I think I’ve only spent about ten percent of my energies on writing…
The other ninety percent went to keeping my head above water.
Katherine Anne Porter
I write when not too worn out by my mental illness.
I write when my chronic depression isn’t so overwhelming that I struggle to function.
I write when I can, in irregular spurts, writing through and in spite of my sickness.
I’ve struggled since early youth with depression.
I remember as early as middle-school feeling at specific times especially anti-social and mournful, without any clear reason or cause. Highschool was a hostile environment for me where I felt plagued by insecurities, actively seeking out bathroom stalls and library cubbies to hide day after day. University saw me continue to try unsuccessfully to cope with self-harming as well as self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.
It was easy in my adolescence to dismiss these spells of moody ’emo’ sadness as just stereotypical teenage angst. In my twenties, however, with my depression still undiagnosed, I felt ashamed for failing to have moved past an ‘infantile’ stage of dramatic mood swings.
Not until after completing a Master’s program, surviving a series of mental breaks and acute depressive episodes, was I hospitalized and finally diagnosed. It came as a surprise that I was actually so relieved to have a name, clinical depression, to explain these problems weren’t an inherent defect of my person but symptoms of an illness.
Suddenly a light switched on for me to see that help through medication and therapy were not character weaknesses but necessary choices for my survival, demonstrations of courage in the face of social stigma.
Soon after I became a writer.
Before committing to writing as a career,
make sure you’re not simply agoraphobic or depressed.
In some ways, living with depression was not so different from living as a writer.
I was no stranger to spending long periods alone, locked in a room, entertaining myself with my imagination. Of course, when depressed this hobby quickly takes on more toxic masochistic flavour, where instead of reflecting over the Hero’s Journey for a character you are ruminating over punishing yourself without any hope of a happy ending.
But writing stories, something I now do daily, requires thinking over varied experiences of life – the painful memories and the more painful what-ifs.
Depression, therefore, is like doing all the emotional labour of writing a book and then never having anything to show for it, ever.
Which is why it can seem to make sense how so many writers tend to be depressive because depression often manifests among people inclined to over-think everything. Writing a book can be a long private endeavour, requiring a dedicated (or obsessive) mentality, by someone capable of exposing yourself to harsh criticisms and rejection. Irregular sleep, lack of (or no) exercise, limited social interaction, and a general lifestyle of sitting at a blank page (or screen) also foster characteristics of depression.
Artists are endlessly healing from our wounds while endlessly exposing them.
This might explain why so many famous writers suffer(ed) from depression:
- JK Rowling was depressed while creating Hogwarts. She was out of work and on social benefits, recently divorced and with a new baby. Not only did she succeed in writing her story, but she also drew upon her experience with depression to help create the Dementors who policed and tormented through spreading despair.
- Emily Dickinson was another anti-social writer (as mentioned in my other post) though she never received an official diagnosis of depression – so one has to make your own opinion based off of the tone of her work and how she lived.
- Anne Rice was in a deep depression after her five-year-old daughter died from leukaemia, but she was able to find relief from despair in writing.
- Leo Tolstoy was sick with a depression that worsened with age and his publications as a writer, exploring this in a short book (“A Confession”) that described his suicidal ideations and criticizing his own success.
- Ernest Hemmingway was born into a family with a history of depression and suicide, which he himself continued after struggling with among other illnesses and a long reckless life with self-medicated with alcohol.
- Franz Kafka was another artist who suffered from social anxiety and depression, which may have partly been fueled by his dissatisfaction at not having been published enough in his lifetime.
- Virginia Woolf was sick with depression by fifteen, being hospitalized and having multiple acute episodes afterwards, until becoming most seriously depressed after finishing her last novel (the same time period as WWII when Nazis were bombing London) and taking her own life.
- Sylvia Plath was known for significant mood swings and reckless behaviour, lapsing into severe depression while in college after success writing poetry that frequently addressed themes of self-loathing and Death, herself attempting to take her own life multiple times before finally being successful at thirty years old.
Acknowledging writers with depression is not meant to reinforce the stereotype of eccentric moody artists nor of believing a diagnosis defines a whole person.
Neither should it be assumed that depression helps one write well.
It does not.
Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation.
They deepen, widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.
When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored.
We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again.
It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea.
You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.
The myth that great success from art requires terrible pain and tragic suffering is a lie.
Apparently, an association between creativity and mental illness began as far back as Aristotle describing philosophers and artists having tendencies toward melancholia.
Maria Popova at BrainPickings outlines well the 1987 research of Dr Nancy Andreasen of the University of Iowa who sampled from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop while studying the relationship between creativity and mental illness, inquiring:
“Did mental illness facilitate [these creators’] unique abilities… Or did mental illness impair their creativity… Or is the relationship more complex than a simple one of cause and effect, in either direction?”
The results Dr Andreasen found explained:
“Many personality characteristics of creative people … make them more vulnerable, including openness to new experiences, a tolerance for ambiguity, and an approach to life and the world that is relatively free of preconceptions. This flexibility permits them to perceive things in a fresh and novel way, which is an important basis for creativity.
But it also means that their inner world is complex, ambiguous, and filled with shades of gray rather than black and white. It is a world filled with many questions and few easy answers. While less creative people can quickly respond to situations based on what they have been told by people in authority — parents, teachers, pastors, rabbis, or priests — the creative person lives in a more fluid and nebulous world.
He or she may have to confront criticism or rejection for being too questioning, or too unconventional. Such traits can lead to feelings of depression or social alienation. A highly original person may seem odd or strange to others. Too much openness means living on the edge. Sometimes the person may drop over the edge… into depression, mania, or perhaps schizophrenia.”
This, as Maria Popova said, means artistic success came “not because of their tortuous mental health but despite it”.
Artists with mental illness may have been more successful without being sick or maybe art helped them live longer and more whole lives than they would have without it – regardless, that is all just speculation.
The only real truth is that the writers who wrote well succeeded in turning a disadvantage into an advantage.
And that is what I intend to do, to keep doing.
Learning to work with my depression, rather than against it, has been a slow adjustment. Much like driving, adjusting my destination and expectations according to the road conditions and weather and traffic, I do the same with my artistic process.
I make my writing fit around the cycles of depression that I still encounter, albeit less often. My symptoms vary across the years and months and weeks, sometimes staying a few bad days and sometimes lingering for months of exhaustion.
Days of feeling unwell make everything more difficult, especially the cognitive and emotional efforts for creativity and productivity.
Deadlines are compromised by under-sleeping and over-sleeping, eating too little or not enough nutrition to write for a solid session.
I know too to seize every opportunity that comes – days, mornings, nights – when I feel anything resembling motivation or inspiration or creativity.
Likewise, when feeling low and bedridden, I practice at reminding myself that these spells do pass and so I need to be patient and forgiving with myself now more than ever.
That is part of the beauty of all literature.
You discover that your longings are universal longings,
that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone.
My advice for writers with depression?
Well, usually the advice given for depression is discouraging and plain unhelpful.
It tends to be totally unrealistic and over-ambitious to what you actually feel is possible, such as “just do your writing around things you do every day, like brushing your teeth” – which for me is really a struggle when I’m depressed, let alone trying to write after?
Some of the helpful strategies that have gotten me through the good and bad days can be found in an earlier post here, but a particularly good one is called Opposite Action (addressed in a reverse-psychology style in the video above).
Basically, I have found what can work (not every time remember) is leaning into the depression by trying to connect my fears and doubts and pains to characters and stories.
Sometimes I will jot notes about this or that on my phone, while other times I just think a lot about how an element of my sickness could translate to internal conflicts with a protagonist or antagonist.
Try writing some flash fiction where you transplant your despair and apathy onto an entirely new character in a different setting with different priorities – this can look like science fiction of an astronaut mother developing post-partum depression, for example, or maybe it is a fantasy fairy tale retelling where your anxiety takes the form of a monster and replaces the Big Bad Wolf or the Wicked Witch.
When I’m not able to make such clear connections to my works-in-progress, I try to dump my petty embarrassing self-loathing into journalling, exploring why I feel especially sensitive about this memory or that relationship.
Try free-writing a page on everything you dislike about someone, somewhere or something else in your life, then do another page free-writing everything you like about them, there or it.
Don’t censor yourself – keep it messy and pained and reaching for more.
Good luck ❤
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us.
If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?
That is when I write…
As always, thank you for reading.