Depression in Writers

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe

This article is by Nicola Stretton.

It’s not easy being a writer at the best of times. But when you’re suffering from depression it can be a lot worse.

Most writers are plagued by negative thoughts such as ‘I’m not good enough’ and ‘Everything I write is terrible’. Then there are the days when you can’t muster up the energy to write anything at all. That’s when those negative voices step up a level: ‘How can you call yourself a writer? You can’t even write.’

These internal monologues affect most, if not all, writers from time to time. Self-doubt is a part of being human. But when it starts to take over your life, it will make a negative impact on your writing and maybe even force you to give up completely. You may well be depressed. Some examples of depressed thinking include always believing the worst and telling yourself such extreme things as the examples below. Do any of these sound familiar?

“If no-one will publish my short story, I’ll never write anything again.”

“I’ll never be as good as J.K. Rowling/Sophie Kinsella/Shakespeare, so why even bother trying?”

“I’ve got writer’s block – now I won’t be able to earn a living, feed the children or pay the mortgage, and we’ll end up living on the streets!”

“Everyone would hate my book anyway, so there’s no point in continuing with it.”

“I’m such a loser.”

You’re in Good Company

No-one really knows why, but creative types do tend to be more susceptible to mental illness than other people. Just think of the old stereotypes of the alcoholic writer and the tortured artist. Many famous authors, poets and painters were depressed. When you think of yourself as in the company of Hemingway, Keats, Proust and Van Gogh, it almost makes depression seem glamorous, or a necessary part of creativity. However, consider this quote from American writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49):

“I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.”

So, why do writers seem more prone to depression than your Average Joe? Maybe it’s because writing is such a solitary pursuit, with little chance to socialise. Maybe it’s the lack of exercise and natural light. It could be a lack of steady income – not knowing where the next meal is coming from. And a large part of success in writing relies on the approval of others – editors, publishers etc. If they don’t like your work, you don’t get published. The list goes on and on.

Am I Depressed?

Symptoms of depression include a feeling of emptiness or hopelessness. You could feel an overwhelming tiredness and nothing can interest you anymore – not even things you used to love doing. You can’t find any point to, or pleasure in, everyday activities. You don’t bother seeing your friends. You might lose your appetite or find that you overeat. You may, like Allan Poe, have a sense of ‘impending doom’. Some days even getting out of bed can be a struggle, and you might even feel that life is not worth living. If you suffer from some or all of these symptoms for an extended period of time (weeks, months or years), you are most likely depressed.

Take Action

Whether you’re just feeling slightly down about your writing ability at the moment, or suspect you might have full-blown depression, now is the time to take control of your emotions and do something to change your situation. You may feel helpless right now, but you are not. Below are five tricks to get you on the road to beating depression and back into the writing groove.

Make sure you get some kind of exercise every day. Most writers lead a sedentary life with little opportunity to work up a sweat (no, worrying about a deadline doesn’t count). Exercise releases endorphins in the body and brain, causing you to feel good about yourself. Take your exercise outside and you’ll also benefit from the sunlight on your skin. Even a twenty-minute walk in the fresh air before settling down to write can help to kick-start your creativity.   

Take a writing course. This will achieve two things: It will get you out of the house and socialising with other people, curtailing that feeling of loneliness felt by so many writers, and will give you the kick up the backside you need to start writing again. If you can’t afford to pay for a course, join an online writing group – you’ll meet writers from all over the world and the support you will receive is amazing.

Replace negative thoughts with positive ones. Stop those nasty, unhelpful thoughts in their tracks. Change the record in your head. Tell yourself how talented you are. Scribble some positive mantras and inspirational quotes onto Post-It notes and stick them anywhere you will see them – the fridge, the bathroom mirror, around your computer screen, on your dog. You probably won’t need to do this last one as, chances are, Rover already thinks you’re the most amazing being on the planet anyway. Try seeing yourself through his eyes.

Talk about your problem. Never feel ashamed to admit that you’re suffering. Mental illness doesn’t have the stigma attached to it that it used to, and this is because of people speaking out about it. So talk to a trusted friend or family member, or see your GP. He can refer you to a counsellor who will understand exactly what you’re going through and be qualified to give helpful advice and support. They may suggest putting you on antidepressants, but you never know, you might find that you just needed someone to listen to you.

And last of all…

Write! Push on through negative feelings about what a failure you are and prove your demons wrong. You’ll feel such a sense of achievement when you finish that article or short story. Even if you really don’t feel like writing, tell yourself you’ll just do ten minutes. This could well turn into an hour or more. If you think you have writers block, try writing about how you’re feeling – writing can be as effective as therapy. Get your feelings down on paper (no-one else has to see what you’ve written if you don’t want them to). You’ll feel as though a weight has been lifted from your shoulders.

About the Author:

Nicola is a full-time writer from the UK. She loves to travel and write about the many different countries she visits.

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17 thoughts on “Depression in Writers”

  1. The best way to get around this problem imo is socialising. Granted it’s extremely hard once solitude starts to grow, but unless you need psychological/psychiatric therapy, this is the most direct cure. I don’t know if I can call myself fortunate, but it seems that a decade plus of being somewhat a social exile made me into an aspiring writer of sorts. I do have friends, but writing is the first thing that gave me joy. So far so good, the only weird thing about me is the fact that I tend to talk and smile to myself at times due to an inability to control my thoughts and emotions.
    But still, this article managed to impose a sombre feeling in me. I think the best example of a wrecked creative genius would be H.P Lovecraft where he had pretty much spent his entire life in depression and struggles. If any of us can take scant comfort from the whole thing, I think we need to ask ourselves this: are we better off than H.P Lovecraft or equally worse off?

  2. I’ve heard of the link between we creative types and mental illness before. It seems very likely that the “gift” of being able to write and depression or any other mental illness, seems to come from the same region of the brain. Sad to say, I have met my share of writers who suffer from some sort of mental illness or another. 

  3. Your suggestions are so much easier said than done. I find it very difficult to step away from the self-critical thoughts that go through my head. Honestly, I think they make me a better writer.

  4. This article really struck a chord in me.  So many times writing is incredibly challenging against the pressure of my “This is crap” thoughts.  I just have to keep writing, try not to worry about the quality, and go back to edit later.  Thank you for your suggestions; I will try them.

  5. I am curious if you have any statistics to back up the claim that “most writers are plagued by negative thoughts”?  I am not like that and believe I have a healthy self-esteem level.  I know quite a number of writers and out of all of them, only one fits this description.

  6. I don’t think that depression is any different or any more prevalent with writers than with any other segment of the population.  If someone has self-esteem or depression issues, they’ll think they are not good enough no matter what occupation they are in.

  7. Great post. This is a subject every writer should be aware of at some point. I’ve found myself on the brink of insanity quite a few times. 🙂

  8. Writing does help work through depressing thoughts and sorting what is important from what is nonessential. I’ve also gone through periods when the writing itself was depressing for me, but that was because I was living the life of the person I was fleshing out.

  9. Your use of Poe here in the illustration comes with an added bonus. If I ever for even one day feel depression coming on, thinking about the life Poe led reminds me instantly of how bright my days are. All his life, Poe says, was “midnight dreary.” In comparison, mine is all sunshine and light.

  10. I recognise these symptoms and more. What about the manic ups as well as the downs, when you feel as though everything you write is wonderful, unique, special and will be hugely successful? The self doubt that follows this feeling is such a downer! Luckily I have a good support group.

  11. Fantastic atricle, and relevant too! I wish I could say I don’t relate to this, but it’s the story of about half my writing life (can’t forget the good bits either!) I have to admit to being leery about taking some of your advice, like telling myself how “talented I am” – I may be talented, and I’d like to be talented, but if I’m not the last thing I want to be is a pretentious hack! 😉 I write, first and foremost, because I love to write, and I need to write.

    In the end it comes down to believing in what’s inside you. If the subject you want to write about is important to you, you need to consider your mission to share it with the world. Maybe the first draft will totally fail to bring your inner vision to light, but I feel that if the subject you’re writing about is important to you, honestly, deeply, truthfully, it deserves to be written about. You just need to give it the best justice you can. We may feel we don’t deserve to sometimes. But remember – if you don’t write about it, who will?

  12. This is a timely article for me, as I’ve been dealing with some minor feelings of depression myself, doubting as it were whether a month’s worth of writing achieved anything at all. Some methods I use is to rant in my journal about how miserable I am and sing angry songs at the top of my lungs. Some people might consider it wallowing, but I use this to get it all out of my system. If I can summon the energy to work myself into a good misery, I can usually summon the energy to get writing, plus I might be able to channel all these emotions into my characters. However, I don’t recommend this method for anyone suffering from extreme depression. It’s just my own way of getting out of a bad mood.
    Thanks again for the article. I think it’s good that you pointed out that depression shouldn’t be glamorized, but it also shouldn’t be underestimated, either. The Edgar Allen Poe quote was very revealing. Thanks for all your effort.

  13. I have to subscribe wholeheartedly to “exercise daily!”  I find two things contribute strongly to a better state of mind as a writer: 1) exercise a LOT and 2) write every day.  If I write, I feel like I’ve justified my existence somehow.  The gods are keeping score on my word count or something.  And exercise keeps the blues away!  Even when I sprained my MCL at roller derby practice, I kept doing ab work–my waistline never looked so good!–and upper body stuff.  Not kidding about this. Exercise. Don’t tell yourself you’re too fat or too far gone or too old. THERE IS something you can do!  Get into a swimming pool and bob around for an hour.  Something.

  14. Wonderful post. Thank you for sharing this. I have bad depression, especially in the winter time, and I struggle so hard to conquer it so I can write. It’s funny, but the less I write, the worse I feel, and the worse I feel, the less I can write. A horrible Catch-22, to be sure. One of the best things I did this season was get this book (no connection to the author or the book, it just helped me): The author suffers from depression herself, so sometimes just reading about her experiences and knowing I’m not alone was really helpful. 🙂 Hope it helps someone else out there. Once again, thank you for raising awareness on this!

  15. Good points, Nicola.  Until recently, I’d have been critical of the idea that writers can get depressed easily.  Now, with my own experiences and the stories I’ve heard from new aquaintances, I see that there is some truth to this notion.

    I really liked the ‘Do any of these sound familiar’ points.  I know I can relate to those, and I feel that many other writers can too.

    Thanks for the helpful tone you took with this article!

    • I think writing is by nature a solitary activity, and often one that entails us giving a lot of ourselves. The constant focus on visible achievement (or not) can be hard to take. This article is very helpful and a must read for people at all stages of their writing career. Thanks.


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