And… We’re back with the promised second part of The Suffering Writer: A Lesson from the King.
Last time, I claimed that, as writers: “we’re thinkers—and too much for our own good.” This absolutely applies to me and I think it’s accurate for you too. I’ll make a brief case for why this is true, mostly because it has some practical implications for what we do about the writer’s doldrums.
I saved the first version of The Suffering Writer to my drive as “Depression.” Thankfully, I came up with a catchier and more positive title before posting last week, but the heart of these recent posts is still about examining frustrations in the writing life and how they affect us. Now, I’d be the first guy to tell you to be careful making broad generalizations. However, if an observation tends to be true more often than not, it’s probably worth considering its cause.
In my personal experience, most writers I know are depressed to some degree. This ranges from the happiest form of “mild” to “severe,” with jumps between the two extremes appearing to be more common than I initially guessed. I think there are a few reasons for this:
1. Writers tend to isolate themselves
How many of you can only write within the coffee-scented confines of a bustling coffee shop? My guess is that the proportion is extremely small. This is because writing is primarily a private endeavor. The more noise and distraction I have to tune out, the less successful my writing sessions tend to be. Quiet music is typically the most I can manage, and even this is restricted by genre.
When I write, I don’t want to talk to anyone, I don’t want to be interrupted by other tasks, and I especially don’t want to deal with inessential crises. These are all mood killers. However, If I spend too many hours or days like this, I tend to morph into an ugly grump. Even as an introvert, I need quality human contact on a regular basis to keep my head on straight.
Solution: Breaks are necessary, and should probably be spent in the company of people we care about.
2. Most of us have extraordinary dreams for our work.
This isn’t necessarily a problem, but some of these dreams are more realistic than others. I tend to think in terms of success or failure, which lends itself to a pretty bleak outlook when considering the sheer luck associated with writing a hit—timing, culture, economy, length of an agent’s current client list, whether or not the intern had his coffee that morning… All these factors and a hundred more influence reception of our novels and stories from the very moment our query letters land in an agency’s overfull “slush pile” inbox.
It’s important to have realistic expectations. In my study of other writers’ careers, I’ve observed that persistence is the most important determinant of success. This requires time. For me, it’s easy to make value statements about myself based on my commercial success (which is nonexistent). Honestly, the connections here are highly suspect, but can be very convincing as negative internal voices.
Solution: We should soothe ourselves with positive and realistic self-talk constantly.
Last, but not least:
3. Writers tend to obsess over their writing
The deep introspection often associated with writing easily becomes obsessive without other forces to balance it. Sometimes, writing for dozens of hours a week is invigorating. If you’re like me, it’s usually more grueling, but that’s because I’m a perfectionist by nature.
As a writer, my creative urges come like either a gentle spring rain or a monsoon. It’s important that I respond appropriately to each case as it arises. If I’m struck by the muse, you can bet I’ll take full advantage of that. If, on the other hand, the words just won’t come after trying every possible approach… I do something else.
We can be “persistent” (Observation 2) without staring at a blank screen for two straight hours. The urge to put words to paper is often good, but it can also create unnecessary misery for us. We have to have some kind of life outside of writing. It’s just not good for us to spend too many hours in the sole company of our own racing thoughts.
Solution: We should cultivate other hobbies. Pulling ourselves away from our project will help us come back to it fresh.
A final note…
I freely admit that I am not an expert in any of this, but I do think that these observations tend to be true more often than not. If you agree (or disagree) with these thoughts, please feel free to comment. What struggles do you deal with? What solutions have worked for you? I’m also here to learn.