Thursday, 11 July 2013

How to Begin Writing Again After a Period of Depression

I've been depressed for the past couple of months. I've had depression for years and have been improving overall, but am susceptible to periods of moderate to severe depression that disrupts my already-limited life. These periods are difficult: depression can steal everything you value and enjoy. My most recent period hasn't been the worst - not by a long shot - but it has been difficult to cope. One of the most difficult aspects, as a writer, is getting back into a writing routine. Or even writing at all.

As my depression has improved, I've made some discoveries and observations that have helped me understand how recovering from a period of worse-than-usual depression affects my writing and my feelings about writing. I have found ways of being more productive while making the transition back into "normal" writing life. I hope other people find these startegies useful too, whether they suffer from mental illness or are experiencing the low moods that affect most people from time to time.

1. Understand that it's a WIP
You're unlikely to go from not writing at all (or writing very little) straight into a writing routine. Sorry, but none of these tips will make the process easy; I'm merely aiming to make it marginally less difficult. Getting back to writing is a work in progress. You will experience lapses and setbacks. It might be frustrating to accept, but there will be times when you cannot write, or when your writing seems pointless and terrible. But remember that every single word counts. Your progress may be slow and patchy, but it's progress. Hold this thought foremost in your mind.

2. If you can, read.
Read whatever you can. Read old favourites. Read your literary equivalent of comfort food, whether it's childhood classics or the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. I find that my ability to read returns long before my desire and ability to write when I'm depressed. I suspect this is the case for most people - reading is less taxing than writing and more enjoyable when you're feeling down. Use this to your advantage. As you feel better, read books you wish you'd written, read books in genres you love and those you don't, try books that differ from your usual taste. Then, when you're feeling much better, read books to inspire your writing. These may be books on the craft of writing or discussions about reading and/or writing. They may be stories similar to those you hope to write. Try everything and anything!

3. Embrace the darkness.
Writing anything is better than writing nothing, so use your fears and grief to fuel your writing. It may be scary and, of course, if it raises issues that you ought to discuss with a doctor or therapist then seek help, but sometimes writing about your worst thoughts and emotions is a way of getting past them.  You may produce an outpouring of feelings that you shut away and never use or you could
choose to use this powerful material in your prose or poetry. There are benefits to either approach. The important thing is to write.

4. Track your progress.
One of the many difficulties of mental illness is that motivational tools become double-edged swords.
  By tracking your progress I am NOT talking about setting unrealistic goals and then beating yourself up when you fail to achieve them. I mean that you should acknowledge the times when you manage to write. Don't get caught up in numbers - the time you spend writing and the amount of words you write are irrelevant when you're recovering from a period of extremely low mood. Instead, circle the date in your diary or tick the calendar to record your steps towards writing regularly again.

5. Eschew deadlines.
Following on from the previous tip, go easy on yourself and don't pressure yourself into meeting unessential deadlines. Self-imposed deadlines can be great motivators, but when you're depressed they can also become more "reasons" why you're not good enough. If you have external deadlines, think about whether you can miss them without losing too much (e.g. Competitions you would like to enter but don't have to), or extend them. Mental illness should be regarded as no different to physical illness: if you had a physical illness that affects your ability to write, would you be more understanding or compassionate?

6. Keep struggling!
It may sound flippant, but keep trying to write. If something is important to you, you must have faith that it will be worth the effort. Depression may rob you of faith and hope, but remember that this, too, will pass and keep on wiritng whenever you can.


  1. This is such an uplifting post, Hayley. Thank you for taking the time and trouble to remind us all, whether we suffer from depression or not, that there are highly effective ways of working through our difficulties.
    Your post has come at a perfect time. I'm in danger of expecting too much of myself and becoming quite tense about the latest WIP. All your excellent points are a reminder that things don't all have to be perfect all at once. This is something to tackle in manageable amounts. There will always be time tomorrow to improve what I have written and to make changes. The most important thing of all is the writing. Not the quantity, not even necessarily the quality to start with, but the fact that words on the page means that progress has been made.
    I may delete part of it tomorrow and write something different, but progress of the one step back and two steps forward variety is still progress.
    I also find reading is the best thing to do when the writing isn't coming along so well. It always inspires me and I eventually go back to where I left off with renewed enthusiasm.
    It's really good to know you are recovering, Hayley, and I'm sure your positive approach will be of enormous help to you. It's certainly been very useful reading for me this morning - thank you. x

  2. Thank you, Joanna. I'm glad you find this post helpful - I wasn't sure whether it would be or not. I should also add that following my own advice has made me surprise myself with how much I've managed to write. As motivating as I have found goals and deadlines at other times, forgetting them can be helpful too!

  3. You are such a motivational writer, Hayley, and I really admire your ability to put these points into a list we can all follow! I do hope you manage back to your usual writing pattern soon.

  4. Thank you, Rosemary. I did think as I was planning this post, that it would be handy for myself to refer back to in future too!