When Writer's Block is Connected to Depression
Original image by Alexander Grey
There’s nothing more debilitating to a writer than the feeling of getting stuck. Being on a roll and suddenly having the creative juices dry up. Watching your process slowly break down until you are at a standstill. Staring at the blank screen trying to figure out what’s next. You try to write your way out of it, but you hate every word and finally delete everything, fighting the temptation to throw your entire computer out the window.
But what is Writer’s Block, really?
Some authors don’t believe in it. Others don’t believe until it finally happens to them.
Writer’s block is a loosely defined phenomenon wherein you are unable to find the right words. It connects to a larger problem of lacking ideas or inspiration on any endeavor that requires creativity.
It probably isn’t always immediately identified as writer’s block. We all run out of steam from time to time. Usually, we take a break and come back to things fresh. If the words start to flow, then it wasn’t technically writer’s block the way most of us would define it. Writer’s block implies a longer-term disruption. It might constitute a full stop or some type of floundering that doesn’t translate to forward progress. A point where we can no longer find our path.
When Writer’s Block is Fear
Most writer’s block falls under the umbrella of fear—fear of getting it wrong. This can be a side effect of unhealthy perfectionism. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get the story right, but the idea that there are perfect words in the perfect combination that are just waiting to be discovered can paralyze any forward progress.
Stephen King has said on multiple occasions that on some days writing is the process of shoveling excrement from a seated position. His advice on those days is to do just that. Keep writing even when it doesn’t feel perfect, even when it doesn’t feel good. This is the “write yourself out of it” approach. Many writers believe the words they’re putting down are indeed excrement and not worth the time. They fear ruining the story.
Ghostwriting largely cured me of this fear. I had hard deadlines and often barely cared about the material, but I needed to finish quickly in order to get future work. I would come upon a crossroad where a choice had to be made. Instead of pondering over it, I’d just make the choice quickly and keep writing. Over time, I found these snap decisions tended to be pretty good, pretty close to what it seemed the characters would do. In real life we rarely get the opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of every choice at out leisure. Many choices, especially ones made under pressure, are made with emotion clouding the purity of our reason. The reality is that with any crossroad, a story exists down either path. One may be subjectively better than the other, but both can be made to work. If I choose path B over path A, that’s my story now. There is a story down path A, but it’s not mine anymore. I don’t need to dwell on it or second guess it. I just need to focus on the path the characters chose. The challenges that path presents is the stuff that makes the story interesting and raises the stakes. You have to leave the fear behind and write.
It can help to think of the first draft as a first draft. You’re constructing the bones of the story, and the editing process is where you will fix, fine tune, or connect the details that are hanging you up. Warning: It is possible to get caught up during editing as well. Don't be paralyzed by unhealthy perfectionism!
When Writer’s Block is Depression
While much of writer’s block ties back to fear, there are all sorts of other challenges that impact writing as well. Physical health, mental health, and emotional health can affect your performance across all areas in life. If you are struggling with depression, you might still be able to write like always, just as people with depression can joke with their friends or go through the motions at work even though they are struggling inside. Some of us are so good at it that many don’t notice we’re feeling bad. Other times, depression can prevent you from making forward progress, same as it can in other aspects of your life.
There is no easy answer when depression is the core of the problem. Seeking the help you need is always the best approach. Not isolating yourself from the people who care about you is vital, too. Writer’s block is probably less important than other side effects of depression, but it can feed into that depression cycle.
It’s easier said than done, but however you’re dealing with depression, experts advise to continue to engage in the activities that brought your life joy before depressive episodes began. For writers, writing is often tied very deeply into their identities and self-worth. “Failing” to write day after day can be devastating.
Ways Around the Block
Even more so than fear, when depression is at the core of the problem, “just getting over it” isn’t very helpful advice. That’s not how depression works. As you battle through these underlying issues as best you can, there are tools you can use to get back to writing, even under less than ideal conditions.
• Deal with the underlying problem/ Take care of yourself
Obviously, taking care of yourself is a big deal. Giving yourself time to rest, eating well, exercising, getting the healthcare you need, etc. When we feel better, we tend to do better. The biggest problems in our lives do not come with easy fixes. Taking the time to address something as big as depression takes effort, but has long-term benefits in all areas, including creative output.
• Get a running start
Going back a few pages and reading through what you've written can jump start your motor. Your brain follows the action, locks into the narrative structure, and starts predicting what comes next. That process can lead you to the next step in your story. Don’t necessarily go all the way back to the beginning, just far enough to feel the flow.
• Make the wrong choice
When no choice seems right, just make the wrong choice. I mean for the characters in your story, not in your own life. Life presents us with no good choices sometimes. There’s no reason your characters can’t face the same thing. They can make a bad choice sometimes. They can face the consequences of that. You might surprise yourself with the interesting things that happen down the “wrong” path.
• Do something else and return
Exercise can help with mental health. People going through depression can tell you that others saying “get more exercise” or “get more sun” is as annoying as “just get over it.” What “doing something else” does is it forces your mind to focus on other things. Your mind wanders between ideas when you’re walking. Folding laundry can free your mind to explore. You might figure out what’s next all in a rush and find yourself running home to write. Going somewhere to observe people, socializing, or having a conversation with someone can spark all sorts of ideas too.
• Write something else and return
Switch to a different piece of writing. It doesn’t have to be anything important. It can be a blog post, your next newsletter, or a piece of flash fiction just to get the demons out. The act of making progress or finishing something else can invigorate you.
• Write somewhere else
Routine tends to be helpful to writers over the long term, but if you are stuck, changing things up might help. A new location might break patterns that aren’t working, or give a fresh feel to the process.
• Develop a routine
This is the exact opposite of the previous point. If your life, schedule, and home setup are a bit chaotic, that can lead to a lack of real habits around writing. If you find yourself blocked under these conditions, then developing a routine can help. A set time and place can train your mind to get into writing mode. If you have the liberty, a writing routine can help establish healthy associations.
• Eliminate distractions
Family, home, work, and pets are a part of your life. You don’t want to ignore them. If you’re having trouble writing, you might need to find a time and place to get away for a little while. Other distractions are more within your control. Television, your phone, music and so on may need to be turned off to give your brain room to work. Some people write better to music. Often music without words or music that is lower in the background is less distracting.
• Lower the demands
Looming deadlines and large wordcount goals can be obstacles to your creativity. Because you don’t feel like writing 2000 words today, you might not sit down to write at all. A smaller demand might make you feel less anxious. Often, when you get started, you can keep going past your initial wordcount goal.
• Find better stopping points
There is a tendency to want to write out every idea you have and then stop once you’re spent. That might leave you at a bad starting point for the next day. You come back to the story with no idea what happens next. If you are prone to writer’s block or are feeling less than your best, it might help to stop when you still have an exciting idea for what happens next. Write a note for yourself if you’re afraid of forgetting. Then, you’ll come back already knowing what happens, and maybe even feel excited to write it.
• “If this then that”
When you’re stuck, explore what would happen if your characters did a particular thing next. You don’t have to write it out, but you can do a bullet-point outline. So, they go here next. What is the consequence of that? What does making that choice cause to happen? What does it force the other characters to do? What does that action after that cause to happen? Outline the string of events very quickly to see where you might end up. If you don’t like it, create a fork from one of the early steps leading in another direction and follow that thread. Eventually, you’ll map out the first few steps of your path forward, and then you can begin writing for real.
Outlining in general might be helpful for writer’s who find themselves blocked.
• Reward yourself
Set a reasonable writing goal and then reward yourself in some way for getting there. It doesn’t have to be something big or even tangible. Train your brain to find the act of writing rewarding through association.
• Stop deleting
Writing and deleting work over and over again does not set up a productive pattern for overcoming writer’s block. That is not to say that deleting things isn’t valid. If you’re struggling with writer’s block though, this cycle will likely feed into the underlying problems that have you feeling stuck.
• Stop rereading
Earlier, I discussed getting a running start by rereading the portion leading up to where you are. The downside to that is that you can trap yourself in a vortex of simply going back over your work, making changes, and second guessing everything that came before. Instead of moving forward, you’re going backward and undoing more and more of the work. That sort of thing becomes very unproductive the longer you do it.
• Stop involving others in your second guessing
Do not misunderstand this point. Seek the help you need. Talk about what you are struggling with. There can be a problem in having someone read incomplete work though. You can find yourself suddenly uninterested in the story any longer once others have seen it incomplete. I was unaware of this phenomenon until I heard more experienced writers talking about it to new writers at a convention. Talking to others might help you work through your thoughts on a story, but be careful that it doesn’t muddle your thinking or cause you to second guess yourself more.
Stop Beating Yourself Up
Negativity does not help writer’s block. As with any goals we set, we get down on ourselves when we fall short. This can only make the situation worse as the negativity compounds. Some of the tips above may help and sometimes it just takes time to work through your struggles. The best thing you can do is give yourself a break. Grant yourself grace when you fall short. Responsibility, accountability, and commitment are all important to anything we do. Work that requires creative energy can’t always be muscled through, though. You have to take care of yourself. You have to allow yourself to fail. Finding your way through will be easier if you are not your own biggest detractor.
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