As I said in an earlier post, writer’s block and depression are different things. Depression isn’t fixed by a writing exercise, brainstorming, or reading books on the craft. If a writer had a heart attack and didn’t write the next day, we wouldn’t say he had writer’s block. If someone is clinically depressed and doesn’t write, he probably doesn’t have writer’s block either. Depression is a mental illness. That decreased ability to perform even simple tasks–let alone writing–is caused by a dysfunction in the frontal lobes. This article explains it.
Writer’s block can feel pretty bad, but it’s not an illness. It’s just a hurdle. It’s deeply frustrating, but it ends at some point. Depression claws its way inside you and lives there until you die. It might go into a sort of remission, like cancer or herpes, but it’s always there, lurking, waiting, gathering its power for the next attack. At least, that’s how it is for me. I’m bipolar. Unipolar depression might be different. I’m not a doctor, just a writer who struggles with this stuff. Medications work for some people. They don’t work for me.
I’ve been in a low grade depression for a few months. (I say low grade because, although I’ve had days where I didn’t get out of bed, I haven’t had any suicidal thoughts. So, this is a good depression.) I haven’t written much. Instead, I’ve focused on self-care. I set a few small goals in the morning and try to accomplish them. Walk five thousand steps. Shower. Do laundry. Walk another five thousand steps. The walking has been really good for me. I’m able to commune with my characters and ‘write’ while I walk. I sweat, which forces me to shower and change clothes. If you’re able to do some type of exercise when you’re in a depressive episode, I highly recommend it. It might just be my superstition, but I feel like that is what has kept the suicidal thoughts at bay. (Actually, that article I linked to above says exercise increases serotonin and dopamine in the brain, so maybe there is something to it.)
Although I do take breaks from writing, I try to push myself to write at least once a week when I’m depressed. It isn’t easy. I’ve noticed that when I’m depressed, I:
And some of them are really weird. I’ve understood homonyms since grade school and know the difference between too, to, and two, etc. When I’m depressed, I’ll find words like that switched around in my manuscript.
- Have trouble finding words
A word is there–then just vanishes. Poof! Usually, I can jog my memory with Google searches and music. Sometimes I’ll ask my husband if he knows what word I’ve lost. Sometimes I simply find a different word that works well enough.
- Take longer to write a scene than normal
Something that would ordinarily take me a couple of hours to write takes four
- Have trouble answering questions
Although I construct a ‘rough sketch’ outline prior to writing scenes, I often run into places where I don’t know how something happened or why something is the way it is. It’s tougher to ferret out these answers when I’m depressed.
- Feel pessimistic about the outcome
When I’m not depressed and in the midst of writing a book, there are spaces where I lose myself in the story. I forget that any other world exists. After I finish, I’ll often have misgivings and worry that readers won’t like it. When I’m depressed, I feel like no one will enjoy it even as I’m writing it. These kinds of thoughts crush creativity.
On the plus side, a depressive episode, by slowing down the writing process, gives me extra time with my characters. (This is mostly with a low grade episode. Deep episodes are a hell I don’t want to even discuss at the moment.) During this current episode, I ended up spending a lot of time with Frank. I would lie in bed and suddenly discover Frank with me. (This wasn’t an hallucination; my logical mind knew he wasn’t there. But…he was. That’s called writer crazy.) Anyway, he was usually quiet, but sometimes we would talk about his friends, his jobs, his lovers. I felt him more acutely than when I did his character worksheet. He entertained me, buoyed me, and we became friends. I usually bond with a character while I’m writing, but not this early in the book.
If you’re reading this and are depressed, please seek help—especially if you’re feeling suicidal. Some resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
International Association for Suicide Prevention