Monday, April 4, 2011

The Latest in Hollywood Block-busters

From "Adaptation" to "The Shining" to "Barton Fink," Hollywood has had a longstanding fascination with the blocked writer. The latest addition to this sublimating subgenre is "Limitless," which stars Bradley Cooper as a "frustrated novelist who gets his hands on an experimental drug that kicks his IQ up to the 'four digit' range." This got us wondering: how real are these reel-life portrayals? Is there something to be learned here (other than screenwriters can be as self-absorbed as everyone else in the biz)?

It turns out that Salon book critic Laura Miller was having a meta-mindmeld with us. She took the occasion of "Limitless"'s release last week to post a terrific meditation on the legend of the writer who can't write -- and, more importantly, the grim reality of writer's block -- that tackles the same questions we were pondering. To wit:

In "Limitless," the blocked writer-hero overcomes his literary struggles (and presumably, his other struggles) thanks to a magical elixir that inspires greatness by activating the "fabled" nine-tenths of the brain the rest of us can't use. "What's especially bizarre about the premise," Miller points out, "is the notion that writer's block can be overcome by an increase in intelligence." In real life, as any blocked writer will attest, a lack of brains isn't the problem.

So what is? While it's true that biochemistry plays a role in the creative process -- if not exactly in the way "Limitless" might suggest--most cases of writer's block aren't about a chemical imbalance. Rather, Miller argues, they're about fear. To back up her case, she enlists the Yerkes-Dodson Law. According to the pair of early 20th century psychologists, the "more 'aroused' (i.e., engaged and challenged) a person is by a task, the better he or she performs." That holds true until "arousal becomes anxiety or worry, at which point performance declines." So while feeling that your writing work is challenging and important is inspiring, feeling that your writing work is too high-stakes causes you to shut down.

But if "the stakes fuel the block," then Miller's got the remedy: what "every blocked writer really needs," she says, is "something more significant they should be doing instead." When your novel has got you paralyzed, in other words, what you need is an extremely urgent corporate assignment. Or as Miller puts it, "it's amazing what you can get done when you believe you're shirking some other, more important enterprise."

So, fellow writers, does this ring true? Have you ever enlisted a "decoy project" to get un-stuck? Where do you turn when the spark of inspiration just won't light?

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