I’ve been thinking a lot lately about mental states—especially for writers.
I don’t just mean in the current divisive, angry atmosphere that seems to have taken over so much of our world events, politics, even snarky neighbor exchanges on NextDoor—although that’s certainly corrosive and omnipresent enough. But life often offers a stream of traumas great and small that threaten to derail our creative impulses—family concerns, money worries, health matters, crises of confidence. The result, often, is that creative work suffers: we get writer’s block, or succumb to crippling self-criticism and doubt, or backburner our work-in-progress as a luxury there’s no time for.
Writers, I think, are more than usually sensitive to such things—do a search on existential depression (as I in fact recently did) and what repeatedly pops up near the top of the results are articles that link it to those who are “deep thinkers” or highly sensitive—two common traits of writers and other creatives.
So what do you do with all that angst that you, as a creative, as an extra-sensitive, deep-thinking, hyperaware artist, may be roiling with at various times of your life?
You use it.
Believe it or not, these powerful, uncomfortable emotions can make your writing even more impactful. As an editor, I’ve noticed a slew of art coming out recently that “leans in” to this unrest many of us may be feeling in the current environment, from books like Amulya Malladi’s roar against sexism
in the workplace, The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You,
to Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, about institutionalized racism and white indifference; to anthems railing against injustices and hatred, like recent tunes by Pink and will.i.am; to shows and movies grappling with current pervasive issues, like Shameless’s take on mental illness, Pose’s African-American and Latino LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming storylines,
BlacKkKlansman’s sharp, timely look at racism.
Many of us are wrestling with how to cope in the world—whether that’s a result of our current increasingly poisonous sociopolitical, ecological, and too often deeply personal environment, or life’s everyday speed bumps—financial, health, personal struggles that can derail even our strongest creative desires.
The power in letting these struggles inform your work is that they are universal. Whether or not all your readers may be feeling all the same things now, chances are good they have wrestled with similar demons in the past: rage, betrayal, loss, regret...and forgiveness, acceptance, love…peace.
Bestselling author Allison Winn Scotch recently wrote a post for Writer Unboxed about how the current state of the world was affecting her as a writer—essentially shutting down her creative font for two years, until she looked straight into the face of the monsters tormenting her and channeled all that into her work, finding a new inspiration from that very unrest. She wrote her novel—which will be released next year—in six weeks.
The marvelous thing about spinning struggle into art is that, counterintuitively, it can make your struggles a bit easier. Letting your characters wrangle with a problem you’re wrangling with not only lets you channel all those difficult emotions into your work, thus infusing it with intimate, visceral feeling and passion; frequently it helps you work through it yourself at the “safe” remove of helping/watching your protagonists do the same. Their battle will help you understand and work through yours—and, in a truly beautiful perfect circle, they often will also help readers recognize and transform their own challenges.
You can even use your current struggles to help create and inform the story—in this essay by Chuck Pahlaniuk he talks about how he did that very thing in creating Fight Club, and offers a couple of specific techniques for helping your characters (and maybe yourself) cope with crises.
How do you deal with life’s challenges, setbacks, and sorrows relative to your writing? I’d love to hear your tips—and let me know if I can share them (with or without attribution—let me know) to offer some practical strategies for authors.
In more than 25 years as an editor, with major publishing houses as well as through her own FoxPrint Editorial, Tiffany Yates Martin has been privileged to help authors, from bestsellers to beginners, tell their stories as effectively, compellingly, and truthfully as possible. She presents editing and writing workshops for writers’ groups, organizations, and conferences and writes for numerous writers’ sites and publications. Get her free 13-page guide on how to find, vet, and hire a reputable professional editor here.
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Thank you for this! I've spouted off this advice to writer friends in crisis over the years, but held back from applying it to myself. How silly.
Isn't that always the way...? 😀 If only we all could follow our own good advice! Thanks for the comment.
Tiffany, writing is where I go to get away from all that! I find it empowering - I mean, where else in life are you a God? In full control of everything that happens, and you can take real life and make a happy ending.
As long as I stay off Twitter, I'm good.
Ha! Yeah, it's nice that we have the ability to create the world we wish to see, at least in our work. And I'm a big believer that art drives progress and change in the world.
Wow! This really helped. I've been in such a slump haven't touched any of my work for more than six months. Just can't seem to pull it together. I keep feeling like I don't belong here because of all the political/human strife. Its even crushed my writing world all the fighting I hope I can get back on track.
Sorry you're feeling so low, Jeri--I honestly get it. There's no easy fix, but maybe if you can lean into that in your writing, instead of waiting for it to dissipate to free the muse, it might spark something. I do believe some of the most profound and impactful art in history has come from extreme emotion, good and bad. And it can help bleed off some of the pain and helplessness--as Laura Drake says, that's where you're god... 🙂 Hang in there!
I started my third book, Contracting Joy, soon after my father died. I was in such a deep depression and my husband was so worried about me, he asked me to see our doctor. I did, but rejected the idea of drugs and started writing a book about a young woman whose father was ill and lived life as a virtual slave. Her goal in life was to get him free and give him the treatment he needed. Like Laura, I made the story end the way I'd wanted mine to in real life—she freed her father, he was treated and cured, living to see his grandchildren. Although I've definitely visited the place of "I can't write when everything is falling around me," I'm better at recognizing those times and shortening their duration. Writing—and other— friends have helped pull me back from the brink more than once. Thank you, Laura Drake.
Your resilience always astonishes me, Fae. Thanks for sharing this story. I wish you could have made real life turn out the way you made your story turn out. <3
Love you, Fae Rowen.
I have been going through family stuff, and it has impacted my writing negatively, but I went on an outing with an author friend the other day. Something good came out of it--I have written 3k+ words over the past few days. Slow start, but the words are flowing again, and I feel so much better. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I can't even tell you what the catalyst was; I don't know what it was that snapped on. Just so grateful it did.
That's a great point, actually, Denise--I think having a community can help--both writerly and personal. Glad you're feeling better--and writing! Hope you can keep channeling whatever it was. <3
I'm sorry the family stuff is getting you down, Denise. That's so hard. It's wonderful that you have supportive friends who can boost your spirits. Do more of that!!
Tiffany, thank you for tackling a difficult topic and offering ways to deal with it. I know exactly what you mean, as, I'm sure, do many of the WITS readers. For me, writing can be a refuge, too, "Gee, I'd sure like to watch the news for the latest installment of horror, but I have a chapter to finish." Thanks, and thanks for including the examples, too.
Thanks for your comment, James! I'm currently on mental-health hiatus from the installments of horror. That helps too... 🙂
The best thing my husband ever did for me was get rid of cable. He did it a few months before the last election and it made such a difference in my outlook and my stamina for bad news. Prior to that, he'd watched all the channels, tuning into each side, trying to sift the truth out from both of them. When people are yelling at you from your television, night after night, it is very easy to feel battered and fearful. Now I get my news in very small as-nonpartisan-as-possible doses. It is SUCH a relief.
Tiffany, this has been a hard hard year. There is so much anger, frustration and divisiveness in the political sphere that it cannot be contained there. There are metaphorical cage matches going on in many other spheres now too and it is affecting everyone I know. It certainly is affecting all of the creatives.
I think you said it beautifully here. Using the angst and fear is important and therapeutic. Even harder, I think, is to dig deep in our everyday lives to find the positive and happy things. Sometimes those things are very small, but small positives can add up after awhile and siphon away some of the corrosive anger. It's hard. The bad stuff is easier to believe.
I've had to re-start my gratitude journal to remind myself that that world doesn't completely suck, but it has helped.
What a FANTASTIC couple of comments, Jenny. Sometimes just stating a hard thing helps--sharing it with others and knowing you aren't alone in feeling these things. I've never seen malaise like this, on a sustained global level. It's really, really hard, and pretending it isn't only makes it worse. Like you, I look for coping devices--and like you, I get ZERO current events on television. It's too much and I can't take it. I read instead, sources I trust that are solid journalistic outlets. Even that is hard. (There's a reason I was googling "existential depression"!) But channeling that into creativity is all I know how to do (that and working to make my immediate community as good as I can, and making my voice heard for the things I believe are important to stand up for). I keep thinking how art drives change--over and over we see that it's usually the first thing to raise social consciousness on a mass level. And the escapist kind of art matters too--it's how we soothe our troubled souls. The artists have never been more important. So save your sanity, creatives, and take care of yourselves, but know how important it is that you keep putting your work into the world! Thanks for the great comments, Jenny. <3
I always love your posts, Tiffany. <3 <3 <3
Very inspiring article!
Thank you, Tiffany. You hit all the things that have slowed me down lately. Feels better to know that I'm not the only one who gets derailed by TMI about the state of our world. Your post is a good reminder that writers need to stay focused on creativity, but negativity!