A Filmmaker’s Guide to Beating Writer’s Block

The writer-director of the upcoming Sollers Point shares his tricks for getting out of a screenwriting slump.

My dad is a writer. All the years I lived with him, he got up at three in the morning to hammer away on his typewriter until he left for work. In the evenings, he’d write again till dinner. He taught me that every day you sit down at the same time, in front of the blank page, whether anything comes or not.

I’ve tried to apply this discipline to my own creative practice. But I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration to arrive or punishing myself if it doesn’t. And I’ve found that small doses of distraction can be energizing. If I allow myself to stray from the page, even briefly, my attention is amplified when it’s time to return.

My favorite distraction is the car nap. I get in my car wherever it’s parked and crack the driver’s side windows about two inches and roll the passenger side windows down halfway, wide enough to catch a breeze, but not wide enough for someone to reach in and grab me. I recline the seat and slip off my shoes and nap for 20 minutes to an hour. Because the car is only a semi-private place, I don’t fall into deep sleep and instead float around in a liminal dream state. When I awaken, I have a sunny, dazed feeling and maybe an image or two in my head. But car naps only really work in warm weather. In winter months, I have other techniques.

My office

In January of 2015, I had a residency at a writers’ colony. I had a warm little cabin looking out onto an expanse of snowy pines. I saw a fox, a bobcat, and a bouquet of quail. I’d take breaks and smoke cigars in my pajamas. But my favorite distraction came after lunch. I’d spend thirty minutes singing Usher’s “Climax” at the top of my lungs. There wasn’t another cabin for half a mile, so I felt safe rehearsing a song that no one would ever hear me sing. The song is not in my range: I can approach Usher’s falsetto, but never quite get there. And the fact that I can’t is frustrating. But trying something and failing makes you want to succeed at something else. So I’d return to my writing with more determination and vigor. Plus, singing makes me feel good, even if it’s a bittersweet song about the inevitable loss of love.

Another thing that works is reality television. When I was writing my first film, Hamilton, circa 2001, I watched a lot of Blind Date. It became a kind of ritual in my life at the time. The show is like a dirtier version of Love Connection. Host Roger Lodge ridicules two ill-matched strangers while we watch a tape of their doomed first date. Crude animations further editorialize the encounter. With Love Connection, I always felt Chuck Woolery had empathy for his contestants and hope for love; Roger Lodge, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in it. Blind Date is a dating game for the jaded. Like the best reality television (Jerry Springer, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, The Bachelorette), it makes you feel like shit. Something happens to me in the process of watching this kind of TV. It triggers a desire to do better, to push further, to create a little nugget of meaning to counteract the nihilism and cynicism of the world today. With a reality television star as president, watching such programs may be redundant, but a similar process of alchemy can transform daily bouts of hopelessness into surges of creative energy.

My notebook

Sometimes I like to take unnecessary rides on public transportation. When I lived in New York, I used to nap on the F line and end up in Coney Island. I’d get out and wander around, settle on the beach or the boardwalk, then take out my notebook and scribble for hours. Now I live in Baltimore, where there are not only buses, but also two rail lines, one underground and one above, that offer about 60 minutes of uninterrupted travel. They don’t go anywhere glorious, but sometimes the journey itself is enough. You move through old mill towns and industrial parks, across Mt. Washington and Lake Roland, past a little chapel, a methadone clinic, a bus depot. Trains are good spaces for writing. But they’re also good spaces to watch the world pass by and let the mind wander, accumulating images along the way.

Dancing is another activity I’ve utilized to get out of a rut. Whether I’m bouncing to house music or playing air guitar to Primus’ Sailing the Seas of Cheese, a dance break gets my heart rate up and stimulates serotonin. I feel ridiculous, and then I feel like being serious again. Dancing taps into the collective unconscious and makes you think of all the people who’ve ever danced, the places you’ve danced in the past, and the people you want to dance with in the future. You return to the page with a renewed sense of hope, less lonely than when you began.

There are other tricks – drinking tequila, listening to Sunn O))) loud with headphones on, taking a shower, eating umeboshi plums – but they all operate on the same principle: they break up the monotony of the writing process and redirect the attention. I still believe in the discipline of a daily practice, but savor the moments of distraction that provide respite from the grind.


Images by Matisse Rifai.

Matthew Porterfield has written and directed four feature films, Hamilton (2006), Putty Hill (2011), I Used To Be Darker (2013) and Sollers Point, which opens in New York on May 18 and Los Angeles on May 25. His work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art and the Harvard Film Archive and has screened at the Whitney Biennial, the Walker Arts Center, Centre Pompidou, Cinémathèque Française, and film festivals such as Sundance, the Berlinale, and SXSW. His first narrative short, Take What You Can Carry, premiered in the Shorts Competition in Berlin in 2015. Matthew teaches screenwriting, theory, and film production at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and is currently developing his next feature, Check Me In Another Place. (Photo by Matisse Rifai.)