Unhappy Camper: The Link Between Writing and Depression

“Some days you eat the bear. Some days the bear eats you.”  –Unknown

As long as I have been a writer, I’ve been interested in learning and studying famous writers and how they work and live. One of the things that comes out of that research is the fact that depression is a common factor in the lives of writers. That’s both a red flag and a comfort. A comfort because when you are suffering from depression you can know that you’re not alone. A red flag because you know you are treading on potentially dangerous ground.

Mark Twain

There’s a long list of authors who have suffered from depression throughout their careers. Ernest Hemingway killed himself and later researchers believed he suffered from bipolar disorder. In addition, other famous writers with depression include Mark Twain, Sylvia Plath, Stephen King, Emily Dickenson, Tennessee Williams and the list goes on and on.

Sylvia Plath

Of course the logical question is: Does writing bring on depression, or are people prone to depression more likely to be writers? My (biased, and probably misinformed) answer is yes, both. Writing is a solitary work, which calls for a lot of introspection, and is also what I would consider a performance art. After hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of sweat and labor on a project, we eventually have to share it with the world and are subject to their scrutiny and eventual accolades or humiliation. If that won’t lead one toward a manic-depressive lifestyle, I don’t know what will.

Stephen King

But before I get any further along, I need to make a disclaimer for my own protection. I am not a medical or psychiatric professional, and am not offering medical or psychiatric advice here. I am only looking at depression from the perspective of a writer who has experienced it, and offering recommendations that have worked for me. You are free to accept or reject them as you see fit. And by all means, if you are suffering from depression that goes on for days, is debilitating, or leads you into thoughts of suicide, seek professional help.

So what can you do if depression hits you? Here are my suggestions:

1. Get some perspective. Remember that whatever project you are working on is just that: one project in an entire career. If you fail at it, if you struggle to make it work, or even if you decide to discontinue it, it’s not the end of the world. I have a box filled with incomplete projects at home that I either lost interest in or just couldn’t make work. And failure comes with the territory if you are a writer. The old saying goes: if you haven’t failed, you haven’t tried hard enough. I have always learned a lot more from failure than I did from my successes.

2. Take a break. Remember that writing is not life. Regardless of how heart-wrenching or earth-shattering your project is, it isn’t your life. Go see a movie or read a book. Go for a long walk. Talk to a friend and go out to dinner. Spend time with your kids or your pet. Not only will that help with your state of mind, it will likely help improve your writing as well.

3. Believe in yourself. This is probably the most important mental trick that a writer should have in his or her bag. There will be times when you feel like no one in the entire world cares about your writing, and you could hang it all up and nothing would happen. Those are the times when you have to have a good view of who you are, what you are trying to say, and what your abilities really are. Keep two files: one with all your rejection slips to keep you humble, but another with all the letters of praise, and reviews that made you sound like the best thing since sliced bread. Having two files will make you realize that you’re not God and you’re not the Devil. You’re somewhere in between, and even if you have a long way to go, you still are on the right path.

4. Know yourself. This is another thing I feel strongly about. I think writers should know themselves, what they believe and what makes them tick. This will help you with the psychological side of writing, which as you get better becomes a larger and larger part of the challenge of getting things done. For you’ll find that the biggest hurdle to success as a writer is yourself. “We have met the enemy,” Pogo Possum said years ago. “And he is us.”

5. Keep moving. “A watched pot never boils,” is the old adage. That does doubly so for writing. I have learned never to linger too long on a writing project, waiting for the accolades to start coming in. For they may be late in coming, and they may not come at all. In the meantime, if you invest yourself in a new project, you’re less likely to fall apart if and when the old one fails.

Knowing that depression comes with the territory of being a writer, and that you’re not alone should help. But more than anything, try to keep some perspective. And remember that it’s just a job, not your whole life.