#106: Writing Through Depression

Content note: This letter and post discuss depression and negative self-talk.

Hey Story Nurse

So I’m like a sad human with Heaps of mental health problems (anxiety, depression and a bunch of less relevant stuff) and I write fanfiction off and on depending on my mood and what I’m watching.

I also sort of write original fiction, but I never even get close to finishing anything. I really want to write some things that work best in long form (like person goes “undercover” as a boy and realizes like halfway through he’s trans is the one I’m working on right now). But I haven’t done anything with it because I know I’m not going to finish it. The only thing I ever finish are short fics. So what I’ve been doing is trying to write progressively longer and longer fics to kind of get a feel for longer writing and to prove to myself that I can finish things.

However, I just started a fic that was supposed to be like up to twenty chapters long, which retrospectively is about 75% longer than anything I’d done before, but I thought it would be better cause I had it all planned out. I was super wrong. I finished three chapters and tossed it because I hate it now, like the whole premise and everything it just felt super flat. And now I feel like I can’t finish anything. Like I haven’t even been able to Try to write like anything at all (original or fic) because I feel like I’m not going to finish it and there’s no point. It’s really frustrating because I really love looking at and rereading things I /have/ finished.

I really wanna write original stuff because I have soooo many ideas, but it feels like as soon as I try nothing works right. The plot is bad, I can’t figure out how to get scenes to work together or the writing just feels flat and I lose interest super quickly. It’s super depressing and now it’s leeched into my fanfic too. :c

Please help.

—Sad Space Gay (they/them)

Dear Sad Space Gay,

I’m sorry you’re having such a rough time. It sounds like your depression is really doing a number on you. It’s really awesome that you’ve fought through that to reach out for help, and I hope you recognize what an amazing act of self-care and determination and bravery that was. Your depression doesn’t own you. If you found a way to write to me, you can find ways to do other good things for yourself, including writing.

Depression is clearly putting a distorting filter between you and your writing and making it very hard for you to accurately judge the quality or potential of your ideas and your work. I can’t treat your depression, and I hope that you’re working with skilled, compassionate professionals who can. What I can do is give you some ways to recognize, mitigate, and bypass the filter.

Important caveat: Some of these techniques will work for some people some of the time. Nothing works for everyone all of the time. Depression is a clever beast and it adapts. It also comes and goes. Something that feels easy or useful one day may be impossible or counterproductive the next. If trying any of these techniques feels bad or harmful to you, stop doing it. Only you can assess what works for you. I’m a professional in the field of writing, not in the field of mental health; I’m not prescribing anything, only making recommendations for writing techniques. If you’re at all uncertain about how or whether to proceed with any of this advice, talk it over with the people who are directly supporting your mental health.

To start with, I recommend trying to accept that your judgment is skewed right now. This can be so hard to face up to, but it’s really important to acknowledge that your depression is causing some cognitive distortions. A few that appear in your letter:

  • “I never even get close to finishing anything.” But you do finish some things.
  • “I know I’m not going to finish it.” But you can’t predict the future.
  • “There’s no point. Nothing works right.” The real world is much more nuanced than these all-or-nothing statements.
  • “The plot is bad. The writing just feels flat.” Though disguised in the language of critique, it’s clear that these broad, sweeping judgments don’t come from the part of you that makes reasoned, thoughtful assessments of writing quality.

All of these are your depression trying to stand between you and writing.

Write up a list of the most common depressed thoughts that you have about the act of writing, the ones that come up again and again. Then see if you can find some counterpart thought for each one that has a little more basis in reality, and practice swapping it in. For example, when you think “I never finish anything,” you can replace it with “Look at my folder full of finished things—they may be short, but they’re finished!” When you think “Everything I write sucks,” you can remind yourself, “I’ve written several stories that I really liked.” Having a list prepared will be useful for starting this practice, and over time it will ideally become more habitual.

A couple of common counterparts: for “I never” try either “I have” or “I haven’t yet”; for “all/none” try “some” and for “always/never” try “sometimes”; for “I won’t” try “I might” or “I don’t know whether I will” or “I am working my way toward” or “I’m making plans to”.

I got this exercise from a book called Feeling Good by David D. Burns (a classic that should be available from your local library in print or digital format), which is basically a manual for doing cognitive behavioral therapy at home. It has many good exercises for identifying and countering thoughts that are skewed by depression. Of course it won’t work for everyone, but it might be useful for you.

Another tactic is to lean in and co-opt. When your depression filter says “This is junk!” you say “Yep, and this is the kind of junk I like to write” or “Yep, and when I finish it, it’s going to be a finished piece of junk” some similar affirmation. If you’ve gotten positive feedback in the past, you can incorporate it: “Yep, and Susie is going to love it just like she loved the last piece of junk I wrote!” Or you can draw on your own love of your finished work (which is an awesome thing to have in your anti-depression toolbox) and say “Yep, and when I finish it I’m going to love it just like I love all my junky writing!”

This tends to only be a temporary stopgap, because the depression finds ways to route around it and get more specific (“This will never sell”) or more sneaky (“Why are you writing X right now when you could be writing Y instead?”). But when the depression is blunt-instrument bad, you can blunt-instrument it right back.

Identify your feelings as feelings. There are several places in your letter where you use “I feel” language, which is great. “I feel like I can’t finish anything” is a much better place to be than “I can’t finish anything,” because it encompasses the recognition that what you’re feeling may not be an accurate reflection of what’s real. When you do make statements like “I can’t finish anything,” see if you can take that step back to acknowledging that this is a feeling, not a fact. Then take a moment to inhabit that emotional space, setting aside the practical: “I feel like I can’t finish anything. It sucks to feel this way! I’m sad and angry and really tired of feeling so down on myself.”

From there you can consider ways to care for yourself as a person who’s having difficult feelings: “I’m going to defiantly write 200 words to prove I can.” “I’m going to yell into a pillow.” “I’m going to eat some chocolate and take a brisk walk.” “I’m going to reread something I finished to remind myself that this is a thing I can do.” It’s important to remember that at this stage, writing and not writing can both be viable options for self-care. If writing helps you feel better, then write! But if it doesn’t, set it aside and find something else that supports and soothes your feelings. Once you’re feeling a little more settled, come back and try writing again.

Set small, clear goals to base assessments on. For example, your negative thought is “I never finish anything” but your positive goal is “Write long-form original fiction.” Your plan to gradually work your way toward that goal is excellent! But that will take time, and until you reach that goal—which I absolutely believe you can and will—that is a lot of time for your depression to turn “I haven’t yet written long-form original fiction, but I’m working my way up to it” into “I suck at this and am the worst.”

You don’t need to let go of that goal; having a couple of big longer-term goals is a very good idea. But set some smaller goals too. Maybe start really small, like “I will write 50 words this week”—something you are absolutely certain you can achieve, because you have done it many many times in the past. Set yourself up to succeed. Once you’ve met that goal a few times, you can increase it.

Make all your goals concrete, not nebulous, so you can make factual assessments of whether you met them. For example, does “long-form” mean 50,000 words or 100,000? If you don’t plant those goalposts firmly, your brain weasels will keep digging them up and moving them, and you’ll never get to feel like you accomplished anything. The more you can point to the facts of your accomplishments, the less ammunition your depression has against you. It will still try things like “that doesn’t count because…” but that’s much easier to counter when you have your spreadsheet right there with all your achievements in hard numbers.

I’m a big fan of tracking numbers (words written, hours spent on writing, whatever can be quantified) and then trying to beat my own average. The beautiful thing about an average is that it self-corrects. Consider these example numbers for weekly wordcount goals:

  • Starting goal: 0 words/wk.
  • Week 1: Wrote 50 words, for 50 words total in 1 week. I beat my goal!
  • New goal: 50 / 1 = 50 words/wk.
  • Week 2: Wrote 0 words, for 50 words total in 2 weeks. Keep trying!
  • New goal: 50 / 2 = 25 words/wk.
  • Week 3: Wrote 40 words, for 90 words total in 3 weeks. I beat my goal!
  • New goal: 90 / 3 = 30 words/wk.

The more I can do, the higher my goals get. But when there are times when I can’t do much, my goals get lower and more achievable, to match my reduced abilities. I highly recommend this to people with chronic conditions that flare up (like depression) as well as to those with wildly fluctuating schedules. We are often trained to push ourselves harder when we fall short, but sometimes we literally cannot do more than we’re doing. Under those circumstances, it makes sense to make accommodations and adjust the goal. (I have more about this in my post on writing while disabled.)

Sometimes, your most important goal is to be able to write at all. Anything that helps you achieve that goal is worth doing. If you start falling into the spiral of negative self-talk, you may be able to sometimes slow or halt it by asking, “Does saying these things to myself help me write more or better or at all?” Depression often disguises itself as practicality (e.g., “You have to admit your writing is terrible in order to write better” followed by hours and hours of misery over your writing ostensibly being terrible and no actual analysis of its flaws or possible improvements), but it is always the enemy of achievement. If yelling at yourself to write does not actually lead to you writing, then your goal of writing requires you to stop yelling at yourself. Putting “My goal is to write” on a card taped over your computer monitor (or cross-stitching it to hang on the wall, or writing it on the back of your hand, or whatever you like) can help you to stay focused on that, and to challenge the depression-thoughts that claim to be pushing you forward but actually hold you back.

Give yourself permission to start things and not finish them. You don’t have to finish stories to be a writer, or to be a good writer. It sounds like you’re really focused on the idea of finishing stories, and when you don’t finish them, that’s a depression trigger. But every writer I know has tons of unfinished stories, and it’s absolutely okay if you do too. (I have some going back nearly 30 years, including an epic fantasy series for which I did a wiki’s worth of worldbuilding, wrote a handful of chapters and scenes, and then… stopped. Maybe I’ll get back to it someday; maybe not.)

You have an outline for twenty chapters, and three chapters written. That’s fantastic! Those are two big accomplishments! What if, instead of tossing out what you’ve achieved, you thought of it as being set aside to come back to later? What if it just isn’t finished yet?

You’re full of ideas. You’re going to keep generating ideas your whole life. You won’t turn every idea into a project, and you won’t finish every project you start. There will also be some projects you start and realize you’re not ready for, so you set them aside and come back to them later when you’ve leveled up. If you can accept that as part of the writing life, I think you will have a much easier time of it.

 

Somewhere around now, you may be thinking that this sounds like being too easy on yourself, and if you don’t get mad at yourself over your failures then you’ll never learn to succeed. But kindness is certainly not antithetical to accomplishment. I’ve put in a fair bit of time as a teacher, a parent, and a manager, and one thing that’s consistent across all three disciplines is that you get more and better achievement by building structure that accommodates generosity. I’d do that anyway because I think kindness and generosity are ethical obligations on the part of those with more power, but there’s genuinely no conflict between ethics and practicality. (And abundant research supports this.)

You wrote to me because you want to write. You love what you’ve written. You enjoy writing. You are ambitious in your writing. These things are already true. You don’t need to browbeat yourself into writing; the longing to write exists within you and strongly motivates you. Your task is to support and cherish that longing, and to find ways to liberate it from the tangle of negative thoughts and painful feelings and destructive habits. It will be hard, and it will be slow, but you can find ways, as you have found ways all along to pursue this thing that is so very important to you.

Depression is a pack of lies layered over the core truth that you are a writer. You will keep having ideas, and you will keep writing stories based on those ideas. Even the truly awful and debilitating experience of mental illness cannot destroy or suppress your deep and powerful drive to write. That is amazing, and you are amazing.

Keep leaning on Team You, and keep writing. You can do this. I believe in you.

Best wishes,

Story Nurse

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One thought on “#106: Writing Through Depression

  1. I just wanted to add that most writers, even ones without depression and anxiety have similar doubts about their latest works — no matter how many they’ve started.

    There’s a regular mantra that “rough drafts are supposed to suck”, basically insinuating that you’re getting the ideas out and you can go back and either rewrite or polish it later. For me, who is incredibly plot oriented, this helps. My drive to know what happens next (or how it happens, if I have a plan) overcomes my doubts about the quality of my writing.

    Now, knowing when to stop editing? Getting it right and then stopping editing? I haven’t figured that one out yet.

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