Seven Tips for Writers Living With Depression
About the Author: Amaya Eckersley
Amaya Eckersley is a 19-year-old writer living in Portland, Oregon. She is a history student at Portland State University and will finish her Bachelors of Science in 2020. Outside of writing, her passions include cats, environmental conservation, mental wellness, painting, and music.
Amaya finished writing her debut novel, Second Chance Series Book One: Redemption, in March 2019 and is currently seeking representation. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
(Note: The author of this piece is not a licensed medical professional. The following article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding mental illness or other medical conditions.)
There are so many things in a writer’s life that can make finishing a novel difficult. For writers living with depression, this is especially true.
Depression can make your focus cloudy, make you feel apathetic toward things you care about, make it feel impossible to get out of bed, and altogether make your writing aspirations seem like pipe dreams. Even if writing is something you enjoy, depression can make it a miserable task, which can whittle away at your desire to do it at all. I should know. I’ve lived with depression since I was eight years old and was eventually diagnosed at fourteen.
From a young age, I loved creating stories, whether it be a game for my friends and me to play, an embarrassing fan-fiction, or an awful first try at a novel. After a few failed attempts at trying to create original narratives in middle school, I finally began to write my first book at age sixteen. But at that time, I was living through the brunt of my mental illness.
I was isolated in a new town while I attended online classes, I had a poor relationship with the family I was living with, and my self-esteem was at an all-time low. Sometimes, I would sit down for hours just trying to write one paragraph.
Then, there was the anxiety. Was I ever going to finish my story? It was a series of three books. How long would it take for me to finally get them all down on paper? I was also brainstorming new book ideas every few months. Would I ever get to write those? Would I die before all of my works were out in the world?
This fear made writing difficult. But through a painstaking period of self-exploration, I found a writing process that worked for me. I finished my first novel just after my nineteenth birthday this year, and guess what? You can, too. If you’re struggling to write while living with depression, here are seven tips that helped make my writing life less painful and more fun…
Tip #1: Don’t get bogged down by organization… yet.
It’s nice to have an outline to refer to when you write. It can help you with foreshadowing, flow — all the things that make for a well-developed story. But for writers with depression, outlines can hold us back.
Keep your own outline skeletal if you need to, or don’t write one at all. The main thing to consider is how you’re feeling. If you want to write to an outline, write. If not, don’t. Forcing yourself to do something you don’t have the energy to do when you’re depressed can lead you to avoid writing altogether.
Instead, I recommend allowing yourself to put off outlining until you have the mental space and energy to do so. I personally wrote for about six months before I made a cohesive plan for my novel, and taking that time really helped. Of course, this is just from my experience. If you’re the type of person who needs a plan before you start writing, you can always refer to my solutions below.
Tip #2: Write what you’re excited about.
When I first started writing, I put too much pressure on myself to write linearly. I was trying to be my idea of a “perfect” writer, but is there really such a thing?
As a person living with depression, you may focus too much on your faults and downfalls, making it hard to accept that sometimes certain elements in your book will just be boring to write, even if they’re necessary to the story. (I’m looking at you, exposition!) But while these elements definitely need to be written, there’s no rule saying you write them right now.
So many times, I would hold myself back from writing a particular moment or scene that excited me because I felt I had to write the lead-up first. These were typically the days it took me hours to write a single paragraph. Learn from my mistake.
If, by some miracle, you feel motivated to write when you’re depressed, do it. Write what you’re excited about. Everything that leads up to that moment can be written later when you’re in a better headspace.
Tip #3: Having difficulty finding words? Don’t stress.
I’m one of those writers who loves writing action and conversation. Description, on the other hand, I have an incredibly difficult time with. For some people, it’s the other way around. But one of my biggest hang-ups when drafting is trying to make everything sound perfect on the first try, pesky descriptions included.
Sometimes it’s a loss of words thanks to depression brain-fog. Sometimes it’s worry over whether I’m painting a clear picture. But the cause doesn’t matter. A first draft is a first draft for a reason. There will be plenty of time to fill in gaps and smooth your prose when you edit. For now, focus solely on getting your story down on paper.
Tip #4: Distracted? Do something about it.
As a person living with depression, you may find yourself easily distracted, especially by tasks that require patience. My advice? If there’s a song stuck in your head, listen to it. If there’s something you want to know the answer to, google it. If there’s a particular scene you keep thinking about, write it.
Don’t spend your writing time daydreaming or letting your mind drift away. Do whatever you need to do to focus, including giving yourself a break if necessary. Not only will doing so help your productivity, but it will make your writing experience more pleasant. If something you’re distracted by can’t be taken care of right away, try writing it down so you can worry about it later.
Tip #5: Make your book a soundtrack.
Music is an incredibly important part of my life, so when I thought to make a playlist for my book, it was an immediate breakthrough. Of everything I mention today, this tip was hands-down the most helpful for me.
I came up with this idea on one of my five-hour car rides to and from my orthodontist. I was most often driving alone, so I would make playlists of all the music I wanted to hear and sing along with on the way.
The first time I listened to my playlist, I noticed a particular song reminded me of a romantic scene I had been working on —and it gave me an idea to create a playlist for my book, too. Over the course of the car ride, I imagined all sorts of story elements that fit the music I was listening to — fight scenes, romance, characters, drama, all the works. When I got home, I decided to make a Spotify playlist just for my novel.
It was absolutely life-changing. I’m not even being dramatic. Since music is such a huge part of my life, the ability to weave it together with my creative work made everything more enjoyable. Some of my best ideas have come out of road trips or transit rides when I let my mind wander while listening to music.
Interested in doing the same? If your book was a movie, what would you want the soundtrack to be like? What songs can you picture playing during certain scenes? Making your own playlist may just stoke your imagination and inspire your next writing session, regardless of depression.
Tip #6: Do something. anything.
When you really can’t write, depression will try to trick you into thinking you’re a failure. Even though this isn’t true, I understand the feeling. And it’s awful. Depression can make you want to give up on writing altogether, but please don’t.
If you feel like you need to write, but you don’t want to write, try doing other work on your book. Work on your outline if you don’t have one yet. Read over your dialogue to see if it sounds right. Fiddle around with a few descriptions. Correct some grammar, or anything else. Any productivity is good productivity as you go easy on your mental health. For me, just doing something — anything, really — has helped assuage my feelings of inadequacy and self-negativity when dealing with depression.
Tip #7: See your doctor.
Anti-depressants aren’t for everyone, but I can’t stress this enough: they saved my life.
My daily life was incredibly difficult to get through before my doctor prescribed anti-depressants. Almost every day was unenjoyable. I would have emotional break-downs over the most random things. I would stop showering for more days than I care to admit, and I would hate on myself repeatedly. While you definitely can’t write with feelings like these, you also can’t enjoy life.
In December of 2018, my doctor prescribed anti-depressants and started therapy for my depression, and this combination of treatments brought about a complete 180. I started exercising and getting outdoors. I started socializing. I found myself finally crying less than twenty times a week. And I finished my book just three months later. After ten years of being depressed, I could honestly say that I was finally, truly, and fully enjoying my life.
I know that seeking treatment can be daunting, but your doctor is there here to help. If you’re in a position to see a doctor and discuss treatment, do so. Depression is a chemical imbalance. It won’t fix itself. There is nothing wrong with needing medication for the sake of your mental health, and there is nothing wrong with seeing a therapist to form better, healthier coping mechanisms.
Go easy on yourself, writer. You are capable of completing creative work, regardless of your depression. I wish you all the best of luck on this journey!
(Note: If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You are not alone, you are loved, and there is not a single ounce of shame you should feel for seeking a helping hand. Please click the link above.)