top of page

The Writing Blues Hits Everyone, and It's Okay.

I’ve been writing for a long time. I’ve had short stories published, a novel, nonfiction, and I have a half dozen novels in various states, some, in my opinion, ready for publication (with some edits from publishing houses, as required). I tend to write the first drafts of my novels pretty quickly. The latest novel I wrote took me seven weeks to write the first draft, and I think it’s pretty good. I’ll find out if I’m correct on that in a month, when I meet up with a group of friends and fellow published novelists to workshop our latest manuscripts.

Edgar Allen Poe
Edgar Allen Poe had Depression, Possibly Bipolar Disorder, and Drug and Alcohol Abuse Issues.

But the seven weeks thing? That doesn’t always happen. I have a LOT of false starts—most, if not all, based on ideas I wrote down somewhere or, more likely, kept listed in the Notes app on my iPhone. Like most writers, I have more ideas than I’ll ever be able to get to, which is fine. I’d rather have too many ideas than not enough. Once the writing is going, there’s nothing like it. I get up in the morning, make my coffee, and can’t wait to see what my characters have been planning on doing for me once I sit down with my cup of joe. If I have a book going, it’s usually a lot. But that’s not 365 days a year. I don’t believe in writer’s block. At all. You can write other things if you can’t write what you want to when you want to. I do, however, believe in the pain and mental anguish of the not being able to write what you want to write when you want to write it. The writing blues hits everyone.


In an article by the National Library of Medicine, (National Center for Biotechnology Information), the theory of whether there was a link between creativity and mental illness was evaluated. According to the method used, “MEDLINE and secondary literature searches identified 29 studies and 34 review articles on creativity and mental illness. All studies were critically evaluated.” The results are not what you might think. So, what were the results? “Of 29 studies that evaluated possible associations between creativity and mental illness, 15 found no evidence to link creativity and mental illness, 9 found positive evidence, and 5 had unclear findings. Most studies used flawed methodologies with weak (case series or case control) designs.”

Of 29 studies that evaluated possible associations between creativity and mental illness, 15 found no evidence to link creativity and mental illness, 9 found positive evidence, and 5 had unclear findings

--National Library of Medicine


Sounds like BS to a lot of us, I’m sure. Growing up, the writers I admired usually had some sort of issue, be it alcoholism, drug abuse, physical altercations, mental health issues, or all of the above. I’ve gone through some things myself—I’ll leave that to your imagination. Suffice it to say, I check a few of those boxes. But writing can improve mental health.


According to Johns Hopkins University psychiatry professor Kay Redfield Jamison, “[she found] strong evidence that mood disorders, such as depression and bipolarism, are more prevalent among artists and writers than in the general population.” She goes on to state that “The “mad genius” trope has endured . . . possibly because there’s a real element of truth in it.” Tortured artists, I think, may or may not be geniuses, just like there are geniuses with mental health issues in every field out there. But from my perspective, it’s just “sexy,” this tortured soul idea, where a person who produces something so compelling to others (and perhaps insightful) that the author’s life is naturally pulled in to explain their genius.

Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath Died by Suicide. She had Depression, likely Bipolar II, and Other Potential Mental Health Issues.

Not that I’m a genius (I’m not), but when I was young, I drank and smoked pot and thought that if I wrote while inebriated or high that I would be able to produce the same type genius on paper that Hemingway or Kerouac or Burroughs or whoever did. They were well known drinkers and fighters (Hemingway, anyway) and drug users, and if they could do it, so could I. But the older and more mature I got, it became obvious how erroneous a belief that was. A clear mind produces clear work. You may come to some realization or pull an original idea from the air, but the chances of you sitting down and writing something worthwhile while drunk isn’t very high (no pun intended). I digress here from the matter of depression, but sticking with the mad genius trope, they often go hand in hand (drinking/using drugs and writing).


Anyway, when I’m writing, I do get depressed. Sometimes I actually cry—mostly when I feel a certain level of emotion is being created that I’m able to harness onto the page between my characters. That’s the good depression. Well, emotion and depression combined in some swirling confusion of feeling. The bad depression is when I take this writing life thing we live and analyze it from the point of view of achievement. What I mean is, I feel I will never write the novel I want to write. Writers know this, and we accept it, because there’s nothing much we can do about it. We write the best novel we can, and that often isn’t good enough. Or it isn’t good enough to get an agent interested, or an editor interested, or, maybe, anyone interested. If we do get something published, the high lasts for about ten minutes, and then we’re back to our sad state of affairs. Writing is great. But writing also sucks—at least if you’re wanting to be a “successful” writer and not a part time writer who has to punch a clock the rest of the day when you're not writing.


It can be extremely depressing not being able to write what you want. It’s depressing submitting countless stories to countless journals and not even making the honorable mentions category. It’s depressing writing year after year and having your agent send out your novels, only to get a “she writes well, but I just wasn’t invested in the characters . . .” or whatever standard rejection editors at traditional publishing houses send back via your agent. It’s depressing feeling like a failure. No wonder writers drink! (I kid. Sort of).

Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson may Have had Major Depression, Bipolar Disorder, and Seasonal Affective Disorder.

So, how do you overcome the writing blues? Maybe we don’t. Maybe we’re destined to be depressed, and anxious, and angry, and disgusted, and bitter. Maybe that’s just part of being a writer like part of being a bird is crashing into clean windows. But like the birds that knock themselves out (hopefully not fatally), we get back up, shake it off, and keep on flying. Editors are people. Agents are people. And writing, as we know, or at least the enjoyment of it, is subjective. I’m a literary fiction writer. I do enjoy some genre fiction, but you’ll never catch me reading anything with a dragon in it, or magic, or beach novels with Fabio-type guys on the cover. It’s just not what I’m into, even though those books sell a zillion times more than literary novels do. I’m not knocking them (save your angry comments), I’m just saying they’re not for me. Either way, as writers we’ll always get depressed about some aspect that affects our writing lives. It’s guaranteed. It’s just what you do with that depression that matters.

I do enjoy some genre fiction, but you’ll never catch me reading anything with a dragon in it, or magic, or beach novels with Fabio-type guys on the cover.

When I get depressed, I go work out. Or I eat something I’m not supposed to (a large vat of chocolate fudge ice cream, some candy bars, a cake). Or I go watch a movie or even spend an entire day binge-watching something to get my mind off of my failure. Off of my depression. I get that depression out of my system, and then I get back in front of my notebook or laptop and I get back to work. If you’re a writer, that’s what you do—you write. You polish that glass you smashed your face against with some Windex, and you put pen to paper. The characters in your head haven’t gone anywhere, even if they have mild concussions. They’re waiting for you to tell them what to do, or at least document what they’re already doing. So, do it. Don’t let their lives be as inactive as yours may have been for the last few hours, days, weeks.


Write a first draft, even if it’s shit--which, chances are, it will be. Write some scenes. Do some research on the subject you’re writing about. Does your story take place in Cambodia during Pol Pot’s reign? Watch a documentary of that time period in that country. Does your novella deal with the famine in Ireland in the 19th century? Read some books on what it was like and what families had to do to survive. It may depress you even further, but you’re making progress, and that progress is going to lead to that writing high you’re seeking. I know it does for me. It’s a cycle—I get excited to start a project, then I get depressed that it’s not going well, then I get excited when a character or idea starts taking shape, then I get depressed that it’s not going as I’d hoped, then it finds its legs—you get the point. But never give up. Depression is temporary. Not just in writing, but in life. I know. Trust me, I know. The writing blues hits everyone, and it's okay. Just don’t let it define and hinder what you want to do, which is write. So, write. And use the power of your writing to climb your way out of that depression. I guarantee you it’ll work. You just have to try.

 

Cully Perlman is an author, blogger, and Substantive Editor. He can be reached at Cully@novelmasterclass.com

3 comments

3 Comments

Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
Guest
Jun 17
Rated 4 out of 5 stars.

Until you've lived a little, you don't have anything to say as a writer.

Like

Guest
Jun 17
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

An excellent exploration of this issue. I hope you’re also following my new Substack where I explore similar matters from the poetry side of things: poetjohndavisjr.substack.com

Like

Guest
Jun 17
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I get the writing blues every time I sit down to write. But yes. It's okay. I know if I keep at it that eventually something will come. Thanks!

Like
bottom of page