The Writer And Depression

I get great emails sometimes, emails from writers with amazing questions.

(I also get emails from jerks, too, who want me to promote their books or who hate me because I once said self-publishing had a “shit volcano” quality problem, but really, the great emails stand head and shoulders above these.)

Yesterday, I guess in response to my post about authorial doubt and envy, a reader wrote in and explained that she suffered from depression and that she appreciated that I suggested that depression was a whole separate beast from writer’s block and you can’t combat them the same way. She said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that she saw one doctor who had kinda burned her out on a lot of medication, and now she’s trying to come out of that somewhat and refocus her concentration. But, in the process? Writing is very difficult. She’s good with ideas, but has a lot of trouble concentrating enough to manage the execution.

And so she wanted to know what makes a “real writer.”

The heart of her email was contained in this question:

Can someone be a real writer if certain components can just brush it away?

Meaning, if your ability to execute as a writer is defeated by one’s brain chemistry, can you be a real writer? Or does that somehow take that away from you? Are you a fraud? False, in some way —

A poser?

Now, a few things.

First, this reader knows I’m writing this at the blog, though I did respond to her via email, too.

Second, I’m in no way a Trained Brainologist, and I should barely be trusted to give advice on tying shoelaces or boiling water for ramen noodles, much less on such tricky issues as managing depression or other maladies of the mind and body.

Third, I’ve answered the question before of what makes a “real writer,” illustrated by this handy-dandy zero-fuckery flow-chart.

A more nuanced response may be necessary, though.

My response to the reader was shorter than this post, but I thought I’d jump in here and talk about it because this feels like a discussion that everybody could get in on, given that creative people are given over to many flavors of emotional turbulence.

So, here’s the thing.

I get headaches.

These are not supernatural headaches.

They’re not migraines.

They’re normal, average, everyday headaches.

I do not get them often, but I carry a lot of tension in my shoulders and neck (and, recently, my jaw, which is totally not awesome-feeling), and as a result? Headaches.

On the days in which I have headaches, I find it dastardly difficult to write. Writing becomes an act of pulling crocodile teeth with a pair of blood-slick pliers. It’s hard. Just having a little tiny itty-bitty jerkwad of a headache makes writing significantly more difficult.

And so, it is safe to assume that anything larger than a headache — any disease at all, any pain that is physical or emotional — would seriously hamper your ability to put words on paper. Migraines. Depression. Grief. Addiction. Cancer. Carpal tunnel. Christ, a goddamn cavity could derail your writing train into the hoary canyon of zeroed productivity.

I like to think a headache stopping me from writing on a given day wouldn’t change who I am.

And it shouldn’t change who you are, either. No matter the malady.

You are who you are. You do what you do.

I think we should worry less about what constitutes a ‘real’ writer, which is a thing for other people to worry about. Let them shit their pants over it. The worry over your identity as a writer is only going to frustrate you further. It’s why I always say that approaching depression as if it’s just writer’s block is only going to turn up the volume on all the lies that depression already tries to tell you. It’s only going to make recovery — for whatever your illness — exponentially harder. Sometimes, we do have to push ourselves. We have to do things that we feel are difficult, or scary, or frustrating. But you also have to know that pushing too hard can make you break. And sometimes you have to let yourself heal before you strain, sprain, and snap.

A practical solution is to, if you still want to write but find it difficult, switch gears. Write anything. It doesn’t have to be something to sell. Write a journal. A blog. A comic book. A poem. A random agglomeration of ideas. Write 350 words. Or 100 words. Or shit, ten words. Do what you can, when you can. And don’t sweat what other people think. Don’t sweat labels. Some people want the label. But the label doesn’t matter. It’s just a word. What matters is you taking care of yourself. What matters is you trying to find the way through the darkness and to the light. What matters is you writing when you can, not when everyone else says you have to.

115 responses to “The Writer And Depression”

  1. Because of my disability, I am often very sad. I’ve been depressed in my life and took me years to overcome it. You could probably say I’m depressed now, and who would blame me, but I still work hard to not be depressed. Some days I am successful and can push the feelings aside, and other days, I can’t do anything but stare into darkness.

    • Suffering from depression makes me feel (believe) I’m not meant to accomplish anything in the world. I’m floating in free time feeling the sword of disparity cut down the middle of my torso and filled with a lit match and gasoline of anxiety that stops everything in its path. How / why would anyone want to bother reading the words of such a weak person? Can “good” actually happen? Or is it only for the followers of “the secret”. Those that believe they are special or blessed?
      Some weeks I can’t leave the couch cause the pain of depression is so intense it leaves me crippled. From that moment, how do I write?

  2. […] Things like that are incredibly detrimental to productivity, because they’re difficult, sometimes impossible, to separate from the rest of you – unlike, for example, physical pain. Working with a toothache, a broken bone, a back pain, or any physical ailment of choice, is anywhere between irritating and agonizing, depending on the health issue in question. But if anyone were to ask – does my broken leg invalidate me as an artist? – the standard response would be, “Why on earth would that be the case?”. And yet, somehow, the question “Can I be a real writer if I have depression?” doesn’t sound anywhere as outlandish. (It does, however, gets answered wonderfully by Chuck Wendig.) […]

  3. A very long time ago, when I was diagnosed as bipolar, I gave in on my writing. It was a stupid thing to do in many ways, because instead of finding comfort in the voices I hear not actually being attached (much) to my mental health status, I shunned them, for fear I’d be diagnosed as Schizophrenic and locked up. This was nearly 15 years ago now, in the UK. My doctors didn’t care that my meds blunted my drive to do anything I loved, all they cared about was “control”. I lived in that haze for several years, with a newborn baby, and a partner that thought writing was for idiots and teased me because I hadn’t written a bestseller after five minutes of being on the PC. Because I shared it with him, my life was pretty much curtailed (though, I had a livejournal, he never read it).
    Nanowrimo basically saved my life – I met a lot of other writers, some like me and bipolar, with depression, schizophrenic… others who basically didn’t care that I was a bit weird, just that I was happy to help them. It’s continued for the last 12 years too.
    Through Nanowrimo, I met my partner, I discovered that I have a genuine talent for words in all ways (and I know you’ve written about that before – that’s my 20 role, making up for the fumble that is my mental health, my physical health and now, my fertility issues) and that better than that, I had the power and the obligation to help others discover that tiny flame in their soul and fan the ass off it. Three years with my partner, and I was capable of leaving the house *ALONE* without my children for the first time, and then, capable of going to University. I have a degree in creative writing. I’m still bipolar. I still hear voices, and some of them aren’t my stories. I’m good with what I do.
    I’m now off to share the crap out of this post and link it from my own mental health website.

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