Monday, August 1, 2016

Depression and the Writing Life


Let me first say that I've suffered from depression and I struggle at times to do the things I'm going to suggest below, so this is a subject that's important to me. Creative writing, both as a hobby and a profession, seems to hold a great deal of appeal for people in my shoes. Perhaps it’s the appeal of setting one’s own schedule, staying home when you don’t feel you can face the world, and losing yourself inside your fictitious worlds. I know that for much of my life, although I usually enjoyed my jobs, I always fantasized about the day when I could sit in a chair and make up stories for a living. I viewed it as an escape and a solution.

I frequently hear tell of other writers for whom the dragon has proven too powerful to slay. Many of them find themselves unable to keep up with their professional obligations, or even put words on the page on a regular basis. Some have let their productivity wane to the point they turn to crowdfunding just to cover their living expenses. Others have even found that the nature of full-time writing led to more severe mental illnesses. It all makes me wonder if a writing career is, in fact, a bad choice for people who struggle with serious depression. Here are a few thoughts as to why full-time writing might not be the best fit:

Writing is a solitary endeavor.

The full-time writer has to make an effort to get out and interact with other people. For a person struggling with depression, this isn't easy. It's especially difficult for a writer who lives alone.

Writing is sedentary.

I know some writers take long walks and dictate their books into a recorder, and others who experiment with things like treadmill desks, but most of us are sitting in a chair for long hours at a time. Exercise is a great way to combat depression and the average writer tends to get a lot less than other people.

Writing tends to happen indoors.

Yes, you can take your laptop or notebook outside and work, but I find that the glare on my screen or the wind blowing my pages around makes it not worth the effort. Sunshine and fresh air make a big difference in combating depression, but most of us stay inside and tap away at the keyboards.

A full-time writer must be self-motivated.

Your editor or your readers will harass, or politely encourage you to finish your next book, but unless they're showing up at your door, hauling you out of bed, and standing behind you while you work, they won't have much impact on your productivity. I am fortunate that, although I do battle depression, I'm also cursed/blessed with a solid work ethic. This too has its downsides, but I always manage to roll out of bed and get to work. Some of my days are more productive than others, but I never completely shut down. Getting up and going about your daily routine is critical in the fight against depression.

If you're battling depression and want to be a full-time writer, be sure to put systems in place to make sure you take care of yourself: medication, counseling, regular exercise, interaction with others, and the ability to stick to a writing schedule no matter how high or low you feel on a given day. You can do it, but you have to be the one to make it happen. A few suggestions:

Go to bed at a reasonable hour and wake up fairly early. (This one is my biggest challenges.)  Staying up into the wee hours of the night, and either waking up sleep-deprived or sleeping late into the day fuels depression, saps productivity, and carries negative consequences for your health. I've recently asked my wife to help me out with this. 

Start your day with some kind of exercise. I find that even a short walk at the beginning of the day improves my mood, makes me feel better about myself and my writing, and actually enhances productivity. If I tell myself, "I'll finish my writing first and then take my walk" there's a good chance I won't do it.

Get out of the house. If you're already writing full-time, schedule some time away, preferably where you'll interact with other people. Take a class, volunteer, get active in a religious or service group, take up a sport. I've coaches sports, volunteered in my daughter's school and gymnastics academy, and at my local Ren Faire. I like to work in my favorite coffeehouse on a regular basis. I've gotten to know the staff a bit, it's a nice environment, and the change of scenery is good for me.

Set small, attainable writing goals. I find that I'm better off telling myself I'm going to write a minimum of 250 or 500 words a day than if I set a goal of 1,500-3,000 a day. Reaching my minimum goal gives me a sense of accomplishment and fuels me to keep writing. I typically write a lot more, but on busy days, I can knock out 250 and feel okay about myself.

Develop consistent writing habits before you go full-time. If you're not able to meet small, manageable writing goals on a regular basis, going full-time won't solve your problem.

None of this is intended to discourage anyone who is in the situation I was a few years ago. It's absolutely possible to be an author while also dealing with depression, but don't build it up in your mind as a magical solution to all of your problems. If you want to write, go ahead and do it. Some writers find they are actually happier and more productive in their writing when they have a day job that takes them out of the house and affords them interaction with others, and gives them a finite, established window of writing time. They spend their day thinking about writing and reward themselves at the end of the day with a writing session. And please, don't buy into the myth that mental illness fuels creativity. Writing is work, it's a craft, and you have all the same tools at your disposal whether you are up or down, medicated or unmedicated.

The full-time writing career is neither a magical world nor a magic pill. It's a job, but it can be the greatest job in the world. Good luck!

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