How to Keep Writing When Depression is Kicking Your Ass

Because sometimes you just need coffee M&Ms and an adorable fat, trans unicorn mug, while setting things on fire.

Because sometimes you just need coffee M&Ms and an adorable fat, trans unicorn mug, while setting things on fire.

Okay, so this year has been kind of an asshole regarding my depression. With some awesome highs in my life, 2018 definitely had me spiral into some deep, deep lows this year, and while I’ve come to recognize when this happens, that doesn’t mean it makes it better. At all. Add an unhealthy heaping of anxiety, plus the world being a general trash fire, and you really end up with a cocktail of Why Bother with all kinds of existential dread swirled in.

So, if, to quote one of my students last week, “I’m sore just from existing,” how to keep on writing when yes, writing is resisting and yes, we really need that right now, but also, you’re tired and shit’s just too damn hard some days?

Frankly, I don’t know. While part of me loves inspirational posts about making good art and how writers just fucking write, damn it, you mileage definitely may vary and I’m not the best at a) self help or b) following my own advice, because hello, shit’s hard and all, but here are some ideas that worked for me:

  1. Know your limits and listen to your body.

    Yeah, when I said that I’m bad at listening to my own advice? I’m really fucking terrible at this, but here’s the thing: from someone whose body literally tried to kill them by way of giant fucking blood clots (again!) this year, limits are a thing. As is your body telling you to slow the fuck down. I for one am trying to make a conscious effort at being better about this and make time to hydrate, take my meds, and generally check in with myself more often. Well, fucking finally, probably way too many of my friends reading this might say, but the truth for me (and maybe for some of you as well) is that this is something you have to learn, especially when you’re too used to discounting your own feelings and feel like you have to be selfish when you tell people that no, you can’t do yet another thing because you really need some time to sit down and pet your cats. It’s all good though. Be selfish. Pet your cats. Both your body and your cats will appreciate it.

  2. Refill your creative well.

    Not all writing is writing and sometimes you need a godsdamn break. Here’s the thing: most of us do creative work in anything we do. We think through plot holes going on walks, we study authors we love by making mental notes of how someone did something genius (or problematic af) as we read, we deconstruct story structure as we binge-watch yet another Netflix show. Sure, this can totally sound like an excuse to not write and most of us have that constant voice that tell us we should feel guilty about doing non-writing things when we should be writing, but here’s the thing: sometimes doing something—anything—else helps better your work more than anything else. Also, if your brain is like a web browser with eleventy billion tabs open at the same time, something’s bound to stick and help you make better words once you do sit your ass back down in front of that keyboard.

  3. Set small goals and write that shit down.

    There’s just something intensely satisfying about crossing things off your to-do list or record your daily word count totals in your bullet journal, your spreadsheet, or the social media outlet of your choice. The thing about this is to keep it manageable. I might be misquoting this, but I love something V.E. Schwab said along the lines of: “Books get written one page, one sentence, one word at a time.” I literally have this quote on a sticky note on my computer because sometimes I need that reminder. (Who are we kidding? I need that reminder all. The. Time.) And on those days where even a single word doesn’t happen? I still try to do something that’s writing related, whether it’s reading a craft book, talking to other writers, or hell, even completely redesigning my website, because clearly this needs to happen right now. And yes, you bet I write that shit down, because to-do lists are clearly what really govern my life. And yes, sometimes getting up at X time or things like showering, teaching all day, and doing laundry totally make the list because that’s what I got done on that day and damn it if that doesn’t count for something.

  4. Ask for help.

    Yes, everyone says this, but seriously, I’ll say it louder for those of you in the back: Ask. For. Help. I’m really glad of how much more public the discourse over depression and anxiety has become but if you’re anything like me, you might be wondering if it’s “bad enough” yet. And then that gives you anxiety. (Thanks, Brain.) Anyway, I guess the simple answer is to talk to someone before it’s “bad enough” but how do you know? And who do you talk to? Because let’s face it, finding a therapist you actually mesh with (let alone can afford) is clearly the special kind of hell. But maybe just being honest with yourself and others helps. Maybe just taking that scary step of talking to those you care most about about that shitty shit your brain likes to pull helps. And yes, if you have access to it, talking to a mental health professional, and possibly medication might be a good step for you, too. My doctor doubled my meds about a month ago and honestly, it helped a lot, but brains are complicated and talking about all that weird shit that’s going on in there (and yes, being vulnerable af while doing so) has definitely made a difference because as cliche as it sounds, it showed me that I’m not alone and that there’s nothing selfish about admitting that sometimes you just can’t.

  5. Accountability gets shit done.

    I’m not ashamed to admit (okay, I’m totally ashamed to admit) that sometimes knowing that I have a critique group who is waiting for me to submit work to them is all that got me sit my ass in that chair and put my hands on that keyboard. The fear of disappointing people is real, you all. Sure, this smells an awful lot like guilting myself into writing but really, sometimes I need that. Accountability can be healthy when it makes you get shit done. Whether that’s doing a writing sprint with your Twitter friends or having a Google Chat accountability buddy system where you check in on each other on your goals and how much you got done each month. I personally also really like to visibly track my progress, so things like this help me a lot. I have color-coded magnets on my calendar whiteboard (one sparkly magnet for every 500 words written or 1 hour spent editing), which works surprisingly well, even if it proves that I might still be a fourth grader at heart. But that’s cool. However you track progress, just make sure it works for you. Accountability is magic when it adds to your productivity, but it might also be time to take a step back if it just stresses you out more. You do you, boo and it’s okay.

So those are some of my methods for slaying the Depression Dragon that tries to horde all my words and productivity. I hope some of these might work for you. Or maybe just made you think about other ways to keep those anxious brain weasels at bay. I definitely have days where some of these things work better than others, and yes, days where none of them work at all. I’m learning (slowly) to be okay with that. It’s a fucking process after all.

Anyway, what are your ways to deal with whatever your brain throws at you? Tell me in the comments, because I sure need any suggestions you have.

Don’t let the anxious brain weasels win.

Alex