Writer’s block can be a sign of incipient depression.
by Anne R. Allen
Writer’s block is probably the most popular topic in the writing posts on Medium, the popular new (ish) blogging platform. Lots of Millennials use Medium, and their posts offer an insight into our culture’s future.
I’ve been amazed to see how many young writers consider themselves “blocked.”
I fear it comes from that old adage “write every day”– which is silly. Even the most successful, prolific writers I know don’t work seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. It’s good to remember that even God rested on the seventh day.
I believe that if you have nothing to say, it’s best not to say it.
There is so much pressure right now to turn out endless verbiage that writers aren’t taking time to read, contemplate, and have real experiences to write about.
I was glad to see a post on Medium last Tuesday that finally said exactly that: Living is Part of the Writing Process.
The message, from writer Lindsay Knowles, is a good one: resist that pressure to vomit out pointless words. The world does not need endless piles of derivative prose. It needs fresh, exciting ideas.
Wherever in your consciousness those fresh ideas live–call it your “muse” or your “creativity well” as creativity guru Julia Cameron does–you can’t force those ideas to appear by bullying yourself.
Not only does self-bullying not produce good work. It can be dangerous to your health.
Does Writer’s Block Exist?
Some professional writers claim writer’s block doesn’t exist. They’ll tell you they never have any trouble banging out their daily pages—and laugh at people who do.
William Faulkner said, “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.”
Terry Pratchett—not earning himself any fans in my home state—said, “there’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”
And Renaissance man Steve Martin was even harsher. He said, “writer’s block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol.”
But, um, dudes—if writer’s block doesn’t exist, what is that thing that happens when you sit down to write and your body gets the fidgets, your brain grows fuzz, or you suddenly develop a bad case of narcolepsy?
My mom, who inherited great digestion from her tough Norwegian father, always insisted there was no such thing as heartburn. She’d never felt it personally, so it didn’t exist. I think the above block-mocking writers are using the same empathy-free logic.
Writer’s Block in the E-Age
Last week, the editor of Women On Writing, Angela Macintosh, admitted that she hadn’t been able to write creatively for years. She said,
“I watched my personal, creative writing time diminish. I was freelancing and working on ad copy; and by the end of the day, I had nothing left for creative writing–only writing-related tasks like responding to emails that sucked up the rest of my day.”
She’s describing the Internet age version of writer’s block. It’s not that you can’t write, but that you’re writing too much–on non-creative things.
Speaking from experience, I can tell you it’s very real.
Is it Writer’s Block or Something More Serious?
We have days when the never-used wedding silver screams to be polished, books and DVDs must be alphabetized immediately, and we’re seized by an uncontrollable desire to make hand-dipped truffles instead of box-mix brownies for the meeting on Friday.
Or we bravely apply derrière to chair, fingers to keyboard, and force ourselves to work through the prescribed hours—only to produce pages of useless verbal manure.
A lot of these cases of what people call “writer’s block,” are simply a case of “writer’s boredom.” You may have got yourself bogged down in the saggy middle of a novel, or you may have written too many blogposts on the same subject. That subject is squeezed dry and you’re ready to say “‘bye Felicia” to that character.
This usually means it’s time for a rethink of the project. After all, if you’re bored with your own work, your audience will be too.
But sometimes your lack of inspiration can be a sign of something else: depression. Because of the prevalence of depression in writers, it’s important to pay attention.
If an episode of writer’s block or boredom can’t be fixed by cutting a few scenes, upping the plot stakes, or changing point of view or topic, look for signs of clinical depression, which may require medical help.
When Writer’s Block is a Sign of Depression
Nancy Andreasen did a famous study of the members of the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop and found 80% of writers surveyed met the formal diagnostic criteria for depression.
And recent research shows the part of the brain used for complex thought is also active in the brains of the clinically depressed. Researchers found evidence that if you spend too much time engaged in intense thinking, your brain can get stuck in thinking/depression mode.
So it’s quite possible that “writer’s block” is the brain’s way of protecting itself from a depressive episode.
I’m not saying that writing is always going to cause depression. In fact writing can often combat mental health issues by taking you out of your repetitive thought patterns into a healthier place.
I’m talking about depression that creeps over you when you’ve been working long hours on a project and you’ve been glued to the screen for weeks. Everything seems pointless. Your body feels like dead weight. You’re drained of all motivation.
Unfortunately, we live in a society that increasingly expects us to push ourselves to the point of exhaustion. Fewer workers are expected to produce more and more product. Many of us are compelled to take several jobs, work ridiculously long hours, and tough out illnesses without a break.
A quick Google search will turn up a “boot camp” for everything from food bloggers to hip-hop street dancers. Everybody’s expected to blog, Tweet, Pin, Instagram and Facebook as well as work on our creative projects.
We live in a 24/7 age of more-is-better, feel-the-burn, and sleep-when-you’re-dead.
Don’t Bully Your Muse
But here’s the thing: you can’t bully the creative process. Your muse will simply disappear. The well will run dry.
And—whether you call that writer’s block, boredom, or being an untalented, drunken Californian—if those researchers are right, it’s not such a bad thing.
So instead of worrying about being “blocked,” why not embrace the experience?
Send your muse on vacation. Decide not to write for a week. Writing uninspired dreck is not going to further your career, so unless you’ve got a publisher who needs that piece last week, why not forget about writing for a few days?
A visit to the here and now can be pretty healthy for those of us who spend most of our time in imaginary worlds.
Allowing yourself downtime for a few days might be what your brain needs to fight off that looming depression. Let your creativity re-charge its batteries.
14 Things to Do to “Fill the Well.”
Science has proved that unplugging from technology improves your overall health, allows you to sleep better, and improves your mood. Here’s a piece on 5 ways unplugging can improve your health.
If your writer’s block takes you to social media, where you lose three hours to political cartoons and snarky diatribes, stop. Unplug. You’re only making things worse. That screen is sucking the creativity out of you.
2) Take your characters out for some retail therapy.
I love to shop for my characters. Sometimes I look for stuff in real stores. Or I use magazines, catalogues, or surf around online. And it doesn’t cost a thing.
Choosing my characters’ cars is one of my most important rituals when I’m working on a new novel. I usually find a photo and keep it in a folder. Recently I’ve pinned some to the book’s pages at Pinterest.
3) Read, read, read.
Stephen King says writers should spend as much time reading as writing. If the book is great, maybe it will inspire you, and if it’s bad, you’ll love that “I can do better” feeling.
4) Go ahead—polish the silverware.
Dip those truffles and polish that antique gravy boat. Repetitive, mindless tasks can be good for the soul. At least all those monks seem to think so.
5) Clean out the clutter.
Sometimes taking the time to clean out a closet or file drawer can also clear the cobwebs from your brain.
Play in the dirt. Literally ground yourself.
Doing something really basic to nurture yourself can do wonders. I like to make soups and stews. Other writers I know like to bake. Do whatever is fun and feels like taking care of yourself.
8) Try another medium.
I had a “blocked writer” friend who got so frustrated, she went out and took a painting class. She turned out to be a much better painter than writer—and started selling her work after only a year. Try to do that after taking one writing class!
9) Change the scenery.
Go for a walk, sit in a café—or hop on a bus. Busses are packed with fiction-fuel.
Go listen to some. Preferably live. Not as background for chatter, but really listen. Or make some yourself.
Walk, run, dance, bike. Do the hokey-pokey.
12) Or the hanky-panky.
Sex is good too.
13) Lie on a beach
Or climb a mountain, sail, ski, or whatever. Literally take a vacation. The important thing is to set a prescribed amount of time off and plan to get back to work when you return. Chances are good that you’ll approach the old project with new ideas and new enthusiasm.
14) Take a nap!
This is an addition from Ruth Harris. It’s so important, it shouldn’t be left out. We’re all sleep deprived these days, and it can lead to disaster. We need sleep for healthy brain function as well as physical health.
NOTE: This post is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical care if you have clinical depression. If your depression persists, do get medical help. I battle depression myself and I can say conclusively that medical intervention saved my life.
What about you, scriveners? Have you ever had the symptoms of writer’s block? What did you do to fight it? Do you battle with depression like so many of us? Do you feel depressed when you’ve been working too many hours on a project?
The next Camilla mystery will debut in August. And here’s the fabulous cover, designed by Keri Knutson of Alchemy Book Covers and Designs.
The Queen of Staves: The Camilla Randall Mysteries #6
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