Writing is survival: A post about depression

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about a posting something about depression and whether it belongs on a blog about careers and creativity, but coping with it has been biggest impediment to my career and personal life.

What swayed me is the prospect of helping somebody else by shedding light on something that people rarely want to talk about. Depression makes people uncomfortable, yet oddly enough the only way past it is to talk about and acknowledge that it exists. So that’s what this is, a simple affirmation of something that I’ve gone through and the way I’ve come to cope with it.

It’s difficult to be successful with a black cloud hanging over everything so writing has been  a way to make it rain and allow those clouds to disperse. Rationalizing those dark thoughts and giving them a way onto the page makes them subject to scrutiny. More often than not I’ve come to find purpose and meaning in recounting my worse moments so in some ways I’ve learned to cope with monsters by giving them some form and substance.

This won’t be a personal story about getting better and fixing all the problems that ail me. In fact, I don’t think any of the personal details matter all that much because circumstances mean little when you feel depressed. Everything takes on a dark tone no matter what good comes into your life. The next mistake or catastrophe feels like it’s just around the corner and when you’re constantly on the lookout for something bad to happen, it will inevitably come.

There is no way to escape the way you feel whether it’s good, bad or indifferent and the way forward is learning ways to accept the emotions that come no matter what form they may take. I’ve found the only way past darkness is to confront it not with gritted teeth and balled up fists, but a gentle smile and a whole lot of compassion. Fighting is really silly when the enemy is yourself so I’ve learned to laugh and love the person that I am. When it starts to pour rain its a welcome sight for I know the clouds will part and the sun will shine again.

Writing is Survival

Writing is survival, a means to express what is buried deep within my soul. Pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, the very actions have forged a path to peace that felt so goddamn elusive before.

There are some moments when it feels like reality is trying to destroy me. When thoughts become my enemy, when responsibility becomes a crush of stress and anxiety that are so overwhelming that it’s difficult to get out of bed in the morning. I’ve overcome the monsters that haunt my steps by allowing them to pass onto the page and contained within a paper prison where they can roam around all they like.

So I’ve come to slay my demons with pen and paper and built a sanctuary out of steno pads and word documents. Thousands upon thousands of words to exorcise the darkness so that joy and enthusiasm may come forth so I can be at my best.

Writing is an act of stillness and my best work, the ones that I am most proud of, emanate from a quiet mind. Hesitation and thinking brings the type of criticism and judgement that mars what is such a joyful process. Every piece of writing: every word, every sentence and every letter has meaning when it comes from that quiet place.

A new piece of writing is often something that evolves from the terrors and nightmares that stem from uncertainty. This exercise in giving form and shape to the things that tend to torture the soul is the only way to unfurl that knot and get myself straight again. When the darkness stands in front of me in the form of words can be analyzed and critiqued,  there is a path beyond the fear and doubt that used to exist as shadows in the mind.

So writing is about accepting whatever dwells in the soul. It’s a wonderful act, an often a scary one, and definitely not for the faint of heart. Not many have the desire or fortitude to dive into the unknown, yet every day I take that plunge and dive ever deeper into the place where monsters dwell and come back up with treasures seized from their gaping maw. What I find in taking that journey is strength, resilience and best of all a sense of peace that never really leaves me.

Write and survive

Writers are survivors at heart. They are unbreakable, resilient and ultimately unstoppable because they have conquered the most insidious of foes — uncertainty.

Uncertainty is simply not knowing. This isn’t inherently bad, but the unknown leads to fear and doubt. Writing is filled with uncertainty. There’s the blank page, the next word, the next project or the next pay check. All of these things can lead to fear, doubt and quitting.

When there is value attached to writing there is an even greater chance for uncertainty to become fear. Writing that term paper is difficult because there is a grade on the line. In those moments of struggle, its easy to venture into the possibility of failure. Suddenly its so much easier to procrastinate because the prospect of failure is hard to face in large doses.

The professional writer has it worse because there is so much riding on those words. Suddenly, the  stakes are bigger and the level of uncertainty that much higher. There’s a reason its difficult to become a full time writer. Not many people are resilient enough to face that kind of uncertainty day after day.

The best writers never forget that they are survivors. The survivor accepts the possibility of failure and welcomes the prospect of success. They know that the only way to success is to work until  the job is done.  When it comes down to those moments of uncertainty the survivor chooses to see things through till the end. Finishing doesn’t guarantee success, but he knows that its impossible without it.

The finished story is a treatise on survival. All these times that uncertainty crept in the writer never wavered. Over and over again he chose to work until the job was done. Successful writers are the ones that never forget that they are survivors. They finish their work then take a deep breath before embarking on that crucible again.

 

When ideas aren’t enough

Writing stories is akin to architecture— its built on a solid foundation.

The foundation for a good story doesn’t start with the materials you might expect. It doesn’t start with paragraphs, sentences, words or even ideas, but a solid concept.

Concept is different from an idea. An idea is the seed for a concept; it has a general shape but no real defining details. For example, my idea for this post was “I want to write a post about refining ideas into workable stories.”

It’s clear there isn’t enough here to hang a story on, yet this is where most people start writing.

Nailing down the concept for a story shortens the writing process. Writing an entire story for the sole purpose of fleshing out an idea is inefficient. It may take 500 maybe 1000 empty words before realizing that the point of a story lay in the middle. Fixing that will require heavy editing or possibly a rewrite.

Why use multiple drafts when you can do some thinking ahead of time and save yourself some trouble?

Concept is the “big idea stuff.” Getting your story straight on this level makes execution much easier because it helps you answer the question “what’s next?” Knowing the answer to that question allows you to focus on writing the story.

Concepts have some agency— a forward thinking element that dictates what to write next. To put it simply, the concept asks a question that your story must answer.

The type of question you ask is dependent upon genre. Fiction operates on the premise of “What if?” while most non fiction deals more with questions of how or why. The question I asked for this post was “How does nailing down the concept make writing your story easier?”

Once you have a concept, it’s easy to develop it into a working premise for a story. Premise is the answer posed to the core question at the heart of your story. In other words, When somebody asks what your story is about, you are giving them the premise.

The premise for this post was “Being clear about concept sharpens the focus of your idea enough to show a clear path toward the end.”

Premise is sturdy enough to hang a story on. It provides a framework and paves the way for more focused writing and research. Making the leap from idea to concept and eventually a premise requires some thinking.

Here are a few tips for getting through this critical step:

• Be clear about the question: Remember that the basis of a concept is the question you are trying to answer. Determine what type of question you are asking first then expand from there.

• Make sure the concept fits length:
As a general rule, complex questions require complex answers and thus more words. Be sure you have the appropriate space to write the story that needs to be written.

•  Working with multiple concepts  A story can have more than one concept in it, but there needs to be a common thread tying them all together. In those types of stories, the core question you want to answer usually spawn related ones that can be addressed to add depth

• Premise as a starting point To save yourself time and trouble, don’t start until you can articulate the premise of your story clearly. If you can’t answer a simple question like “What is your story about?” Then go back to the drawing board until you do.

When it’s OK to drown puppies

Back in the days before the internet there were space considerations. Word counts were limited by column inches and writers needed more discretion when it came to what they included in their stories.

With the abundance of blogs and online magazines to get published there’s a lot more freedom to pile on the words. While the space may be available, there is something to the idea of restraint.

When I was an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz the advisor for the school newspaper Conn Hallinan always had a phrase when it came to editing stories. He’d always tell us “sometimes you just have to drown a few puppies.” No, he’s not saying kill a few animals in our quest for good writing, but to save the audience from an infatuation with our own words.

Having all those words to burn doesn’t mean its a licence to go crazy. In fact, given the short attention span of readers these days, it behooves any published writer to be even more discerning with their words.

Print journalists are used to cutting their stories, it’s just the nature of working with limited space, but being economical  is a practical skill for all writers regardless of platform.

There’s a reason cutting stories is akin to slaughtering cute animals. Writers ply their trade with words and it isn’t easy to part with them given the  thought and consideration it took to put them on the page. That cool idea, that lovely turn of phrase sometimes looks like an abandoned puppy with really big eyes and a cute face. Soon hitting the delete key tends to feel like taking a hatchet to your arm.

The antidote to that is to keep in mind that what looks like a puppy to you may not look like a puppy to another person that may be reading it. Keep in mind that we serve a set of readers with an attention span shortened by television and the internet. Short attention span readers are turned off by long sprawling stories that fail to make their point right away.

Whether it is a newspaper, blog or that trendy online magazine concise and entertaining writing is absolutely necessary. The responsibility falls on the writer to accommodate the audience or risk losing them halfway through your story.

Part of serving your audience means being ruthless and efficient with your words. It means making the tough decisions about what is absolutely necessary. It means drowning a few puppies for the greater good of your writing.

Here is some advice on “drowning puppies”:

Be aware of size and scope- The idea of “concise and entertaining writing” depends on the size and scope of the project. A breaking news story will have different needs than a feature story or a review for example.

For freelancers, it’s always a good to be aware of what an editor expects out of you. It’s always good to set guidelines for length ahead of time so that you have something to shoot for when it comes to writing and editing.

Prioritize your infomation- Be clear about the ‘big ideas’ that are going into your story ahead of time. Ask yourself “what is the most important thing a reader should come away with?’ then put that front and center. Knowing what to keep helps you decide what needs to be taken out.

The 10 percent rule- This works best with longer stories, but a good principle to live by. The idea is to shave 10 percent of the total word count after you are done. This will force you to look for places that need to be tightened up.

The best way to do this is to take a broad overview first and look for ideas that may have been repeated unnecessarily. Then go paragraph by paragraph with a double space in between. Try to cut out a word or two for each graph by rephrasing sentences or taking out repeated words.

After you are done, repeat until you hit the quota.

Faces of your audience- Keep perspective on your story and realize exactly who you are writing for. Be a role player by reading your stories from different perspectives. Read it once as yourself, another as an imagined reader and a third time as your worst critic.

Doing this will be like looking at your story with a fresh eyes. You may find some things that need to be taken out.

Die to the past write in the present

The past is not the place for a working writer to be all the time. That’s the realm of guilt and regrets where questions of should, could and would tend to dominate. The more time you spend thinking about things you can’t control, the less time you spend thinking about what really matters— the writing.

Regret can be a powerful motivators. The desire to avoid it can drive you to work hard, but slip ups can feel devastating and lead to more regrets.  Perhaps you missed an important goal or made a decision that led to a bad outcome. The fear of either situation can do one of two things: make you work harder or drive you to stop trying.

Successful people work in spite of that fear. They understand that you get what you think about most of the time so if you dwell on mistakes then that’s what you will get in return. That’s not to say they don’t acknowledge the bad things, on the contrary, they face the consequences and move on faster than unsuccessful people.

Regrets stem from the past where major success and failure  are extrapolated into perceived future that is not wholly grounded in reality. For example, the writer that can’t get started on the second novel is still in some ways rooted to a past success that they perceive they can’t overcome the second time around. Yet how does anybody know how successful that second novel will be if it hasn’t even been written yet?  This is different from making an informed decision based on experience you gleaned from the past. The difference is that informed decisions are  fully grounded in the present, based on circumstance rather than an irrational need to avoid having regrets.

Writing is a task that requires you to vacillate between thinking about past, present and future. You draw on research and knowledge from the past to write in the present and then edit your story trying to anticipate what a future audience is going to think.
The trap lay in spending too much time dwelling on the past and future. No matter how much thinking you may have to do, the task of writing always happens in the present. I may have thought about what this post was about in the past and you may be reading these words at a future date, but I typed everything out in the here and now.

To approach your writing goals with an air of negativity does not make a sustainable career. Bad feelings can always be traced to some past regret or anxiety that is based on a projected future that stems from those regrets. It’s  necessary to work through that negativity before getting started or else writing will become a grind— It’ll be something you’re forced to do. Every hesitation becomes a reason to stop writing because it’s simply not appealing to you.

Writing doesn’t have to be something you enter kicking and screaming. It’s shouldn’t feel difficult or hard, but a genuinely enjoyable experience. The actual work may be difficult sure, anything creative is, but sitting down to focus on something you genuinely love should never be a problem.

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind when it comes to regrets:

There are no such things as a mistake- The nature of creating goals is binary. You either succeed or fail at it and that clear cut distinction either forces you into one camp or another. Trying does not guarantee success, but not trying guarantees failure.

There are a lot of people who can’t even muster up the courage to try because past mistakes have caused them to decide that future efforts equate to failure.

Thankfully, you have the ability to frame things any way you want and in the realm of trying there is no such thing as a mistake. To get started means you have enough self worth to believe that something is possible. The outcome may not be to your liking, but taking action is never a mistake no matter how you may frame it after the fact.

Failure does not mean you made a mistake, it means you have an opportunity to do it better in the future.    

Learn the value of acceptance-  Successful writers learn to identify the things they can control and act on it. The hallmark of insanity is dwelling on things you can’t do anything about and spending time fretting on it.

This may sound difficult, especially when it comes to something you care a lot about, but it’s actually quite simple. The key is acceptance. It’s realizing that something is absolutely out of your hands then taking ownership over those feelings by choosing to act on things that are in your sphere of influence.

It’s impossible to take take ownership over something that you haven’t acknowledged yet so the first step is being aware of where your mind is going. Once you realize it then it’s a simple matter of choosing to focus your attention on things that are more important.

This may be hard for people that believe they are in control of everything, but in many ways it’s about being ok with not being in control sometimes. The sooner you realize that the sooner you can focus on the things that you are really in control of.

Fear and the writing life

There’s nothing particularly scary about writing. You’re not in any imminent danger sitting down at your computer to type a few words and there aren’t any life threatening consequences to missing a looming deadline or not finishing that novel, yet there are so many out there that struggle to get started.

Fear is insidious. It’s not as if we go around avoiding work because it is scary, instead we dress it up and call it procrastination. Nobody likes to face uncertainty and maintaining focus gets more difficult the larger your goal.

The urge to procrastinate is directly correlated how much a writing project means to you. The reason is that larger goals mean higher personal stakes and the consequences for failure can feel like it’s going to crush you.

Procrastination is a mechanism to avoid dealing with the fear of failure. It’s impossible to fail if you don’t attempt it at all, but you can’t achieve anything without trying. If you are not careful, It’s easy to fall into a cycle of putting things off until anxiety builds up to the point where you are forced to take action.

This is an inefficient and very stressful way to work that rarely leads to consistent results  because forced action is not positive. Writing projects quickly become a slog through the mud then it won’t take long before your goals will feel unattainable.

Following through with a large writing goal takes patience, persistence and a healthy dose of courage. It requires facing the fear of failure and working in spite of it time and again. There are plenty of instances to quit when your dreams take weeks, months or even years to complete so it’s important to have a plan for following through when faced with the inevitable doubts that may lead you into the procrastination trap.

Here are my five rules for following through:  

1. Acknowledge the fact that you will face many obstacles
2. Accept it will be difficult.
3. Try your hardest when it’s time to work.
4. Celebrate when that time is up.
5. Repeat until you’ve achieved your goal.

Procrastination also means choosing to work on things that are not important. It can still feel like you’ve accomplished something like beating a video game or finishing a movie you’ve always wanted to watch, but it’s still time spent on something other than your goal.

The other side of following through is knowing whether you’re simply “working” or working toward something. Here are a few tips that may help get back on track:

• Personal organization- It is about clarity. It’s about knowing what you are up against so that those tasks that seem so daunting look a lot simpler. Fear is predicated on the unknown so when you don’t have a plan then it’s easy to procrastinate.

• Make sure first things are really first- The first step is to figure out what it is you truly want then how to achieve it. Next is a matter of acting with integrity and making those steps a priority in your life. Making a choice to follow through doesn’t happen on paper, it done through actions. The only way to show you’re serious is to put the important things first and foremost in your life.

• Know how to struggle- Nothing worthwhile is ever easy so just accept you’re going to hit obstacles and work through them. There is a difference between working hard and struggling to achieve something.
Working hard is aimless and without direction. You can work hard at reading, cleaning your bathroom or washing the dishes. Struggle means overcoming an obstacle. It implies there is an obstacle in the first place and you can’t have an obstacle without a goal.

• Make sure you want it bad enough- We’re conditioned to be motivated by something whether it’s external or internal. The ticket to overcoming fear is being motivated by the latter.
External motivations foster resentment, a feeling of “doing it because you have to.” This is a very disempowering way to work because you are never really in control over what you are doing.
Struggling to achieve a goal is difficult as it is, but it’s even harder when you haven’t really taken ownership over it in the first place.
Internal motivation means the goals are your own. It’s something you’ve thought about, decided on and are committed to achieving. These type of goals may be suggested by others, but only belong to you. These goals can’t be manufactured and you can’t be ordered to do them because you’ve made a choice to try and achieve them.    

• Trust your instincts- If you’re really clear about what your goals are then it’s easy to know what is the right or wrong thing to be doing with your time. Guilt is a good indicator that you are making the wrong choice or about to make the wrong choice. The goal in all this is to feel good about what you are doing so if a task does not foster a sense of real accomplishment then think twice about doing it or attempting it again.

Organizing your writing life

The writing life tends to revolve around projects not necessarily a schedule. Writers tend to think in terms of the next story, article or novel, but not necessarily how much time it takes to finish.

It’s easy to get lost in a project and lose track of time working on something that matters, but it’s also easy to get frustrated if you don’t have a clear idea about when something is supposed to be finished and what the finished product is supposed to look like.

Personal organization is essential for a writer because setting boundaries ensures that you are clear about what needs to be done, how it needs to be done and when it needs to be done. Proper planning before getting started fosters a feeling of accomplishment and removes all doubt about the necessary steps to “finish something.”


Organization basics

• Figure out what matters most to you: Before starting anything, it’s important to always work on things that really mean something to you. Without passion there won’t be the will to finish. Don’t skimp on this; really think hard what you want to spend your time doing and then commit fully to getting it done.

Define the ideal: Dreaming big means defining success in the context of an ideal situation. Think from the end first by defining what you want to achieve by completing a project then go for it. When doing this, don’t compromise. Pretend as if there are no limits on your skills and everything is going to break right for you.
In the end, real life may prevent you from achieving the exact end goal you had in mind, but it’s critical to shoot for the best possible scenario. That way you will never have any regrets about making the effort.  

Set deadlines for yourself: Projects without deadlines have no weight behind them.  People tend to prioritize tasks based on urgency so if there is no deadline then there isn’t a whole lot of motivation to finish something in a timely fashion.
I feel the most resistance when it comes to this. There is always a sense that it is impossible to rush creative process; that you can’t force a novel, short story or any creative work to completion or else it will end up being bad writing.
Part of that is true, if something doesn’t feel ready then don’t move forward until it is. That might time a week or it might take a month, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set a deadline for yourself.
Deadlines allow the creative process to keep on moving. If you know that deadline for finishing that 5000 word short story is coming up in five days you are more apt to tell yourself ‘alright if I write 1000 words each day this week then I’ll be fine.

Make a list and prioritize: A journey of 1000 steps starts with one, but you also need to know what step one is. Lists are the basic tools of any organized person because making one takes out all the indecision. A large project looks far less daunting when you you know all of the things that need to be done in order to complete it.
The best way to make a list is think of every single thing that needs to be done then prioritize them in order of first to last. After that, set a realistic timeline for completing each one.