The Story of Writers Blok

Paul Shirley
Oct 30, 2019 · 8 min read

I thought it was going to be easy. I would write books, get book deals, and that would be my second act.

I was in for a surprise.

My first book, Can I Keep My Jersey?, was released in 2008. That book chronicled my stop-and-start, journeyman professional basketball career and its publication was, by all accounts, a success. We got a review in New York magazine, an interview on NPR, and the book eventually sold 40,000 copies.

And that’s how it would be, I thought.

So, as my basketball career wound down to an injury-ravaged halt in the same way that people go bankrupt (slowly, then all at once), I went to work on what would be my second book: a novel about a professional basketball player in Spain. (Write what you know!)

I wrote three drafts, some of it in Spain, some of it in Kansas City, and some of it in Los Angeles, where I moved when I finally took my basketball career out behind the shed, patted its weary head, and blasted its poor brain to smithereens. I sent the final draft to my then-literary agent and awaited word. And then: he liked it! He would take it out to publishers, he said.

He did. To 12 of them. They all said no. But I would not be daunted! I would self-publish! I found an editor. I sent her the manuscript. Eight weeks later, inside a coffee shop on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles, I got her email.

She said it was really neither memoir nor novel. And that it just wasn’t there.

I knew she was right, a realization made clear by the way my eyes welled up inside the coffee shop. And then, over the next few weeks and months, I thought about what I was doing with my life. It was then that I realized: I was lying to myself about how hard I’d worked on that book. So I made a resolution: I would treat writing like I’d always treated basketball. As a job. And not only that, I would create the same sorts of routines I’d always found helpful for my otherwise-scattered brain. This wasn’t just — as people sometimes assume — a result of my basketball past. It was a result of my entire past.


My degree from Iowa State University is in mechanical engineering. While I was getting that degree, I was also playing for the Iowa State basketball team, which was a very good basketball team — we won two Big XII titles and went to the NCAA tournament three times.

People would often ask me how I was able to do both. When they asked this question, I would usually shrug and say I wasn’t sure. That was the truth — I didn’t totally understand how I did it at the time. But as I got some distance from that life, I was able to make sense of it. I was able to do both of these things because of the other thing.

I often knew that I only had, say, 45 minutes to study. Or 20 minutes to eat lunch. Or 8 minutes to rest. Otherwise, it wasn’t getting done. Carving up my time like that caused me to get really good at focusing in short bursts. And, oddly, probably made me better at both pursuits. I had friends who had hours and hours to finish their engineering homework. I envied them this time because it felt like it would be so much easier with a little more time. But all this extra time actually made them more prone to procrastination. AND made their grades worse.

It was like we were all — if you’ll pardon me slipping into engineering mode — motors: better at higher RPMs.

With one further addition to that analogy: I was also like a motor in that I needed to rest, too.

I had certain rules in college:

1. No studying after 9 pm.

2. No studying on weekend nights.

3. Never study by yourself, Paul.

This last one was important. Sometime at the beginning of freshman year, inside my dorm room, I cracked the hefty Calculus book I’d spent a zillion dollars on in order to work on the next day’s assignment. And then I got stuck. Like, really stuck, with no idea on a way forward.

That was just about the last time I ever studied anything math- or engineering-related on my own. There were some people who could study by themselves — who had a knack for figuring out these heavy concepts on their own. I was not one of those people. So I made study dates, during which I quickly realized that it was usually the case that if I couldn’t figure something out, the other person could. And vice versa.

It turned out that this wasn’t just more fun; it was also more efficient. There wasn’t the grinding, the aching, the holy-hell-I-have-no-idea-what-to-do-next.


In Los Angeles, after the bad news about my “novel,” I connected to this same idea. I didn’t really like writing alone, either. Maybe there were other people like me?

So I started work on two fronts:

When it came to my own writing, I would write either 1,500 words (if I was working on a first draft) or edit for an hour (if I was working on another draft). This would happen six days a week, whether I wanted to or didn’t want to or was cripplingly hungover.

And when it came to building those “study groups”…I started the thing that would eventually become Writers Blok. I’d become friends with the guy who ran the sandwich shop next door to the coffee shop where I got that fateful email. That sandwich shop was closed at 3 pm every day.

“What if we, like, got some people in here writing every Monday night?”

And so, Writers Blok was born.

On the first night, 17 people showed up and I had a feeling I was on to something. So I kept going to the sandwich shop, wine and extension cords in hand. I’d move tables around and tape the extension cords down and sometimes people would show up and sometimes they wouldn’t and there were lots of times when I wondered why I was doing this — like the time the homeless guy barreled in, slugged a glass of wine, and shouted, “WELL I’M A WRITER WHERE DO I SIT?”

Or the many, many times people walked right by my Donations Box without a glance my way.

I did that for two years. Then a different friend who ran a different sort of restaurant (bagels) said she’d be game to let us use her building. We moved, we got bigger. And then a member said her husband was the pastor at a nearby church and that they rarely used the community room. We moved again. We added a night. I hired my first worker. We added another night. I hired two more workers.

Along the way, there were changes and modifications and adaptations, as we figured out what worked and what made people roll their eyes. I knew early on that I needed to incentivize people to STOP writing because if I’d learned anything it was that you had to give yourself a stopping point. You were making a deal with your brain by starting and saying, “You only have to do it for X.” And you couldn’t Welsh on that deal.

So I bought Oatmeal Creme Pies, which had always been a personal favorite. But this was Los Angeles and Oatmeal Creme Pies have several ingredients that people can’t pronounce. Plus: they were pricey.

So the reward became chocolate, which I’d pass around in a bowl at the end of the 2.5 hours of writing. Which, by the way, was a looooong time. Made even longer because I hadn’t yet learned to break the big group into small groups. Sometimes, there’d be 35 people in the room and we’d all have to listen while someone wrestled with their writing demons — demons conjured by a standard set of questions:

1. Who are you?

2. What did you work on tonight?

3. How’d it go?

I brought a deck of cards and began dividing the big group into small groups and Writers Blok got a little better. Then, our biggest step yet: a permanent location. We had 80 monthly members so we had a feeling it would work. But still. Rent and wages and tables and chairs and taxes and an electric bill and a baby possum who wandered in through an open door and spent the night inside the building.

We were no longer a whim; we were now a Startup. And that meant I had become a Founder. (Ugh, I know.)

Before!

But that was OK because there were quick break-throughs. Thanks to a friend’s idea, we installed a giant chalkboard and instituted Sprint Sessions that lasted only an hour. When people came in, we gave them a piece of chalk and asked them to write a goal on the board for the coming 50 minutes of writing.

We made a Frankenstein schedule that was, admittedly, a little ugly. But in our/my defense: there were three of us and I was still teaching English at a prep school for the Los Angeles Police Academy, which is an entirely different story for an entirely different long-winded post.

We added sessions. We added members. We added a pourover station and a diffuser that made our space smell nice. We painted and wall-papered and put down rugs and bought white-noise machines and we brought in guest speakers and threw parties and now, after 18 months, we’re humming right along. Writers Blok has 145 monthly members, 48 weekly sessions, and 8 Writing Guides.

Sprint Session in review

Which isn’t to say we’re done adapting. There may be another location soon. We’re exploring the idea of expanding online. And to pop-ups in other cities. We’ll keep learning along the way but it’s nice to know we have an organizing principle.

Or two:

1. Writing is easier around other people.

2. Constraints don’t discourage productivity; they encourage it.

Both of these come from lessons I’ve learned from sports and from engineering and from writing itself. Both of these are backed up by people like habits gurus James Clear and Charles Duhigg.

And both of these will make anyone who comes into our space a better, more productive, and happier writer.

Plus: there’s chocolate.

So, if you’re in Los Angeles and you’re a writer, or have always wanted to write, or just think writing might be something worth trying, come on by!

And whether you’re in Los Angeles or not, remember: sometimes — OK, most of the time — rejection is the best thing that could ever happen to you.


To learn more about Writers Blok, visit writersblok.org. Or watch this video.

Writers Blok

Writers Blok provides structure, support, and community to…

Paul Shirley

Written by

I finished 5th in the 1991 Kansas State Spelling Bee. Metallurgical.

Writers Blok

Writers Blok provides structure, support, and community to writers of all levels.

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