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Content note: this letter and the response talk in some detail about depression and strong self-critical thoughts.
Dear Story Nurse:
Over the course of many years, in fits and starts, I wrote a novel (actually two but the first was pretty bad!), got an agent, and got myself published last year. The reviews were positive, even the meanies at Kirkus, although I did not get any of those starred reviews that publishing houses seem to live and die by. But nobody was mean to me or anything. The sales were low, but those who did read it seemed to enjoy what I wrote. Some hated it, of course, but others really loved it and even took the time to let me know. The publisher declined the option on my next, but I have a wonderful agent who continues to support me wholeheartedly.
So. In that paragraph I can count roughly a half dozen events that many struggling writers would kill to have happen to them. There are, as Captain Sensible would say, many reasons to be cheerful. And yet I’m not. I feel like a failure.
I never deluded myself about bestsellers or Oprah’s book club or whathaveyou. I actually work in a different type of publishing for my day job, so I have a pretty realistic understanding of how difficult the business is. I had no illusions (or even desire, really) about supporting myself through fiction. And yet there’s this tremendous sense of disappointment and I don’t even know why. I mean, what did I expect? I expected what happened, more or less. And yet I feel like a fuck-up in some way I can’t even explain.
The real problem is that this depression (I guess that’s what it is?) is standing in the way of my ability to finish the next thing. I have two new books started. I have an agent who would love to have something else to sell. And yet I hate everything I write these days and find myself wondering about the point of it all.
What’s more, I’m totally embarrassed by the whole situation. I know that good books get ignored all the time. I know I have many more reasons to be grateful and proud than I do reasons to be unhappy. But knowing it doesn’t seem to help. I can’t seem to Stewart Smalley my way out of this one.
My question is, how do I stop being such a baby and get back to work?
—Captain Insensible (she/her)
Dear Captain Insensible,
I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time right now. I’m very glad you wrote in, because it means that you want to feel better, and wanting to feel better is a crucial first step toward getting better.
In my personal experience with depression (in myself and others), there are often multiple self-referential layers to it. It sounds like you’ve got a fair bit of that going on. You feel depressed, but you feel like you shouldn’t because everything in your writing life is going well by some pseudo-objective standard, and so you judge yourself for having the wrong feelings. And then perhaps you think that you shouldn’t invalidate feelings, so you judge yourself for judging yourself. When you’re in that judgmental mode, you feel like you’re pushing back against the spiral, but calling yourself names and yelling at yourself for not being happier are symptoms of the depression, not treatments for it. If you weren’t judging your unhappiness by imagining writers who’d kill to be where you are, you’d be judging your achievements by imagining your failure to catch up to writers who’ve achieved more. Maybe you’re doing both. The self-critical thoughts aren’t about reality; they’re about your depression rummaging about in your insecurities and finding the most effective club to knock you around with.
Instead of either continuing along that downward spiral or trying to work your way back up it, I invite you to rise above it and embrace yourself with love and compassion. For whatever reason or combination of reasons, you’re having a hard time right now. It sucks to be having a hard time. It’s okay to be sad that you’re having a hard time, and that it’s keeping you from writing—which, all commercial considerations aside, is presumably an activity that you enjoy. It’s okay to accept that that you aren’t feeling the way you want or expect to feel. It’s okay to be startled and disconcerted that you thought you’d kept your goals and expectations modest, only to find yourself really disappointed by where you currently are in your writing career. It’s okay to be angry and frustrated with how you feel, and with your inability to bootstrap yourself out of it. By “it’s okay” I don’t mean “look on the bright side” or “quit whining” or “accept that this is how it will be forever”; I mean “take stock of your status without laying a judgment on it.” You can’t get better until you deep-down accept that you are where you are.
The way you feel isn’t a rational response to a defined situation, and can’t be evaluated on that basis. Feelings don’t stay contained and orderly. Some of your feelings may not even be about your writing, but may stem from your history, something else that’s going on in your life right now, a neurochemical or hormonal or other physiological issue, or a reaction to food or medication or something else in your immediate environment. (Whenever I eat dairy products, I get a 24-hour “hangover” of sustained gloom where I feel like everything in life is pointless. True story.) You are a unique person, a unique collection of goals and hopes and fears and stresses and experiences. There is no objective standard by which any of that can be evaluated. All those shoulds are based on the false premise that there is only one acceptable way to exist in the world. As much as you can, let go of that. You are who you are. You’re allowed to be who you are.
The extent to which I can help you is pretty limited, because depression is such a tricky beast with so many possible etiologies. I encourage you to seek professional support in wrestling with it. Psychoanalysis with an understanding and supportive therapist (who is himself a writer) has been absolutely invaluable for me with regard to my writing; I didn’t even realize how complicated and conflicted I felt about it until my therapist and I began digging into my history and feelings. Since I started really working on that, my ease and comfort with writing have gotten a tremendous boost. So if you’re able to do so, please look into this. You may also want to talk with a doctor about investigating physiological causes and/or medicinal treatments.
Don’t believe any nonsense about depression making people more creative. As you’re experiencing, depression is far more likely to get in your way. Likewise, the appropriate treatment for depression will ideally help you access your creativity. Of course the only person who can decide what’s appropriate for you is you.
Personal and professional support matter a lot too. Lean on your loved ones and your friends. If you feel comfortable letting your agent know what’s going on with you, that’s probably a good idea; if you’d rather not get into specifics, you can leave it at “I’m unwell and it’s slowing down my writing/I’m unable to write at the moment.” Setting accurate expectations there will take some of the pressure off of you and give you more breathing room to sort out what’s going on and how to treat it. If the depression is affecting your day job too, consider having a similar conversation with your boss, if that feels like a thing you can do safely. (Unfortunately mental illness stigma is still a real thing, though it’s not nearly as bad as it used to be.)
Take care of yourself as much as you can. The basics are safety, food, water, sleep, hygiene, medication and other medical care, and movement; specifics are obviously very individual, so see if you can put together a general list of what self-care in those areas looks like for you, while cutting yourself plenty of slack if you can’t always get a good night’s sleep or take a shower or leave the house for your daily walk. With regard to writing, self-care might mean writing less or not at all, writing in a different mode or genre, or writing in a different place or by different means. You’ll probably need to experiment to find the best ways for you to relate to writing at the moment. Since so much of your depression is tied up in writing, and particularly in commercial writing, please be gentle with yourself as you explore this. Take my site’s tagline literally; you and writing are in a relationship, and depression can really strain relationships. As much as you’re able to, stay focused on your love for writing, on writing in ways that feel good to you and help you heal, on finding and holding onto the thread that brings you back to writing again and again. If you need to take some time away from it, that’s okay too, and is certainly better than trying to force yourself to write if that part of you is currently inaccessible. I promise you’ll be able to come back to it. Unlike a living person, writing is endlessly patient. It will wait for you, for as long as you need.
Something is wrong for you, but there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you. Just as catching a cold doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with the shape of your nose, having depression doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you as a person. And just as catching a cold doesn’t mean you’re at fault for putting yourself in the way of those germs, having depression doesn’t mean you’re at fault for thinking or feeling the way you do. You have an ailment, a brain-cold. I hope that you can find the right combination of self-care and external assistance to bring yourself through it and get back to the writing you love.
Best wishes for happy future writing,