Neil LaBute

Neil LaButeNeil LaBute is the author of plays such as The Shape of Things and reasons to be pretty.

What is your method for overcoming writer’s block?

Thankfully, this is something that I've rarely suffered from, at least the kind of blockage that I've imagined happening or heard of happening to others. The kind of trouble I've encountered has usually come in the form of stoppages along the road during the creative process—when a story or character or idea becomes more elusive the more you write about it—and in those few cases I've always tried to bully my way through. I like the mystery of what we do and I allow it to lead me along much of the time, and occasionally that part of the process will lead me astray. I've written myself into a wall (or at least a corner) many times before and each time I've simply backed up and tried again. And again. And sometimes still again. The key to it (for me, at least) has been persistence and that old chestnut 'perspiration.' I work at my work. I grew up in a very blue-collar environment and it taught me a strong work ethic at a young age and also helped me appreciate the actual experience, to enjoy the process as much as the product and that continues to pay dividends to this day. I still write a lot of the time in a state of 'not knowing,' that is, without a pure sense of where I'll end up after I've started to write something and yet I enjoy that sensation. When it works it feels right and pure, and I think the best of my work written in this way has the same effect on the audience—leading them on a journey that is exciting and challenging, even if it turns out to be ultimately frustrating, bewildering or less than satisfying. The journey has hopefully been a good one. and don't be afraid to walk away from something and come back to it again (a fear i used to have as a young writer) and one thing that continues to work for me when i'm stuck on a project is to put that creative energy into another project—to keep writing, keep the mind active and thinking, but on another piece of material. It's literally a game of attrition at times and I refuse to let the paper win.

What are your favorite or most helpful writing prompts?

My favorite prompt has always been a quote by Chekhov (one that he wrote in a letter to Gorki) and this was simply: "Write, write, write!" It doesn't get any better or more straight-forward than that. Lots of people talk about this profession or sit around in Starbucks and pretend to do it but my favorite place to write—and this is not perscriptive, if Starbucks works for you then stop reading immediately and get your ass down there and start writing—used to be an unfinished room that had a door that closed and blank with walls all around. No window, no distractions, nothing. I put a table at one end and stared at a white wall unless I was writing. Slowly I put up a few inspirational pictures but this was a private, quiet space that allowed me to paint the room with my own ideas. I miss it.

As for an exercise that I like—one I have used with a few classes during my teaching days and beyond (and certainly for myself) has been to find a picture (preferably a postcard) and to write a monologue based on a viewpoint in the photo or of someone just outside the frame (including the viewer, past or present). The length of the piece depends on the size of the back of the card and/or how large or small your handwriting is. Make sure to write it and not type it— remember what it feels like to hold a pen or pencil in your hand again. Do this with a sense of speed and freedom and get someone to read it out for you (or read it to someone) as soon as you can—let the entire process of creation take places quickly and a bit recklessly. Enjoy. Repeat. That said,I find that there is no exercise or prompt as ultimately freeing and fulfilling as the work itself. Whatever you're writing on—prose, poetry, play—keep at it and enjoy the ride.I don't understand people who dislike the re-writing process or any step of the process (even though I hate to outline things)—writing is writing.

What is the most valuable advice you received as a young writer?

There have been many people along the way who encouraged me to continue working with the raw talent that they could see (when many others could not)—I don't mean family and friends as that kind of encouragement is terribly important but of a different value, I believe--and there was not a single piece of advice that moved me as much as their general sense of kindness and honesty. Teachers like Terry Parker (as far back as high school in Washington State) or Charles Metten and Charles Whitman (as an undergraduate at Brigham Young) or Jack Wright and John Gronbeck-Tedesco (the University of Kansas) or Susan Miller and Israel Horovitz and Len Jenkin (New York University) and Tim Slover and Stephen Pevner and Brad Gross and Tim Harms and Joyce Ketay and Nicole Clemens and Denise Oswald and Walter Donohue and Stephen Willems and Bernie Telsey and Will Cantler and Bobbie Lupone and Oskar Eustis and Jo Bonney and Terry Kinney and many others in more general terms. Each of these people has devoted countless hours to reading and pondering and responding to work that I've written and never been afraid to be ruthless and nurturing and helpful (and not always for pay, in fact, more often simply because they care). All of them have, in one way or another, repeated the same advice that Chekhov sent on to his young protege: "Write!"

My own stern and oft-repeated encouragement to myself has also been a comfort, and that is to "never take 'no' for the answer. It is 'an' answer, but not 'the' answer." I have a dogged devotion to this craft and it has served me well (or at least well enough).