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Stephen Schwartz on Writer's Block with Musicals

Avoiding Writer's Block

To Avoid Writer's Block, Write Without Your Inner Editor

Stephen Schwartz: A friend of mine, a wonderful writer named John Bucchino, said something to me, this is a slight, speaking of corollaries, in some ways I think it's really useful to day because it has to do with writer's block. I really haven't experienced it much but there was one period when I experienced it and I couldn't understand why. I was doing Hunchback of Notre Dame and I suddenly hit a place where I just couldn't get anywhere and I was talking to John about what I was going through and the process, and he was like, oh well, because you're being the editor too soon. It's clear that what's happening is, you're short-circuiting your instincts because you're editing them too soon. And what you need to do is just get out of your way and let all your stuff come out, the crap and the bad this, and all the stuff that doesn't work, and be willing to turn out the shit. Because after a while, the water starts to flow more clearly or you find some nuggets in all that sludge or whatever, and I realize that's what writer's block is.

Writing is really two processes. It's really the writer and the editor, which one contains within oneself. There's all this stuff that you could write down, and then there's the things that you select to do and that's the editor making those selections. What I realized is that if you are trying to select too soon, and you start to think: well I could, nah that won't be good. Well, nah, that's not a good word. Then suddenly you have writer's block. And if you're willing to just whatever, I don't know, then things start to happen. That was useful to me and I offer it to you for whatever it's worth.

Perfectionism

Carol's note: In the spring of 2000 when I was just getting to know Stephen Schwartz, I posted really long questions on his website forum. Fortunately he rose to the occasion and provided some interesting answers about the writing process. The following is our Q and A about some writing issues.

Question from Carol de Giere

Dear Stephen:

At various stages in the creative process, including midway and towards the end, inner editors have been known to combine with drive and vision to create a problematic form of perfectionism. Since you have drive and vision, I wonder if perfectionism shows up.

Julia Cameron explains in her creativity book, The Artist's Way, "The perfectionist fixes one line of a poem over and over-until no lines are right".The perfectionist writes so many versions of scene one that she never gets to the rest of the play." As a songwriter, have you ever wanting to tweak lyrics or music until they're past good enough and back to where they started before the tweaking?

One of Julia's exercises to get out of perfectionism is to ask yourself what you would really enjoy doing if you could accept doing it badly. Several years ago I participated in improvisational theatre classes. When I was willing to make a complete fool of myself and say "yes" to my zaniest, spontaneous responses to theatre games, I felt pretty liberated. It helped teach that judgmental inner voice not to fuss quite so much, either in the beginning or in later phases of the process. (There is always more to learn along these lines and I do appreciate reading your editor/writer discussion).

So who sees Stephen Schwartz at his zaniest moments? What would you love to do if it was fine to do it imperfectly? Have you done improv? What about instead of playing tennis, doing something that's totally new requiring a clumsy phase before getting good at it, like, I don't know, snow boarding? Or sailing (or do you sail already)?

Stephen Schwartz's answer

Dear Carol: Interesting questions. For me, it's not really an issue of whatI would enjoy doing even "imperfectly", since I tend to do what I enjoy doing anyway. (And I've been lucky enough to be able to get paid for some of it!)

You mentioned tennis, and playing tennis is something I really love to do. The fact that I've gotten better at it only enhances my enjoyment, but it's not as if it was a world to "conquer" and now I feel I want to move on to sailing or hockey or whatever. I still really just love playing tennis -- I enjoy the running around and the feeling of whacking the hell out of the ball, etc.

But to get to the more serious issue you raise -- the problem of perfectionism for me is not over-tweaking an existing line or lines (I tend to be a pretty rational judge of when a line is the best I'm going to be able to do with it), but getting something down in the first place that I can then tweak. In other words, it's getting that first draft out that I find hard sometimes and when I must shut up the inner voice that is telling me an idea is stupid or not worth pursuing or whatever. Once I have something to work from I'm in pretty good shape.

Other writers seem to have more trouble with re-writing, but for me it's the first draft. I have found the "morning pages" exercise that is described in The Artist's Way extremely helpful at breaking the internal log jam sometimes, and I would do it every day except that it gives me terrible writer's cramp! Thanks as always for your interest and your interesting questions.

Best, Stephen

Creativity Support

The Artists Way by Julia CameronArtist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity

Julia Cameron's books, tapes, and seminars have helped countless artists break free of their limiting beliefs and find freer expression in their artistic aspirations.

A related book is Fearless Creating (Inner Workbook.) by Eric Maisel

Deep WritingDeep Writing: 7 Principles That Bring Ideas to Life

Psychotherapist Maisel, also an author of fiction and nonfiction, now works as a creativity consultant. He defines deep writing as "writing passionately and well about those things that really matter to you." It involves seven principles: hushing the mind, holding the intention, making choices, honoring the process, befriending the work, evaluating, and doing what's required....

To send suggestions, comments, or questions write to carol@musicalschwartz.com


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