Sometimes Writers Block is really Depression

Last year, I stopped writing.

Previously, I’ve always looked at Writers Block as a way of diagnosing that something has gone wrong with my story. I found that I could examine my reactions to sitting down and that they broke down into a couple of specific areas.

  1. Drowsy — Two sentences in and I’m totally falling asleep
  2. Staring — How long can I look at a blank screen without putting any words down?
  3. Restless — Why am I suddenly in the kitchen doing dishes?
  4. Dithering — There are only so many times I can rewrite the same opening.

With each of those, what’s really going on is that my reader brain is trying to tell my writer brain about its responses to the thing I’m writing. When you think about your favorite book, the one you’ve read multiple times, you still have an emotional reaction to the story, even though you know what is going to happen next. The same thing is happening with your own writing. Even though you know what is going to happen next, you are still telling yourself a story.

Drowsy — Sorry, this means your story is dull. You are boring yourself. Back up to the last point that you were excited about and try to think of a more dynamic choice to make for the plot. What would be cool and excite you as a reader?

Staring — You don’t know what is supposed to happen next. So think about the situation that your character is in. What do they want? What is the smartest thing they can do with the materials they have on hand to achieve that goal? Now how does it go horribly, horribly wrong?

Restless — The next scene is hard and you are trying to escape writing it. By “hard” I mean, you are approaching a tense scene. It’s a scene that will be difficult for your character and/or difficult to write well. This one, you just have to power through. Remember, you can always go back and fix it later. Set a timer for fifteen minutes, start writing, and don’t let your fingers stop while the timer is running. Most of the time, you’ll get out of the hole.

Dithering — You don’t believe the scene that you are about to write. This is probably related to your character’s internal motivation, or possibly just that a planned scene no longer fits in the novel. Much like “staring,” pause and think about what your character wants and how they can try to achieve that. Then be awful to them.

But there’s a fifth form of writer’s block. And that’s when the urge to go to the chair isn’t even present. When you go, you hate writing. The joy is totally gone when you do write.

This is depression.

I had been slowing down and struggling to even care about writing for most of the previous year. And then, I just stopped.

And after that, I stopped getting out of bed, except right before my husband came home. I’d get up and get dressed, because I was ashamed of the fact that I was in bed and had gotten nothing done. I could hear the gate open as he headed to the back yard with his bike, so I’d be in the kitchen washing dishes when he came home. I looked totally productive.

The cover of Altered PerceptionsFinally, as I was writing a forward for my excerpt in Altered Perceptions, I realized that I was masking. No– wait. I admitted to myself that I was masking. I already knew it. I already knew that it was depression. I just didn’t want to admit it, because that would mean admitting being broken.

I knew what depression looked like. I had tons of friends who dealt with it and who are open about it. So, I called my doctor to make an appointment. My internalization of the stigma of mental illness was so ingrained, that I made the appointment to have a mole on my back looked at.

When I got into the office, I told my doctor why I was really there. “I think I’m dealing with depression, and I don’t know what to do about it.”

She said, “That’s what I’m here for.”

Cue burst of tears.

I’m on Zoloft and seeing a counselor. I’ve started writing again. It’s still slow, but the desire is back.

In hindsight, I’ve probably dealt with this off and on for my entire life, but last year, I tried to push past it and pretend I was fine. And it became crippling. Now I have tools to handle it. I’m better about self-care, so that I don’t let things become crippling again. I am trying to treat it like having a broken arm and be very matter-of-fact about it. Though, really, it’s more like having dysentery, because it traps you at home and no one wants to hear about it.

But I digress.

Now… I’ve given you strategies for handling the other types of writer’s block. Let me tell you the things that work for me with writing. I want to be clear, that everyone’s brain is wired differently. If you are like me, and respond well to challenges and ticky-boxes, these might work for you.

  • Habitica — This gamifies my to-do list. I have a mix of things on there from “Take medication” to “Leave House” to “Write 3 sentences.” The big thing is that I can see that, yes, I actually AM achieving something.
  • 4theWords — Oh heaven. This is an RPG game in which the metric for defeating monsters is the number of words and the time written. You can go on quests! Gear! Costumes! (Here’s my referral code, if you want it: BUCGG84743)
  • Small goals — I used to have a 2000 word per day goal. Now, I aim for 3 sentences. This almost always turns into more, but having a small goal is achievable, even on the rough days.
  • Headspace — This is a meditation app. I was toooootally skeptical about this when my counselor suggested it. It took me awhile to get comfortable with the idea, but it makes a difference.
  • Yoga in the morning — So, apparently, 20 minutes of physical activity in the morning can totally change your entire day. I have found this to be appallingly true for me. The days that I skip it to do later, I am much more scattered. It doesn’t have to be yoga, but physical activity is huge. (I use DailyYoga since I travel a ton.)
  • I stopped lying — I was lying to myself and to my husband. Now, when he asks me how I’m doing, I answer him. And I’m honest. And he can help. Putting up a front took a lot of energy. Now I can use that energy for other things.
  • Buffers — Self-care involves turning things down, even things I want to do sometimes. I build quiet space into my convention schedule. I have buffers on my calendar to keep me from over-booking myself. (Yes, I know what my travel looked like this year. Recall that my mom was becoming bionic, which added a lot of unplanned travel to the list. I dropped a ton of stuff, too.)
  • Timers — I use a sand timer to help me get started. It’s 15 minutes. The beautiful thing is that it doesn’t make a sound when the time runs out, so if I’m a roll, I keep going.
  • Written? Kitten! — Look. Kittens make the world go around. This gives you a new picture of a kitten for every 100 words you write. Yes, my brain is that easily hacked.
  • The Email Game — It turns answering email into a game! Again, my brain is that easily hacked. This doesn’t help with writing, per se, but it does help keep me from becoming isolated by making answering email less daunting.

The biggest thing to say to you though, is that if you are having trouble writing take a look at what’s going on. Ask yourself if something is wrong with the story, or if the thing that is wrong is outside the story.

And if it is not the story, please ask someone for help. That’s what they are there for.

(PS Sometimes, not writing is also just being lazy. Sorry. The only solution for that one is to just STFU and write.)

Did you know you can support Mary on Patreon!

88 Responses

  1. Catherine Brennan

    Good hints. And good luck dealing with the depression. I’ve been there and am still familiar with the neighborhood.
    Your work (and your openness about it) are inspirational.

  2. Autumn

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this. So many of us struggle with it; seeing other people go through it and learning about their coping strategies is valuable. It reinforces that we’re not alone. Fighting that ingrained stigma is so hard.

  3. Scott James Magner

    I can point to the exact day/moment I stopped writing last year. After eight months of back and forth edits on several projects, I started a new job to bring home some much needed dollars. Several, in fact, but the one that requires my daily presence is the main part of this story.

    I was sitting down at a new desk with my old company, working beneath my abilities but with my foot firmly planted in the door. After a week sitting in a very comfortable chair, I was possessed by the notion that if I sat there any longer I was going to die.

    No joke. That’s the reaction I had.

    So in the midst of my slow burning panic attack, I built myself a standing desk out of materials at hand, and haven’t really sat down in the office save for meetings for the last 14 months.

    It took me another week to realize that I’d stopped writing entirely, about the time I was signing off on the dust jacket for Homefront. I even lost interest in freelance projects I’d committed to about the same time, though I did grind them out eventually.

    I much prefer working to not working, and not dying to the alternative. But I can hear the words rattling around in my head, and even though I know what order they’re supposed to go in they’re refusing to come out until they’re ready. It’s classic avoidance behavior that I’m certainly enabling, but pushing through it I’ve at least been able to do some editing and layout work to keep my career limping along.

    Your story has sparked at least 275 words for me so far today, so here’s hoping I can take your results and roll them into something more fictional later on.

  4. Bill Weinberger

    Thanks for all that, Mary. Good writing tips and I’m sure the depression stuff was not easy to write.
    I’ll add my appreciation to Catherine’s for everything you do for the writing community.

  5. Elizabeth

    I’m sorry you’ve got the black dog at your heels, Mary; it sucks and there’s no way out but through, alas. But thank you for being another voice saying “this is real and it’s fixable.” If you need another person to lean on, I’m available.

  6. Joanna

    Can you go into detail on your yoga routine? Are you taking a class? Following along with a video? Or do you know enough poses to just follow along a planned routine?

    I have a medical condition that makes my physical capacity yo-yo wildly throughout the month. I’m really struggling to find an exercise routine that isn’t just going to waste me. I’m interested in yoga, but I’m not sure how to start and it’s hard to take a class when I’m still working (mostly-lots of sick time) full time.

    1. Michelle Stoll

      My husband and I also have fluctuating health levels (him more so than me), and we’ve found that Do You Yoga has a really nice variety of yoga videos that are about 10-20 minutes each. The instructors give options for variations on the poses to account for different skill/flexibility levels. The videos mostly use only you and a yoga mat (a few use blocks or straps, but they tell you what you can use if you don’t have those things, like a pile of pillows). On our “worse health” days, we tend to just do some light, yoga-inspired stretching on the mat and some deep breathing. Hopefully you find something that works for you!!

      1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

        I’ll add it to the list up above. I use DailyYoga. I had taken in person yoga classes before, but it had been a decade or more. I like this app because it has a range of levels and you can also start a program, which means that I don’t have to make decisions in the morning, I can just do whatever is cued up.

    2. Betsy Haibel

      Not Mary but here’s what worked for me in a similar circumstance:

      I learned how to do a few basic sequences via youtube. (Yoga with Adriene is one of the video series I get along with best, but there’s a wide variety to pick from if they don’t work for your brain/body.) I do a sun salutation pretty much every morning. They are simple and for the most part can be made gentle. (Bending the legs on downward dog helps a lot.)

      Some (most) mornings doing this is the last thing I want to do. Most mornings doing one helps me get into a place where I feel capable of doing more – some pushups, or the punch sequences I’ve retained from taking Tae Kwon Do a few years ago, or the like. If it doesn’t, then I know it’s my body telling me “ha ha no, not today” rather than dysthymia and/or laziness trying to trick me out of self-care.

      I think the most important thing here is that I am letting ritual/habit substitute for activation energy in getting me moving in the morning, not that it’s a (occasionally modified) sun salutation. I think the second most important thing is that it is five minutes at home and so it is easy to make time for and relatively easy to not let myself feel overwhelmed by. I get to save spoons for the activity itself because I don’t need to spend spoons on all the stuff I need to do to get to the activity.

      This may or may not work for you, but it helped me a lot.

  7. Nathan Beittenmiller

    I’m sorry you’ve had to go through this, but I’m glad you’ve found ways to cope with it. My daughter went on Zoloft last year for her anxiety and I saw a marked improvement almost immediately. It took me a few months after that of counseling before I finally came to terms with the idea that I also needed help. In my case, it’s Prozac, but I can at least move forward again. I’m going to try some of the other things you’ve suggested as well, particularly the physical activity in the morning, and see how they help me too.

    Now I’m going to get back to my NaNo story and see if I can catch up to you in word count! 🙂 Best of luck and I hope I can catch you again when you’re on tour down here.

  8. Robert Scoville

    I love hearing about people’s experiences with depression, especially when it’s as empowering as yours. I suffered for years before seeking help because of the stigma and now I’m passionate about destroying the stigma and helping people find what works for them.

    Thank you for talking about it and sharing what helps you. Thank you for helping that giant wall of stigma lose perhaps a few bricks. And also thank you for not succumbing to the illness. That would have been a terrible tragedy for all of us.

  9. Burt Abreu

    Thanks for sharing this Mary. It’s a struggle many can relate to, perhaps more so among creatives. I walk the line with depression and anxiety. More often as I have gotten older, though I can carry it better now. There was a time I almost couldn’t leave the house. I didn’t share it with my wife and I ‘dithered’ and procrastinated dealing with things until it was too late in the day, then told myself I’d do better ‘tomorrow.’ Well ‘tomorrow’ never got there and I dug a pretty deep hole and was wondering if everyone wouldn’t be better off without me. I made up some pretty crazy excuses like ripping the tongue on my shoe so I could tell my wife, who was already waiting in the car, “my darn shoe broke, you go ahead without me.”

    The break for me came when I was actually diagnosed. I didn’t have insurance so used some natural stuff, but for the most part just knowing it was ‘real’ made it something I could deal with.

    I still have dark days. Some really weigh me down but usually I’ll write some melancholy poetry to get the feeling out, or I’ll read, eat comfort food (some real Cuban food cheers me up for some reason), go out to nature where I can see grass and trees or just plod along and ‘fake it’ knowing that it will eventually pass.

    Thanks again.

  10. Pat Kane

    Thank you for your brave post. Not enough of us talk about this out loud. There is so much unnecessary shame surrounding depression, which gives this insidious condition a foothold in our lives that is difficult to break. Talking about it puts it on the run and brings out those true friends that can help. Love you.

  11. laurasheanataylor

    Thank you for being so open and honest about this, Mary. I just started Zoloft, too; in fact, I did so immediately following SIWC. There may not be as many Writers’ Tears in the future as a result, but they’re something I don’t need. *hugs* All the best.

  12. Charlaine Harris

    I had a terrible episode of depression in my early twenties, and came out of it stronger and warier. I can’t say I’m happy all the time, but I do feel positive all the time. I’m in awe that you have developed strategies already to deal with your depression. Hats off to you.

  13. Michael J Winegar

    Mary,

    I started using Habitica last summer and it’s been a help to me as well. That’s also about how long I’ve been trying to really treat my anxiety with therapy and medication.

    My daily writing goal is just 100 words and it does help to say “I’m making progress.”

    Thanks for sharing your art, and yourself, with the rest of us.

  14. Traci Loudin

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s so important to other creative people to see that even successful people need to reach out for help sometimes. No one is an island.

  15. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    So for the first time in my life, I’m knocking on this door, too. It’s similar to yours, except I have kids so getting out of bed was required. But TV! And staring! And hating so much and blah blah blah. Doc just started me on Wellbutrin. Now I wait and see. I’d just discovered the meditation app, but haven’t used it yet. And I’ll look into Habitica. Thanks for those. I’ve been cutting out things, reducing expectations, and generally trying to get some things done and have been finding that I’m maybe getting out of the trench. Time will tell.

    Anyhow, I appreciate the post because I’ve felt the same way. I’ve made myself tell people honestly that I’ve been dealing with depression because I feel that I need not to let myself feel stigmatized by myself about it, and because being open means I can get support. Calling it depression has been really tough because compared to others who seem to suffer a great deal more, mine is more on the end of not getting anything done, feeling tired, and losing my temper with my family so fast. I keep calling it a mood thing, but I’m making myself realize that that is a form of depression. Even if it’s on the less difficult side of the spectrum.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      See… the fact that, even during the worst of the depression I was cheerful when I was around other people was one of the things that kept me from going in for so long. Once I was on medication that worked, and with therapies that helped — I remember walking out of the recording studio one day and looking at the sunshine and thought, “I’m happy today.” And then I sat in my car and cried because I realized how long it had been since I’d been actually happy. Having fun? Sure. Engaged? Sure. Cheerful? Yep. But happy? No…

      1. Marcy

        It’s about PPD, but applies to general depression — there’s an awesome post on Postpartum Progress called “You Can’t Tell A Mom Has Postpartum Depression By Looking.” http://www.postpartumprogress.com/cant-tell-mom-postpartum-depression-looking

        It’s filled with pictures of smiling mothers with their babies, with captions that generally have somewhere in them, “You can’t tell by looking, but…” In the intro, “People assume it should be fairly obvious, except it isn’t.”

        My first bout with PPD, after a miscarriage, had many moments that are… complicated to describe. It’s like I could have a genuinely happy moment, laughing at my one-year-old, but it was a thin veneer over a deep pit. The happiness just made me less numb and immediately made me want to cry. I was a woman pushing her kid on the swing, blinking back tears; and they weren’t tears of joy.

        This time around is more up and down and normally doesn’t feel as dark (yet), but I’m. So. Irritable. If I hadn’t read that anger can be a part of PPD… Yes, I have a three-year-old now, and she can be overwhelming and annoying. But ohmygoodness, I was a much more patient mother once upon a time. When I practice self-care I have more of the “up” and patient moments, but it feels like I’d have to just constantly be doing self-care stuff 24/7 to really maintain it.

        But yeah, out in public I look like a normal, sane, kind, and cheerful person. Generally speaking.

        Phew, it didn’t eat my comment after all, I don’t have to start crying…

  16. Lisa Pendragyn

    “Cue burst of tears.” Yes, just from reading this.

    I think more of your fans and your friends are willing to listen if you want to talk about your depression than you might expect – those of us who have been there know how good it is to have a sympathetic ear/shoulder.

    Thank you for writing this, it was something I needed to hear.

  17. Brenda Hyde

    Thank you so much for writing this blog post. I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in my forties. I’m on a med that works well for the anxiety most of the time. I’ve been having all the problems you mentioned, and I think I’ve been in denial for a long time about my depression. Most of the things you wrote about in the post were identical to things I’ve been doing.

    You’re right most people don’t want to hear about anxiety or depression. Possibly they feel helpless, or simply can’t identify…I don’t know. Thank you for the suggestions, and the resources. I have been trying to write again, and I think perhaps my goals were too big. I’m also going to call my doctor to make an appointment.

    Thank you.

  18. Amber Argyle

    I would like to add that sometimes drowsiness is a sign of depression. I would fall asleep every time I tried to write while going through some major medical trauma with my son, and I just had to quit writing for a few months until I was in a healthy emotional state.

  19. Elizabeth Bear

    So much love and empathy. Most of us have our struggles with this, I think, including me–depression and anxiety get in the way of the work so strongly. It’s hard ,when doing creative work, to just show up and get the job done when the brain chemicals are not helping.

    *sigh*

  20. J.H. Moncrieff

    Thanks for this. I think creative people are more prone to depression, and needing to spend a lot of time in isolation in order to write doesn’t help.

    I haven’t been clinically depressed in a long time, but I know it’s always a possibility. Exercise, connecting with the people I love, and getting outside help me keep the blues away, but should that fail, I hope I would be brave enough to get help. It isn’t easy.

    I attend SiWC each year, but our paths haven’t crossed yet. Hopefully I’ll be able to thank you in person next year.

  21. Grant

    Thank you for writing about this. I was so lucky that when I had my first bout of depression in college, I had a loving spouse who recognized it and pushed me towards the resources that helped me to identify and cope. I am so grateful she recognized it because I would not have, I think, for a long time for exactly those stigmas you mentioned.

    Talking and posting about depression and mental health issues is just one more way that others can start to recognize and then address them.

  22. Wendy

    So glad you’re feeling better and have tools to help you manage the Black Dog.

    Thanks for being so open about it, too. You cracked me up with your likening it to dysentery, on the scale of things people don’t want to hear the gory details of. Some day, society will stop treating depression like a character flaw. Until then, thank you for your frankness.

  23. Molly K.B. Hunt

    As many have already said, thank you for sharing.

    I’ve been struggling with it for going on three years, and the lying thing hits so hard, so close to home. I also finally stopped lying to myself and to my husband only recently, being honest about how I’m actually feeling (or not feeling). But now that I’m on antidepressants for the first time in my life, I think I’ve started lying more and more, because I just don’t want others to know. I’m a book publishing grad student who’s closer to graduation than not, and I fear being too open about this will still cause potential employers to pull away from me, even if on a conscious level they are supportive and understanding people. I’ve put extra effort into appearing functioning and busy and wholly (unbroken) in the industry I want to be a part of–which I have made great strides in, and sometimes I’m proud of it–but I often feel like an empty meatsuit that somebody is flogging around to finish all of the tasks I’ve made commitments to do.

    And thank you for the tips. I love Habitica and use it ceaselessly, but I’m definitely going to try the Headspace app.

    In the interest of exchanging tips–and you may very well be doing this already, or trying to–I would say to not forget or minimize your own accomplishments. Don’t forget what you’ve done, and don’t let the negativity of the moment spread in an absolute to your past and future. I find myself doing this constantly, and focusing on the less-than-perfect aspects of an event or experience as the barometer for how I should perceive that experience later and how I should reflect on my own accomplishments. It poisons everything. It’s so hard to get away from, but I am trying to. (My husband has been amazing at helping me remember that I’ve worked hard and have things to be proud of.)

    Anyway. Thank you again. 🙂

  24. Alissa

    I have never heard of Habitica. I’m intrigued. I shall go sign up and see how it works. Hugs to you, Mary. Thank you for sharing.

  25. Beth G

    Thank you so much for posting this. What amazing strength and honesty.

    I’ve found yoga to be helpful too (for anxiety.)

    And I’ve always secretly wanted to earn achievements for doing everyday life things, so I may try Habitica.

  26. Laura

    Just as I said last year when I brought that nonfiction piece about my depression to your house… Thank you. These behaviors all look different in us all, but recognizing them is hard no matter what. Telling each other helps so much.

      1. Laura

        I… didn’t. I want to, but I kinda got stuck. I was close, over the summer. Overwhelmed by the options. Not being familiar with submitting anything before. And then a new school year started, and doing life on a day to day basis got a lot harder.

  27. JW

    While it’s awful that you’ve gone through this, I’m so happy that you’ve chosen to speak up about this and help others. I have struggled with depression since I was a teen, and it has certainly affected my ability to write and feel confident in my work. I haven’t found my magic bullet medication yet, but I hope I do. It’s so hard to WANT to write, and to feel like it’s something you love, but to have that voice in your head that says “Nothing I have to say is worth it. Don’t bother.”

    Thank you for being open and honest, and for the amazing tips for dealing with this! I hope you stay healthy and continue to recover.

  28. Angela Highland (Angela Korra'ti)

    I haven’t ever had to wrestle depression, but I’ve had a whole host of other medical issues I’ve had to deal with–and so I know all too well how illness can impact your ability to create. And depression is every bit as much an illness as anything physical.

    Best of luck to you! As one of your readers, I’m very pleased to hear you’ve got good care.

  29. Alma Alexander

    I read this twice. And then again.

    Because.. because… because… you are SUCCESSFUL. You have a brilliant award winning track record. You are one of those people I look at when *I* am sitting in this dark place and thinking, there, THAT is what it should be like, not fighting to hold on by my fingernails to the ragged edges of what I have left. THere was a time that I could not imagine not writing. Now there are days when I stare at a keyboard and all I see are keys with letters on them, and I can’t conceive of a time when I was able to link these letters into words, into sentences, into paragraphs, into books. There are days that I look at my shelf of published books and it doesn’t seem even real that I it was some previous version of me that wrote them. It seems as though I am in the middle of a dream, and I’ll wake up in a moment, and in my REAL reality there are no such shelves because there couldn’t be.

    And not writing is killing me. because that’s what I do.

    But writing is almost impossible because I see everything I do these days as horrible or at the very least pointless.

    So yeah. I’m here too. Hiding behind the curtains.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      I think one of the worst things about depression, for any writer, is that when it stops us from writing, it also strips away our self-definition. Losing that just makes the downward spiral worse.

  30. Jakob Drud

    Writing this is so courageous, and I wish you all the best in getting back into a writing life that makes you happy. Telling people what you’re going through is a good way to deal with depression, so I’m glad you found the words for it.

  31. Michael Senft

    Thanks for this. I’m just coming out of exactly what you described. Started getting bad around the beginning of September and I’d noticed I wasn’t writing anymore. Took a panic attack where I couldn’t get out of bed to go to work to get me into the doctor and on meds. And this past weekend I found myself able to write again. It’s still a struggle, but it’s feeling so much better.

  32. Eric Lake

    Mary,

    I still distinctly remember doing writer’s hangouts with you on Google+, some years ago. Those were some of my most productive times as a writer, and having read your stuff, you’re an inspiration.

    Since then, I’ve been in graduate school and now work full time. I’ve also struggled with a long time with depression and suicidal thoughts. I am better now, mostly, but it is still often hard to get thoughts on the page, and I spiral worse. It’s especially hard working full time and being exhausted, saying, “I am too tired to think. I can’t write right now.” Some of it is the “sit down and write!” syndrome. But, I think what you said about lying to yourself is so true. Maybe I’m not busy. Maybe I just needed help.

    I have gotten better over the years, and I think I can finally write again. I have so many books to finish and this really hurt my progress. Reading your words, though… It’s heartbreaking to hear you struggle through this. I would not wish it upon anyone.

    But, know that you are incredibly courageous for admitting that something was awry. It took me a long time to do so–too long, in fact. On the darkest of days, read these humbling, caring comments, and realize that you are not alone in your struggle. I’m so glad you can talk to your husband now about this; that will be a huge boon. And, most importantly, remember to smile.

    This is an inspiring post to anyone who wants to be a writer, but has depression. It’s also practical: I can write three sentences a day, no matter how bad or busy things are. Over time, that will create books. I will be able to do that. You can, too.

    I know the dark spiral of death. I am so glad to hear you are getting treatment. Medication helped me, and though there are still bad days sometimes, I promise you the days will be brighter. They’ll shine more, if only because you can talk to those close to you and they will understand.

  33. Joe Adams

    Thank you so much for this, Mary. I had heard you talk about this on the Writing Excuses Cruise, but seeing it again has reinforced for me how I am not alone in dealing with this.

    But your story has also helped me to realize that I need to take life in a much more simplified way and allow myself the ability to enjoy writing in smaller increments versus 2000+ word increments. That there is value in the paragraph or in crafting a character arc, just as much as there is in being able to craft a scene.

    Thank you so much for you honesty, both then and now. It was a great pleasure to meet you and learn more about you.

  34. Jillian

    Mary, thank you for your honesty.

    Depression lies (ht: Jenny Lawson). You are valued so much by those of us whom you help with your writing advice on WX and through your stories, and I can see clearly that you are valued greatly by those who know you in real life.

    I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety on and off since a very crippling and life-threatening bout of post-partum depression/anxiety/panic that lasted a year after my third baby was born in 2008. Based on my own experience, I actually thought you might be depressed just from changes in your voice on the WX podcasts. (I found WX just last year, and have binge-listened to it in hour-long chunks during my commutes, so the changes are more obvious to me). I’m so glad you have reached out and gotten help. I want you to know you have made a huge difference in my life through your WX work and writing. Thank you very much for that, and please keep clawing your way back up. There are many people sitting by the edge of that hole.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      That is really fascinating, about my voice changing. We record them in chunks, so 18-24 episodes over the course of a weekend. (And one year, where we did the entire season in one go. Never again.) I wonder if it is end of the week fatigue or if there’s something else going on.

      1. Jillian

        Well, you sound different in all of season 10 than season 5 or 6 or 7, for example. I don’t mean your mic sounds different, because you all change mics at different points. I mean, you sound …. Forced. Like you are pushing really hard.

        I’m super sensitive to voice because I’m somewhat visually impaired. I’m sure very few people noticed. But I immediately thought of myself when I was trying to hide my PPD/A from the world.

        Rest assured your advice on WX is still excellent and helpful! Nothing changed there. 🙂

  35. Anonymous Moose

    “Small goals — I used to have a 2000 word per day goal. Now, I aim for 3 sentences. This almost always turns into more, but having a small goal is achievable, even on the rough days.”

    Any writing advice that worked for Zelazny has to be pretty good.

  36. Caio Vinícius

    Thank you for that, Mrs Kowal. This piece helped me in so many ways I can’t put it into words. I think every writer should read this and i’ll be sure to do my share in spreading.

    Depression is a very serious problem because it deprives you of the strenght to fight it. It is – indeed – a spiral that leads you straight to the abyss. You need to, first, admit that something’s not right, your life is not what it used to be. Next, you need to talk to someone, seriously. Get some help, some people also need medication, go see a doctor.

    I’ve suffered through depression and the good news is that, once you fight it and beat it once, you know the ropes to beat it again if it ever creeps around the corner. Never stop fighting.

  37. Geekhyena

    Thank you for posting this. I’ve struggled with intermittent depression for years, and antidepressants literally don’t work on me (or rather, they make me even more depressed). I’ve found a good therapist who’s willing to work with me and do more CBT-based work, but it’s hard going sometimes. You feel like you’re almost out and then something happens and you’re back where you started. (being physically disabled doesn’t help – yoga, etc, are all too unsafe for me – I risk dislocating something). Some days I wonder why I’m even working on my PhD if I’ve got all this stuff going on.

    Thank you for your tips and advice – writtenkitten is a good way of bribing my brain, it seems (and less likely to turn into a time suck than my previous method of playing flight rising). I’m glad you found meds that work and that you’ve got a good support network.

    And thank you for speaking out about it – I’m hopeful that the more people speak up about stuff like this, the less mental illness will be seen as a failure of character or as punishment from God and more as something serious that people can work through but that doesn’t say anything about what kind of person they are.

  38. Mahrie G. Reid

    Ditto right across the board (except it was me got the bionic knee). It is like you are writing mu bio. So I dropped the huge goals, I go for three sentences, get out to the coffee shop Write-in with friends. The other program that saves me is Skype. I have three good friends who know what I go through and chatting on line and seeing them in real time if not real person gives me a huge burst of “Im okay.”

    I’ve dealt with depression since I was 16 years old… 50 years worth. I know all the behavioral steps – and right now – medication is giving me extra support.

    WE need to know we are not alone. thanks for sharing.

  39. Magda K

    So grateful you’ve done this. I literally said to myself yesterday, “Why don’t I just try 3 sentences?” And then I put it off. And Habitica sounds worth checking out.

    Thank you again.

  40. Andrew

    I get this way from time to time. Not anywhere near the level of severity, at least not yet. Thankfully I’m engaged to a counsellor, and work in mental health myself, so I’ve spent a lot of time telling other people what can help and have a great resource next to me most nights. One of the most important things I learned for dealing with it is that I find being at home for an extended period of time depressing. So if I’m really stuck I go park my car in a park and try writing there. With the extra incentive of unhealthy fast food. A change of scenery can do wonders, even in Wisconsin winters. It might help you. I don’t know. Take it or leave it. But I’m glad you’re feeling better.

  41. Dave Heyman

    Thank you for posting this Mary. I know it takes courage to open yourself up to the world like this. Like many on the list, I’ve had my struggles and my ups and downs. I am in a better place now after getting counselling, but it is a journey.

    The stigma of mental illness, as you say, is a powerful one. It holds people back from getting the help they need, so seeing another person take that step may help them – or it may help a loved one understand them better.

    Thank you for Headspace – I’ve had trouble with meditation, my mind is a busy one that doesn’t like to slow down. I just signed up and tried it (there’s a 10 day free trial folks) – I was very impressed and will try it again tomorrow. (Link – https://www.headspace.com/)

    Thanks for sharing your story – it helped me and I am sure it will help many! I am glad to hear there’s a bit more sun in your day (figuratively at least.)

  42. Rob Vagle

    Thank you for all of this, Mary. I like the list of reasons for not writing and the strategies to get beyond it.

    I think physical activity works great against depression. Glad you’re writing again, so keep on going, onward and upward!

  43. Jonathan

    Thanks for posting this, Mary. It amazes me how much seeing someone we admire struggling with the same issues makes it easier to deal with what we’re in the middle of. I got diagnosed last year, and it took me a while to reach a point where I really felt healthier. That description you post of just not wanting to write is so familiar. So, thanks for sharing. I’ll be praying for you, and trying out Habitica. Seems like a great brain hack for getting moving again.

  44. Sally

    I was wondering about you (because… well… I too sit around in my PJs unwashed) but there’s no good way to say in email “Hey, person I’ve only met like twice, I think you’re depressed!”). So I’m glad you got help.

    My cat is on Prozac too. He had terrible anxiety, esp. separation anxiety, and his little kitty stress levels would literally make him so sick he’d get terrible physical symptoms. I finally took him to a specialist, who put him on the kitty-size dose (1/4 people dose). He’s so much better! I kind of miss him being clingy, but not having to take him to the vet every month and worry about him every day is great for all of us. And he’s happy.

  45. Morgan

    Thanks for writing this. I feel so much lighter after reading it and reading the comments.

    I love Habitica. I use it for chores, appointments, big tasks, little tasks, long-term objectives broken into pieces, as well as for writing. I joined one of the guilds and I’m taking one of the writing challenges. So I’ve got “write three sentences” as an immutable daily.

    I’ve been inspired to review my dailies, to make sure that they’re in line with my current situation. Demanding 500 words a day when I’ve been having trouble with the three sentences seems counterproductive. I think I’ll cut that back to a hundred for a while. (I think that might actually make it easier to start the three sentences, strangely enough.)

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      I started the same challenge, probably, and the habits were making me feel awful, so I dropped out and modified the heck out of it. Hm… Maybe I should make that challenge public. Right now, it’s just in my party. Anyway! One of the things I did was to put in Habits, “100 words written” and I get to click it for each 100 words I write.

  46. John Burridge

    Mary,

    I wanted to add my voice to those who are grateful that you recognized the problem, accepted it, found help, and are sharing with us.

    I know I sometimes have days when the shortened winter daylight hours get to me, and I wanted to suggestt Extra Bright Lights as another coping mechanism.

    Wishing you many future days of happiness.

    – John

  47. Baronger

    Glad to see your getting help. I’ve been battling depression myself, and I know the struggle. Thanks for the headspace suggestion, I’ve been trying to find a good meditation app.

  48. Remusmdh

    Twenty-eight years of dealing with depression (and other psychiatric stuff). And though I like that you and Howard Taylor have made talking points of your own experiences… I wish you had never experienced this.

    Took me a while to form… rationale words after hearing of your being on zoloft. That was the first one I was ever put on. It nearly killed me and I have still have emotional numbness issues fifteen years later. As I learned later, nine drugs later, I am wildly drug resistant, so I’m glad the first drug out of the gate has helped you enough to bring you up to living life.

    I hope your depression reverses after several months of treatment, instead of growing legs, and you start down the path of going from one drug to another, as for many people their effectiveness drops of after 6-12 months. But if this turns into a persistent life long problem, Howard Taylor and others have the right of it. You fight, you have good days, bad days, and you fight on.

    But I hope that is not the path you eventually find yourself upon. I don’t think I could wish this path upon even those I hate most in this world.

    Oh! And yeah, it is amazing what getting out of the house can sometimes do for the mood. But be forewarned, well I hope you never see it, but… There are days, where none of those tricks, self helps, techniques will help. On those days, you must not surrender to the pain and let it drown you and think it is all there ever will be. The bad day will eventually end, and the sun will come out again. But IN that bad day… I hope you never see one, but if you do, know it will pass, they always pass. Accept the bad days as transitory, and enjoy the good ones.

    I’ve enjoyed your insight into writing. You have helped me improve as a writer. Thank you.

  49. Lissa

    I’ve been listening to writing excuses for ages now, and have been thinking about picking up your books for just as long. In short: I’m a fan, even just from listening to the writing excuses. And I feel for you, dealing with depression. I was depressed for three years myself, and have just gotten out of it. And I know it’s a cliché, but it will get better. It really does. Really glad to hear that you’re getting help. Take your time with this, and rush it. It will get better.

  50. Ashe Elton Parker

    I was referred to this article via Kristine Kathryn Rusch linking it on Twitter.

    I have bipolar disorder. Mixed-state bipolar disorder, to be specific. This means I present and endure symptoms of both depression and hypomania (still, and hopefully for a long time to come) at the same time. And I still have the mood swings characteristic of bipolar I and II; when my meds work, I might be considered a slow cycler; when meds begin to fail, I’m a fairly rapid cycler. Three months ago, one of my two medications (Risperidone) was upped from 4mg to 6mg to compensate for med failure, which resulted in about 4 consistent months of consistent cycles from hypomania to depression–in addition to my more average mixed state. We didn’t agree to increase my other medication (Ziprasidone) because it is at its max dosage of 200mg, and going beyond that is highly NOT ADVISABLE.

    I can up my dosage of the Risperidone 2mg more. And I probably eventually will. Bipolar disorder only gets worse, and efforts to stabilize it–medication and therapy–can only, with me at least, hinder that slide for a limited time.

    I too am a writer, though largely unpublished aside from a number of short stories in a series of anthologies a writing website I’m a member of has put out since 2012. And, I know your question, and the answer is, yes, my bipolar disorder interferes with my writing.

    But NOT in any predictable way.

    I have writing swings, much like bipolar mood swings, but they are completely independent of my mood swings most of the time, though they can occasionally *trigger* my mood swings. A few years ago, I spent most of an entire year in a writing downswing so severe it eventually caused a despair the like of which I’ve NEVER known before or since, and that’s with a fairly long history (since my late teens) of mental illness. Most of the time, though, I’ll go into a writing downswing with little or no ill effects. I’ll simply do something else, like go on a reading binge, or play video games, or try to do more activities outside my home.

    This past year has bee largely a downswing year. I believe this was triggered by the death of my best friend, who was a writer, with whom I hung out fairly frequently during the months he spent locally each year, and with whom I chatted with nearly every day regardless of where he happened to be. This devastated me, and I suffered a severe depressive phase as well as a writing downswing so severe I didn’t have the stomach to look at my writing for much of it. Since then, I’ve cycled into being creative on my writing, but the fire and enthusiasm was largely absent from my writing endeavors, even if I particularly enjoyed the story I was working on at times before my best friend’s death.

    And that’s the scary thing. You may be lucky–and I hope desperately that you are–and the depression may fade with care and attention to controlling it. I’ve heard depression can sometimes fade, and I really, really hope that happens for you, because the only other option is the hell of never knowing just when and in what way your mental illness will wrangle you out of your love of writing.

    I’m really, really sorry you have to go through this. It’s not fun. It won’t be easy. You may find your medication lasts for all of six months. Or it may work for two or three years before its effects begin to fade (I get about 18mo-3yrs with between medication changes and/or adjustments). That’s another thing. Everyone reacts differently to everything regarding any particular mental illness. And they react differently at different times. Zoloft may last years, but your next medication (if you have to change) may last only a few months. You spent a year deep in the pits this time, but next time, you may pull yourself out of it sooner, simply because you now know what to do, have done it once before, and know how much following that particular path can help you recover.

    All I can say is do whatever you can to remain on the path of recovery. Like with addiction, with mental illness, there is only recovery. Even if your depression does fade, it’ll leave a scar, and you’ll probably never forget what it did to you, and what it could possibly do again. All you can do is recover, and use every single tool you can get your hands on. Medication, therapy, pulling in friends and family to help you cope with the stressors that trigger a downward swing or drop in your mood, learning new coping methods.

    I laugh because a couple of your methods would seriously trigger my depression, but I’m glad you’ve found methods which work for you. Keep up with them to the best of your ability. Keep going with what works for YOU.

    Things will get better. There will be bad days, there will be worse days, but there will also be days so fantastic you’ll find the love of writing and love of life you used to have every single day. There is always hope, and sometimes the best way of finding it is simply by clinging to life long enough to get out of the hole again.

    I hope this ramble helped.

  51. Beth

    Yes, it does.

    For years now, I’ve found myself writing less and less and less, struggling to get myself to the desk, struggling to write something when I was there. I noticed that a pattern developed: in the spring and fall, my mood improved, creativity returned, and I could be productive. In the summer and winter, it was like trying to wring water out of a rock.

    I only just now, in reading all this, realized why. It’s because in the spring and fall, I was motivated to get out and walk every morning because of the beauty of the season and the milder weather. In summer, it was too oppressive and in winter, too chilly, too gray, too damp. I exercised less and…

    Never put it together until now.

    Anyway, THANK YOU so much for posting this. I cried when I read it. I think I’ve struggled with depression off and on for much of my life, but only moderate depression. I could still function. As I’ve gotten older, it’s gotten worse and more frequent. And it hit hardest with the change of life. It was like all the color had left the world. And the thing I wanted to do more than anything–write–became difficult and at times impossible.

    You have inspired me. Thank you for your honesty.

  52. Charlotte

    Thank you. I needed to read this.

    I don’t really like to talk about it, but I’ve struggled with depression on and off for as long I can remember. It’s what stopped me from writing for most of my twenties. About a year and half ago, I started writing again and realized that I had forgotten how much I had enjoyed it. One of my biggest regrets is not going back to it sooner.

    Sometimes I worry that it’ll keep me from writing again because I’m still dealing with it. I know if I’m not careful, It will likely come back full force. If that happens it’s inevitable that I’ll stop.

    Anyway I’m going to try some of the things you listed and see what works for me. It sounds like you’re taking good care of yourself. Please keep doing so.

    Oh and by the way, I’m up to Of Noble Family. I love your books.

  53. Betsy Haibel

    I didn’t know how to say this at the time, but you sharing this in class this spring was very helpful for me to hear, and did a lot to help me forgive myself for letting myself Not Write during a period of untreated PTSD.

    I am glad you have found therapies that work for you, and I am glad you are doing better.

  54. S. J. Pajonas

    Big hugs to you. I dealt with a lot of depression in my twenties and I was not productive nor creative at all. I’m glad to hear you got some help and a new routine to help you get going.

  55. Marie Brennan

    I’ve been meaning to write up my thoughts about “writer’s block,” and this is reminding me to do so. Because yes, the solutions to “my plot is boring” and “I’m being lazy” and “I have depression” are NOT THE SAME, and trying to apply one thing across the board can make the situation worse.

    I’m incredibly sorry to hear things have been this hard for you. I knew, of course, that you were hugely busy — but you masked well enough that I wouldn’t have suspected you were depressed. Fingers crossed that you find a good combination of medication and behavioral hacks that put you back on an even keel. (And a +1 to Habitica and Headspace, both of which I use myself.)

  56. Dana

    Wishing you the very best as you manage your illness. Thank you for sharing your experiences and your hard earned wisdom. What you wrote in this post really helped me.

  57. Stephanie Cain

    Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

    Despite the fact that my depression has been largely under control for several years, it still keeps me from writing at times. It asks, “Why bother writing? Why does anyone care what I have to say? Do I really even have anything to say? Best stay in bed and read someone else’s book. Or better yet, stare at the game on your phone. Or sleep. Sleeping is better than writing.”

    It’s a struggle sometimes. And for me, what motivates me changes. Sometimes, like right now, having a whole group of people doing NaNoWriMo encourages me and keeps me writing every day. Other times, I see what people are accomplishing and feel like a failure because I can’t even make myself sit at the computer.

    But knowing that it’s depression is the first step in learning how to cope with it in a constructive way, rather than just letting it use you. And thank you for talking publicly about it. The more of us who talk about this openly, the fewer people will have to make a testing appointment because they think they have adult ADD, only to be told they have chronic depression instead (and then run away from home in tears, because that’s constructive). 🙂

  58. Sally

    Can someone combine the email-answering app with the kitten-picture app? Because I’d have the emptiest email box in all the land.

  59. Lindsey

    Thank you for posting this. I’m pretty much living the same thing right now. I’ve been through it before, I know I’ll get through it, but it’s tough to emotionally understand that. I want to be better right now.

    I hate that people I admire and respect have to deal with the same thing. I hope your recovery continues.

    Also Written? Kitten! May be the best idea ever. Time to attempt to Nano for kittens …

  60. Marcy

    Thank you for this. I probably have mild postpartum depression and am planning to call my therapist about it tomorrow. Haven’t seen him for about a year, since my last bout with PPD, after a miscarriage. It’s been about five years now of one Hard Thing or another, one after another, and it all started not that long after I first realized I really want to write novels, and after my first couple NaNoWriMos. It can be difficult sometimes to believe that I really am a writer, with as little progress as I’ve made. But. I keep trying, keep fighting. And I have an essay coming out in a print anthology on Tuesday! I really AM a writer! Woo! Heh.

    Anyway. Thank you again, bookmarking this to come back to the strategies, one by one.

%d bloggers like this: