Last year, I had the privilege of taking part in a series of masterclasses given by an incredibly experienced and wise director of animated films. There was one particular subject that blew my head clean off. It’s not an understatement to say that it inverted my entire conception of writing as a profession. As soon as they explained it, everything I’d been struggling with, and everything I’d been half-successfully already doing, clicked gently, decisively into place, like a cartridge in a Game Boy.
Consider that we almost all begin creative pursuits for the same reason: following a passion. We love games, so we try to make them, or we love telling stories, so we tell them. If we didn’t, we’d make more money doing something else. That creativity comes easily, because to put it simply, it’s what we want to be doing. And since passion sells, and anyone who’s passionate is inherently engaging, we get good feedback from others. We may even start to feel we have a talent, maybe good enough to get paid for it or go to uni to turn it into a career.
Trouble in paradise
But once writing becomes their vocation, many writers oddly stop writing. It’s no longer fun. Often, this is because either they don’t like the story they’re being asked to write (they don’t like the assignment or creative direction etc), or because the pressure on the quality of the work ruins the enjoyment. Either way, the passion isn’t there, the work’s lacklustre, opportunities pass them by, and they no longer enjoy writing enough to pursue it as fervently as they thought they would. I’ve been here. Most of us have, I think. Those who continue often simply grit their teeth and persist regardless. Even though they’re not enjoying it, they’re determined to make writing into work. They come up with techniques to force themselves to write when they aren’t feeling it, to overcome the blank page or the crappy assignment. They bash their head against it. But that’s not what I’m suggesting here.
A writer’s job isn’t to write. The job is to fall in love.
Forget all that other stuff about overcoming the barriers to writing. Let’s say you’re on your dream project. If you truly love what you’re working on, if you’re elated just to be involved with this project, we all know that automatically, with no struggle or discipline on your part, you’ll bring your best work, waste less time procrastinating, and be a better team member. Like when you started out on your own stories just for fun, you’ll get in the zone, loving every second of creation.
Don’t waste energy by forcing yourself to write when you don’t want to. Use that energy to find a way to fall in love with the story you’re telling, and the rest will come. Realise when you’re not enamoured with a project, spend a short while solving that, then coast by on the good, hard work that spills out. But how to fall in love?
For every project, no matter how uninteresting we might feel it is, there exists a version that we could love and fight for. If assigned to write about gung-ho US soldiers, but you hate American imperialism, find a way to subvert it that’s true to you. Write Spec Ops: The Line. If writing a tie-in for an expensive children’s toy line, but you can’t stand the brand’s increasingly rigid and unimaginative products or their pandering to nostalgia-shackled adults, write The LEGO Movie. Of course, in real life you’d often just be told “No”, but there’s always a million ways to subvert a story into something you can love. Finding one that flies with everyone else is the hard part, but makes the work infinitely better for you and them.
Sometimes, though, you won’t have the ability to change or subvert the story you’re telling. Either you’re already too committed, or you simply aren’t high enough up the chain. If you’re struggling to find something to love about your project, and can’t change the project itself, here are a few ways to discover what you can love about what’s already there:
1. When you don’t know what you love about the work, or what to do next, don’t be afraid of saying “I don’t know yet” to your team. That’s a good place to be, not a bad one. Then try the below.
2. Allow yourself to do the job badly. Do a deliberately wrong version of your scene just for fun. Playing and exploring without pressure will often help you find an approach you love.
3. Refresh your process. Change the working method, go from digital to physical, use different software, work in a different environment. Process shapes the work, so if you don’t love the current stuff, switch it up.
4. Refresh yourself in leisure, too. If you usually watch a movie to relax, watch opera. If you normally go for a walk, go cycling. Challenge yourself to like it. Different ideas will bubble up.
5. Keep a ‘morgue’ – for example, a random collection of every image that snatches your attention and makes you go “Ooh!”. Or keep story ideas on your phone, or a list of scenes you liked. These should persist between projects, and when your passion runs dry, you can revisit these morgues, find something you love, and insert it into the story.
Since the masterclasses last year, I’ve refocused my (small) potential for difficult work into just this area: falling in love with the project. And the difference has been night and day. I’m procrastinating way less. I’m getting a lot more done, and my work ethic has been energising others. The people I’m involved with are responding to me differently, and looking to me more frequently to lead the charge on whatever we’re making.
So if you find yourself stuck in a rut, unable to enjoy writing (or, really, any creative work), gritting your teeth, and forcing yourself to just put one word after the next, consider a refocus. One last time: the job is to fall in love.