The 5 Keys to Writing with Depression

Anyone that has ready book Grit for Writers knows that I share my personal story of grit and the challenges that mental health means for a creative endeavour. Talking to a few fellow writers this week, I was struck that living, and writing, with depression is a challenge many writers face. After having a challenging week myself, I wanted to share some knowledge I’ve gained as both a writer with a diagnosis of depression, but also as a psychologist that helps others live—and succeed—with depression.

  1. Know your depression

How depression manifests itself as diverse as those that live with it, and knowing what your particular ‘flavour’ looks like gives you knowledge. And yes, knowledge means power. Having an understanding of which negative thoughts your mind will turn to, what areas of your life are particularly vulnerable, and what this will mean for your behaviour is all valuable information. If you’re anything like me, your inner critic will turn on your creative endeavours first. Creative endeavours are highly susceptible to criticism because what is considered ‘good writing’ is highly subjective. The more fragile the foundations for a belief, the more easily it is undermined.

Although I don’t know exactly what your mind is telling you—that’s a product of your biology, psychology and history—my prediction is it’s some variant of ‘I’m not good enough.’ What I’m also going to predict is that it undermines, if not totally stops, your writing mojo. From personal experience, and from hearing countless clients relay their struggle to engage in the activities they love, I know that depression kills motivation (in fact, loss of motivation is a diagnostic criterion for Major Depressive Disorder). Once you have the ability to recognise the messages depression likes to throw at you (incessantly), then I recommend considering the next point.

  1. Don’t believe everything your mind tells you

I believe in this statement so strongly, and it’s been such a key message in my ability to live productively with a chronic mental illness, that I had it tattooed onto my body!

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Because a depressed mind is so convinced it knows the truth, it’s very clever at finding the evidence to back up its beliefs (that time you didn’t place in the competition? Obviously proof you’re a crap writer. Oh, and that one star review/the fifteen rejections from publishers/the fact that you have NO idea what happens next in your current manuscript? The conclusion is obvious…watching Netflix is a better use of your time). And it will focus on nothing but those thoughts, and take the subsequent black emotions that swallow you as proof that it’s right.

But we forget that our minds can be biased, narrow sighted, and often downright lie. In fact, our mind takes one perspective of the plethora of options it could choose from and amplifies it. I like to imagine a multistorey building looking down on a scene (in this case, your writing). Each floor has rows of windows, each one providing its own sliver of view. No one window sees it all. No particular window has the full picture of what’s going on down there. Depression takes one perspective (usually the most negative) and makes it the only perspective, and it believes it’s always been like that, and will always be like that.

Consider how you can hold that one window a little more lightly, a little more flexibly. Find ways to remind yourself that there’s other angles to look at any situation, and then ask yourself whether those perspectives may be useful in maintaining your writing routine.

  1. Look after yourself

Feeling depressed is hard. The lack of energy, the loss of motivation, the feelings of hopelessness, guilt and infinite sadness are all overwhelming. You need to treat a depressive episode like any other physical illness. If you were down with the flu, you’d recognise that you can’t do it all; that you may need a little help to get the kids to school, do the shopping, earn and income, clean the house, cook dinner, feed the dogs, write a block-buster…

There’s all the practical things that will look after your physical state; make sure you’re eating well, get enough sleep, keep up the fluids. Sometimes we may need someone to help us do that, which we explore in the point below. But above all, practice self-compassion. Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time as you would with a friend. Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself (as a depressed brain tends to do), self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings. Ask yourself, as you would a close and beloved friend, how can I comfort and care for myself when I feel like this?

  1. Don’t do it alone

When we’re feeling low, we tend to isolate ourselves, to both protect ourselves from the risk of negativity, but also to protect others from our negative mind state. The problem is, when we’re alone, there’s less chance to discover and entertain those alternative perspectives we’ve just explored (it’s not uncommon for them to come from someone else) or to tap into the protective factors social interactions can have. Engaging with the right people opens up the opportunity to experience empathy, understanding, and maybe a little laughter.

The pivotal words here are the ‘right people.’ If the people in your social network are in a negative headspace (for some people this is a chronic state) then they don’t have the capacity to provide the support you need. But those that can build you up? They’re the ones you want to connect with. You’ll find those people in your family or your friends, online thousands of kilometres away, or in counsellors and psychologists. Find them and reach out to them.

  1. Don’t stop writing

All the strategies I’ve provided so far are challenging. If they were easy, depression wouldn’t affect one in seven people; we’d all implement all those self-help books out there and get on with our lives. But I’m betting this one, the ability to write even though depression has established itself deep in your synapses, is the hardest.
The desire to curl up into yourself and withdraw is strong. It’s a self-protective strategy considering you’re already experiencing a great deal of emotional distress. You’re usually tired because you’ve been sleeping too much or too little, you’re drowning in a sea of sadness, and you’re hating on yourself for being so lazy and incompetent. I say this because I’ve been there.

But continuing to write is the key to living, and most importantly succeeding, with major depressive disorder. I don’t care if it’s 50 or 100 words. You don’t even have to fire up your computer—you can sit down with a pen and paper and jot some notes of the scene that isn’t actually happening for another hundred pages. Do 30 minutes of plotting or editing or research. Use all the strategies we’ve been discussing and keep writing.

What will happen is you’ll discover something. In fact, you’ll discover several things. You’ll discover that depression isn’t driving your life. That those beliefs and words your brain is throwing at you don’t dictate the choices you make. As your book keeps growing, inch by inch, you’ll find that positive feelings can, in fact, live alongside depression. Pride will sprout, creativity will thrive, and optimism will return.

And once you’re on the other side, you’ll have ammunition. You’ll have evidence that you’re not lazy, or useless, or an amateur. So if/when depression bulldozes you again you won’t believe it so completely, it won’t influence your choices so easily. It will be easier to keep writing and prove that bastard wrong.

I can say with certainty, it’s a cycle that worth repeating.

What do you think? Have you experienced that challenge of writing when feeling down? Do you think these tips could be helpful? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, or Twitter.

Have a wonderful week,

Tamar

Grit for Writers Cover

 

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27 comments

  1. Inner Critic vs Writing Mojo! The Deathmatch! I see a story! Meanwhile, I’m considering having ‘Do believe Tamar’s tattoo!’ tattooed on my body!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you. I needed to hear these words. I’ve struggled with depression for years. I put on a mask around people just to get through the day as a “normal” person. When my husband was diagnosed with cancer, I was his primary caregiver and forced myself to stay upbeat and positive. When he passed away, I was mentally and physically drained until there was nothing left but a shell. I tried to get back to writing my ms, but I couldn’t focus and sill can’t. It’s been two years. I’d promised him l’d finish it, but I have no energy and tell myself things like, if only could lay down for a few minutes. The minutes turn into hours, and I don’t go near the laptop. Recently I lost two of my dearest friends as well. The profound loss is devastating. I’m going (I must) take your advice. Thank you again. So
    glad I found your blog. Appreciate your sharing your expertise with us.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Sharon, grief and depression are a potent and debilitating mix. The fact that you’re still trying shows that you’re stronger than you realise. Think of the smallest step you could take (maybe a sentence? Maybe reading a craft book?) towards moving your writing forward and do it. You’ll surprise yourself because this story is waiting to be written, and your motivation is waiting to be discovered 😊.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Tamar. I love your tips for when we find ourselves in a slump – whatever the state of mind and spirit. Getting started on anything is the biggest hurdle – that revision, the editing for a friend or client, the next scene or chapter to fix or cleaning the ….. full the gaps (plenty to choose, right?)

    The thought that comes to mind is about how to eat an elephant… one mouthful at a time. I try to make myself just start. Something. Anything.

    Overwhelm is the biggest downer for me – I have so much I want to do, and I see piles of books I ‘can’t wait to read’, research I could delve into, pages to fix, hobbies, housework, relaxation. Yep. Even relaxation goes out the window. I’m so busy turning my back on things that I fall down a hole of wasted time with little reward. Weird, because I love being busy and getting things done. So rewarding, yet so elusive.

    Anyway, the gold gem I picked from your article was to do a bit of research. We like to get online to avoid stuff. Well this is a golden opportunity to get started. Next thing we’ll be taking notes, and getting a bit of oomph going. Thank you. X Jay

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey Jay. Yes, the overwhelm is an issue for so many of us! Particularly considering most writers also have a day job and family responsibilities. Glad you found some tips helpful (it’s why I write PsychWriter, so it’s very rewarding to hear). I find research is a great way to get motivated again (I just did that last night), it always inevitably sparks an idea. Happy writing, Tamar.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Tamar, I shared my story with you several months ago.

    I too have struggled with these demons for over twenty years. Actually my whole life, but for all the denial that kept it at bay until I turned forty years old.

    Early in my psychotherapy I was hopeful that between the medications, Dr. Corey’s guidance, the countless books and studies I read on both depression and Bipolar Disorder, as well as learning to engage in meditation, I would move past this affliction and put it all behind me. It was all to no avail.

    Now I understand that both my genetic legacy, and the horrific childhood trauma I experienced, are not things that will ever go away. You don’t “get over it”. Contrary to what so many people love to believe. You learn to live with it and cope. Suffice it to say, that’s as good as it will ever get; but the alternative is even worse.

    We are all “walking wounded”. I hope my fellow travelers find some modicum of peace in knowing that we all suffer to one degree or another. I take solace in knowing that metaphorically speaking, I do not walk this path alone. My empathy to all of you who live with these demons. I will leave you with the words of wisdom that Dr. Corey imparted to me after every session for over seventeen long years before he retired:

    “Lance, be kind to yourself.”

    Now if I could only stop the incessant self-loathing and take his words to heart…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Lance, great to hear from you again. Mental health diagnosis are chronic for some of us, it makes life challenging, doesn’t ti? I like your statement that we’re all walking wounded, I think it’s what ultimately equalises every one of us. And yes, keep working on being kind to yourself, it’s never as easy as it sounds, but for the moments we do achieve it – it’s worth it!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. My inner critic and difficult to silence also. That demon I deal with on a day to day basis. I have to keep telling myself I’m am good enough, I can do this and my life will change. I’m lucky in how I have found a person who sees the beautiful me and not the one I keep seeing. It has made a big difference in my self confidence and ability to be the real me. As I have aged, I have come to the conclusion the only person I need to make happy is me and the rest will follow, so backing up to basics has helped. And yes, Lance, you need to be kind to yourself. You are that wonderful person you want to be, but you need to let him out instead of the one you see in the mirror.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. My own type of depression has been diagnosed as situational depression. I’ve had it 2 other times. The 1st was when I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. My doctor who diagnosed me with it but gave no support with painkillers nor sleeping medication. My days may start start pain free but as the day advanced the pain got worse & worse as I moved during the day. The more I move the more I hurt. Eventually my husband’s health insurance changed I got a doctor who gave me pain & sleeping medications which gave me an almost normal life until we couldn’t pay regularly for my medications (he was on unemployment at the time). At that time I was mostly pain free using less of the medications down to a minimum number of pills with this new doctor my depression lifted.
    My second brush with depression was when we went homeless & lived in a homeless shelter. It eventually lifted when we got our apartment. During those 2 episodes my writing helped me through live through it, without it I don’t know how I could have lived. My writing sustained my interest in life as I wanted to find out how my characters lives would turn out.
    I am an instinctual writer. I never had a an outline for the novels to follow. Each story I wrote I had a goal in mind for what the story would accomplish but I didn’t know how the story would accomplish that goal until I actually wrote down the story. Because of that I lived through those experiences because I wanted to know how the story & characters resolved the goals I had placed on it & them.
    The last episode of depression I had is the one I am presently living through as I’ve informed you since I’ve joined the group & informed you last year. My husband died of cancer. This time my writing has not sustained as it had in the past as I’ve not written anything seriously in the past 10 years because of the trauma of going through homelessness I stopped writing my book but did write background stories on my 2 main characters. Interestingly, this past Xmas I began writing my story that I thought I would never write because it is based on my experiences while living in the homeless shelter. I wanted to write a story based on those homeless experiences but found them too painful to remember them. But the opportunity to write presented itself & the words flowed as it had ever done to my surprise. In the past 10 years I have wanted to write seriously but the words refused to flow easily as it had always in the past. I have always had a mild case of the need to write all through my writing career of 55 years. I can only assume my mind & emotions have finally processed the trauma of going homeless plus the fact I had lost my husband of nearly 41 years (he died 11 days short of our 41st anniversary) pushed a new trauma into my life to take the place of the old 1. So now I have taken solace in reading instead of writing, 1 of 2 favorite pass times. I have been reading a particular genre of cat cozy mysteries. That is my history with my depression & how I have dealt with each episode & still dealing with the present one. I hope to write in the future as I get over the loss of my husband, finish my 5 volumes of books & get them published.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Janet, nice to hear from you again. You’ve certainly had some challenges, and your passion for story worlds (when either writing or reading) is obvious. I certainly understand that losing ourselves into these safe spaces is wonderful way to manage when the world keep throwing hardship at us. The pen will be there waiting for you when you’re ready to pick it up 🙂 All the best, Tamar xoxo

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This post really resonated with me. I turned to writing to make sense of a very difficult period of my life – and the writing itself has been life changing for me.
    And yes, there are times that I just can’t write in those (thankfully infrequent now) low moments. I let myself off the hook by reading – and writing reviews of those books. It’s still writing – even if it’s not on my own project. It helps me feel like I’m still being productive, promoting other writers, and learning the craft by reading critically. Then when I’m through the slump – it’s back to my own wip 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I don’t have a problem writing, but I do have a problem with marketing the books I’ve written. My mind says they aren’t worth spending more money on and to keep on writing, even if no one reads them.
    I’ve dealt with depression since I was a child, only I didn’t know what it was. I was that klutz kid who couldn’t do much physically until it was discovered I was essentially blind due to myopia. I felt as if I didn’t belong anywhere…still do but push through that by pasting a smile on my face and making sure I have a good day. I absolutely refuse to let the feelings push me back into the box I lived in for most of my life, allowing those around me to abuse me in the process. What happens now is I back off from things I find extremely difficult like marketing my books. It’s scary and I’m having a difficult time with it partly because my books contain glimmers of my life in fiction. What is nice is that I know I’m not alone in all of this. I discovered that when I was in the late forties when I was finally diagnosed with severe depression. What I did do was look for ways to alleviate the symptoms without the medications which made me feel weird. Using all the resources inside of me and practice have made it so no one knows the darkness which keeps trying to pull me back into it that I have inside. The longer I keep it at bay, the easier it is. My last bout of darkness was in 2015 before I retired. I hated my job, my life and where I was living. I retired, told my kids I was running away from home and not coming back other than for brief visits and moved to Arizona where the stark landscape of the high desert shows the beauty you can find in the bleakest of conditions. There is hope and you can do it. If you hate where you are, find a way to move beyond it. It’s not easy, but it is doable.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well said, Bobbie! I find the hardest part of depression is that it undermines our belief in ourselves, which means it undermines our belief in our writing. Marketing means we have to make ourselves vulnerable to hearing what our brain has decided is true. My motto – don’t believe everything your mind tells you – is what keeps me going. There’s only one way you’ll find your readers – and that’s by putting them out there. As an aside, I’ve decided I’m turning this post into a book because it’s struck a chord with writers. Thanks for sharing your story – it’s inspiring 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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