By Fi Dieter
Whether you’re like me, sprinting to deliver the “final revised polished” draft of your thesis screenplay, or you suddenly got the news that you have 48 hours to prep for a pitch that could change your career, we all know the feeling of having to deliver our best work under pressure.
It is no secret that great artistic discoveries have been made in cinema as a result of pressure. Spielberg himself has said that he comes up with his best ideas while “thinking on his feet,” when the stakes are high and the pressure is on. But how can this be a sustainable lifestyle for the up-and-coming filmmaker?
In her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert introduces the idea of the “Shit Sandwich.” She argues that “everything sucks some of the time. You just have to decide what sort of suckage you’re willing to deal with” (Gilbert 150). In other words, you must define if you want something enough to eat the inevitable shit sandwich that comes with it.
For filmmakers, having to show up and perform on a tight deadline can be a form of the sandwich. But through lots of trial and error, I have found five steps that have helped me curve the physical and emotional hurdles that arise whenever the pressure is on. Try them and you too may find a pathway to connect with your infinite wells of creativity.
1. WRITE IT DOWN
Write what, you ask? Some sort of game plan. Notes, an outline, a to-do list, a love letter to yourself committing to a strategy. Whatever gets the task at hand out of your head and onto paper. Don’t type it on your Notes app. That’s cheating. When we put pen to paper, our brain sends a message to our hand and the energy of our thoughts passes through. Avoid being overwhelmed by keeping the information of what you have to do inside your head. Set a soft deadline to complete everything you wrote down, and look back on it constantly knowing you gave yourself extra wiggle room on the off chance that a panic attack, an episode of writer’s block, or an act of God gets in your way. Scratch out the items you’ve completed. It’s the most satisfying feeling in the world.
2. PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, EAT SOMETHING
Raise your hand if you get so consumed by your work (or the thoughts of all the work you haven’t done) that you forget to eat. Do future you a favor and keep a mini crafty stash of your favorite snacks. Your body may tell you that there is no time to waste by eating. Don’t listen to it. Take a small bite or two of something you love. The responsible side of me encourages you to do some research on what foods work well with your body type; to make healthy choices to keep up your energy and actually get something done. But in those pinch points when I’ve been in the pit of screenwriting despair, I’ll admit that my M&M consumption ratio has been half a pound per act. Find your balance and remember that the key here is to be kind to your body, and not neglect its basic needs despite how much it tries to resist you.
3. 20 MINUTES OF PEACE
Carve out 20 minutes to allow yourself to enter some kind of meditative state. I practice Transcendental Meditation daily, and I find it to be a powerful way to enter a state of deep rest and expand my consciousness. But you can do this by listening to a guided meditation on YouTube, jamming to your favorite playlist, or simply by sitting in silence and bringing awareness to your thoughts. Allow them the space to exist and process themselves so that your mind can tap into a deeper field of creativity. You can also try a quick exercise that activates your creative muscles, but that isn’t at all related to the task at hand. Jorjeana Marie’s book Improv for Writers has a treasure trove of exercises to jump-start creativity and generate infinite ideas. I’ve gotten unstuck in my writing more times than I can count whenever I have allowed myself the time and space to take a step back and shift my creative power elsewhere.
4. JUDGE NOT
You cannot be creator and critic at the same moment. I mean, you can. You do you. But I highly recommend kindness over harshness. Nothing feeds the pressure more than that little voice in the back of our heads saying “you’re not good enough.” If it’s annoying when we have all the time in the world, a fast-coming deadline amplifies it like a plague. This is by far the hardest step to accomplish for me, but the benefits of trying are worth it. While conquering the fear of our work getting rejected requires dedicated bravery, I find that the best place to start is to remind yourself of why you wanted to do this in the first place. What movie made you want to be a director? What shot brought a tear to your eye and you knew you were meant to paint with light? What performance sparked the fire in your heart at the very beginning? Find the courage you need, and then let go. Trust that the reason moving you will allow you to create something worthy of existing.
5. SET TIMERS AND SHOW UP
When nothing else works, break the work up into blocks of time. Be honest with yourself and make them realistic. It’s not important how short or long the blocks are. What matters is that during the set time, you show up and give the task at hand everything you’ve got. When you’re off the clock you’re allowed to complain, whine, curse at the wind and smash a baseball bat against your laptop if your heart desires. But when you’re on, promise yourself that you’ll show up. After all, the worst script that’s written down is still better than the best script that isn’t.
I invite you to explore what else works for you beyond these steps. Living a creative life doesn’t come without its challenges and pressure points. But creative people are some of the most resilient I’ve ever known. We are people who thrive on community and connection, and no matter what we face, it helps to know we don’t have to face it alone.
Screenwriter / Director / Producer
Tape Haus Cinema
Instagram: @cinesteph / @_tapeaus