Four Tips for Writing When You Are Depressed
Hello, friend! How are you doing?
If you read my newsletter from a few weeks back, you might’ve been expecting our latest blog post to be about building your author brand. I did hint at that in our email, for sure. In fact, I fully expected that to be our next topic as well (and it's totally in the works, so no worries!).
But after I sent out that newsletter, I was hit by a wave of something that’s plagued me for years: depression. And it’s something that I want to open up and talk about today.
Because, let’s face it: as writers, we’re expected to be passionately in love with our work. Married to it. Shackled to our computers or notebooks, struggling to forge a great story out of nothing, bearing every pain and struggle with the strength of our ambition.
It is society’s idyllic writerly image. Beauty wrought of struggle.
But that struggle? It’s supposed to be fundamentally literary. You know: Writer’s block. Plot holes. Wrangling themes and motifs and characters. No one talks about the other type of struggle: the external ones that fall outside of the realm of the craft of fiction.
For me, those struggles look a bit like this:
- "I’m one of the most ambitious people I know, yet I’m also one of the least."
- "I love my stories, yet I think they’re crap."
- "I’m passionate about writing, yet I hate sitting down to do it."
And these things are true. Most of the time, that is.
You see, I struggle with mild chronic depression. I can wake up on any given day, the world perfectly at peace around me, and feel as though every ounce of what makes me me has been stolen away. Ambition. Drive. Motivation. All of it.
I feel empty. Passionless. Broken.
Sharing my mental illness story...
My depression began when I was around 14 or 15, though I didn’t recognize it for what it was until I was 19 years old. I thought I had a bad attitude or that I was lazy or that I was being ridiculous and pessimistic. I thought I could change myself. Be stronger. Better.
But the more I tried to change myself–the more I struggled to be a better me–the more and more I felt like a failure. Because every time I began to see change, I’d wake up one day and find myself ten steps back.
I often thought to myself:
“You have every opportunity in the world to be great, and
you’re throwing it all down the drain.”
As if it were my own fault that I couldn’t be happy and driven and motivated.
And that’s something I discovered in time, as I began to finally suspect that maybe my low energy and fatigue and brain-melt was caused by something other than my own failure. It wasn’t that I was sad and miserable all the time. It was that I couldn’t be happy, no matter how perfect the world was around me.
Once, when I first broached the topic of depression with my mom, I remember saying, “I can’t ever think of a time when I was a happy person. I just have happy days.”
Motivated days. Driven days. Passionate and ambitious days, all carelessly mixed in with the empty, lonely, harrowing hours I spend contending with my chronic depression.
This, by definition, makes living a passionate and creative lifestyle one of the hardest endeavors of my life.
So when I woke up day after day over the last two weeks feeling categorically depressed, my ambition went down the drain. The new blog post. The author branding workbook I planned to create and sell. The new Youtube videos and social media stuff. Thousands of words I could have written for my WIP.
All of this went down the drain because I simply...
No matter how hard I tried. How hard I willed it. It was as if my mind had been chained up in some dark alley, watching all of the goodness in the world passing by on the street. Unable to reach it. Unable to break through.
Melodramatic, right? But life with depression is melodramatic. Every thought that rumbles through your brain when you’re feeling low is exaggerated, sensationalized, and otherwise entirely emotional or impressively distant.
When I’m feeling low, some of my deepest and most piercing self-doubts come out to play.
- “You’ve been working on your novel for 4 years now and you’re not finished yet? Wow.”
- “I guess you don’t care about your readers, do you? If you did, you’d create something new for them.”
- “You can’t even type up a simple tweet? How do you ever expect to be a full-time writer?”
If you live with depression too, this probably sounds eerily familiar to you. If you don’t, you may be wondering how I ever get any work done in the first place.
Learning not to let depression keep me from living my very best creative lifestyle has been a years-long endeavor, and one I fully expect to face for the rest of my life.
But I can say confidently that, over the past two and a half years of writing with the knowledge that I do indeed battle mental illness, I have learned a few key tips and tricks for fighting back.
Today I want to share those things with you. Let's get started.
1. Keep a writing ritual.
One of the living-with-depression tips you most often hear is to maintain simple, daily activities throughout your lows periods. Just getting out of bed to brush your teeth and comb your hair can make you feel surprisingly refreshed, if not triumphantly free of depression’s grip.
For me, this translates into writing as well. Back in March 2015, I began keeping a daily #WriteChain a lá Faye Kirwin of Writerology. Faye encouraged me to create a minimal daily writing goal and stick to it every day. At first this sounded impossible, but I decided to give it a try anyway. Who knew, right?
I set my goal at 200 written words or 10 minutes of work, and I started to build my chain. It isn't easy, but never is this goal harder to keep than when I’m working through a depressive mood. Sometimes, I can decide to write those 200 words at 9 am in the morning, yet not bring myself to actually write them until 11 o’clock at night.
It’s the depression speaking. But you know what? Even if it requires every last ounce of everything I am, I force myself to just move my hand enough to write those words each and every day, even if what I write is complete gibberish.
The words might not be Pulitzer-worthy, but they are something. Something pretty phenomenal actually. They are literally my fight against depression. 200 lovely up-turned middle fingers, if you will. They feel good, and when you’re feeling depressed, something that feels good, no matter how exhausting, is always worth the fight.
2. Honor your highs.
Sometimes, having chronic depression makes me feel like an addict. When I’m on a low, when I’m without the drug that is motivation, my mind is completely muddled, but when I finally have a breakthrough and a happy and motivated day, I’m as sharp as ever.
I could write marathons around other writers, forreal.
And I do. In fact, I firmly believe that honoring these highs in your life is one of the best ways you can still maintain your creativity, passion, and ambition as a writer who battles depression.
In my weekly planner, I keep a chart to track my writing progress. I often look back on past weeks and laugh when I see four or five days of just 200 written words, then a huge day of 4k written or a 2-hour edit.
I can see my breakthroughs right there on the page, charted for all of time, and it reminds me that the next time I’m feeling high on life, I absolutely need to turn off the tv and go sit my butt in my desk chair. There will be plenty of time for mindless quasi-entertainment the next time I’m going through a depressive period.
3. Channel your emotion.
I hate journaling. Absolutely hate it. So when I see those depression-recovery tips that recommend journaling out your thoughts and emotions, I can only roll my eyes and sigh.
But what don’t I hate? Working on my novel.
It sounds simple, but it took me years to realize that I can channel some of my nasty depressive emotions into my stories to help make my characters more realistic and relatable. So I took a look at my list of characters, found the one whose story line would be most enhanced by a nasty internal struggle, and boom!
I had an outlet. A place to release all of that mental messiness, like the breaking of a dam, so I could begin to pick through the wreckage and discover new understandings of myself, my illness, and the way in which I interact with the world because of it.
4. Give yourself grace.
If you’ve ever battled depression, you know how hard it is not to beat yourself up all the time. And for stupid stuff, too. But nothing’s worse than beating yourself up for all of the ways that depression is holding you back.
It’s easy to look at how little you’ve written during a depressive period and hate yourself for not trying harder.
Personally, my depression tries to convince me that, because it’s generally a mild depression, it isn’t real. That it doesn’t exist and so my lack of productivity is a result of my own laziness and failure instead of...you know, a debilitating mental illness.
Yeah, depression sucks. And while certain activities do help you battle it, you have to remember that depression is largely outside of your control. You can’t force your mind to stop being a crap-fest anymore than you can urge a broken leg to heal faster.
And when you have a broken leg, there’s plenty you can’t do, right? Run. Jump. Swim. Mountain bike. Ride your rainbow unicorn off into the brilliant glittery sunset. You name it.
So stop expecting yourself to be some sort of depression-defeating wizard, and start giving yourself the grace to consciously NOT do the things that seem impossible when you’re feeling low. Hobble if you can, but just sit down and let it be if you can’t. Give yourself permission to heal.
Employing these four tips and tricks isn’t some sort of magic spell. It won’t cure you of your depression or make you write thousands of words even when you’re feeling low. But they may help. They may provide some measure of relief or hope or encouragement.
Of course, depression can reveal itself in many ways. Not every sufferer (or battle-er, as I prefer to call us warrior folk) will experience depression in the same way, so you may need to find your own pattern of working and writing through your depression.
But in any case, I hope you found my experience and tips encouraging and inspirational.
I’m happy to say that I’ve broken through my latest depressive period, which I think was helped along by the emergence of a new story idea that’s radically altering all of my upcoming writing and publishing plans. Sounds scary, I know. But it’s not!
I’m actually thrilled to share more about what’s going on with my novels in a new blog post I’ll be publishing tomorrow (yes, tomorrow!) on how to create a smart publishing plan.
And no worries, that blog post and workbook on author branding are both coming soon. Just delayed a bit. Keep an eye out over the coming weeks or sign up for the She’s Novel newsletter to know the moment it goes live.
Sound good? I’ll see you then, friends!