Switch Things Up to Break Writer’s Block

chungking express

Chungking Express directed by Wong Kar Wai (1994)

This started as a conversation at a Writers Anon meeting, where we discussed the absolute pain in the arse that is writer’s block and how to deal with it, when you feel like you’re looking into the abyss.

I’ve been on a Quentin Tarantino kick, recently, watching both Inglourious Basterds and The Hateful Eight in quick succession. And then yesterday, I was looking up the trailer for Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express (stick with me here, there is a point) and YouTube suggested an introduction Tarantino had recorded for the film, presumably when he’d released them on DVD for US audiences.

Despite not being particularly enthused about Tarantino’s propensity for borrowing heavily (sometimes too heavily) from Asian cinema, I watched his intro to see what he had to say. It was a really great discussion about the film; drawing parallels between Chungking Express and French New Wave cinema, which I hadn’t considered before. Tarantino also gave a bit of background on the actors and recommended other films. But one of the most interesting stories was an anecdote of how the film came to be made as a result of Wong Kar Wai hitting a creative wall on another film.

See, there is a point.

So, Tarantino’s story goes like this – Wai was working on his big, sprawling Chinese sword fighting epic, Ashes of Time, but he was running out of steam. The shoot was long and editing made it even longer. The film was beginning to feel like a burden, which was sapping his creative energy. At the editing stage Wai declared that he couldn’t see the wood for the trees, so he decided to work on something else to shake off his malaise with Ashes of Time.

Stepping away from the big, weighty project, he jumped into Chungking Express, which is a light, pacey, fresh film. It’s short, low budget, a small cast, filmed on location in Hong Kong with a bunch of people who were on board for a fun project. It was all done and dusted in a relatively short time and then Wai returned to Ashes of Time feeling refreshed and ready to get down to editing.

As soon as I heard this story it chimed with my approach to block. Or one of my approaches to block. If that big project is weighing you down, sometimes it’s not helpful to bang your head against that wall. But then you feel guilty for not writing because we all know the ‘writers write’ mantra; I’ve used it myself on this blog often enough. So this is my trick to keep you writing, just not writing that big thing you’re stuck on.

Write something else. Simple. There is a caveat though. By jumping onto something else, there is a danger that you will abandon that big project completely, leaving it unfinished, which will ultimately feel unsatisfying. To avoid that danger, make like Wong Kar Wai and pick something that’s much smaller and won’t turn into a major project that takes you away from your WIP.

If you’re writing an epic fantasy, pick a side project that’s in a different genre. Write in a different medium. Maybe you could write some poetry or write a short film script or something for theatre. Exercise a different writing muscle to give your brain a change of scene and then go back to the work in progress once you’ve finished that little distraction. There won’t be any not writing guilt because you are writing, you’re improving a new aspect of your writing and you should get back to the main project feeling refreshed.

Of course, Wong Kar Wai is a titan of Hong Kong cinema, but even so I’m not sure how he just halts production of one film to make another, but hey. And lo, Chungking Express is one of his most successful films, so you never know, that side project could really be something.

What do you do to shift the block or recharge your inspiration battery, when just forcing it isn’t working?

Also, if you haven’t seen Chungking Express, I highly recommend it. It was my introduction to one of my favourite directors, Wong Kar Wai and the cinematographer, Chris Doyle.

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