Six weeks ago, I submitted my latest manuscript to The Writer’s Hotel Conference for review. The project is a memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped me survive my brother’s suicide. Always a last-minute waffler, I let my mouse arrow hover over the send button as I simultaneously experienced the delight of finishing my manuscript and the terror of actually sending it out. When I finally clicked the send button, the knotted muscles in my neck relaxed. I had a good cry. I spent the weekend on an “I did it!” high, aware that the next phase would be even more difficult.
I was entering the fallow field.
Originally a farming term, writers sometimes use the fallow field metaphor to describe the period between drafts when projects are laid to rest. In the idealized version, this fallow period is a time when eyes clear, the mind recalibrates, and ideas marinate largely at an unconscious level. Some see it as a welcome respite. Others go into panic mode as they wonder how to cope with the discomfort that can accompany downtime.
I could write a post about how to capitalize on your fallow period and offer helpful tips about starting new projects, resuming morning pages, or going on vacation. Instead, I want to talk about the Big D that often accompanies any fallow period: Depression.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 10.4% of US women and 5.5% of US men experienced depression between 2013 – 2016. Many research studies point to correlations between creativity and mood disorders, suggesting depression rates in the writing community are even higher, especially for men. In her book The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes that depression is “a normal phase of any writer’s life.” In other words, if you’re a writer who has experienced depression your experience may be more common than you think.
Symptoms of depression can range from mild sadness, agitation, and loss of interest in pleasurable activities to suicidal ideation and death. Famous examples of authors who lost battles with depression abound. Virginia Woolf. Ernest Hemingway. Sylvia Plath. Hunter S. Thompson. But many writers silently suffer with what can be a debilitating illness.
There are many reasons why creative people might be more susceptible to depression. In general, we are deeply sensitive. That sensitivity feeds our creativity and allows us to transform ideas and experiences into art. But sometimes that gift is a burden. We feel too much—something a concentrated slog through weighty material can intensify, no matter the genre. Our work requires us to spend lots of time alone. Then there’s the grief writers may feel once a project is shelved and they’re no longer spending time with the characters they dearly love. Self-doubts can surface as you anticipate feedback on vulnerable work. And, then there’s the exhaustion that comes from setting aside big swathes of time to meet deadlines. Add to that the ambiguities we’re forced to sit with (Is it good enough? Am I good enough? Does anyone care?), and the silences as we waitwaitwait for what could possibly be rejection. No wonder we struggle.
Depression has been a lifelong companion I’ve learned to live with—one that used to visit often. Past major depressive episodes were so severe I experienced physical pain. Every day felt like I was operating in a world where the air had been replaced by mud. My brain transformed into a bad neighborhood with street names like Piece of Shit Avenue and Who Do You Think You Are Boulevard. Eating ice cream was so joyless it might as well have been creamed fish. I’ve spent many years studying the art of self-care and the causes and treatments of depression. This has lessened the severity of my symptoms, but they still crop up. So, when I submitted my manuscript in February—one of depression’s prime times—I anticipated my old friend’s arrival.
We frequently see depression as the enemy and want to kick its ass as we send it to the curb. But depression isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it signals your body’s need for self-care. It slows you down so you can rest. It isolates so you can reflect and address feelings that require attention. It makes you vividly aware of the world (even if it only shows you the bleakest picture) and reminds you of the sensitivities you need to nourish.
In short doses and at a mild level, these experiences can be adaptive. In these cases, focusing on self-care and journaling about depressive thoughts or what depression wants you to know can give you insights into your symptoms. But if the duration is long (more than three weeks) or severe (leading to thoughts of self-harm, feelings that you are a burden, or beliefs that others would be better off without you), it’s time to get help. Talk to friends and family about how you’re feeling. Contact a mental health professional. If you’re not sure where to go, or if your symptoms require immediate attention call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline(1-800-273-TALK). Operators are available twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week. You don’t have to be in a crisis to call them.
My fallow period included a couple of weeks of mild depression. The big push to finish had exhausted me. My body said slow down, and I did (though I wasn’t always a willing patient). I journaled about writing fears, reached out to friends, and wrote a few funny pieces that didn’t require much vulnerability. When my energy returned, I resumed my exercise routine, spent time in the sun, and enjoyed the cherry blossoms outside my house in preparation for the next phase of revision.
Mental health issues frequently get a bad rap. Some view these experiences as a sign of weakness, which makes it more difficult to talk about. In her memoir A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, Susan Klebold refers to depression as a brain illness because the brain is what’s sick in depressed people, just like the pancreas is sick in someone with diabetes. We wouldn’t tell a diabetic to ignore their symptoms or suggest a better attitude would lower their blood sugar levels. We would tell them to seek treatment. The same holds true for our mental health.
Over the weekend I attended a spiritual talk given by Don Chudd, a former Lutheran priest. He said, “It’s not our output but our wellbeing that is our greatest contribution to the world.” Wellbeing is an inside job that requires us to nurture our gifts so we can share our best with others.
Wellbeing doesn’t require us to produce anything.
It only requires us to be ourselves.
The real me is very curious, highly energetic, and sometimes depressed. I accept this without shame or self-pity. I share it with you, because I truly believe our stories—both big and small—matter. In saying, “Yes, me too,” we normalize each other’s experiences and help one another care for our precious gifts during both productive and fallow periods in our writing lives. In doing so, we make the experience between the click of the send or save button and the moment we resume our work is a little more pleasurable.
2 thoughts on “When You’re Visited by an Unwelcome Guest: Writers, Downtime, and Depression”
This is beautiful, Lisa. Thank you so much for this wisdom and window into your life on a really critical topic.
Thank you so much, Dana! 🙂
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