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.

37 responses to “For World Mental Health Day: When Writer’s Block Is Actually Depression”

  1. Chuck, you once responded to an email I sent about the concern that taking medication for mental health might disrupt the crazy, chaotic creative process. I appreciated your response, and I want to add a little advice here for your readers.

    Turns out I didn’t need medication at all (not to say others don’t and that might not be the answer). What had actually happened was I was in an abusive marriage, and I had normalized his behavior to the point that I didn’t even know I was being abused.

    Once I got that figured out (and the horrible person out of my life) everything was much easier. Life and writing.

    So, Writer Friends, occasionally take a look around at your life and the people in it, and make sure you aren’t accepting an unacceptable normal.

    • So glad you’re free of that! It’s a tough distinction to make, when the abuse is like the water in the fishbowl is to the fish. BTDT. Everything is better.

    • Thank you for saying this. The only period of writer’s block I ever had lasted for four years and was terrible and soul-shaking…and was also caused by an abusive relationship. Abuse can be as insidious and destructive as an invisible poisonous gas. And I think it is a LOT more common a cause of depression and anxiety than our society will admit. And it is astonishing how much creative energy an abusive relationship just sucks away.

      I left the relationship, and another one that became clearer once the primary one was gone. My creativity has flourished since then, and every bit of writing struggle I’ve had has felt like that “normal”, addressable writing struggle once again.

      Anyone facing depression deserves to explore all their avenues of healing, whether medicines or therapy or both. But I think it needs to be more encouraged to take a good look at one’s life and examine current relationships and life circumstances, too. All the meds in the world wouldn’t have made me better with that person in my life.

    • I appreciate and admire you sharing these words Diedra, thank you! The experience of successfully navigating your way through those layers of adversity must be incredibly empowering?

      With different specifics, I found myself in a loosely similar position around this time last year. In truth, it has been quite a long haul to overcome, and until quite recently, any creative urges had all but evaporated for the duration; along with a lot of other things too really.

      Lately however, I’ve found the situation has developed almost exactly as you have described. Once my own version of “unacceptable normal” was identified, rejected, then left behind, life soon became so much simpler. Suddenly all those new ideas feel fresh and exciting again.

      Which got me thinking…

      While I absolutely agree with Chuck’s post, in that tapping into our creative verve can be – and probably is – very different for everyone, what if there are some universal commonalities too? I mean, for starters we all need a physical place to exist within, a means to write, and possibly some ludicrously strong coffee right?

      So the resonance some of us have experienced with Chuck’s original post, as well as your own, not to mention many of the replies here too, makes me feel that in some ways, perhaps it doesn’t simply end there?

  2. I entered a major depression after a) a concussion, b) a Trump, and c) the death of my much loved cat (yes, in chronological order). Writing became impossible for a great long shitty time. I know meditation. Hell, I teach QiGong which is just moving meditation. But I couldn’t “do” that either. I have been crawling, slithering, digging my way back out like a trog (is there such a thing?) but I still–even on days with much time that I could spend writing–tend instead to not. But while I don’t write, I do think. So when the black dog begins to gnaw the back of my neck, I replace whatever dreadful, thorned thoughts he is implanting with some “mental writing.” I write a scene of my work in progress in my head even though the energy to place that on paper might never happen. And the black dog doesn’t like that and backs away–just a little.
    Thank you for these words today. They made me at once sad and elated. As does your very fine book Damn Fine Story.

    • Jo Chern – I can relate to your words. I experienced the death of a beloved cat before Trump happened, but the resulting feeling of hopelessness has caused me a long-term writer’s block/productivity block that I am only now trying to stumble my way through. I’ve been writing a fantasy world where, although people like Trump exist, the world finds it’s way past them and on to better things.

  3. Thud! The sound of this post hitting the mark. Thank you, Chuck.

    Apropos your last post re Twitter Jail. I stepped away from that algorithmic hell, just a couple of hours ago, after reading your post, and feel the benefit already. Have a great weekend.

  4. Two really great posts on the same day? You, Sir, are outdoing yourself. As Lita says about – this post hits the mark and does it good & hard. My hat is taken off – as both a writer and a person who suffered with depression.

  5. Hey Chuck, this is absolutely great advice and I hope that many people benefit from your words.

    I experienced a very personal psychological and emotional trauma 10 months ago, on an evening when I was sitting down to write, and have been unable to do so since. I began to self harm… and between that and the inability to create, I found a new shrink in January (I was diagnosed bipolar w/anxiety 5 years ago), my 3rd in 5 years, and have also been in therapy since February.

    Despite how much better I’m doing (according to my therapist because frankly, I don’t see improvement), I still can’t write fiction. I can do essay work, I can do article work… but I cannot write fiction. I’m beginning to think that I’m either hampered by my meds or that I’m just fucking Humpty Dumpy level broken, that I’ve lost the ability to create. I don’t know what else to try.

    • Although our conditions differ, Paige, I can completely empathise with non-fiction being possible to write while fiction keeps the door closed. Sometimes, it’s as if ‘only real, verifiable stuff’ is allowed to be examined and written about. Things I can check, logical, cause and effect stuff. I’ll be honest, when I’m in a mentally weird place, looking at, reading about, writing about real stuff gives me comfort.

      I do hope that what you are writing at the moment brings you some measure of comfort, too. Best wishes to you.

      – Lita

  6. Hey Chuck, this is great advice and I hope that people take your words to heart and seek help if they need to do so.

    I’ve been back to a psychiatrist (my 3rd in 6 years since my diagnosis of bipolar disorder w/anxiety) since January and in therapy (my ?? in 6 years) due to a psychological & emotional trauma that I experienced last December. I was actually trying to write the night of the incident and, as a result, have begun to self-harm and have been unable to write creatively.

    I can do essay work, though it’s difficult, and have done some article work… but I’m still unable to CREATE. And I don’t know if my meds (lamictal & pristiq, for the interested) dull that part of my mind or if the incident resulted in a mental Humpty Dumpty and just shattered my ability to create. My therapist feels otherwise, and despite different approaches, I’m still struggling.

    Not looking for answers, I just wanted to share with you all. *hearts and rainbows and such*

  7. Thank you for writing this, Chuck. My last family member–my mother–is dying and I just can’t seem to write anything except notes to myself. My dream literary agent requested my first fifty pages and they’re not ready in the least. I’m having POV challenges. I’m just too heartbroken and sad and melancholy and exhausted and guilt-ridden.
    I’ll just know that most of this is normal considering the abnormal moment. Thanks again.

    • Hey I just wanted to say I’m sorry you are going through this. I’ve been having a lot of not so wonderful moments with my family lately, and like you, I just can’t seem to step out of the problems and into my world of writing. But last night I just turned the TV off and plotted out a chapter I had been stuck on. It wasn’t much, maybe 15 mins of work, but it helped. Guess I’m just saying hang in there. Much love

  8. It’s oddly comforting to see other people who had depression/mental stuffs triggered by the last election. I felt so broken for letting a poltical process influence by mental health and productivity. But it seems normal.

    2017 was such a slog emotionally, creatively and mentally. In the whole year I wrote the last third of a novella (that was originally supposed to be a novel) and two short stories. I’ve never figured out how to break out of the “I can only write fiction when I’m motivated” funk and it usually takes a butt ton of great art to inspire me. Maybe because I write articles all day, I don’t know. I noticed freelance writing really hit my fiction productivity hard, so I switched to just working on shorter fiction projects that are more doable.

    2018’s had it’s own challenges (husband who unfairly lost a job he loved and now a long job search, more toxic news cycles, etc,), but I feel like I’m getting better at coping. That said, I’ve only written one short story and I’ve been playing around with outlines for a longer project. I’ve kind of noticed I prefer non-fiction, and then fiction on the side when I need it as a catharsis. Maybe that’s just me.

  9. Shit gets in the way, plain and simple. My husband spent 2017 dying of cancer, then a few months later my father died. My country dies a little every day. I struggle through anxiety just to breathe. Thinking about writing hurts. But I hereby give myself permission to not even try and fail at writing anymore until I get at least some of the other shit under control. Maybe next year

    • I’m sorry those things happened to you. I hope every day brings you closer to comfort, and that you keep being generous to yourself.

  10. Chuck, your words are both comforting and clarifying for this visual artist. After the election of He-Who-Shall-Not -Be-Named, like some of the other people on this thread, I went into what had to be clinical depression; I’d walk past the door of my studio, think about maybe drawing a line or two, sigh “meh,” and go putter around the house. When I would sit down at the board, either nothing I did worked out, or I just stared at the white paper staring back at me. This year was a bit better: I illustrated a book on ageism, and did some pencil pieces for a magazine of women’s spirituality that I’ve worked for for years. I’ve also started doing editorial drawings for my husband to post online. What I’m lacking still, though, is the drive to produce that I used to have (I’m 61, if that makes a difference); maybe it’s the time of year, or more probably, like so many other creatives, I feel sick at heart with—and of— the malaise in this country and in Mother Gaia. I was taught that good ultimately prevails, and I am trying to keep my little candle alight—but—what if it’s not enough?

  11. Not to discount your experience (I’m glad you were able to recognize your husband’s abuse for what it was, and get him out of your life), but as someone who *does* require medication for mental illness, I can say it is, on some days, the only reason I can write at all. Linking mental illness to creativity is super problematic; I have Bipolar Disorder, which often gets romanticized – the mania aspect in particular – and it’s bullshit. Dangerous bullshit, at that, because it stops the people who need medication from getting it. Mental illness does not make a person more creative. When I write, it’s in spite of my mental illness, not because of it. Writing during a depressive episode is like trying to give birth through a sieve. Nothing comes out, and you hate yourself, causing further pain. Mania may make you more productive in the short run, but it also leaves you a jittery, paranoid, insomniac wreck, incapable of taking care of yourself, and the longer it lasts the more likely you are to descend into true psychosis. It is in no way a shortcut to creative genius.

    If you’re a person with mental illness and a medical professional thinks you would benefit from medication, listen to them. It may not be the right solution for you in the end (I use it as a last resort), but avoiding taking medication because you think it’s going to kill your creative process is incredibly self-destructive, and might even kill YOU instead.

    (Side note, but wow, I cannot sign in with my Twitter handle on any browser. Not sure what’s up with that.)

  12. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you, Chuck!

    I’ve been in a major funk since one of the best people in my life committed suicide in the UK… seriously! My life just ground to a halt. I couldn’t eat, sleep or create in any way shape or form. I even let my art teacher take over one of my paintings – how horrible is that???

    I had known this wonderful singer, actor and Vivienne Leigh look-a-like since I was 9 years old when she attended my primary school for a year and we had been writing to each other since 1991 – when I finally found her address amongst my other crap in my bedroom at my folks’ house and picked up a pen and wrote her when I was around 13.

    But it’s completely shattered my world since May this year… I haven’t written anything decent except the odd Flash Fiction, and even they’re a little on the sour side… leaving me wondering if I’ll ever get my mojo back.

    Am I depressed? Yes.
    Am I in mourning? Yes, most definitely.
    Did your post strike a nerve with me? Yes… and thank you for letting me know how bad it’s been, what I can do about it and what I have been doing right, wrong and everything else in between.

    And if my comments come up a little odd, or sour, I apologise in advance… I have good days and bad.

  13. As someone who has suffered from depression most of their life, I’ve come to realize it’s not something I can just get over or hope goes away. It will always be a battle. But I’ve also come to realize that writing, like exercise and listening to my favorite music, helps immensely to relieve the stress. Writing in my regular journal is the most emotionally rewarding. I don’t have to be cautious of what I write or politically correct. If I can help it, no one will ever read those things.

    Writers and other artists have often been known to suffer from bouts of depression and anxiety, as well as from substance abuse. It’s confounded us and so-called health experts. But we artists are imbued with the desire and the talent to link one community with another across vast divides of race, religion, nationality and the like. We are more in touch with our humanity and have to relay the breadth of the human experience through our work. That makes us amenable to the world’s pleasures, but also vulnerable to its miseries. So, with the very good comes the very bad. It’s unavoidable. But, after years of wondering why I was so cursed, I now understand – and celebrate – that I’m so fortunate to harbor all of those qualities.

    Thanks, Chuck, for helping all of us be honest with ourselves. Now, on to creating more artistic goodness!

  14. I’ve been going through a lot of bad stuff–ironically coinciding with Trump’s election. In fact, the only thing that has kept me from despairing too much about the dumpster-fire that passes for our government these days (or that we’re spiraling rapidly toward the End of Life as We Know It for a variety of reasons: death of democracy, rise of fascism, climate change, repeal of the ACA, the next pandemic…) is that I’ve had so much personal loss it’s not funny. If I put everything that’s happened to me in the last couple of years in one story–gave it to one character to experience–readers would scoff at how unrealistic it was. When I begin listing the losses to friends or professionals, they stop giving their condolences after the second or third one and just sit there blinking. If I took one of those “Life Stresses” tests to determine the number of Major Life Stressors in One Year as a predictive indicator of a serious health issue, the testers would simply shake their heads and say, “Oh, honey.”

    I’m not sharing this for sympathy–just to set the background. Somehow, I managed to keep writing throughout this period. Not at my usual rate, but I did write and publish a story, an accomplishment of which I’m damn proud. But all of the sudden, I seem to have hit a creativity wall. I found it a bit inexplicable–why now?

    I realized I’m holding my breath waiting on the results of the mid-term elections. Elections I fear will not be fair. Elections I fear will cement the path we’re currently on. There’s no way I’m going to be productive until Nov 6th–and possibly not after that either, depending on the results. So I have given myself permission to be creative in other ways. I’m painting designs on rocks (how low stress can that be?) and I’m writing fanfiction. I’m re-reading all my old favorite books and devouring the TBR pile when I’d normally horde those titles like a miser. I’m doing whatever it takes to get me through this period. No, I’m not working on the next story. Yes, I realize that in order to build an audience, I need a certain production rate. But that’s okay.

    I think what’s most important during these times where you have to sort out the source of your block–whatever it may be–is that you give yourself permission to do something else. Or nothing. Whatever works for you.

    This post was a much-needed reminder that I’m not alone in this. Thank you.

    • I don’t know if you’ll ever read this, but I sympathize with you about the Long List of Life Stressors thing. I believe you, whatever you’ve gone through. I’ve got a list of my own, and it sucks that sometimes the more things you need help with, the more you’re stigmatized and given even *less*. I know what it feels like to have a list that people can’t believe, let alone adequately sympathize with. Facing your List, giving yourself permission to be creative however you can, to plow it back into your work when you’re able, that really is enough. You’re not alone.

  15. My own physical well being plays into mental. I had a tough day with that of all days but reading this definitely helps. I used to be really good shape but I’ve since grown lazy. I’m still young at 32 and it could always be worse. I am grateful that it is not. I can and will do better for myself, and for those around me. Thank you so fucking much Chuck.

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