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Writing with depression & anxiety: a field guide

I’m a writer with anxiety and depression, and I know I’m not alone. I think writing calls to many of us with these conditions. For me, the call began during a childhood spent reading for escapism from the institutionalised torment of compulsory education. To clarify, I loved getting good grades and earning teachers’ praise—I just loathed the company of other students. Other students tended to loathe me in return, which was probably fair. I’m sure my shyness and lack of social skills came off as arrogance and a deep disdain for humankind. Which, admittedly, was probably slightly justified. I could be an arrogant shit as a child/preteen/teen.

Anyhoo… depression, anxiety and books have been three of the most constant presences in my life. I’m reliably informed that I came out of the womb the embodiment of Wednesday’s child—full of woe, and prone to screeching when separated from my mother. Not a lot has changed in the twenty-five years since, although I like to think my separation anxiety is slightly less discernible to the casual observer. I’ve made significant progress over the last few years—owing in no small part to my psychologist and the (previously mysterious) easy friendship I’ve found with my writer’s group—but I know I’m never going to be completely ‘normal’ (whatever the hell that is).

I love writing. It’s the perfect outlet for me, as evidenced by the fact that I become an intolerable banshee when I’m not writing. But writing—along with most things, to be fair—also causes me anxiety. In this post, I’m going to go through a few of the anxiety attacks writing gives me, and outline my cobbled together solutions that (mostly) work.

First up: the ‘Oh my god I’m (insert age) and haven’t even got an agent yet, my non-writer friends are working full time and getting married and buying houses. What even is my life?’

This particular panic attack has made itself way too comfortable in my life over the years—kind of like a rash, or the mosquito that flies into your bedroom just when you get super comfortable at night. Recently, though, my psychologist told me something that sometimes helps when this anxiety has its claws in me. She said that, in writing my novel, I am basically working a full time job—I just won’t get paid until the job’s finished. I really like this idea. It makes me feel better when I catch up with friends who are making a living as journalists, or who just got married and bought a house and a dog. However, I’ve found that viewing writing as an as-yet-unpaid full time job can create its own problem. I like to call it the Guilt.

As I’m writing this, I’m looking at a picture my dad drew that’s stuck on the whiteboard opposite my bed.

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This was originally a picture of bird of paradise flowers on the front cover of a magazine—until my dad grabbed a pen and some whiteout and started doodling. Look at the vacant, accusing eyes. The slack jaw. The sharp teeth. I have now decided that this creature is the embodiment of the Guilt—namely, that feeling you get whenever you take a break from writing. It can attack at any time, hovering over your shoulder and nipping at the back of your neck. It’s annoying, and has absolutely no sense of occasion. It can swoop down in the middle of the night, when you’re just about to get to sleep, and send a cold sweat down your spine. It can manifest when you’re watching TV, peering over the screen until you start feeling sick.

(Not exactly the Guilt, but you get the basic idea)

It can start pecking you in the middle of a Saturday, when you’re out with friends. It can fix its beady eye on you when you have a migraine and can’t even bear the idea of thinking, let alone working out a problem with your WIP. But the guilt doesn’t care. It’s irrational and alarmist and predatory—and sometimes it can useful. Sometimes. But when it’s preying on you all the time, it’s a real bastard. Every job allows for downtime—just because we writers happen to be working a job that requires self-motivation, doesn’t mean we don’t also deserve that downtime. So sometimes you need to wring the Guilt’s neck and tell it to back down like the bully it is. Trust me—you do not need to be working every minute. No one does. Your work will, most likely, be better for any time you spend away from it.

Second on my list of writing-based anxiety attacks: the ‘Oh crap, everything I write is terrible. Who the hell am I kidding? I might as well go work full time at a deli and resign myself to my inexorable fate’.

I firmly believe that all writers need a strong dose of arrogance about their skills. How else are we going to make it through the constant doubt, questioning and downright recrimination that comes from people who don’t understand our career choice? How else would we make it through the constant rejection and criticism that will be part of our lives if we do succeed as writers? But even the greatest arrogance can fail on occasion. You know those days when you wake up, look at your WIP and realise that today you’re going to hate everything that you ever wrote? Yeah, me too. But I have two solutions for those days:

  1. Just step away from the manuscript. Take a day off—read that book you haven’t read yet, because whenever you feel like reading the Guilt pecks at you to use that energy to write instead. Binge watch an entire season of Daredevil or Sense8 on Netflix and call it storytelling research. Or, if the Guilt is too persistent, do something non-writing based that will still advance your WIP. Do some actual research. Create a Pinterest board. I’m an artist, so sometimes I’ll use those days to do character portraits. I’m telling you, tomorrow you will look at your WIP again and realise yesterday’s version of you was being melodramatic. Sometimes distance is the only cure. Even if that distance is just what you get from sleeping on a problem.
  2. My other solution for when I hate my manuscript? Pick a section and just fix it. Pinpoint why your brain suddenly hates its own work. Is the dialogue too stiff? Is there not enough description? Are you using too many dialogue tags? Is your MC acting OOC? Brainstorm some fixes, stop feeling sorry for yourself and get to work. My cartoonist father taught me that, most of the time, your second idea is better than your first. I’ve found that the concept is often absolutely spot on. Trust in this idea and BICHOK.

Last, but certainly not least, on this list of writing anxiety attacks: the ‘Holy shit I have not made enough progress today/this week/this month’.

During a moment of self-flagellation over this very topic, my lovely psychologist recently informed me that one of the symptoms of depression can be a lack of motivation. This revelation shed blissful light on my lifelong aptitude for procrastination—something I had cast as bone-deep laziness, and a horrendous character flaw. I have to say, it was one hell of a relief to find out that this issue was fixable, and something I could actually work on. But even knowing this doesn’t always keep the self-recrimination at bay. The fix I’ve found for this is fairly simple—to be honest, and talk to other writers about how you feel. This always helps me remember that I am most definitely not alone. Chances are, your writer friends are all going through the exact same thing. In fact, the same can probably be said about the other objects of anxiety on this list. All writers go through periods of anxiety. Why wouldn’t we? We’ve signed up for a life of unpredictability. Anyone who can look that particular prospect in the face with total calm is either lying or a cyborg.

There is no one size fits all fix for writing with depression and anxiety. It sucks, and it manifests for different writers in different ways. Every situation is unique, but I firmly believe that every situation also has a fix—sometimes, that fix can simply be to allow yourself a day of wallowing, self-pitying indulgence. I’ve done that before, and it can work wonders. As long as you can also summon the persistence, drive and mule-headed stubbornness to eventually pick yourself up off the floor and keep working. Never, ever forget that any progress is good progress—even if all you can manage is a sentence, an addition to a Pinterest board or a text sent to a critique partner.

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One thought on “Writing with depression & anxiety: a field guide

  1. This resonated with me so hard! Most of my writer’s block is depression-related. I have this HUGE self-doubt that pokes its head in at least once a day, whether I’m writing or not, to tell just how big of a failure I am. But I definitely have the worry that I’m somehow “too old” to make it (I’m 27) and the guilt for needing a break. I also tend to compare my word counts to other writers, which isn’t fair to me either.

    Writing with depression/anxiety is so hard. At the same time, having writing goals is one of the few things that keeps me from giving in to depression. If I have a project and a goal and a story to tell, I feel purposeful and I’m less likely to listen to the voices that tell me I suck at everything.

    Thanks for sharing this post! It’s nice to know I’m not alone. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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