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Major Depressive Disorder and Imaginative Fiction
February 3, 2014 4:50 PM   Subscribe

I've been depressed for many years. It has sapped my creative powers. I've had enough. How can I live as a depressed person, but elevate above the limitations this has imposed on me in the past to escape into a writing practice that could create imaginative works of fiction?

I have been waylaid by major depressive disorder for nearly twenty years. While the urge to write serious fiction has been with me for nearly the entire length of this episode, at middle age, the ticking of the clock is urging me to begin now or risk never starting at all. Depression has robbed me of much, including self-regard, courage, liveliness, attentiveness and wonder (traits I've felt I need to write with skill). It has been a toxic stew that means that instead of starting a life's work in my twenties, I'm going to be trying to begin in my forties. I've tried to begin before. I've attempted to build a practice that would lead to a body of work that I can be proud of. I've barely been able to lift myself up. I know that depression and creative people often go together. How did these people manage to tap into their unconscious to create works of the imagination? I'm not asking how to not be depressed. I've sort of given up on being free of this for any extended period of time. What I want to avoid is having nothing to show for the struggle. What can I do to create the mental space required to get my work done in the midst of a depressed life?

I've read some Paris Review interviews with depressed writers. I've pored through Ask Metafilter and found only this, and it's asking a different enough question that it doesn't really get at what I'm looking for.

I'm seeing a therapist (been in therapy for over ten years). I have a psychiatrist (though I'm against medicating). My therapist and I are beginning to tackle this problem. But I want to tap the wisdom of the crowd. What can I do when the world feels flat and awful and I feel flat and awful? When the loathing is so strong and the numbness is so profound that I simply feel like a shell of myself? This is my life. This is the kind of guy I am. Depression will accompany me for the rest of my life. How can I use it to feed my art, instead of experiencing it as an insurmountable barrier?

P.S. Much appreciation if anyone out there has links to interviews with depressed writers (especially if said writers address their processes in the midst of depression).
posted by samizdat to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
Huh, good question. I struggle with this, too.

First thought that came to mind was this: when you feel the urge to sit down and write, what is the major thing that stops you?

Do you get distracted? Can't seem to make time to sit down and write? Find reasons to justify doing it later? Don't like your initial drafts? Do you feel like you have to sit down and immediately write a "heartbreaking work of staggering genius" with no edits required? (Perfectionism?) Do you make time to write every morning before doing anything else, even on the days that you feel like shit? (Even if it's just keeping a personal journal?) Do you have a conducive writing environment?

I have two books to recommend:
Art & Fear
The Artist's Way

These have helped me over the hurdle a bit. They gave me a lot of gnarly stuff to mentally chew on, and I identified a few of the issues that have been holding me back. A lot of it was simple fear; I was afraid of failing and yet again disappointing myself after so many other disappointments in my life.

As for other depressed writers in recent times, David Foster Wallace springs to mind, for me.

P.S. I think it is fabulous that you are dedicated to this life's work, no matter what. Best of luck to you.
posted by cardinality at 5:25 PM on February 3 [2 favorites]


I write a lot of fiction and I am not a happy person. I am not depressed or anything but I am not someone who ever feels any kind of sustained happiness and I have come to a peace with that. Those are my qualifications.

There is a trick to it. The trick is different for everyone. I will tell you mine.

First, understand that futile endeavor is a heartwarming defining characteristic of all life. We are beating against the cold and building monuments in the face of the eventual heat death of the universe. Life cannot possibly beat the house, but we are trying because that is what we do. So I want to be up front that what I'm about to tell you is going to pitch you headfirst into a fight you cannot possibly win, and that needs to be okay, and it should be okay because every fight, ultimately, is a losing one, but that shouldn't stop you from making a good showing of it. You are going to use the futility of the attempt to your advantage. Okay? Okay.

The way to begin is this: Do some soul-searching and find a hole in you. No, get your mind out of the gutter. Find a hole in your sense of self, in your emotional/mental/spiritual/whatever makeup. Your heart or your soul. Find a chasm there. Anyone who says they can't find one is lying to themselvesand would be terrible to party with, so I promise you've got one. Spend a while sitting and thinking and feeling. Find a hole. What you're looking for is a hole you cannot possibly fill, a hole it would be idiotic to even try to fill. A lot of people blunder into this kind of hole by accident and wind up getting into drugs and dying of the drugs. Do not do that. So like I say, you need to be pretty self-aware to do it, but that's the gist of it: Find a hole you know you will never, ever be able to fill.

Now, make the glorious, foolhardy decision to try to fill that hole with writing.

There is also a thrilling element of control in deliberately making bad decisions you know will benefit you. Try it sometime, it's quite freeing.

Now, the next step.

The cool (for a given value of cool) thing about depression is that it affords you plentiful time for introspection, little of it pleasant. This is fine. You have a large emotional palette to draw on. The positive emotions make for boring fiction. You have a lot of experiences that will translate into themes for your work. So here's what you do. When something happens or when there is something stuck in your craw (don't lie, there is something stuck in your craw), your first question will now stop being, "Where is a soft place I can go lie down and catastrophize?" No, your first question now becomes, "Where can I put this?"

Something hurts? Write about being hurt? Write about someone who is hurt. Change some details. Add dinosaurs or ghosts or whatever your particular splash of paint looks like. Spin it into something. Alchemize. Find somewhere to put it.

That is my trick. It may or may not become yours, but it will hopefully help you find yours, if nothing else.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 5:37 PM on February 3 [23 favorites]


I'm an author who has battled depression, though not nearly as long or as deeply as you have (and I admit, my worst episode was triggered by publishing). I write books for kids and teens, and I've found solace in the number of authors in my industry who have written publicly about their own battles with depression. A couple pieces that really affected me are this post by YA & adult author Francisco X. Stork, and this post by YA author Stephanie Perkins. And of course, writer and cartoonist Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half pieces on depression, Part One and Part Two.
posted by changeling at 5:38 PM on February 3 [3 favorites]


The way to begin is this: Do some soul-searching and find a hole in you. No, get your mind out of the gutter. Find a hole in your sense of self, in your emotional/mental/spiritual/whatever makeup.

Speaking as someone with Major Depression, focusing on the hole inside yourself might not be the healthiest of approaches. I kind of understand where you're coming from, but gazing into that void doesn't really help us--that's why therapy goes slowly, y'know?

For samizdat: maybe try something like Evernote, and just jot down ideas. It has a mobile version so assuming you have a smartphone (may not be a fair assumption, I certainly have a very dumb phone) you can make notes anytime anywhere. Just start plucking the ideas out of your head without judging them or evaluating them. After you've been gathering ideas for a while, then start slowly sorting out themes and such.

What I'm trying to say is, trying to write a novel can be a really big scary task. One way to trick yourself out of being scared by those is to pretend you're not doing them, by doing lots of tiny little tasks instead. I hope that doesn't sound patronizing; that's directly from some group therapy I was in.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:54 PM on February 3 [2 favorites]


Write the worst story you can think of.
posted by rhizome at 6:18 PM on February 3 [5 favorites]


Just write the scene you want to write. Who gives a shit about plot, or whatever, or the body of work, or what it means, or where it fits with other people's work. Write the fun stuff. Then, after a while, you can tackle "well, how did they get in that situation" and go from there.

Then, once you've got the practice of it going, you can start with other goals.
posted by geek anachronism at 7:36 PM on February 3 [1 favorite]


I know that depression and creative people often go together. How did these people manage to tap into their unconscious to create works of the imagination?

The same way non-depressed people do.

I've been depressed and anxious for the entirety of my adult life. Like you, I've reached my 40s with a desire to get something down on paper. For me, this is in the face of the evidence that it will not happen--too many half-finished books on old hard-drives, one bad book finally finished and then abandoned (good god that was a decade ago I just realized). A body of short stories whose quality I cannot judge because I cannot work up the nerve to ship them out anywhere. And of course millions and millions of words griping about how fucking bad I feel all the time.

In my 20s, I spent a lot of time (online) with other depressed and anxious people, and one favorite topic was how creative we all were, how there were deep links between creativity and depression. I don't understand this idea; there are a lot of really stupid depressed people, with no insight and no ability to reach past cliche.

I don't think there is a necessary connection between creation and depression. I think there are insights the condition can give us, connections we can make that are important--the same way that being black or gay or transgender or living in a culture you didn't grow up in, can give you perspective that you might not have otherwise had--but that's a perspective you work for, not one that is handed to you by circumstance really.

My depressed and anxious friends told me how wonderful my writing was, how eloquently I expressed all the miseries of life...and it took a long time to understand that that praise was no more useful than the criticism I hear in my head daily. The criticism's effect was easy to understand--these voices, gargoyles I think of them as, hanging over me and watching what I write, telling me what is wrong with it. Easy. But the praise? The praise was insidious and weakening: "Why can't I get through this scene? Why don't I understand how to write this part? Why the hell is everyone so much better than me, when everyone says I'm so great?"

It turns out to be like any of those other skills. You do it by doing it, and you get better by keeping at it.

Depression is powerful, but there are other powers. The power of habit. After my kids are in bed, but before the point I'm utterly exhausted, I have an hour or two of solitude and silence. That's when I sit down to write. And I try to be religious about it. If I'm not writing anything, I'm still sitting here. And if I can't write, I make notes. I try not to do a lot of writing about why I'm not writing--not a lot of meandering talking about how meaningless it all is--because I know I'm quite capable of discouraging myself, and it doesn't get me any closer to having finished this thing, and so instead I...I suppose I take it on like a mechanical project, one that is broken and needs fixing. Someone, in response to a question I asked a week or two ago, advised to quit going back to the beginning, and this was good advice; there is plenty broken about the stuff I'm only now writing, plenty of things to fix using notes and thoughts and outlining and drafts; one does not have to be trapped forever writing towards a perfect beginning.

There is the power of ambivalence, and here I mean an active thinking in two opposing ways, like doublethink, rather than the more common sense of not-much-feeling-at-all. So, what I mean is, I am a big fan of a book you have probably read, Bird By Bird, by Anne Lamott. A freeing book, a generous, loving book written by your good friend, that encourages you to write shitty first drafts, and to enjoy that freedom. But I am also a fan of a book I've only recently read after a recommendation here, Several Short Sentences About Writing, by Verlyn Klinkenborg, who suggests a technique of writing the shortest sentences you can, and thinking about them beforehand, long before pencil reaches paper, and not being afraid of thinking of what you are doing before you do it, not rushing to get something down that you can fix later. These two ideas, the shitty first draft and the slow and careful sentence-by-sentence accretion, are entirely opposed. And they work beautifully together, because they both address the fear. The fear we have of thinking about things (thinking is painful), the fear we have of committing things to paper (getting things wrong is painful).

This freedom is not like what depression presents to you. You hear people talk about being 'pantsers' or outliners, and if you're me, you roll your eyes at that discussion, because it seems strange to form camps over something like that. It's something depression likes, certainly: Hey, here's another topic you can be wrong about. Outline, and you feel your thoughts becoming compressed and rigid, pressing all the joy out of your writing until it is a dried flower in a book. Write without a draft, and become confused and lost in your thoughts, with characters spending a hundred pages walking into rooms, making pronouncements, and walking back out of rooms. How freeing, then, to be allowed to be ambivalent: To outline a little. And then not to, to write freely without knowing where you are going. Then asking where you are going. And drawing a little chart of it. Because it's your book, and whatever gets it written, is the right strategy for you. Several people here recommended Scrivener, and I've loved it for the overview it gives me of my work, the ability to organize it. And yet sometimes I want to just write in whatever medium is handy, so I do that too. I read about three-act structure. I read about the Hero's Journey (and sigh because I hate it so much and then everyone who uses it seems to write a thousand books). Then I read "Film Critic Hulk" talking about how three-act structure and the Hero's Journey are both nonsense, and giving a breakdown of how Shakespeare's five-act structure really works, and am enlightened. And might still just have three acts. Or five. Or a hundred, I don't know, but knowing isn't the point: The commitment is to the writing, not to the strategy, the outlook, the medium.

So, this is my answer to your question. The world is flat and awful, you are flat and awful: How does such a wretch in such a wretched world get anything written? How do you write through numbness? I do it by cultivating this sense of experimentation. By embracing the ambivalence that would normally turn to word-stopping judgment and despair. By trying it different ways, not that I am going to find the one right way to get it down on paper, because I think that might be limited to people who aren't in constant worry, fear, and sadness, but to use the power of novelty and the sense that there is failure but that changing strategies isn't failure, and to use my tendency to get into habits, to get words written. And what the hell am I writing? Why, about people who don't understand one another, about systems that don't make sense, about the crushing futility of life and why I hope that there is reason to hope, and I try not to put too much of that crushing part in there, at least not at the outset, because I don't want to scare anyone off, but I also don't want to write about mopes who do nothing, because I'm a mope who does nothing and I wouldn't want to read about me, so I am forced to invent people who do more interesting things than I do, even while puzzling over the same things that puzzle me about how on earth people manage to get around and along.

I have about 70,000 words. I do not know whether they are good words. Part of me doesn't care anymore. I just need the words to be there. I need to have written them. I need to leave some record behind that I did something other than look out the window and wonder why life was so hard. So I am going to keep going. Habit, ambivalence, experiment.

Good luck. I hope you write a thousand books.
posted by mittens at 8:44 PM on February 3 [12 favorites]


Cardinality wrote:

First thought that came to mind was this: when you feel the urge to sit down and write, what is the major thing that stops you?


Heavy self-loathing mixed with perfectionism. I have tried to follow Dorothea Brande's advice to write immediately upon rising with no attention paid to the content. This is her phase one in a five-step process toward becoming a writer. She commands the writer to pay no attention to the quality of this work. However, I cannot keep myself from judging the content. I think about the journals I've read of writers of true genius and I compare them to the banality of my own. I am disgusted by my banality and the quality of my thought. I find it difficult to accept where I am.

Cardinality wrote:

Do you get distracted? Can't seem to make time to sit down and write? Find reasons to justify doing it later? Don't like your initial drafts? Do you feel like you have to sit down and immediately write a "heartbreaking work of staggering genius" with no edits required? (Perfectionism?) Do you make time to write every morning before doing anything else, even on the days that you feel like shit? (Even if it's just keeping a personal journal?) Do you have a conducive writing environment?


I am easily distracted. I have the time. I'm not really procrastinating. It's really a dislike of my initial output and the perfectionism that lies behind that dislike. I've found that I slip into a two-day cycle when I try to establish the first-thing-upon-rising writing habit. I psych myself up the day before I try to begin again. I wake and write just as I planned, but the loathing builds throughout the session. By the time I finish, I'm disgusted. The next morning, I refuse to write. Then I begin the process of psyching myself up again. It goes on like this on an every-other-day cycle.

Or I just get really depressed and stop doing almost everything in my life (not because of my failure to write; because of my unfillable holes). Writing doesn't happen then either.

Cardinality wrote:

P.S. I think it is fabulous that you are dedicated to this life's work, no matter what. Best of luck to you.


Thank you.

FAMOUS MONSTER wrote:

every fight, ultimately, is a losing one, but that shouldn't stop you from making a good showing of it.


A truth I embrace without flinching.

FAMOUS MONSTER wrote:

You are going to use the futility of the attempt to your advantage. Okay?


Okay.

FAMOUS MONSTER wrote:

Find a hole you know you will never, ever be able to fill.


I am not a person who struggles to locate unfillable holes. I have them in spades.

FAMOUS MONSTER wrote:

That is my trick. It may or may not become yours, but it will hopefully help you find yours, if nothing else.


This was a wonderful explication of your process. I really appreciate it.

feckless fecal fear mongering wrote:

Speaking as someone with Major Depression, focusing on the hole inside yourself might not be the healthiest of approaches. I kind of understand where you're coming from, but gazing into that void doesn't really help us--that's why therapy goes slowly, y'know?


I certainly would never begrudge a person for deciding to stay away from the holes inside himself/herself, but when I think about writing, one of the primary motivations pushing me to write has to do with peering at the darkest and most terrifying aspects of myself. To quote Akira Kurosawa, "To be an artist means to never avert your eyes."

I have to look.
posted by samizdat at 8:50 PM on February 3


To quote Akira Kurosawa, "To be an artist means to never avert your eyes."

I have to look.


Fair enough. For me, the looking into those holes too much is what provoked crisis. I need someone along when I look inside like that, for safety. Different strokes.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:07 PM on February 3


You can view writing as a craft, like leatherworking or sewing. The more you work at it, the more you practice, the better you will get. Some of that work is--and should be--boring, or at least routine. To set up a daily practice, maybe try responding to a writing prompt every morning. You can reply to some on tumblr (or copy those into a journal) or pick up a book of writing exercises. Some days you won't feel like working--everyone is that way, but you still have to trudge into the office every morning and put your butt in a chair. Realize that some days are more productive than others, but that productivity will only occur if you are sitting down to write on a regular basis.

I am disgusted by my banality and the quality of my thought.

Sounds like all the writers I know! You need to find other writers to talk to and bounce things off of. Meetup.com or a workshop in your town?
posted by mattbucher at 7:50 AM on February 4 [1 favorite]


To quote Akira Kurosawa, "To be an artist means to never avert your eyes."

Remember that Kurosawa was a visual artist.

I have to look.

"[W]hen you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you." said Nietzsche.

Write a story about someone who can't stop looking at stuff.
posted by rhizome at 10:11 AM on February 4


I want to approach this from two angles. I'm a person who has also been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, so I can relate to you on that level, and I'm a person who - though not a successful writer - has made a hobby of it for almost a decade, and in an ideal world, maybe will someday be paid for it. In any case. (1) I'm going to give you a list of my own best practices, because my case is close to yours, and maybe you will find these useful, and (2) I think the way you frame the problem reveals a lot of what's holding you back, so I want to address some of your framing point-by-point.

(1) The most useful thing I find to help myself write, is to impose constraints. I think overcoming limitations that might first appear insurmountable is really what allows us to engage with our "creative" selves, and pushes us to come up with things we didn't know we had in ourselves. This is what leads to the "aha" moments that artists crave.

In particular, the most basic constraint I give myself, one that I apply globally to all projects, is that the main character is not allowed to be anything like me. He cannot be my age, he cannot be my race, he cannot live in my town, he cannot have depression, and preferably, he cannot be a he. If the protagonist is 1 out of those 5, I'm golden. If he's 2/5, that's acceptable but worrisome. If he's 3/5, I have to start over.

From there, the constraints only get more interesting. Write a story in the style of an online forum thread. Write a story from the protagonist's perspective that opens on her death. Write a story from the perspective of an inanimate object. Go wild.

The other thing I would strongly advise is to emulate the styles of artists you like. There is a world of difference between plagiarism and copying, and I think copying is how most artists initially find their voice. Austin Kleon, in his book "Steal Like An Artist," has a beautiful quote - "Johnny Carson tried to be Jack Benny but ended up Johnny Carson. David Letterman tried to copy Johnny Carson but ended up David Letterman. And Conan O'Brien tried to be David Letterman but ended up Conan O'Brien." I think copying is to crawling what writing is to walking on two legs, and though our culture would rather you were "completely original" I don't believe there has ever been any such thing.

(2) There's some stuff in the way you frame your query that makes me feel as though you have set yourself up to fail. A big part of applying-ass-to-chair and getting some writing done will require you to change or eliminate some of the beliefs implied by your question. Namely:

While the urge to write serious fiction has been with me for nearly the entire length of this episode, at middle age, the ticking of the clock is urging me to begin now or risk never starting at all.

What is "serious fiction"? I feel like this is one of those perfectly ambiguous phrases that gives your depression free reign to keep moving the goalposts every time you accomplish something. While the fiction you write might be fantastic, it will probably never be "serious" ("literary") enough to satisfy your depression. So you have to get away from this designation as fast as possible. Just write what you would like to read.

It has been a toxic stew that means that instead of starting a life's work in my twenties, I'm going to be trying to begin in my forties...I've attempted to build a practice that would lead to a body of work that I can be proud of.

The implication here seems to be that: (a) the more you write, the better a writer you will be, therefore (b) you are starting too late to put in your 10,000 hours and now you'll never be a great writer. (a) is true, and (b) is false. You didn't start too late, you don't actually need 10,000 hours, and if you ever lend your depression any weight at all, you'll never have a serious enough "body of work" to be proud of. People write great things at all ages and all levels of experience. Hell, Jose Saramago (who is more literary than Jose Saramago?) did not even start writing until he was in his forties, and achieved no recognition until he was 60!

But even if you are not Jose Saramago. If you've got a serious body of video game fanfictions under your arm within a year or two, or pulpy horror thrillers, those are just as much art as anything any Nobel Laureate has written. The designations are arbitrary, and methinks Stephen King will still be read long after Sully Prudhomme is forgotten.

However, I cannot keep myself from judging the content. I think about the journals I've read of writers of true genius and I compare them to the banality of my own. I am disgusted by my banality and the quality of my thought. I find it difficult to accept where I am.

I don't know this Dorothea Brande, but she is ON POINT. Writing is about turning your filter off and letting it all flow. "Write drunk, edit sober," as Hemingway said. Just treat it like improv, and write everything. Come back to it later, with a reader's eyes, and then discard what doesn't work.

This is one of the toughest things about writing, but you have to approach writing with the idea that value judgments (good/bad) are basically useless before you are two-three drafts deep. They don't help you in any way. You just have to let it flow.

To the point of the journals - I would strongly wager what has been released to the public are heavily edited, thoroughly spell-checked, editorially organized abridgments of whatever the original journals contained. I would not let this bug you. These writers who came before you were not superior beings, in spite of their outsized acclaim and cultural stature - they were unfaithful to their spouses, had unsuccessful side careers (running for Mayor of NY), and in addition to their masterpieces, wrote shitty novels (Neutralia? Really, Koestler?). They were not great creatures.

Perhaps the worst mistake that any writer made was the one John Kennedy Toole made - thinking that his work was worthless and unpublishable, and killing himself years before he would be granted the Pulitzer Prize that was his due. Don't let that be you.
posted by sidi hamet at 6:09 PM on February 4 [3 favorites]


Another thing could be to broaden your scope to include different types of creative people. Musicians, for example - Neko Case, Frightened Rabbit, Thom Yorke, Trent Reznor... the list could go on and on. Once you factor in artists, filmmakers, etc - I think that although the mechanics obviously differ, the principles of overcoming your depression, using your depression, staring it in the face, ignoring it - whatever, are what matters. The specific trick you will have to find yourself, although finding out how others have done it may give you hints.

The general themes towards success of any kind in writing appear to be: persistence and discipline. Write every day, whether you want to or not. Concentrate on getting words down, not on whether they are the right words or the right subject. Like so many other things, writing is something that gets better with practice and the important part is the practicing, not the quality of the practice (at least initially). And the aphorism of writing what you know might also be helpful - if what you know is your depression, write about that. Many people don't.

(I used to write. I don't really anymore, but I feel happier with my creative output since I decided to do something completely different that I wasn't invested in - I drew a comic about my experience of depression. I don't think of myself as much of an artist so I didn't care if it sucked, I was able to just enjoy the process of creating. I offer this as a partial explanation of why I'm recommending thinking outside the specific art form in terms of depression & creativity.)
posted by Athanassiel at 8:44 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]


I really appreciate the response this received. Thanks.

I hope to put all of this thoughtfulness to good use.
posted by samizdat at 5:06 PM on February 9


hey, samizdat. I hope you're doing better. I was just reading this beautiful new piece on depression from bestselling author Libba Bray, and I thought of this post & wanted to share.
posted by changeling at 12:27 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]


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