Writing with Depression: Getting it Down when You're Down

Over on my tumblr, a brave and wonderful Anon asked: 

"ya girl wants to write but my depressed ass can't commit to a prompt/find the motivation to actually get anything down"


Hey dear – yep, this is super hard. Definitely something that I struggle with: I’m so sorry you’re going through it, too. It’s both comforting and not to know that a lot of people are in the same proverbial boat as we are: one of my best friends and I call it the struggle bus. So… welcome? We have snacks ;)

On a more logistical note, remember – and I know I’m always saying this, but I’m always saying it because it’s true – that you are always worth more than the sum of your “productivity”/how much/how well you write/do anything. I always remind people of this because I struggle with that tremendously myself: if I haven’t written anything today, was I a waste of life today? My answer is probably going to be yes, at which point I start the classic downward spiral: I was depressed, so I didn’t write, and I didn’t write, so I’m beating myself up, so I’m more depressed… And now I feel like Yoda.

Yoda from Star Wars, sitting in light brown robes on a red chair, saying, "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." Gif from https://media.tenor.com/images/caa3cd4450d22befb16e3976e4fd7535/tenor.gif

Yoda from Star Wars, sitting in light brown robes on a red chair, saying, "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." Gif from https://media.tenor.com/images/caa3cd4450d22befb16e3976e4fd7535/tenor.gif

Recently, I’ve been crawling out of my downward spirals more and more effectively: it’s something I’ve been working on for years, and will probably continue to work on forever, because we never stop growing and learning. 

The beautiful thing about writing, though? You said you can’t commit to a prompt: thing is, to start, you don’t have to! Sometimes, for me, it’s about forcing myself to get through that first sentence. When I do, the rest often flows. When it doesn’t, hey! I’ve written a sentence. If you haven’t got the motivation/aren’t feeling up to pressing forward, that’s alright: you’ve written a sentence. That is wonderful, truly. The only place to build is up, and you will!

One of my students that I worked very closely with on his writing once approached me with a similar question as you. He wound up writing a series of very short (I’m talking 4-5 sentences, sometimes even one sentence or a few words) drabbles that came to his mind at random intervals, and you know what? They were spectacular. They were short – short, because he was too depressed at the time to work on anything longer – but they gave us so much to talk about, and after a few months, they wound up serving as a basis for him to start a much longer story. The story was stirring around in his bones, and he couldn’t not write it. It was beautiful to experience with him, and very humbling.

For him, being held accountable to a person who was unconditionally supportive of him was important: he wanted me to hold him accountable without getting angry with him if he didn’t generate something new one week (and of course I’d never be angry at him for that!). Because that was his preference, we started a writing exchange: each week, we’d scroll through prompts that either made us laugh, or think, or cry. We settled on a few, and agreed that the next week, we’d meet back and share our writing. Sometimes, he didn’t have his. Other times, he had brilliant, long pieces. Other times, he had very, very short pieces, also brilliant. Each time, though, we learned something about each other’s writing processes, and that time and space was invaluable.

I guess my point is, for me – as well as for many of my students, this one in particular – having a writing buddy who supports you unconditionally, both as a person and as a writer, can be so important. This summer, I dragged myself to the library nearly every day with one of my best friends so we could work on our dissertations together. His presence was comforting, even and especially when I was too depressed to actually carry on a conversation. It helped me get the first draft of my dissertation done, even through an intense spell of depression: I don’t know how I would have done it without him!

Of course, the kinds of community-oriented things I’ve talked about here might not work for you. That’s okay! That doesn’t mean it’s hopeless! What works for some people doesn’t work for others, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Whatever you find starts to work for you, please try to never shame yourself for not writing, or for not writing “well enough”; never give up on your goals, even when you have to take them in itty-bitty steps (there’s nothing wrong with itty-bitty steps!); and please feel free to reach out with more important questions like this.

I believe in you: you got this!!!!

J