Beating the Demon: Depressive Writer’s Block
By Amy McLane
Writer’s block is fear. Fear of inadequacy, fear of ineptitude, fear of ridicule. It is entropy, and it whispers “you can’t” in your ear until you listen.
I find my own writer’s block can manifest in a couple of different forms. I experience it most frequently as procrastination. I fiddle away my time on gossip sites, play Minesweeper or Solitaire, reorganize my desk. Usually I am avoiding writing a difficult scene or doing some heavy editing. For me, this block can be defeated by a little gumption. Some commitment is necessary, like an egg timer, a prompt, a word count, a deadline, or my personal favorite: making a cup of coffee, shutting the office door, and disabling the internet connection.
That kind of writer’s block is annoying, like a dripping faucet when you are trying to sleep. But sometimes procrastination can root, and grow into something much uglier. Days turn into weeks, weeks into months. Suddenly you realize how long it’s been since you wrote, and despair fills you. You are strangled, mute. You have nothing to say, no story to tell, and even if you did it would not be worth telling. You always thought the point of your life was to write, and you’re not doing it. You’re in a creative black hole. Welcome to Depressive Writer’s Block.
Like any other form of depression, you need to get active, get help. Here’s how you can start.
First off, look around you. Is your environment contributing to your writer’s block? More specifically, is your job crushing your soul? Is someone in your life, friend or lover, sucking up every moment of time and thought and energy you have? Is your home life unstable?
Make a change. Make a break. Brush off your resume, and in the meantime defy The Man by writing on lunch breaks. Dump your toxic friends and lovers. Move out of your unstable home as quickly as you can. And in the midst of this, identify who is good for you, who helps stabilize your life, and confide in them, even if that person is just yourself. There’s nothing wrong with walking alone. It means you’re in total control of the situation.
But, you can’t stay an island. Writing is an isolating activity, and isolation breeds depressive thoughts. Join a writer’s group. If meeting other writers feels too scary (we are a rather weird bunch), try an online writer’s group like Critters or OWWSF&F. If you are like me and need face to face contact to feel like you’re part of a writing community, go down to your local community college and sign up for a class. It shouldn’t be too expensive, and it’ll get the ball rolling. You can always Google an instructor to make sure they are a fit for you before joining.
If you’re too young to take a college class, try to work one into your school schedule, or see if there isn’t an after-school writer’s group you can join. If you can’t find one maybe you can start one with a friend. Alternatively, your local bookstore probably hosts writer’s groups, and they may be open to new people. Your local coffee shop is another good place to scout for a group. Joining a group means you are surrounding yourself with other people who share the same dream as you. They may be on a different part of the path than you, but that’s okay, if you leave your ego at the door. After all, the instructor isn’t the only one who can teach you things.
Now try this: reread old stories with a gentle eye. Pick the one you think the best and submit it somewhere. Tell yourself it’s just a lark, and that you’re starting a form rejection letter collection. Expect nothing else, and if you get something else, even if it’s just a hand scribbled note on your form rejection, you’ll be pleased instead of disappointed. Stephen King got so many rejections the nail he impaled them on eventually fell off the wall, overwhelmed by sheer volume. See if you can’t beat that. Even though you’re being lighthearted about it, each submission is another step to professional publication.
If that makes you want to hide under the bed, try this: You keep telling yourself you’re lousy. So give yourself permission to be as lousy as you can be. Try to write the worst story in the world. Pretend you’re entering the Bulwer-Lytton Contest. Trick yourself into having fun. After a few paragraphs you might find you’ve warmed up enough to keep going.
Ultimately the key is this: You are NOT your writing. If critiques bruise you, if rejections crush you, if an unreceptive reader makes you rage or cry, remember, you are NOT your writing. The ego is a nasty beast and likes to get tangled up in your art. Create, then disengage. Honor your work by opening yourself to feedback. Be willing to change. It’s the only way you can grow, improve, and realize your dreams.
If none of this is remotely helpful to you, and you’re having some other problems too, read through this checklist and see if it isn’t time to seek professional help. It’s a popular myth that writers have to be miserable to write. It’s popular because it’s romantic- yes, it looks like I’m just sitting on my butt with a moleskine in front of me, but what I’m really doing is suffering. It’s not just a lie, it’s a silly lie. Some of us can write despite our misery, but very few of us write because of our misery.
If anyone has any other tips for beating the demon, or have anything else you’d like to add, please drop a note in the confession box.