, yes, by the way, I finished that mystery and it’s still in my drawer but, as you’ve seen, the water continued to flow. Trust is the most important quality you can cultivate. Trust in the process and trust in your own abilities. That and above all, a willingness to sit down, with discipline, and write.

I'm thinking about taking my show on the road! Anyone out there want to start making the comedy club rounds with me?? Wow! I'm inspired. No writer's avoidance! We are all now without excuse!

I bid you good writing

1 comment:

sheriboeyink said...

Great post, Bonnie. Inspiring. WOW, seven years. I like the term "Writer Avoidance." I think that's totally appropriate.

I was working on project #3 and just sat down and said, "Ok God, what should we write?" I typed and typed, just kinda letting things go where they may knowing I can always cut it later, or re-work it later.

In just a couple weeks I had 60,000 words. If you can just sit down, let loose, it'll come.

I loved this article. Thanks for sharing.