David Grae is a television writer and executive producer of CBS's Madam Secretary. He is also the co-founder of Gotham Writers Workshop.
What is your method for overcoming writer’s block?
Lower your standards. Don’t try to write the Great American Novel. You never will. And if you wait around trying to get inspired, you will probably end up checking your email more than actually getting any writing done. Inspiration happens (if ever) while you are writing, when you get into that headspace of letting the words and sentences just flow. But you don’t need to get inspired anyway. You just need to write. Inspiration is rare. Most writing is the product of hard work. This is especially true in television writing, which I do for a living. It is a craft. The harder you work at it and the more you do it, the better you get. In television, there is no time to sit around waiting to get inspired. You need to write scripts quickly. So you do your best with the time you have. There is no such thing as a tv writer who suffers from writer’s block. And if there ever is, he won’t last long in the business. There is no time for writer’s block in television. And you shouldn’t let yourself sit around, waiting for inspiration, no matter what you are writing. So, yes, lower your standards. Because if you are stuck, unable to write anything, then chances are your standards are unrealistically high. Lower them to the point where you can actually put words on the page. Then, over time, your writing will improve. You might even reach those higher standards you were holding out for when you were stuck, unable to put word to page.
What are your favorite or most helpful writing prompts?
I only have one writing prompt: a deadline. It is amazing how powerful deadlines are. Whenever I have to write a script, I always ask the head writer when he or she wants it. Then I cram early. I write as much as I can as quickly as I can. I find that writing begets writing. Once I get the gears turning, it becomes easier and easier to keep writing. The last five pages of the day almost always come faster and easier (and are often better) than the first five pages of the day. The second day is often better than the first because I have gotten the ship out of the port and have hit the open waters. TV scripts are written in four to six acts. The later acts come faster than the earlier ones. So writing itself is the ultimate writing prompt for me.
How do you get started if you are not a professional writer and you don’t have a deadline? One surefire way is to take a writing class—Gotham or any other, though I have a preference for Gotham’s classes, of course. All writing classes will give you assignments with deadlines. I once had a fiction writing student at Gotham who was a very successful journalist. He told me that in a decades-long career as a newspaper writer, he had never missed a deadline for an article. But he had started many short stories and never finished one. His main reason for taking the class was for the deadlines. And over the next several weeks, he completed two short stories. Deadlines are very powerful. Find a way to give yourself a deadline.
What is the most valuable advice you received as a young writer?
My “big break” as a tv writer came when I was hired to write on a CBS show called Joan of Arcadia. The show’s creator/showrunner was Barbara Hall. When she gave me my first script assignment, Barbara came into my office, and said “Okay, kid, you’re up. I just want you to know that you should write as smart and sophisticated a script as you possibly can. Swing for the fences. I don’t care if you have a reference in there and you and I are the only two people in the world who get it. Reach for the sky.” She probably said it more eloquently than that, but that’s the gist. I have followed that advice with every script I have written since, no matter what the show. It boiled down to what I tell my kids when they are worried about their homework or a big test: just do your best. It may sound obvious. But everyone is at a different point in his or her development as a writer. You can’t hold yourself to anyone else’s standards. You just have to write in the best way you know how.
I also take Barbara’s advice to mean that you should not write to please others. Don’t try to hit some kind of imaginary mark that you think other people might be looking for. You should write for yourself. Write what you want to read (or see). That’s how you will do your best work. And, invariably, it will be the work that will most likely please the most people anyway.