You Don't Have To "Sit Your Butt Down and Write"

18 January 2023| Tags: screenwriting, storytelling, writing process, things I've learned

“Jeremy, I’ve got all of these ideas, but when I sit down to write them, nothing comes out”

People ask me for advice when they get stuck with their writing.

Maybe because:

(1) I was “blocked” for more than ten years. Every weekend I’d go to writers groups. I’d plug away, stuck on an unfinished novel.

(2) Now I write for a Disney+ TV show, previously NBC Universal. Producers are asking me to come in and do a rewrite on a feature film.

When a multi-million dollar business needs your pages, you can’t tell them, “Yeah, sorry, nothing to film. Tell the cast and crew to go home. You’re going to have to eat all that catering yourself. I’m blocked, man”.

I use a different process now. Words come out when we need them.

If I could go back in time and just share a few words with the younger version of me, I could make life so much easier.

Young Me: I’ve got all of these ideas, but when I sit down to write them, nothing comes out…

Imagine there are three “blackbox” machines you could choose to turn on.

Imagine that you know what comes out when you turn them on. You’ve seen them work. You can describe what they produce.

┌─────────────────┐        ┌─────────────────┐
│                 │        │                 │
│                 │        │                 │
│     Shower      │══════▶ │      Ideas      │
│                 │        │                 │
│                 │        │                 │
└─────────────────┘        └─────────────────┘
┌─────────────────┐        ┌─────────────────┐
│                 │        │                 │
│                 │        │                 │
│     Driving     │══════▶ │  Ideas & Words  │
│                 │        │                 │
│                 │        │                 │
└─────────────────┘        └─────────────────┘
┌─────────────────┐        ┌─────────────────┐
│                 │        │                 │
│  Sitting Down   │        │                 │
│   at Keyboard   │══════▶ │     NOTHING     │
│                 │        │                 │
│                 │        │                 │
└─────────────────┘        └─────────────────┘

Why would you turn on the machine called “Sitting Down at Keyboard”?

Stop beating yourself up, Jeremy. You know what that machine produces.

Why not take a shower instead?

Young Me: Yeah, but you can’t write in the shower…

The hell I can’t.

The hell you can’t.

Aaron Sorkin demands an adjoining bathroom with a shower in every office he works in.

I believe Sorkin takes 5 - 10 showers a day. (Someone told me I’m naive. According to some dude on Reddit, “shower” is a polite way of saying “line of cocaine”… I don’t know about that, but I can say that non-cocaine showers work great).

Seriously, Young Jeremy, I’m actually writing this to you, right now, in the shower.

Young Me: Really?!


Well, I’m out of the shower now, dripping water everywhere, dictating this into my phone.

I guess you’re in the past, before voice recognition software got good, but trust me, even by 2018, you’ll be able to talk into an app called Otter, and a pretty decent transcription will come out.

Young Me: But do you actually write screenplays in the shower?

I write a lot of snippets, whenever they come to me.

But it’s not about the literal shower.

You can do anything you like that gets ideas and words flowing. That’s what they pay you for.

No-one pays you to sit in front of a keyboard.

Your mental image of a “writer” being someone who must sit at a keyboard—it’s not true.

Imagine if some kid watched Rocky, and thought that boxers must punch frozen meat, otherwise they’re not a boxer. That’s what you’re doing.

Young Me: So, like, you go for walks?

Sure. Anything. Just ask yourself: when do ideas and words come out the most?

Here’s just 3 off the top of my head:

  1. Calling your brother and pitching him ideas
  2. Doing the dishes and freestyling into a voice recorder
  3. Going for a walk and acting out scenes, while parents with small children cross the road to avoid the crazy asian dude talking to himself.

Also, you don’t have to write a whole thing in one gulp.

It’s actually the evening now, hours after the shower. Just jot down a bunch of snippets, and assemble them later.

I’m feeding the dogs right now. Dictating into a new file on the phone.

Young Me: Dogs?!

Oh, yeah, in a few years, you’re going to fall in love with the most incredible woman you’ve ever met. She loves dogs and cats and really wants to have a baby with you…

Young Me: Holy crap, man…

You actually love them, Jeremy.

Young Me: Really?

The dogs? Yeah, definitely.

Young Me: … and in the future, AI is so good you can just talk to your phone and you never need to sit at the keyboard?

Look, I definitely do sit at the keyboard sometimes. Just to do edits and rewrites. Wordsmithing.

But I’m never staring at a blank screen. I’ve got so many words I’ve already jotted down.

It’s like I’m just sitting down to edit, basically.

That’s not hard.

I’ve never heard anyone say: “Oh man, when I sit down to edit… I just can’t edit.”

It’s so much easier. Just try it.

Young Me: Thanks, Old Man Me. I’ll try it. Hey, one more thing. You really live with dogs?

Yeah. Life changes. You’ve got a lot to look forward to, man.

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