This month, we have been using Creativity Matters to explore issues of mental wellness in writers as part of Mental Health Awareness Month. These topics are critical for us to address for a big reason:
We are at high risk for experiencing them.
There are multiple theories about why this is the case. Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., in her book Touched with Fire, makes connections between manic-depression and creative personalities.
Neurologists have speculated that the reason many authors struggle with depression is that their brains are more active.
Some people have also hypothesized that the amount of time writers spend isolated and dealing with obstacles such as rejection of their work exacerbates these issues.
Here’s my beef with this: while there may be some truth to those ideas, they ultimately don’t help the problem.
They instead just perpetuate damaging stereotypes of artists as lonely, depressed, and often suicidal.
This doesn’t empower writers who are struggling. It just makes the situation more desperate.
Regardless of the scientific explanations or theories, the fact is most if not all the writers I know (myself included) have struggled with depression, anxiety, ADHD, schizophrenia, or some other type of mental health obstacle.
Another myth I’ve heard is mental health struggles are actually good for writers because they inspire us to create great art.
Maybe that’s the case for some people…but I suspect that whoever came up with that one has never actually experienced a mental illness.
Personally, there is nothing about clinical depression that motivates me to write. If anything, it completely disrupts my process, makes me less productive, and then makes me feel guilty for not being productive.
In any case, we don’t have a 100% clear answer about how or why writers develop mental health problems more often. However, in absence of clear information, we need to be able to address the situation, not just hypothesize about it.
And ultimately, that responsibility falls on each of us.
Having said that, if you are a writer who struggles with mental illness on any level, here are five things you can do to not just help yourself and your work to flourish, but help your fellow creators as well.
1. Don’t overthink it.
That theory about writers dealing with depression because their brains won’t shut off is problematic, but it’s also onto something.
It is very, very easy to overthink your writing and delve into questions that are not relevant to what you’re creating.
This can range from turning elements of characterization, plot, or other parts of your story into a full-on festival of doubts to questioning your abilities, what the point of your work is, or why anyone would ever want to read it.
Analyzing your story’s effectiveness and thinking about why your work might be important to others are both important parts of the process. But if you allow your mind to run away with them, they’ll go from being simple questions to enormous obstacles. You might even begin dismantling your story and making it into something you never intended for it to be, which may hold your entire project back.
So, how do you shut down overthinking before it starts? You recognize the warning signs. If a question you’re asking or a road you begin going down causes you anger, frustration, or despair, it’s time to shift the trajectory of your thought process.
Instead, reframe the problem and look at what is actually there. Look at the facts of the situation without giving in to frustration or condemnation. Then, objectively formulate a way to solve the problem.
2. Find a writing buddy or a community
One thing those theories about isolation and depression do have going for them is the notion that writing in a vacuum is bad for you.
It might sound cool or glamorous to think about writers sitting alone in dark towers composing their stories. But that isn’t real. It’s one of the great lies that writers believe.
The best thing you can do to avoid discouragement and other emotional pitfalls is to bring other people into your project.
Sharing your writing with other people can be really scary. I get it. But if you’ve found the right group of readers, they will see its potential, and any criticism they offer will be not just for your work’s best interests, but yours as well.
One good thing that has come out of the pandemic is that multiple writing groups have sprouted up all over social media and the internet. Join a group online, or investigate whether your community has one that meets in person at a local library or other venue.
3. Get a non-literary hobby
During the spring of 2020 when the entire world was locked down, I started playing guitar for the first time in years. I first learned when I was a teenager, and although I’ve played sporadically for the last 20-some years, I’ve never stuck with it for a sustained period of time.
At the beginning of COVID, my mental health tanked. I was already experiencing heighted levels of depression and anxiety. Adding a pandemic onto that was just too much.
My brain quickly went into overload. Writing became extremely difficult, which isn’t good when you write for a living and you’re now working from home and meeting with coworkers on Zoom while the world falls apart outside.
One day, I picked up my guitar and started playing a song I remembered from a church event I’d performed at eons ago. It’s difficult for me to explain what I experienced when I did this, but it just felt good.
I kept playing every day and I credit it with helping me to get over my initial pandemic depressive episode.