…It’s the vacuum. The literal vacuum. The one that cats run from. Seriously. I’ll explain.
Last year, I finally read Syd Field’s book, Screenplay, and he illuminated something major for me. Amid the surfeit of incredible advice and insight he gives, this was a gem that has forever changed the way I work as a writer. It made me aware of my biggest hang-up.
If you’re a writer, you need to read this. Because your craft may very well be suffering from something that Syd Field calls resistance.
What Resistance Does to Your Work
I have an okay list of completed projects in my Documents folder. A couple novels and screenplays, several short stories, and dozens of poems.
I have twice as many projects I’ve never finished. Eighty-three pages of a novel I never completed, the first 20-or-so pages of another novel I didn’t pursue further, beginnings of short stories, a partial feature length screenplay I was adapting from one of my short films—never got more than about 40 pages out of that one. And countless abandoned outlines. Like, full-on 25-page outlines, carving out characters, inciting incidents, act breaks…the works.
And then I left them in purgatory.
Why? Why have I done this so often? Why have I left my characters and their lives in that sad, dark place?
I didn’t realize. I never saw it coming. I was being thwarted by resistance.
What Is Resistance, Exactly?
Resistance is hard to recognize because it takes on a disguise and tricks you into thinking you’re being productive.
Buried towards the back of Syd’s book, on page 243, here’s what he wrote on the matter:
You learn to swim by perfecting your form, and you can only do that by actually swimming; the more you do, the better you get.
It’s the same with writing. You’re going to experience some form of resistance. It shows itself in many ways, and many times we aren’t even aware it’s happening.
For example: When you first sit down to start writing, you may suddenly get the urge to clean the refrigerator. Or to wash the kitchen floor. You may want to go to the gym, change the sheets, take a drive, eat, watch television, take a yoga class, or have sex. …You may get angry, impatient, and yell at everybody and anybody for nothing in particular.
They’re all forms of resistance.
One of my favorite forms of resistance is sitting down to write and suddenly getting an idea for another screenplay—a much better idea, an idea so unique, so original, so exciting, you’re wondering what you’re doing with this screenplay.
You may even get two or three “better” ideas. It happens quite often; it may be a great idea, but it’s still a form of resistance! If it’s a really good idea, it will keep. Simply write it up in a page or two, put it in a file marked “New Projects,” and file it away. If you decide to pursue this new idea and abandon the original project, you’ll discover the same thing happening.
How to Cure Resistance
This eureka moment was my answer to so many unfinished projects. So many days I got my apartment sparkling, but no words on the page. So many days binge-watching Lost with yet an unsatisfied yearning in the pit of my stomach.
But thankfully, in the end, resistance is not difficult to cure. Mine was cured almost instantly upon reading what had been holding me back all that time.
The simple cure is acknowledging that it’s happening, and then deciding to stop it from going any further. This takes discipline and consistency. But once you realize that the P90X DVD suddenly calling your name is just a form of sabotage, you have the power to sit the fuck back down—and write. You can do your workout afterwards.
Syd Field says, of the cure to resistance:
When you’re cleaning the refrigerator, sharpening pencils, or eating, just know that’s what you’re doing: experiencing resistance! It’s no big thing. Don’t put yourself down, feel guilty, feel worthless, or punish yourself in any way. Just acknowledge the resistance—then move right through to the other side.