Four Tips for Writing When You Are Depressed
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The Tortured Artist. It's society's idyllic image: beauty wrought of struggle, of madness. There's truly no creative stereotype I loathe more. The Tortured Artist so frequently pictured in film and television teaches that the best works cannot be produced unless one is battling demons, deep in the grip of dangerous substances, or struggling under the weight of mental illness.
As a writer who does live with mental illness — depression, to be exact — I can say from experience that such struggles have in no way improved my work. On the contrary, they regularly leave me feeling further demotivated and ashamed.
However, I have learned a thing or two about living my best writing life despite struggles with mental illness, and knowing that I'm not alone, I'd like to share those things with you today.
Living as a depressed creative...
Thinking back, I believe I began to experience depression around the age of fourteen or fifteen, though I didn't recognize it for what it was until I was nineteen years of age. For those many years in between, I simply believed that my demotivation was a result of laziness, pessimism, and struggles with self-esteem.
I thought that, with enough work, I could change myself, could become stronger, better, happier, and more productive. But the more I fought to become the person I wanted to be, the more and more I felt like a failure. It seemed like every time I began to see change, I'd wake up one morning to find myself unable to even get out of bed.
I often thought, "You have every opportunity in the world to live a happy and fulfilling life, and you're throwing it all down the drain." Naturally, my self-esteem only worsened as guilt and shame weighed heavy.
It was only when I hit the lowest of lows that I began to question why it was that I just could not seem to be happy, and a sneaking suspicion began to grow. Perhaps my lack of energy and motivation weren't a result of my own laziness. Perhaps my unhappiness wasn't my own fault.
When I first broached the topic of depression with my mother, I remember saying, "I can't ever think of a time when I was a happy person. I just occasionally happened to have happy days." And to this day, that statement holds true. I do have happy days — days in which I feel motivated, driven, passionate, and enthralled by possibility.
They often get lost among the days in which I feel hollow, desperate in my despair. Depression; it at once thrilled me to have a name for my daily struggle and terrified me to the bone. How was I ever to achieve anything, to find happiness, if my mental illness stood in the way?
Some days, I still feel helpless. I had grand plans to create new blog posts and resources this week and to write thousands of words for my work-in-progress, yet all of this went down the drain because I woke up Monday morning and simply... couldn't.
If you also live with depression, I'd wager my experiences in some way reflect your own. And if they do, you may be wondering how I manage to make progress toward my goals and dreams at all.
Learning to live my best writing life despite battling depression has been a years-long endeavor, and one that I may very well face for years to come. But I can confidently say that I have learned a few valuable lessons about living as a so-called "tortured artist." Today, I'd love to share these lessons with you...
Lesson #1: Keep a writing ritual.
A popular piece of advice for those living with depression is to maintain simple daily routines even when feeling low. From experience, I can say that getting out of bed to brush your teeth and comb your hair can make you feel surprisingly accomplished, if not triumphantly free of depression's grip.
For me, this principle translates into writing as well. Back in March 2015, I began keeping a minimal daily writing habit: just 200 written words or ten minutes of related work a day.
It's not often easy to maintain this habit. Sometimes I sit down to write at nine in the morning yet don't actually complete my words until moments before bed. But, speaking as a person who may never write a word if they didn't, in some way, force themselves to do so, this daily writing routine has proven instrumental in my fight against depression.
For you, maintaining a daily routine may not be viable. Every writer's process is different, as is every person's fight against mental illness. But if keeping rituals or routines of any nature has benefited you in some way, consider extending that principle to your writing life as well.
Lesson #2: Honor your Creative highs.
Sometimes living with chronic depression makes me feel like an addict. When I’m experiencing lows, I'm without the drug of motivation, my mind completely addled. But when I do find a little motivation at last, I could write marathons around other writers — and I often do.
Honoring such motivated moments in your life is, in my experience, one of the best ways to make progress on your passion projects when living with depression.
I also find it helpful to mark down my accomplishments on these days. They remind me that the next time I'm feeling high on motivation, it's time to turn off the TV and go make some magic happen. There will be plenty of time for mindless viewing the next time I'm feeling low.
Lesson #3: Utilize YOur Writing as an Outlet.
I absolutely loathe journaling, so when depression recovery tips recommend writing out your thoughts and feelings, I can only sigh in sheer frustration. But what I don't hate? Working on my novel.
It sounds simple, but it took me years to realize I could channel many of my worst doubts and depressive emotions into my stories as a way to deepen my characters' journeys. Every story needs at least a little internal struggle after all, and I have plenty of experience to spread around.
Thus, storytelling has become my own form of written outlet, a place to release all the mental messiness of living with depression so I can better understand myself and my characters.
Lesson #4: Give yourself grace.
If you’ve ever battled depression, you know how hard it can be to fight against feelings of failure and self-loathing at every turn. But the ways in which depression is holding you back are not your fault, especially as related to such mentally-draining work as writing fiction.
Yes, certain practices may help you better fight against the symptoms of living with a debilitating mental illness, but that is exactly what depression is on many days and in many ways: debilitating.
There will be days, or even weeks or months at a time, when you simply cannot seem to write a word, and this is not your fault. You are not a failure. You are not inept. You are battling one of the toughest diseases of the mind, and so you must give yourself grace and forgiveness.
You can no more cure your own depression than you can cancer, but you can seek treatment. You can get evaluated by a doctor and schedule sessions with a therapist, reach out to supportive family members and friends — including those online — and remind yourself often that your struggles are not your fault.
Honor your lows in the same way you do your highs. Take breaks. Forgive yourself when nothing gets done. Rest in the knowledge that there will be good days among the bad, that your stories matter, and that you are so very loved. So, keep on fighting.
It's important to note that employing these four tips isn’t some sort of magic spell. They won't radically transform your writing life overnight, or even in a few days, but they may help you make measurable progress toward your goals and dreams. Perhaps they'll even provide some encouragement and relief in knowing that you are not alone.
Living as a so-called "tortured artist" may not be nearly as idyllic as society would like to make you believe (and I do encourage you to unpack any internalized mindsets you may have concerning this harmful stereotype), but we don't have to give up our love for storytelling simply because we live with mental illness.
Get to know your depression. Dig deep into understanding how it manifests itself in your life and find ways to combat it, even if your strategies vary greatly from my own. There is a world of possibility out there, writers, and I hope you'll join me in refusing to give up the fight.
(Note: If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You are not alone, you are loved, and there is not a single ounce of shame you should feel for seeking a helping hand. Please click the link above.)