Writing and Creative Depression

by | Jul 31, 2018

Depression may seem like a dark topic during the summer, but I’ve noticed it can arise anytime of year, regardless of the circumstances. Sometimes it’s good to take a peek at the dark stuff when we have a lot of access to the light.

At times, dark moods seem to have a magnetic attraction for writers. We hang out in our own minds a lot and our imaginations can run wild and wreak havoc. When the wildness serves us well, for example, by fueling a compulsion to get a whole story down in one fell swoop, the energy can be exhilarating, but when creative energy gets misused, say, by internally hurling harsh judgments at ourselves for not accomplishing a particular goal, or just generally unleashing a slew of “not good enough” arrows our way, the wild energy can be debilitating or even paralyzing. This can lead to feelings of depression.

A lot has been said and written about depression, and I’m by no means throwing my hat in that ring. Rather, I’m speaking about a kind of recurring or persistent, self-defeating depression that tends to afflict many writers and other creative people. (It’s also different from moods brought on by situational grief, loss, or stress.) It’s the kind of depression that your mind says you have no legitimate right to feel, not really, and yet, there it is. You feel it. You can’t really explain it. (In fact, trying to often makes it worse.)

Such creative depression sneaks up on many writers and, in some cases, leads to weeks, months, or years of writer’s block. My friend and mentor, Eric Maisel tracks this type of depression back to a crisis of meaning, and he writes about it elegantly and insightfully in his book The Van Gogh Blues, which I highly recommend to all creative people.

When we care about something deeply, depression has a tendency to link to it. If we care about love and partnership but haven’t yet met someone to share life with, depression can link to all things related to love and partners. If we care about creative success but haven’t yet achieved it in the ways we’ve been aiming for, depression can cling to everything related to creativity. If we care about health and vitality but find ourselves struggling with physical limitations or pain, whether chronic or temporary, depression can drive us to despair, which augments the initial suffering.

The very word “depression” tells us something is being held down. It’s often our well being and resilience, as well as the deep connection to what we care about. We’re at the mercy of a shadow blocking out the light. But shadows don’t exist without light, and so if we can rediscover the ray of hopeful light that emanated from our first innocent care—and we might find some heartbreak there, the crack that let’s the dark in—we can begin to tap into a healing power. That deep care, what we love, is the source of our light.

Reconnecting to the healing power of what we love and care about may take some hunting in the dark. It might not be pretty. Disappointment, dissatisfaction, regret, and bottomless longing can all be part of a writer’s life, and these states lay fertile soil for depression to take root. (Plus there’s plenty going on in the world to add compost to that soil.)

But under it all lies something compelling that once called us forward: the sweet joy of connecting authentically with another person; the wild abandon experienced in the act of making art; the sense of empowerment felt while dancing, running, or cart-wheeling through life. We may not be able to recreate the exact circumstances as that first innocent care, but we must try to tap into the source of whatever inspired us in the first place and reclaim it as part of who we are now. Because we contain all the selves we have already been and they feed the outer edges of the self we are still in the process of becoming, and that should never be held down.

When creative depression hits, dig deep into the roots of what you care about until you find the light. Summer is a time of blooming, warmth, and light; it leads to autumn’s harvest, which then provides nourishment through winter until spring returns. If depression has snuck its way into the margins of your summer, be kind to yourself, reach out and talk to a friend, or write into the places that feel dark or scary, but if depression persists, don’t hesitate to talk to a doctor or therapist.

Enjoy the rest of your summer!


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