As writers, we use our minds to create something new in the world. We turn ideas into books. We are awesome!
I don't personally suffer from depression, but in today's article, Mark O'Neill shares how he writes under the influence.
JK Rowling. Carrie Fisher, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath. Winston Churchill. Apart from being successful authors, what is the one trait they all shared?
Apart from being successful authors, what is the one trait they all shared?
They all have (or have had) severe mental issues. Clinical or bipolar depression to be precise.
- Plath eventually gave way to her demons and committed suicide at the age of 30 because of it.
- Carrie Fisher buckled under the strain of celebrity from Star Wars and famous parents, and became an alcoholic and drug addict, leading to severe bipolar depression.
- JK Rowling was a single mother struggling on benefits until she invented a schoolboy called Harry Potter.
As for Churchill, well he was only the British Prime Minister during what was to prove the most brutal war in history, and he fought to stop the Nazis from invading Great Britain. You know, nothing special.
But despite their demons and black clouds, all were highly successful authors. Not too many people know that during his lifetime, as well as his political career, Churchill wrote 43 books. That doesn’t include his speeches as a politician, some of which have gone down in history, and countless newspaper articles. Despite his prolific output though, he frequently suffered from what he called his “black dog”.
It’s not really known definitively why writers tend to struggle with depression so much. But we can make a few speculative guesses.
For a start, writing is quite often a solitary life. We sit in our office or bedroom with the laptop, and we peck away at the keyboard. We invent worlds and characters, while the real world with its real characters continues on outside. But we are probably so wrapped up in those fictional worlds and characters that we don’t make the time to meet real people.
Isolation like that can have a crushing effect on a lot of people. Some people thrive on it, but humans on the whole are a social bunch and need to interact with others. When that isn’t possible, it’s easy to feel that the walls are closing in.
Lack of sleep, lack of exercise, lack of human contact, and lack of natural light are all factors that can develop into something much more serious.
Let’s not forget, writing is hard. I have just finished writing my second book and it was quite literally the hardest thing I have ever experienced in my life. This is coming from a 42-year-old guy who has already experienced quite a lot in life.
Since writing is so hard, it is very easy to get dispirited and to tell yourself that the whole project is hopeless. Especially when you get rejection slips from editors and harsh criticism from reviewers, and dare I say it, your family and friends.
This can lead to what is known as the ‘Imposter Syndrome'. When people, such as an editor, your mother, your spouse, your best friend, tell you that your work is not good, then naturally it is a crushing feeling. These are the people you are looking to for validation that it has all been worth it. Those late nights, neglecting your family, neglecting your sleep.
So you begin to tell yourself you are not talented. That you were not cut out for this kind of life. Your hopes and dreams begin to fade, then…yep, along comes the big D. And when it arrives, good luck getting rid of it.
When I typed THE END on my manuscript, what was the first thing I felt? Was it elation? Well, yes partly.
But mostly, it was utter exhaustion. I just wanted to lie down and sleep for a week. You can see how, in those circumstances, a situation like that is an ideal breeding ground for depression to develop.
If you have managed to read this far, you’re probably thinking “Geez, this Mark guy is such a downer! I think I am ready to hang myself now after reading this!”. But there are many ways you can fight against the depression if you are a writer.
Look at me. Finally, at the age of 42, and after 15 years of extremely serious depression, I have two manuscripts done.
How did I overcome the depression?
Radically Rethink Your Daily Routine
It’s easy for someone who doesn’t have depression to derisively say to you “get a grip” (and I get furious when people say that to me). But as a depressed person myself who knows how much of a nightmare depression is, my first piece of advice is, ironically, “get a grip”.
I know how psychologically crippling depression is. But you have to find a way to fight it. You can start by structuring your day. Get up at the same time every morning and go to bed at the same time every night. When you get up, have a shower, have a proper breakfast, then go out for a walk (no matter what the weather is).
Do you know the best way to motivate yourself to exercise? Get a dog. I did and my dog is my lifesaver, my book agent, my movie agent, and my muse. He lobbied heavily for the main character in my book to be a dog and was pretty hacked off when I didn’t take his professional advice.
Develop Your Humour
See what I did there? That was humour. That is the next thing you need to work on. Develop your sense of humour.
Read funny books, watch funny movies and TV shows (I highly recommend “The Life Of Brian” and “Fawlty Towers”). Don’t look at it as wasting time. Look upon it as researching the human condition for your next book.
Don’t Beat Yourself Up If You Don’t Make Your Daily Word Count
A lot of authors say you need to maintain a daily word count. This is true – to a point. But if you hold yourself to a specific number, there will be days when you simply can’t do it. That’s just human nature.
So look upon the word count as a highly flexible desired target. But if you don’t get there for whatever reason, don’t get worked up about it. Shrug your shoulders, and tell yourself you’ll do better tomorrow.
Don’t Show Your Work To Your Family
Obviously, this won’t apply to everyone, but if you know you have the kind of family who will instantly criticise you, then don’t show them your work. You’re just setting yourself up for heartbreak and conflict.
Obviously, criticism is necessary. Without criticism, how would we know what we did right and wrong in our last book?
But there is a huge difference between constructive criticism and outright cruelty – and not many people know the difference. They say “you have to be cruel to be kind”. Well….no you don’t. If you have nothing useful to say, then say nothing at all.
To avoid that potential source of pain, perhaps write under an alias. Hey, money is still money whether you write under your own name or someone else’s.
Join Writers Groups – Online Or Offline
The best way to find acceptance for what you do is to find like-minded people. For a writer, this would obviously be a writer’s group.
This is where the Internet shines because there are so many support groups of many different stripes.
Whether it’s Facebook groups or Twitter, there’s always somebody there to give you support, guidance, and advice.
The chances are whatever problems you may be experiencing right now, there are people in these groups also experiencing them (or have done in the past).
If you have identified with this article and you know you are suffering, then don’t accept it as a part of life and a part of being a creative. At the very least, see a doctor and get treatment. Then get started on that next big novel that will make you millions and get you a movie deal.
I’ll see you on the evening talk show circuit!
Has depression ever affected your creative and writing life? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Mark O'Neill is a Scotsman now living in Würzburg, Germany, with his wife and dog. In the past, he has worked for the Scottish Government, taught English to foreign students, and has been a technology journalist since 2004.
An incurable bibliophile with over 1,000 books, Mark is now rebranding himself as an independently-published author.
His first book, The Renegade Spy, is now out, with two more books due out before the end of 2017. You can follow him on Twitter @markoneill.