Tips for Writers Living With Depression
I’m writing about depression because as they say, “write what you know.” But this advice probably applies to most of us who live with various sorts of chronic or mental illness.
A while ago, I saw a recommendation for a book. I will not quote the title or the author for obvious reasons. The gist of the advice provided was “I know it’s difficult, but you just need to work harder and everything will be hunky dory” coupled with, “and if you don’t work hard enough, then it’s your own fault, enjoy your depression.” Oh, and “buy my books.” I managed to get to page 11, where the author took someone’s suicide note and applied his wisdom to it, noting — I am paraphrasing — that perhaps if the person in question had access to useful resources, such as that book, everything might have been fine. The quotes that appear on previous 10 pages can be summed up with “oh, I get depressed, but that’s awesome because it gives me so much insight into myself and improves my creativity, I am so grateful for depression!”
This is not depression. It’s called navel-gazing. For a person struggling with actual depression, this book is actively dangerous.
Depression is an illness that often kills.
There have been many famous people who were successful, appeared perfectly happy, had money, family and whatever else you could possibly dream of, then died of depression. Sometimes loved ones — and people who likely have never experienced depression — called them cowards for dying by suicide. Death can be the final result of untreated depression.
So… what is a creative person supposed to do when they’re depressed?
First of all, survive.
Second, accept help — knowing that if you don’t tell anyone you need help, it won’t arrive.
Third, remember that depression doesn’t mean they’re not a writer anymore.
And then, only then, think about writing, cleaning the house, eating kale, doing yoga at sunrise, reading inspirational quotes written for and by neurotypical people who may believe depression means spending a few days melancholically staring at the window and contemplating their inner life.
I noticed that some advice for writers is repeated often. Unfortunately, certain parts of it apply only to people who don’t live with mental or chronic illness of any kind. So here is my take — I want to explain why a few bits do not and possibly never will apply to someone like me. Like us.
I’m still a writer when I can’t write.
You are only not a writer if you don’t write at all. Saying “pfft, I could write a better book in my sleep” — not a writer. “I’ve got this really good idea and one day I might write it down” — still not a writer. Writing, even if slowly or not a lot — a writer. It’s surprising how simple and at the same time useful those words can be to those of us who don’t feel like they deserve to call ourselves writers, once depression is done removing any slivers of self-esteem we might possibly have.
Please don’t confuse the sentences “You are not a writer if you don’t write” with “You are no longer a writer if you had to stop writing because of your health.” Depression is going to try and force you to think they are one and the same. They aren’t.
There’s no authority that gets to decide whether you’re a writer or not. When you’re writing, you’re a writer. When you take a break, you are still a writer. When you’re asleep or doing laundry — writer. When you’re depressed — still a writer.
We writers (yeah, I said it) are fully aware of how much power words have. If you refer to your writing as “this thing I do,” saying, “you probably wouldn’t want to read it,” or “I won’t show you because it’s boring,” or even worse apologize for doing it, you’re effectively telling both yourself and others that you are not a writer. You use your own power of words to convince yourself your words have no power!
Which brings us to the next part…
We won’t write constantly.
I often see suggestions to get through the writer’s block by “just writing.” This is not the sort of advice that works for us spoonies. There are times when I can’t even read, not to mention write. For us, sometimes the writer’s block is also the reader’s block, the getting dressed block, taking a shower block, even eating block.
I have days when I write for 12 hours taking short breaks to eat and being pissed off that my body fails to understand I am busy. Those days are sometimes followed by me tweeting once because that takes all the energy I can devote to “writing.” I feel like I am a writer on Monday, but no longer on Tuesday. Note the word “am” instead of “could be,” or “perhaps will be one day.” The choice of words is important. It’s this knowledge more than “writing every day” that makes you a writer.
Write on your good days. Write just enough not to be left with no spoons to do anything else. Sometimes for me that means 8,000 words. Sometimes, 200. Some of them might even be good. Sometimes I write zero words, because instead I had to focus on surviving the day.
My husband made me a plaque which is placed at the spot where I tend to mindlessly gaze as the hours pass and I try to resist the depressive tapes repeating and repeating how useless and stupid I am. The plaque says “It gets better.” And it does. But before it does, and I never know when it will happen, it’s bad (to put it mildly). People who talk about depression giving them time to “improve their creativity” have no clue what they are talking about. Depression kills creativity, often the creators themselves.
This is when I need to remind myself that sometimes it’s not really writer’s block, it’s impostor syndrome squared, where I don’t just feel like I’m pretending to be a writer, I feel I’m pretending to be human.
Don’t ask people if your writing is “OK.”
This is a bad idea for everyone for many reasons. First of all, not all people have the same taste or enjoy your genre. I was criticized for writing a book that was “like other fantasy books” (the genre was fantasy). Second, some of them might actually enjoy telling us how shit our writing is because of their own problems. But a person with depression is able to miss 99 positive comments and lose sleep — or the ability to go on writing – ruminating over one negative comment. Even though that comment might have been posted by a 13-year-old. Or your ex. Or just an a**hole.
Some of my beta readers absolutely destroyed my second work in progress. I didn’t read their emails during my depressive period. I waited. Once I felt good enough to read their comments, I found out their negative feedback was incredibly useful — I am now on a third rewrite, and I can see how right they were. Had I been depressed, I wouldn’t be doing it. I would have missed the useful parts. My brain would translate everything into “you’re shit.” The files would be deleted by now, and I’d probably ensure all 25 backups I keep are gone as well.
Can you afford — mentally — to treat your writing as a business?
So many writers (including me) want to be real artistés living in a castle surrounded by woods, publishing their books and making gazillions without doing any sort of promotion. For some, it’s caused by their firm belief they’re too busy and important to start a Facebook page. For those with depression, it’s often caused by our inability to develop the thick skin required to handle rejection. We’re fighting our own brains on daily basis, and we can’t close the tab or disconnect from the thoughts that silence all others. Our own thoughts reject us all the time, before other people have a chance to!
This is not to say you should keep your writing in your metaphorical drawer to avoid any criticism. No matter what you write, some people will hate it. If you’re aiming at traditional publishing, you will face more rejections than you can count. Not all of your readers will be gushing over your amazingness. Here is my piece of advice: by all means, treat your writing as a business. But pretend it’s someone else’s business, and you’re the deputy of the CEO. Good feedback? You’ve done your job well! Bad feedback? Leave the non-existent CEO to deal with it.
One of the brave people — a fellow person with depression — who sent their query to QueryShark keeps a separate email account to handle correspondence (or lack of it) with agents and editors. This is awesome advice. Only check that account when you feel up to it. Never check that account when your depression is looking for another whip to beat you with.
Promote your writing in ways you can handle.
I am probably never going to do an actual 3D tour or have a signing session. I am aware of both my limitations and the damage I would cause to myself if I were to organize a signing session and nobody showed up. That wouldn’t be promotion, it would be self-flagellation. I enjoy writing my blog and hanging out with writers on Twitter. I read a lot of other writers’ blogs and comment on them. Hell, I got interviewed and I haven’t published anything yet! I tried other channels and they didn’t work for me. Instead of forcing myself to do something that makes me feel worse, I dropped them and returned to those that work. Yes, I might be losing (future) sales. But if I drop so deep into depression that I won’t write a word, there will be no sales to lose.
It’s surprising how often depression makes us unable to realize that we don’t have to take the hard way. Don’t decide that because you can’t give a TED Talk that means you’re never going to get anywhere, no matter how many articles tell you you must and you have to, and if you don’t then you will never amount to anything.
Gunnar’s depressions and addiction in my upcoming debut novel, “Storytellers,” are examples of writing what I know (except for the fact I somewhat exaggerated his experiences in comparison with mine). Gunnar’s story takes place in 1920, when Emil Kraepelin just came up with the word “depression.” When Freud still wrote about melancholia, defining it as an excessive reaction to an external trigger. In 1920, Gunnar feels too ashamed to speak to a doctor. He calls his moods “the darkness,” and firmly believes he is a failure for experiencing them at all, since men should be strong and not let “the darkness” rule their lives. He self-medicates with alcohol and becomes confused and frustrated when it no longer works.
Almost a hundred years have passed since 1920. Yet thanks to the criticism of others, we still shut down and begin to believe we are failures for experiencing those feelings at all. We still self-medicate, because we don’t feel like we have the right of wasting doctors’ time. And we stop writing. Because what’s the point, depression asks again and again.
Self-sabotage comes in different forms. Not editing and putting out sub-par content while knowing you’re doing it. Not bothering with fact-checking while knowing someone will point out that New York is not actually located in Texas.
Take your time. Do the research when you’re able to. Write when you’re able to. And then edit, find a proofreader at the very least, ask beta-readers for feedback — when you can handle it. Get a professional to design the cover and do the layout. No matter what your brain tells you to, if you’ve completed a book, make sure it’s as good as you can make it and remember the next one will be better.
I don’t intend to read any reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. Some professional writers would gasp in shock at how I am depriving myself of potentially useful information. But I know I’m going to gloss over the positive ones and spend nights and days obsessing and re-reading the negative ones, instead of writing. In order to get stuff done I must take care of myself first and foremost. Reading one-star reviews is not self-care.
How do I know all this?
“Write every day. Set a schedule and keep to it. Never stop until you reached the word count for the day. Market yourself, whether on social media or by speaking in public. Set deadlines for yourself. Wake up an hour earlier or go to bed an hour later.” And so on. If I had a cent for every time I read those words, I’d be able to buy a small box of matches by now.
I scale my depressions from 0 to -3.
0 means that I’m doing perfectly fine, thankyouverymuch. -1 means I become less…mobile, but I can still sit with the laptop and write. -2 means I can perhaps read, ideally something I’ve read a hundred times before, trying to escape from the looped tape reminding me over and over and over again how weak and useless I am since I’m not doing yoga at sunset and not trying not to be depressed. At -3…I don’t really live, I just exist. I isolate. Not because I want some peace for self-reflection, but because any interaction, even online, sucks out precious crumbs of energy from me. Getting out of bed can be an impossible task even without setting my alarm to ring an hour earlier, so I can sit on the sofa for an hour not writing and feeling horrible about this.
I don’t have a schedule, because I tried and I know I can’t stick with it. This results mostly in me feeling horrible about myself. Which doesn’t motivate me to write, thus creating an infinite negative feedback loop in my head.
Do you want to help another depressed writer?
Check on us every now and then. Instead of sharing inspirational quotes because it’s #InternationalMentalHealthDay or #DepressionAwarenessWeek, send us a text asking if we need some help. Don’t get offended or delete our number when we don’t respond. Give us hugs. Make us that goddamn healthy meal and bring it over. Do not comment on our appearance, even if it looks like we haven’t showered for a week.
And don’t give us books that — after a short disclaimer about how the author is not a psychiatrist — inform us we should be grateful for some time for self-reflection.
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