Writer’s block is something that every stand-up comedian must face throughout their career. It’s common for the creativity of comedians to ebb and flow. There are a few main causes of writer’s block. By eliminating the root-cause of writer’s block, comedians will be able to write higher quality material, more material, as well as overcome the frustrations linked to writer’s block.
What Causes Writer’s Block for Stand-Up Comedians?
Writer’s block for comedians is the same as writer’s block in any other endeavor and has similar causes and solutions. The primary cause of writer’s block is premature judgment. This happens when comedians are attempting to both “write” comedy while analyzing whether it’s any good. Obviously, being able to evaluate your stand-up comedy is key to quality control for any comedian. It’s not that comedians “shouldn’t” do it, it’s when comedians choose to do it that causes writer’s block.
To understand exactly why comedians get writer’s block, it’s important to understand a key concept: the brain can only focus on one task at a time. When writer’s block occurs, the vast majority of the time the comedian is attempting to simultaneously do two opposite thought processes at the same exact time. Since the brain isn’t wired to do this gridlock occurs. The brain isn’t sure which path is more important so it becomes locked in “paralysis by analysis.” Think of it as having a foot on the gas and the break at the same time. Both are necessary, but should be used separately.
When exactly do you evaluate your material? When you’re done with your creative flow. Since the creative flow of comedians naturally ebbs and flows there will be a time where, no matter how skillfully you apply the strategies listed below, you will find yourself fighting an uphill battle. Instead of getting frustrated, use it as an opportunity to go back through your material and analyze it. This way, you won’t get writer’s block while you’re attempting to get words on the paper.
In the Faster & Funnier Stand-Up Comedy Course, I teach students a method I call “directional writing.” Directional writing is intentionally setup to not allow for both “creating” and “analyzing” at the same time so that comedians are able to side-step writer’s block before it even happens, stay in a creative flow longer, and build writing momentum. Second benefit of this method is that it eliminates many of the rules that create writer’s block on the first place.
Rules = Writer’s Block
Rules are any constraints that you place on yourself while writing. For comedians, a very common rule is going to be based on the perceived quality of the material. You get writer’s block because you’re not meeting this rule and so you’re not allowing yourself to continue until this rule is met.
Rules that come from the stand-up comedy industry are another source of rules that affect comedian’s ability to write. Think of how much advice you’ve been given on writing stand-up comedy. If you’ve taken a stand-up comedy class or read any of the books on how to write stand-up comedy out there then you’ve likely learned 20 or 30 different “rules” for writing high quality material. While adhering to those rules does help the quality of your written material, they’re hell during the actual writing process and almost always lead to writer’s block. If you’re anything like most new stand-up comedians that read these books, you likely learned a lot from these rules and then quickly… stopped writing. Instead of enjoying the writing process (as you likely were before learning the rules), you’re now checking everything you do against 20 or 30 different rules. There’s no opportunity to get into a creative flow anymore. It’s like attempting to run a marathon and stopping every 10 seconds to see how well you’re doing.
When you have a ton of rules you have to follow there’s no escaping this. Every time you write anything you instantly create the next reason to analyze you material, checking them against all the rules you’re attempting to follow. This method of writing sucks the fun out of writing comedy, results in lower levels of creativity, and instantly creates writer’s block for comedians. You cannot overcome writer’s block when the very source of that writer’s block is the strategy you’re using to write your comedy material.
To uncover your rules simply ask one question:
What HAS to happen for you to keep writing and enjoying it?
This question is extremely powerful if you take the time to reflect on it. Is there a certain time that you have to write? Do you refuse to start writing if you have something scheduled in the next 30 minutes (i.e. “I won’t start writing now, cause once I start getting into it I’ll have to stop.”)? Does your writing have to make you feel a certain way (i.e. productive, smart, witty, silly, etc.)? When you’re getting writer’s block, what’s the source of the frustration?
This question is powerful because, whether you know it or not, whether or not you get writer’s block is directly related to how you feel prior to and during the writing process. Any time one of your rules is broken you’ll instantly end up blocking yourself. At the very least, you should understand what these rules are so that you can structure your writing around it. Ideally, you should eliminate rules that don’t work for you.
The take away:
To overcome writer’s block as a comedian, you have to do two things. First, you have to stop evaluating your material at the same time you’re writing it. Second, you need to uncover your “rules” to discover what leads you into writer’s block in the first place. There are many strategies you can use to temporarily overcome writer’s block, but if you don’t understand these two concepts, apply those strategies will likely lead to only marginal benefit. Once you do understand how and why you get writer’s block in the first place you’ll be in a position of power to overcome it, regardless of whether you use a strategy or not.