Surviving Writer's Block

Today we'll be concluding our series of interviews with Brian Bird, Hollywood writer/producer who has, among other things, worked on such series as Touched By An Angel, Step By Step and The Family Man. Brian is going to discuss weighty issues as writer's block and the old character versus plot debate.

MERRIE: Brian, here is a subject that I think every writer, beginning or advanced has struggled with. Should we keep writing and, if so, why? So my question for you is, was there ever a time when you almost quit writing? If so, can you tell us about it and why you decided not to stop?

BRIAN: Late one night, I was in the middle of a script for Touched By An Angel and I was completely lost. I was on deadline, which means it had to be turned in the next morning, and by the way, there is no such thing as “writer’s block” allowed in the world of television. If you don’t deliver, you’re fired. Anyway, I had written myself figuratively into a tributary of the Amazon River and couldn’t find my way back to the main story channel. So I just reached out to God. Actually, it was more than reaching, it was pleading. I began to play all the negative self-talk tapes that we all have… “you are a horrible writer”… “you’re a fraud”… “how did you trick people into thinking you could do this”… etc. I just asked God to rescue me, and the writer in me would like to tell you that words began magically appearing on my computer screen, but that would be fiction. What is true is that I received a very deep impression on my soul. And here is what I heard: “I was a writer, now you be one.” I got chills up and down my spine. I didn’t exactly know what to make of that, but then scripture verses started coming to mind… “God is the author of the universe”…. “Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith”… “in the beginning was the Word.” And it then occurred to me: How did God choose to leave his revelation to us? In a NOVEL. A big, long narrative of history… HIS STORY. And that I was created in the image of the author of the universe, and if that’s true, what a privilege it is for me to carry that creative torch, even in my small human way. And I began typing. And somehow I made it through that long night and turned in a draft of the script that was actually pretty good. And since then, I have not allowed myself the excuse of having “writer’s block.” That’s not to say it’s not always hard work, but I choose to power through it. That’s not to say that whatever flows from the fingertips is all golden. It’s not. But I don’t censor or second guess myself anymore. I go with what seems right, and thankfully, it mostly is.

MERRIE: I don't know about the other writers out there, but I know that I've hit that wall more than once. I love the fact that scripture gave you the courage and the inspiration to finish your script. One more reason why we should spend time memorizing and meditating on God's Word. Here's another question for you: When writing your scripts, which comes first the plot or the character? Is one more important to you than another, and if so, why?

BRIAN: The answer to this age-old question is… YES. In all fiction, whether it be in film or novels, the goal of the author is make his or her audience fall in love with his characters. If you can do that in the first act of a screenplay (or the first several chapters of a novel), the audience will take the journey with you. If you don’t create compelling characters your audience can fall in love with, the party is over before it begins. You may coast your way through the story with cardboard characters, but the audience is probably going to root for you to kill them off before you get to the end of the quest. So the answer to the chicken-and-egg question in storytelling is that good characters create their own plot turns, because the plot turns have everything to do with the journey your characters are on. The only world in which explosions and girls in bikinis serve as good plot turns is in the world of really bad writing. If you need a plot turn in your story, ask your protagonist where he is on his journey, and the plot turn will come to you both.

MERRIE: I absolutely agree. If you don't have good characters, there's no reason to care about the story. I hear that you're going to be teaching at the upcoming OCCWF conference. Can you tell us a few things you hope to discuss in your seminar?

BRIAN: We’re going to discuss the intersection of novels and film and tips for turning books into screenplays. And given my experience of having adapted so many books over the years, I have a feeling that I’m going to be answering a lot of questions from authors who think I’ve destroyed a lot of great books.

MERRIE: Brian,thank you so much for allowing me to interview you! Is there anything else that you would like to say?

BRIAN: God was and is a writer… now you be one.


And don’t forget, there are still openings available to attend the OCCWF conference. Visit their site at http://www.occwf.org/ for more information.


Mark Goodyear said...

Powerful interview, Merrie. I'm especially intrigued by Brian's response. He realizes that God is the original author. Then reaches the place where "I don’t censor or second guess myself anymore."

I'd love to hear more from him on the logical steps between those two places.

Merrie Destefano said...

That's a good point, Mark. It always amazes me how other people's minds work. I never even thought about the fact that there might be steps between point A and point B.

It's too bad you live so far away, or you'd probably be able to attend the OCCWF conference and have some time to discuss it with Brian himself.

I'm just a lowly mediator who didn't think to ask that worthy question.