My first daughter was six months old when I began studying for an MA in Creative Writing. I wrote in snatches when she slept – which wasn’t often – and I was often exhausted. Towards the end of the second term, I was pregnant again. I was allowed an intermission and also planned to find a babysitter for our older daughter for when the intermission was over. But long before either of those happened, our second daughter was born three months prematurely.
A Health Visitor came to see me to determine whether or not I had post-natal depression. She read a list of statements and asked me to agree or disagree. I don’t remember them all, but they were along these lines: I feel anxious and scared for no good reason.
Yes, I was anxious and scared most of the time, but with a baby in intensive care, I felt I had good reason. Likewise, when she asked if I blamed myself unnecessarily when things went wrong, I figured there was nothing unnecessary about the blame. I’d messed up, hadn’t carried my baby even close to term and so that I could visit our baby, our toddler went into nursery with no settling-in period.
The Health Visitor concluded I was somewhat depressed, and she was right.
Yet, although I didn’t start the second year of my course as planned, I went back in April, and the following year completed the MA, with distinction. Sometimes I look back and wonder how I did it.
But here’s how I did it, and how you can too.
From when my baby was a few days old, I kept a journal. My plan for this journal was to one day pass it on to her, so she could know what her early days were like, and know how I’d felt about her. And if she didn’t survive it would be for her sister. For months, that was the only writing I did. The baby came home, became seriously ill and went back into hospital on a ventilator. Through it all I journaled; it kept me sane.
The baby survived and came home again. One night, I fed her at 4am, and couldn’t sleep afterwards. Ideas flooded my mind so I got up and wrote them down. The next day I started a different journal – one that was required for my course. And I began work on my creative writing again.
Read About People Going Through The Same Thing
With a tiny baby and a toddler to look after, I didn’t have time to sit waiting for the muse. I wasn’t convinced I could write two coherent sentences, let alone a 20,000 word dissertation. But two books on my shelves got me through. They were Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott and Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, 2nd Edition by Natalie Goldberg. I’d read them before, but I reread them again and again, along with Lamott’s Operating Instructions, her journal of her son’s first year of life. I read Operating Instructions as I fed my own baby. It was reassuring to read about someone else struggling to write and care for a child.
Deal With Disturbing Thoughts
Every night when I went to bed my mind would fill with memories of my daughter’s birth and early days in intensive care, memories that left me panicky and depressed. So I would deliberately think about the novel opening that I was writing for my degree. This is not what most experts would recommend to someone with sleep problems, but lying in bed planning what to write disturbed my sleep considerably less than replaying memories that sent me into depression. As a bonus, I sometimes dreamed about what to write. While ordinarily I wouldn’t recommend this as a bedtime routine, if you experience similar panic and disturbing thoughts at night it’s worth a try.
Or try writing your thoughts down. Journalling before bedtime has often helped me to sleep better and when I sleep better I’m happier.
Deal With Self-Critical Thoughts About Writing
When I returned to writing after my daughter’s birth, there was a major change to my process, and this method I heartily recommend.
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott suggests that to get started we stop worrying about the quality of our writing and allow ourselves to produce “shitty first drafts.” She also describes the voices in our heads that say our writing is no good – the negative thoughts we have about ourselves. When we are depressed these thoughts come more frequently and with more intensity so to be able to write we need to find a way round them. Or, more accurately, a way to work with them.
I used a mix of Lamott’s method and the process Natalie Goldberg recommends, when you just keep writing and don’t pause to reread the last line, don’t cross out and don’t worry about punctuation or grammar. Just write. This takes you deep into the unconscious mind, to what Goldberg calls “first thoughts.”
I added something else. When the those negative thoughts came into my mind and threatened to stop me writing, I wrote them down. Right in the middle of whatever narrative I was working on, I’d write, “Oh this is stupid. It’s hopeless.” Or, “I can’t do this.”
And then, I countered that with: “You can do it, just keep going, it’s okay.”
Writing the negative thoughts down made them lose their power, whereas writing encouragement helped me keep going. You can read more about this on the post: Just Write. )
Of course, you wouldn’t publish something you’d written this way without making changes. It’s a way to get past the internal censors and once you’ve got a first draft then you can edit out everything you’d never want anyone else to see!
To recap here are the main points:
Ways To Help You Write When You Feel Depressed
- Write whatever you can, even if it’s not your usual style. (So don’t try to write humour if you can’t.)
- Journal, journal, journal.
- Do whatever you need to help you write, even if it’s not what “experts” would suggest. I thought about my novel at bedtime, but you might find that sitting in a noisy cafe works for you. The only thing I’d warn against is using alcohol or drugs to get you through. They might seem to get your creative juices going, but soon they will stifle creativity, and stifle you. (See: Women, Drinking and Creativity.)
- Write first drafts without editing.
- Notice the “voices” or thoughts that get you stuck, but instead of believing them, write them down. You could try this process of inquiry for sticky beliefs.
- Write encouragements to yourself.
- Be gentle on yourself, and don’t take on more than you can manage. Remind yourself the depression will pass and you will be stronger afterwards for having carried on writing and taking care of yourself.
If you feel depressed right now, remember you are not alone, you can get through this and you deserve to feel good about yourself. Take care.
Top photo by Master isolated images via Freedigitalphotos