For World Mental Health Day: When Writer’s Block Is Actually Depression

This is not the first time I’ve noted this, nor will it be the last, but I like to occasionally put a fine point on this —

Sometimes, writer’s block is not writer’s block.

Let’s rewind a little.

I got a nice email. Part of this email contained the following:

Anyway, things have worked out and I’ve recently been trying to get back on the horse. But, I just cannot seem to make any headway. I feel as though every idea I’ve had is as useful as a paper parachute. And it feels impossible to garner any new “worthy” ideas. If I try to just push on with one, it doesn’t work. I’ve tried all the basics; Bradbury’s noun-cohesion technique (I don’t think he called it that, but *shrugs*), free writing, random word/character/title generators, fan-fiction (don’t judge me!), writing advice; books, blogs (including your own), studying my own past work; finished, unfinished, etc. But, I still feel like a fish on a beach: floundering, hopeless, lifeless. Obviously this leads to all the angst-riddled and existential questions: am I good enough? Should I give up and become an accountant? The list goes on.

So, to get to the point, can you offer me a torch or even a slither of light to help find my way through the dark?

There’s a lot going on here. Because there’s a lot going on with any writing process and with anybody’s brain, whoever they are. Our brains are fucking thorntangles of complicated business, with lots of thoughts and fears and weary worries and woes — and then adding onto that the expectations of work, of writing, of creating something in an imaginative way, ha ha, ohhh, boy, that can be like shoving a bunch of angry ferrets through a narrow pipe. It can work if all the ferrets play nice, but they won’t, because they’re ferrets. They’ll form a squirmy, ferrety ball and won’t go down that pipe.

We all have days, as writers, as makers, where it’s hard.

It’s just hard.

We maybe don’t know why. It just is.

Writer’s block — which is silly that we call it that, because everybody feels blocked and frustrated from time to time, from parents to plumbers to astrophysicists — manifests out of an unholy host of reason. And out of those reasons are a panoply of potential solutions.

Hey, maybe something in the first part of the draft isn’t working.

Maybe you’re not ready to write the book yet.

Maybe it needs more time in the ol’ THOUGHT OVEN.

Maybe you need to take a walk, move some blood from your sluggish body into your brain — blood carries oxygen and oxygen, if I remember my science correctly, CARRIES IDEA MOLECULES.

Maybe you need to eat better. It’s hard to think with a glob of corn pudding in your head — created when you’ve eaten too many damn carbs and haven’t worked them off. Maybe eat a lighter snack next time and sit down.

Maybe you could use some coffee.

Maybe you could use some liquor.

Maybe this just isn’t the book for you.

Maybe you should try something small, build up some confidence, get you that sweet, sweet dopamine hit of finishing a smaller, more doable project.

Maybe you’re just psyching yourself up and out.

Maybe it’s a normal fear of failure.

Maybe it’s the rarer, but also normal, fear of success.

Maybe you just gotta write the hell through it.

And maybe, just maybe, it’s not writer’s block at all.

Maybe it’s depression. Or anxiety. Or the one-two-punch of them together.

I’m not qualified to tell you that. Nor am I qualified to tell you how to fix it. I am qualified, though, to tell you that it’s normal. It’s not odd to suffer under the yoke of those disorders. It doesn’t mean you’re broken, it means you join millions of other human beings — and honestly, I’d bet a not-small-percentage of other artists, too — who just got a lot of shit going on upstairs. (Doesn’t help that the world is basically a Portajohn filled with yellowjackets right now, and we all feel trapped inside it.) So, you need to be kind to yourself and get the help you need for depression and anxiety — and trust me when I tell you, that help shouldn’t look like the help you’d give to fix writer’s block. The solution for one is not the other, because the problems are literally different. In that case, the block is a symptom of a larger thing — and treating depression like it’s writer’s block?

Well, it’ll just make the block worse.

And the depression, too.

Because you’ll feel inadequate. Frustrated. It’s like thrashing around in quicksand.

Every process is different, and every mind is different, too, and how we join one mind with its process is a tricky thing — one made trickier by depression and anxiety. But it doesn’t mean you can’t work. It just means you’ve gotta find your own way forward.

Some people sculpt a tree with a chainsaw — others use gentle little wire loops to sculpt detail into clay. Yours might require a gentler, finer detail — a slower pace, a kinder rhythm. Do what you must, but most of all, recognize that whatever’s going on upstairs is not unusual, it is shared by many of your kin, and like them, you can still keep on keeping on.