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.
Now, I make playing music a regular part of my week. It helps me clear my head and practice my creativity in a way that doesn’t involve reading or writing.
Here’s the best part: whatever your hobby is, you don’t have to be good at it.
I’m not great at guitar—actually, I’m not even good. I know eight chords, which is all you need to know for hymns, country, folk, and select other songs. For the rest, I fake it ‘til I make it.
So play the kazoo and the ukulele. Draw and paint. Do cross-stitch and quilt. Get a coloring book. Buy a Star Wars Lego set. Do a puzzle. It doesn’t just help with your mental health—it might also help you think more creatively.
4. Get exercise
I really can’t emphasize this point enough. Obviously, it stands to reason that as a writer, you probably spend a lot of time sitting down. Best-selling mystery author Patricia Cornwell once said in an interview that if you are going to be a writer, you must also be an athlete. Anyone with a sedentary job naturally needs to burn more calories.
But if you struggle from depression, an exercise program is one of the best things you can do for yourself. I’d argue that it is just as effective as taking psychiatric medication, if not more. You may even find that once you begin exercising on a regular basis, you will need lower doses of your medication.
Just remember what Elle Woods said:
I have been long-distance cycling for fifteen years. It has helped me keep my brain healthier and ward off severe high blood pressure, thyroid disease, and other health conditions that run in my family.
I’d venture to say it’s even made me a better writer. It lets me unplug from my project and get outside of it long enough to see it from a different angle.
So, how do you get started? First of all, talk to your doctor. They will be able to tell you if you have any existing health concerns that need to be factored into exercising.
Second, pick an activity you enjoy and make mental wellbeing your goal. Don’t do something you hate because you get caught up in wanting to lose weight or look good. This will only create more frustration and heap more condemnation onto yourself, and trust me, you don’t need that.
I have people ask me why I cycle every day and never mix up my routine so I can get more “toned” or lose more weight. That’s because looking like a supermodel isn’t my goal. As an eating disorder survivor, any introduction of appearance-related goals could even be destructive to my well-being.
My goal is to feel good and be healthy. That’s it.
If you want to lose weight, wonderful. But don’t allow yourself to get distracted from the primary goal of being mentally fit.
5. Stop the comparison games.
We’ve all been there. You’re scrolling on Facebook, minding your own business, when you see it: a post from one of your friends announcing that they are getting their first book published.
Of course, you’re happy for them. You might even do a little happy dance or fist pump.
But soon after, the Shame Machine fires up. Yeah, that’s great for them…but what about you? Where’s your book publication? Come to think of it, when was the last time you accomplish anything with your writing? You’re just wasting your time.
Down, down, down. The minute those thoughts get started is the minute you have to shut them out. The comparison spiral will turn into full-on emotional depression and discouragement if you don’t.
My favorite president, Theodore Roosevelt, famously said that comparison is the thief of joy. When you let yourself spiral, you aren’t just robbing yourself of the confidence to create. You’re robbing yourself of the joy of celebrating with your writing friends.
Your writing journey isn’t going to look the same as everyone else’s. And that’s okay. It doesn’t hurt you if one of your friends gets a book published or wins a Pushcart or does a reading with Stephen King or whatever.
Someone else’s achievement doesn’t make you a bad writer. If anything, it should inspire you to create even more.
What about you? What helps you to maintain your mental health as a writer? Drop your thoughts in the comments section!