Writing while depressed

I’m writing about depression, because they say “write what you know”. But this advice probably applies to most of us who suffer from various sorts of chronic or recurring 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, therefore I am not qualified to give the full masterpiece a 1-star review. On page 11 the author took someone’s suicide note and applied his wisdom to it, noting – I am paraphrasing, don’t google that – that perhaps if the dead author in question had access to useful resources, such as that book, everything might have been fine. The quotes that appear on previous 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 suffering from actual depression this book is actively dangerous.

Depression is an illness that often kills.

Again, there’s no need to quote names of people who were famous, successful, appeared perfectly happy, had money, family, whatever else you could possibly dream of, then died of depression. Their loved ones – and people who have never experienced depression – called them cowards for committing suicide. They didn’t understand that it wasn’t “committing suicide” any more than dying of cancer is “committing suicide”. Death is the final result of the untreated depression and is often brought forward by the sort of good advice provided in the book I mentioned above.

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 – same as having broken arms wouldn’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 think depression means spending a few days melancholically staring at the window and contemplating their inner life.

I noticed that some sorts of advice for writers are repeated very often. A few days ago, a post by The Writing King, “17 Common Mistakes Made by Writers” provided a very good summary. Unfortunately, as much as I hate the word “ableism”, certain parts of it apply to people who don’t suffer from chronic illness of any kind. I am perfectly aware that an attempt to include absolutely everyone with every problem on Earth in an article like that would turn it into a book, and not a very interesting one as well. Before I start, this is not an attack on The Writing King and I maintain the post is useful. What I want to do is explain why a few bits do not and possibly never will apply to someone like me.

Not being a writer

I decided to mention this, because I actually haven’t seen it before, and it’s brilliant.

It sounds almost funny, but it’s also completely true. You are not a writer if you don’t write. 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 – a writer. It’s surprising how simple and at the same time useful this part of TWK’s post is – also to those of us who don’t feel like they deserve to call ourselves writers. Depression, among other things, removes 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”. Depression is going to try and force you to think they are one and the same. They aren’t.

When I called my Facebook page “Bjørn Larssen – Writer” I felt exactly the same way as when I had my blacksmithing fanpage and I called it “Bjørn Larssen – Blacksmith”. I kept on worrying that one day a “real” blacksmith will message me saying “HAHAHA! What right do you have to call yourself a blacksmith? Where’s your certificate? Where are your prizes? Have you ever made a gate for a medieval castle? No? NOT A BLACKSMITH!!!” But 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”, “you probably wouldn’t want to read it”, “I won’t show you because it’s boring”, or even worse – apologise for doing it, you’re effectively telling both yourself and others that you are not being a writer. You use your own power of words to convince yourself your words have no power!

Which brings us to the next part…

Not writing constantly

This is not the sort of advice that works for us spoonies. (Please check the link if you have no idea what I’m talking about.) There are times when I can’t even read, not to mention writing. TWK also mentions getting through the writer’s block by “just writing”. 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 very 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”, “perhaps will be one day”, etc. 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 8000 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. Literally.

Below, a fantastic thread describing one of the things most people don’t understand about depression:

(Read the entire thread.)

My husband made me an embroidered 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, stupid, etc. 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. Depression often kills the creator. And it has no qualms about adding the “you must write every day” line to its arsenal.

This is when I need to remind myself that I am still a writer – and no, being unable to write today doesn’t change that. That sometimes it’s not really writer’s block, it’s impostor syndrome squared, where you don’t just feel like you’re just pretending to be a writer, you feel you’re pretending to be human.

Asking people if your writing is “okay”

This is a bad idea for everyone (as TWK points out) for many reasons. First of all, not all people have the same taste or enjoy your genre. (I was criticised 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. (I checked.) But a depressive person is able to miss 99 positive comments and lose sleep – or ability to go on writing – ruminating over one negative comment. Even though that comment might have been posted by a 13-year-old or someone from the “pfft, I’d write a better book in my sleep” brigade. Or your ex. Or just an asshole.

Some of my beta readers absolutely destroyed my second WIP. 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 of the first draft, 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 (PLEASE KEEP BACKUPS!!!) are gone as well.

Not treating writing as a business

TWK actually means a completely different thing, but it reminds me of something else I often read.

SO many writers (including me) want to be Real Artistés living in a castle surrounded by woods, publishing their books and making gazillions of $$$ 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 depressives, it’s often caused by our inability to develop 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, topped with five stars and a remark “I wish I could give it six stars because five is just not enough”. 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 who sent their query to QueryShark keeps a separate email account to handle correspondence (or lack of it) with agents, editors, etc. 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 that you can handle.

I am most probably never going to do an actual 3D tour or have a signing session because I am aware of both my limitations and the damage that I would cause to myself if I were to organise a signing session and nobody showed up. That wouldn’t be promotion, it would be self-flagellation. I enjoy writing this blog, especially when there are comments. I like 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 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 realise that we don’t have to take the hard way. When I originally moved to Amsterdam and all of a sudden started biking in terrifying traffic, I realised I didn’t know how to turn left from a bike path located on the right side of the road. I spent a few months telling myself – guess what – that I was useless, dumb, etc. And then, one day, it occurred to me that instead of putting myself on the verge of a heart attack or taking public transport so that I can spend the ride staring at other cyclists and telling myself how worthless I am, I can take a different route, one that doesn’t involve a single turn to the left. All of a sudden, my problem disappeared. Apply this to promotion. 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 (I’m not linking to any on purpose) tell you that you MUST and you HAVE TO and if you don’t then you will never amount to anything.

Avoid self-sabotage

Gunnar’s depressions and addiction in 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”, and Freud still said “penis penis vagina heh heh penis” 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 it’s women who are supposed to have emotions, and men should be strong and not let “the darkness” rule their lives. He self-medicates with alcohol and becomes both confused and frustrated when it no longer works. (By the way, alcohol is a depressant. It’s going to make you feel good whilst you’re drinking, and then it’s going to make you feel worse the day after. I checked.)

Almost a hundred years passed since 1920. Yet thanks to books like the one I mentioned and people with the best of intentions telling us we just have to eat more broccoli and stick jade eggs up our yonis 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?

Self-sabotage comes in different forms. Not editing and putting out sub-par content whilst knowing you’re doing it. Not bothering with fact-checking whilst knowing someone will point out that New York is not actually located in Texas. If you have the insane self-confidence of E.L. James, you won’t bother with editing or fact-checking, but you also won’t care about people pointing it out. If you’re a depressive, remember you don’t need to churn out a book every three months only to see tons of one-star reviews pointing out that you can’t even write “the” without making a mistake. Because your depression already tells you that. 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 I follow 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 yourself 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 that 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.

Find your tribe

A lot of my social life takes place online. I socialise with other writers who suffer from various sorts of illness. When I complain about how I haven’t written a word for a week, they understand and don’t try to tell me that I’m wasting time, I’m not a real writer, etc. And then, the week after, I am there for the others who were there for me. Instead of putting each other down, we help each other float on the surface.

If you have a chronically ill writer – person, really – among your loved ones and really want to help, check on us every now and then. Instead of sharing inspirational quotes and feeling smug 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. (If you bring me kale, you’ll have to eat it yourself, which might cheer me up.) Do not comment on our appearance, even if it looks like we haven’t showered for a week (this is probably because we haven’t showered for a week).

And don’t give us books that – after a short disclaimer about how depression is, of course, an illness and the author is not a psychiatrist – inform us that we should be grateful for some time for self-reflection.

PS. I wrote the original version of this post a month ago. I rewrote, revised, edited for weeks. Yesterday I had a good day and I decided it was ready to go. Today I re-edited it again, because I am actually depressed. Perhaps it’s not very good, too long, messy. But it doesn’t mean I’m no longer a writer or a blogger.

All illustrations by Allie Brosh, taken from the blog “Hyperbole and a Half”. Allie has expressed her permission to use the illustration for non-profit purposes. Buy Allie’s book here. Main photo: myself being depressed in 2004, drowning in useful advice, firmly believing I don’t have enough value to bother a doctor with my self-invented problems. Final photo: myself NOT being depressed in 2012, back home after a particularly tiresome day at the forge, taking antidepressants twice a day.

7 thoughts on “Writing while depressed”

  1. Hear, hear! I feel intimidated to leave comments on excellent blog posts (such as this one) where there are few or no other comments. You’ve written so many poignant, true, funny, and real things here that I feel that anything I add to it is just gilding the lily. I wonder if that’s why there aren’t usually more comments. When faced with such beautiful writing, it seems my own words pale in comparison. I think when I’m not feeling so expressive (which is most of the time), I’ll just have to comment such things as, “This are real good blog, Bjørn. Me like.”
    Your writing is truly a beacon of inspiration for me amidst my own depression and mental/ physical struggles. I feel certain that many others feel similarly. Thank you.

    1. You are so kind, Bess, thank you! <3 And thank you for the comment – someone always has to be first and I'm glad it's you <3

      I hope you get better soon. And stay better as long as possible.

  2. Gods and orixas… So many points I could put my name on. I don’t think I have depression, but I do have depressive episodes. The diagnose doesn’t matter – there are times I can barely function and that’s that.
    There are also many points that go together with many tips I get from a business course I’m attending this year. It fits so well, that I shared it under an Inspirational Llama we get every week 😀 Because we (the participants) might not be depressed writers, but we also have the impostor syndrome, self-sabotage or things that don’t go with us (social media-wise).
    I’m glad I could read that! #stoserc

    1. What’s an Inspirational Llama? 🙂 Can I have one?

      Aye, I wrote about depression because I know it, but I know people with a lot of different chronic illnesses who are sometimes faced with the choice of either eating or writing. I avoid current affairs (when I can), because they pull me down. Here I listed other things that pull me down. But I have an ulterior motive. I am going to re-read my own post when I feel like a small pile of nothing again.

      Big hugs! #stosercnastulecie

  3. Pingback: 12 Easy Ways To Help A Writer Out – The Writing King

  4. I relate to so much of this. I fought depression for most of my life and it took me decades to give myself permission to call myself a “real writer.” I’m one of the lucky ones who finally got the right medication, so I get to have “spoons” like other people most of the time now. But depression is hereditary and I had a sibling who wasn’t so lucky. I miss him every day. Sometimes when people ask me how he died, I just say, “he had a long illness” because I don’t want to say the “s” word. Because he didn’t die of suicide. He died of depression.

    BTW, I had the same fear of left turns that you describe. Even driving. I would go blocks out of my way to avoid those left turns into traffic. And you know what? 30 years later, every corner I avoided now has a traffic light to aid in left turns. So it wasn’t that I was overly fearful. It was that I saw the danger before other people did.

    Great piece, Bjorn. I know it took a lot to write it. Yes, you’re a real writer. (And blogging is real writing.)

    1. My days are random ups and downs. The medication flattened the mood swings, but didn’t get rid of them. Sometimes I have tons of spoons, sometimes four for the entire day. Last week, after what was a pretty long crisis even for my standards, I suddenly woke up, spent the entire day being able to do whatever I wanted and suddenly I had a thought: I wonder if this is how “normal” people feel all the time?

      I’m strangely relieved to hear it’s not just me with left turns! Amsterdam is a bit dog-eat-dog when it comes to biking or driving. Which is why I’m using public transport again. It’s really a spoon thing: do I want to use a spoon to stress myself out about getting where I want to get without having an accident, or do I prefer to use it for something else?

      And finally, thank you <3 It means so much coming from you!

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