by Patty Somlo
From my experience, depression results from denying feelings,
such as sadness and anger.
Writers have to walk a tightrope between hope and acceptance, success and rejection.
Every writer, no matter how well-published, good or experienced, will have work rejected or reviewed negatively.
I follow one of my former creative writing teachers on Facebook. She has published many books and won numerous awards. I was surprised one day when she posted that she had been rejected by a respected literary journal again and had decided it would be better to stop submitting there, as the journal was never going to accept her work.
Most Respected Writers Experience Rejection
This said to me that even the most respected writers experience rejection. In order to write and submit your work to journals, agents, publishers and contests, or to have your writing reviewed or try to sell books, you have to hold onto the hope that your writing is good enough, while at the same being prepared for the inevitable rejection or having the work dismissed or ignored.
It’s easy to fall prey to depression as a way to deal with the grief, or even feelings of shame, when you don’t meet with success.
Authors Protect Themselves by Numbing Their Feelings
Depression is sort of a numbing of feelings or checking out. I think authors do this sometimes as a means of self-protection from having to face the message from the world that they aren’t any good.
Writing is a solitary pursuit and depression thrives when no one else is around to refute negative self-talk. It’s so easy to become discouraged and depressed on your own.
Writing is hard and it’s difficult to be objective about the work when you are in the midst of it. Even if you have the support of a writing group, you need to spend a great deal of time alone writing before you share the work with someone else. This time is fertile ground for self-doubt, especially because good writing often requires rounds of revision.
In the meantime, there are always those voices telling you the work is bad.
Another thing is that the muse is fickle.
Some days when you sit down to write, the words flow and you feel wonderful. Other days, the opposite occurs. When that happens, a writer can’t help but wonder if this is the end and no more good work will ever emerge.
Depression and Anxiety are Substitutes for Real Emotions
The first, and most important, way that depression and anxiety are dangerous for an author is that both conditions mask feelings.
In my case, both depression and anxiety are a substitute for real emotions, including anger, fear, sadness and shame. Good writing happens when we can connect words to real feelings and that becomes more difficult when the author is depressed or anxious.
In terms of sabotaging writing and writing goals, anxiety about the work not being good enough or being rejected often contributes to writers giving up.
I once knew a writer who never finished anything. When I pressed her about this, she admitted that not finishing work kept her from having to face being rejected or having her writing negatively criticized.
Anxiety tends to make us fear and dread things that haven’t happened yet and the anxious voice can be very persuasive. If your anxiety is telling you the book you’re working on will not ever be any good or that you won’t find a publisher or an agent or an audience for it, that can make it much easier to stop writing.
Depression Separates You from Yourself and Others
I sometimes think of depression as a gray film that separates you from others and from yourself.
Depression makes it difficult to be fully connected and engaged with the world. The more a writer can be connected with the outside world and herself, the more authentic the work becomes.
How Therapy for Depression Can Help Writers Succeed
The biggest change for me [when I realized I was suffering from depression] was that I “lightened up.”
Prior to going to therapy, learning that I suffered from depression and anxiety, and working to heal, much of what I wrote was, frankly, depressing.
After healing some and making positive changes in my life, I still wrote about serious subjects but with a great deal more humor and insight.
In terms of my writing practice, the biggest change for me was being able to more easily accept criticism of my work, which helped me learn to revise. Previously, I found it difficult to make changes in my life. Having learned how to do that, I was also able to improve my writing through revision.
Even more important, I felt more confident about writing, knowing that even if a story or essay or book wasn’t where I wanted it to be at that moment, I would eventually be able to shape it the way I wanted.
Finally, healing my depression, I learned my real life story, instead of the versions I had told myself over the years. This helped me write more honestly, both in memoir writing, as well as in creating more believable characters in fiction.
Why I Wrote About Healing Depression
I knew that I wanted to write about my long search for a place I could call home, as a result of growing up in a military family that moved constantly.
Having to pick up and move at a moment’s notice when I was a child contributed to my depression and anxiety.
So, I understood that telling the story and talking about the importance of place in my life, and especially the importance of beautiful places in nature, also meant writing about healing depression.
It helped me in the sense that writing has always been an important way I have dealt with depression. Even before going to therapy and learning that my low moods were more than just temporary downturns, writing always made me feel better.
But in terms of how it helped me, depression is such a complicated web of accepted negative beliefs, past hurts that haven’t been grieved, and wounds that are easily reopened. Writing about it enabled me to dive deeper into the web and provided more clarity about myself and my life.
In my case, the depression and anxiety have also been fueled by low self-esteem and shame. Writing about aspects of myself and my life that I have felt I needed to hide helped me realize that I had nothing to be ashamed about.
Of course, that was also the difficult part. We are still not a society that accepts mental health issues as legitimate health concerns, rather than individual weakness or something to hide.
I want to be a positive force in changing those perceptions by writing about my situation. But at the same time, it is hard.
Needing to be Alone to Write, but then Getting Depressed Alone
May Sarton, the author I wrote about in the chapter of the book called “Starlight,” wrote movingly and honestly about her depression in the journals she published later in her life.
In particular, in Journal of a Solitude, she focused on the difficulties of being a woman writer and how some of this intersected with depression.
This is my absolute favorite book and the first time I read it, I completely identified with Sarton. One of the important aspects of healing depression through therapy is that you feel heard, and that whatever you are feeling is okay.
Depression, on the other hand, results from being told or assuming that your feelings of anger, sadness or shame are not acceptable, so you have to push those feelings down.
Reading Sarton, I saw another writer experiencing much of what I experienced, such as liking and needing to be alone to write, but then getting depressed alone. Somehow, this validated my feelings and the struggles I have had as a woman trying to continue writing.
What if You’re a Writer Experiencing Depression?
First, I think it’s very important to have a regular writing practice, preferably at the same time every day.
I recommend early in the morning, since other commitments can’t interfere with this time. Writing every day helps even out the ups and downs of writing. There will be bad days, of course, but when you write every day, you are bound to have many more good days.
Second, I recommend finishing work. This might require imagining a person in your head who responds to the voice that will inevitably come up telling you the piece is no good and you should abandon it.
Third, I think it’s important to have goals for the work, such as people you’re going to share it with or places you will try to publish it. Taking your work seriously that way will help push you to revise and make the work the best it can be.
It’s important to find ways to get both positive and constructive feedback about the writing, to improve it and also to reward your hard work and let you know that your efforts have paid off.
Writing is a solitary practice but sharing the work can help a writer feel that she is on the right track and provide her with feedback to make the work shine.
Depressed Writers Benefit Can Benefit from Therapy
I would, of course, recommend therapy for anyone suffering from depression and anxiety.
Especially for writers who tend to be rather solitary people, having a trained, caring person to listen and help you go deep and discover the roots of the depression and anxiety, as well as your potential for healing, can make a huge difference.
For both depression and anxiety, but especially for anxiety, meditation and mindfulness can also be really helpful. Yoga is wonderful for easing anxiety—not to mention, helping to relieve aches from sitting and writing for long periods of time.
The nice thing is that therapy and mindfulness practices will also deepen the writing. As I became more self-aware, I think I was better able to develop believable, three-dimensional characters, and my work had more emotional depth.
(Read more about Patty and her work on her previous wellness post and in her piece, “Writing About the Pieces of Ourselves that We Leave Behind.”)
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Patty Somlo has received four Pushcart Prize nominations, been nominated for storySouth Million Writers Award and had an essay selected as a Notable Essay of 2013 for Best American Essays 2014. Her second book, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil), was a Finalist in the Fiction: Short Story category of the 2016 International Book Awards.
Her work has appeared in journals, including the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, Under the Sun, Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, and WomenArts Quarterly, and numerous anthologies. She has two forthcoming books: a memoir, Even When Trapped Behind Clouds (WiDo Publishing), and Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing).
Even When Trapped Behind Clouds (A Memoir of Quiet Grace): The daughter of an often-absent career Air Force officer and a depressed alcoholic mother, Patty Somlo grows up constantly on the move. She learns to let go of homes, favorite beaches, familiar places, and friends by never holding on too tightly. Incapable of finding a permanent home, developing committed, long-term relationships, or even learning to drive, Somlo continues through adulthood adrift. And then one day she crashes into what would later be diagnosed as depression.
From the lush tropical paradise of Hawaii to fog-shrouded San Francisco and the rugged, wind-swept Washington coast, Somlo explores the places she has lived in order to find her way back home. In this intimate work, she takes us through wrenching therapy sessions where she learns to use the breath to uncover buried anger, sadness and shame. We go along as she falls in love, overcomes a decades-long phobia of driving, and gradually discovers how to make a home. Most important, she shares with us her deep love of nature and the role it has played in helping her heal.
Often funny and deeply moving, this is both a beautifully written, lyrical, personal memoir, and an honest exploration of the challenges and possibilities for psychological healing through the places in our lives.