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.
  • 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.)

88 Responses

  1. 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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.)

  11. 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.

  12. 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). 🙂

  13. 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.

  14. 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 …

  15. 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.

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