Editor’s Note: this is a guest post by Kelly Gurnett of Cordelia Calls It Quits.
Writing is hard enough when you’re feeling well and everything is going okay. But if you suffer from a mental illness like I do, everything in your life, including your writing, can get that much harder.
I’m bipolar (also known as “manic depressive”): a disorder which means that I cycle through periods of very high energy and productivity (the “manic” phases) and periods when I feel very down and find it hard to do anything (the “depressive” phases). I’m currently on medication to help manage these mood swings, and I’ve learned how to recognize and get through them, but I still have my good times and my bad times. It can make everyday things like getting up and going to work feel overwhelming.
Some days it just feels impossible. And not being able to write only makes me feel that much worse.
And I know I’m not alone in this. Mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and depression are more common than you may realize, and they can be especially hard on writers because we have a tendency to internalize and (over)analyze our experiences. So I wanted to share some tips and tricks I’ve developed over the years to help me keep in touch with my writing when I’m going through a rough patch. I hope they can help you, too, to stay connected with your love for writing even when times get tough.
Disclaimer #1: There Is Nothing “The Matter” With You
Before anything else, I feel compelled to say: there is nothing “wrong” with you if you suffer from a mental illness. Let me repeat that: There is nothing wrong with you. When I came out to my readers about my BP, I was adamant about this.
You are not weak, you are not defective, and you are perfectly capable of doing whatever you want to in life. Everyone has something that they’re struggling with. You just have to learn to manage and live with your particular issues. It can be done. Don’t let your illness hold you back.
Disclaimer #2: Please, Ask for Help
Part of learning to live with a mental illness is making sure you get the proper medical treatment. Mental illness is just a chemical imbalance in the brain, and there’s no shame in using medication to set this imbalance right again. There are also some great counselors and therapists out there who can help you learn to recognize your symptoms and how to deal with things when they get rough. Don’t think you have to go it alone. It’s okay to ask for help.
How to Keep Writing When Times Get Tough
These tips a geared towards people with depression and other mental illnesses, but they can also be applied to any rough period in your life that distracts you from your writing or makes writing difficult. Life isn’t easy, and neither is writing. The trick is in learning how to keep going in spite of that.
Here’s how I’ve learned to keep my writing alive when my BP symptoms get bad:
Take advantage of the times when you’re “on.” We all have those days, when the words just keep flowing and we can’t type (or scribble) fast enough. When I hit a rare sweet spot like that, I do everything I can to use it for all it’s worth. I let other things (like chores) slide. I try to get as much as I can out before the magic wears off. The extra writing counterbalances those times when the words just aren’t coming.
Stockpile for the times when you’re “off.” This is particularly helpful if you run a blog and want to keep to a regular posting schedule. I try to keep a running collection of posts ready to go for the times when I’m not able to come up with something fresh.
Work with what you’ve already got. Sometimes when I’m in a low phase and can’t bring myself to write, I find that going back over things I’ve already written is a good alternative. Rereading and editing old drafts sometimes sparks an idea that gets me writing again. Or, I may just spend some time rereading and editing. Either way, it helps because I still feel like I’m “doing something” to work on my writing.
Do something little. Tweak some dialogue that hasn’t been working. Sketch out an idea for a new scene. Read an article on the topic you’re writing about. You don’t have to be actively writing to still be working on your writing. Some days, the words just won’t come. That’s okay Just do what you can, however small it is.
Write about your struggles. If you can’t work on your normal projects, try writing about what you’re going through. You don’t have to share it with anyone if you’re not comfortable with that–you could just write a journal entry or a letter to yourself. As any writer knows, putting something into words has a special power—it helps you understand it better, work through it, comes to terms with it…or, if nothing else, it can feel better just to get it out on paper.
Mental illness especially is a disorder often suffered in silence. Sharing it, even if only with the page in front of you, can give you a grasp on it and a power over it that can help you cope with what you’re going through.
Just write, even if it sucks. Along the lines of the previous sentiment, you don’t have to always feel brilliant and on fire when you’re writing. (In fact, any writer can tell you that you very rarely ever do.) The point is just to keep writing.
Julie Fast, author of the book Get It Done When You’re Depressed, said in an interview at The Renegade Writer that “What’s amazing is that I can’t tell the difference between my writing when I’m depressed and my writing when I am well. Now, the process is horrible. The difference between what you’re doing when you are depressed versus when you’re well feels terrible, but the outcome — you can’t tell the difference.”
Lower expectations (or get rid of them altogether). There’s plenty of writing advice out there that says the best thing to do when you’re having trouble writing is to set goals for yourself to get yourself moving: “I’m going to write for half an hour” or “I’m going to finish this one scene.”
If having concrete goals like that helps you, then by all means, keep using them. But for me, I find that when I’m going through a bad patch, setting strict expectations for myself only makes things harder. It puts me under too much pressure and the goals seem overwhelming. Plus I’m really hard on myself when I inevitably fall short of them. So I don’t set myself any goals. I let my efforts be what they are and don’t judge them by any criteria. No writing, crappy writing, tiny little bit of writing—it’s all okay.
Finally, take it easy on yourself. Some days, it’s just not gonna happen. All the tricks and tips in the world won’t do it for you when you can barely get out of bed in the morning. Sometimes you have to operate on “energy saver” mode, getting the bare minimum done and leaving it at that. It’s okay. Life happens. Illness happens. You have to take care of yourself first. Your writing will be there for you when you’re feeling better again.
A Final Note From Cordelia
If you’re currently struggling with a mental illness, I want you to know that I’ve been there (and back again), and I can absolutely, positively tell you that it will be okay. Nearly a decade ago when I was first diagnosed with BP, I thought my life had come to a halt. It took me some time to find the right doctor, the right combination of medication, and the right coping strategies to enable me not only to live with my illness, but to thrive just like anyone else can.
I am thrilled to report that I currently hold down a full-time (rather stressful) job, maintain both a husband and a dog (each a good dose of work), run a blog that’s growing more and more each day, and am in the process of writing a Novel and an eBook. I still have my ups and downs. But they aren’t stopping me, baby, and they don’t have to stop you, either.
Resources On Mental Illness
If you’re interested in learning more about recognizing, treating, and coping with mental illness, here are some resources that I’ve found to be helpful:
Kelly Gurnett, a.k.a. “Cordelia,” runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and encourages others to do the same. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook or send her an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you struggle with depression or another mental illness that interferes with your writing? (Or any other personal situation that makes writing difficult?) How have you learned to deal with it? What tips or tricks would you recommend? Please share with us in the comments below!
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