I’m going to preface this post by saying that I have never been officially diagnosed with a mental illness, but that I have had depressive episodes and tendencies toward social anxiety since high school. This post isn’t intended to do anything more than share my personal experiences. You should seek professional help if you have thoughts of suicide, or harming yourself or others.
As I’ve been struggling with some ups and downs in my personal life and my mental health, I’ve started thinking about how my mental health impacts my writing, and vice versa. As I sat down today (I started writing this on 1/16/18) to write my novel with my brain in a depressive fog, I found that it just wasn’t happening. But then, something weird happened. A poem came out instead—so I decided to write about why I think that happened.
I have found that when I’m at my most stable—when I’m taking care of myself and I have a pretty consistent routine, when I make deadlines and have a fair amount of inspiration on a near daily basis—that’s when I do my best fiction writing. Heck, sometimes that’s the only time I can bring myself to write fiction. I need to feel relatively okay to have the mental and emotional energy to craft narratives about fictional people.
When I’m not at my best, I’m better suited for writing nonfiction or poetry. When I’m writing about something I don’t need to invent from my imagination, I don’t necessarily need the rush of adrenaline that often accompanies a burst of inspiration.
One of my favorite creative nonfiction pieces that I’ve written was inspired by one of my lowest moments while I was in my undergrad—I’d had a depressive nightmare wherein I dreamed that I was an astronaut walking the bottom of the ocean, weighed down by the pressure of the water and the heavy suit I wore. I decided to write about it in a way that might encapsulate the heavy, surreal quality of that experience, and I’m still pleased with the result.
Poetry that I produce when I’m in a dark place is often not happy. Quite frequently, it ends up never seeing the light of day—but I also tend to write honest pieces about issues I’ve been grappling with, or emotions that I’ve been feeling that I literally cannot express to another human until I feel less desperately awful.
Writing poetry doesn’t always help lift my mood, but sometimes it’s good to just get the ugliness onto a page and out of my head. It can feel cathartic to write something dark, violent, and terrible, and then forget about it until I find it months later and give a little laugh at how truly awful it is, and how much better I feel now.
Even better is when I manage to write a poem that’s a little dark, more than a little honest, and kind of strange, and know that it has potential to shine. Those are the poems that I’m proud of, because they take the tangle of what I’m feeling and put it into a new context, one that might even be beautiful or relatable.
Many people use journaling as a form of therapy or release. I’ve had mixed experiences with journaling. When I’m in a bad place, it can help to scribble down everything I’m feeling. It can also keep me locked into that place, bogged down by all the toxic thoughts building on each other.
When I journal with more intention, by getting the bad out first, but then forcing myself to switch to a more positive outlook or just distracting myself with a topic that makes me feel better, I’ve had more success. Journaling with intention is something I want to practice more this year, because I think it could really help me.
Writing rambles aside, I do want to work on my mental health this year and get back to a consistently healthy place so I can feel good and write more sparkly fiction. Writing this blog post has helped me feel much better. I hope this post helps other struggling artists and writers feel better too—a little less alone, and maybe even empowered. Writing is hard enough on its own, and anyone who can manage to do it while battling their inner demons is more capable and badass than they know.
I’m curious about your experiences with writing and mental health. How has your mental/emotional wellbeing helped feed or hinder your creative process? Do you find that certain genres or writing styles are easier, depending on how you’re feeling? Do you use writing for therapeutic purposes?
Writer, reviewer, bookseller, book nerd extraordinaire. Fiction reader at Waxwing Magazine.