Monday, 14 October 2013

Writers and Depression

...Writers and Depression, go together like a horse and carriage. Apparently. Even if they don't rhyme very well.

Agatha Christie had it. Charles Dickens had it. So did Mark Twain, Will Self, David Foster Wallace and Evelyn Waugh. Sylvia Plath quite obviously had it. And that's just a few random names, off the top of my head.

And, if we're 'outing' members of The Sad Writers' Club here, I may as well add my own name to this list (even if that does make me look like I'm doing the literary equivalent of photobombing the Actually Properly Famous Writers' portrait session.) All of which is pretty compelling evidence that this a Real Thing.

But... does that make it a Necessary Thing?

Like the popular myth that famously drunk writers like Hemingway could not have been the writers they were without also being drunk (something I touched on in this previous post ) there is another popular mode of thinking that, for famously depressed writers, their depression was the source of their creativity - like some magical misery fountain that poured brilliance on some of their greatest works. Some even go so far as to claim that, had these writers been happy little rays of sunshine instead, many of their best works simply could not have been created.

Now, the myth of the drunk writer is pretty easy to disprove (as anyone who's ever sent a 2am text after ten Flaming Sambuca's will tell you - writer or non-writer.)  There are certain practical obstacles to writing when you're utterly wazzered, i.e. trying to hit the right keys on your keyboard when your dribbling face is in the way, for starters.

But the theories about writers with depression? Much harder to dismiss. Because, unlike drunkenness, many writers with depression are not only still able to physically write as competently while depressed as when they're not, but some even become more productive than usual while the Black Cloud is raining on their heads. Which is handy for them - albeit in a way that's less than ideal, obviously - but where does that leave those of us who aren't yet famous but often have to do battle with depression and other mental health issues? It leaves us with a big question, that's what: 'Will recovering from those mental health issues (and subsequently spending more of our lives that bit happier) also kill our creativity stone dead and leave us unable to write anything decent?'

This fear can be so real it even prevents some writers from getting help for their condition; medication might 'block my creative thoughts,' numbing the mental pain might 'stop me feeling anything anymore.' If you do happen to be one of those people who seems to churn out a ton of stuff when you're in the depths of depression compared to when you're not, that fear will seem even more justified. But, speaking as a writer who's also battled some pretty major mental health issues in the past, I'd like to offer some alternative theories.

My reasons for doing so are simple; I know how rotten depression feels, and I hate to think of other writers out there shunning help and continuing to endure that godawful rottenness just because they're worried it's the only way to hold onto their creativity.

If I look at my own past, and the minor successes I've had, it's tempting to believe that being mentally messed up seems to work a strange magic on my own creative mojo. For instance, I wrote the lyrics for a musical that was performed in Washington, Virginia - and received very good reviews - while I was an outpatient in a psychiatric hospital, recovering from a nervous breakdown.

But then I wrote the lyrics to another one which was also performed - and equally well-received - about a year after I'd recovered from that. Apart from the states of mind I was in when I wrote each of them, the other main difference between the two musicals was the weight of the subject matter - the 'mood' if you like. The one written while I was recovering from the breakdown was a retelling of the Cinderella story; it was a light, frothy comedy fairy tale. The second one, written when I'd recovered, told the story of the Russian tsar Peter The Great - a much darker, grittier tale altogether.

When I also took into consideration some of the short stories and plays I'd written that had been published or performed, I noticed a distinct pattern emerging. In the periods when I'd had mental health problems, the works that had done well were all light, whimsical comedy stuff - while all the works that had done well whilst I was well were much more serious and hard-hitting. It's pretty logical when I think about it; writing dark, heavy stuff when feeling emotionally shitty wouldn't do me any favours at all - I'd need to be able to pull myself out of it afterwards, and I could only do that if I wasn't ill. On the other hand, when I'm in the doldrums of depression, it makes sense that I'd prefer to write things to make people laugh and cheer them up (me included.)

So may be that's a more encouraging answer to the conundrum; it's not how much writers who battle depression write, but rather what they write about depending on whether they're currently on the Light or the Dark Side.

If you too are one of those writers, it may be worth looking at your own work to see if there are patterns depending on your own moods - so that you can work with them and keep your writing flowing no matter how low (or high) you feel. It's got to be better than beating yourself up for being 'unproductive' or 'only productive when you're miserable.'

And if things are really bad, and you know in your heart that taking medication or having some kind of therapy would make your life more bearable - happier, even - then for god's sake go and get it. A writer's life is one of suffering, yes - just ripping those words out of your brain and smooshing them onto the page can be torture in itself sometimes - but that's not the whole of your life. And for the parts of your life that aren't to do with writing - i.e. the rest of it - you deserve to be happy. Yes you do.

You can't write if just simply living is hard for you. In fact, if you are emotionally dragging yourself along the floor on your face day after day right now then screw writing - screw it until you fix that shit.

Live first, write second. You deserve it, and so do all the people who care about you.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Wherefore Art My Writing Mojo?

Writing is flippin' hard sometimes.

Admittedly it's not 'hard' in the same way as, say, going to war or working in an A&E department is hard...

(I see you amazing people there... what's that you're holding? Oh - the world's smallest violin. Okay, well, that's fair enough...)

No - writing-flavoured 'hard' is a different kind of challenge altogether. Not least because, when it is hard, it has this magical ability to make you feel like you have suddenly become the most stupid person in the universe.

I started learning to talk from about... ooh, fourteen months old, according to my mum. I've been doing it ever since - maybe not as much as more extrovert people, but even when I was shrinking against the wall trying to be invisible I was still practicing in my head. I started learning to write at about five, when I first started school - and I've been doing that ever since as well. With both of these abilities under my belt, that's a lot of years of using words and stuff to get my point across.

So you'd think, after all that time, I'd have got the hang of it by now. And, for most of the time I believe I function quite ably. But, in those dark periods when Writing Gets Hard, it seems as if something freaky happens to my brain.

I know what I want to say. The movie scene playing in my head is very clear; I can see every detail of the action and hear every word of the dialogue. All I have to do is take what's unfolding in my brain and put it down on the page in front of me, right? Simples.

Except, for some reason, it isn't.

It takes me ten solid minutes of word-wrangling to convert one teeny-tiny aspect of the scene in my head into one sentence - and when it's done that sentence reads like someone whose native tongue is Chinese and they only just started learning English half an hour ago. When I read it back, even I think "What the heck does that mean?" I started writing 'The Renegades' because I thought I actually had the ability to do it - what the gubbins happened to my brain between believing that and now?

I can state with conviction that I didn't have this problem with Draft One. Draft One poured out of my brain in a crazy, uninhibited gush and I just spilled it all over the pages like a kid let loose with the nursery paints. That's because Draft One was my happy-fun-go-nuts-and-CREATE! time, when there were no limits and no 'wrong' way to do anything.

But now I'm about a third of the way through Draft Two - and  Draft Two is the time to put on the Serious Pants and say "Right - let's sort this shit out then." This is the stage where I'm supposed to be rebuilding the story foundations so they'll actually take the weight of the unfolding events, making sure all the pieces fit together and that it doesn't look so bloody awful it'll bring down story property prices for the whole neighbourhood. In Draft Two, it seems, there's a wrong way to do everything - and I seem to be pretty damn good at finding them all.

Everything I write looks messy and repulsive at the moment. I almost wish I could just pull out all the story-stuff dancing around in my brain and squish it onto the pages and say "There you are - ta-dah! Screw words and sentences and all that crap -  that's how it's supposed to look." But I suspect that would just look messy and repulsive in an entirely different way.

I have been assured by many writers that this is normal - indeed, some have even gone so far as to say that it's a necessary part of the Draft Two process. (Oh. Hooray then.) But it's not a fun part, no it surely isn't. Writing like a drunk idiot without the actual fun of first getting drunk and then behaving like an idiot is not good for the self-esteem, it has to be said.

But I made myself a promise with this book; I was going to FINISH IT. Come what may. Even if, at the end of all the hard work and effort, it turns out to be monumentally crap. And I intend to honour that promise. Because, even though I don't like how hard it is to get this thing written at the moment, I still like writing it. Crazy-ass writer-type that I am.

So I'm going to keep turning up, keep on truckin' through it and keep on working through the pain. Apparently (according to my writing friends) by doing that I can eventually come out the other side of this Tunnel Of Crapness and into the light of Yay, I Might Be A Writer After All-ness.

Until then, I may have to get emergency supplies of chocolate shipped in. Dig for Victory, and all that...