Writing and Depression by Pam Bainbridge-Cowan

Author Pam Bainbridge-Cowan

I just read an article at Health.com that named writing as one of the top 10 professions in which people are most likely to suffer from depression. Of course that wasn’t a surprise. Writer friends and I have had many conversations about our tribe’s tendency toward suffering mental illness, and offing ourselves with rather disturbing frequency. Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Anne Sexton and of course Sylvia Plath are some of the best known examples.

Though the article didn’t teach me anything new – the “what” was old news – it did make me wonder about the “why.” I decided to do a little research. I found an article on the subject of depression by novelist Simon Brett. One of the things he said was, “Many writers are introverted, quiet people, and find it stressful to have their work assessed publicly. Now there are reviews on Amazon, for example, so that happens even more.”

He makes a point that is especially relevant to us these days, feedback is faster now and, I would add, with the anonymity granted by the Web, especially vicious. It takes a very strong person to stand up under these constant, or even occasional, blows to the ego.

Even if you ignore the pain of criticism, the very act of writing can inspire depression. Science fiction and fantasy author, Elizabeth Moon, in a wonderful article that talks about her own war with depression, put it this way. “If you wanted to make a cheery person with no predisposition to depression depressed, you could stick him in front of a typewriter or computer for hours a day – feed him a typical writer’s diet – forbid him to exercise, isolate him from friends, and convince him that his personal worth depended on his “numbers.” Make him live the writer’s life, in other words, and watch him sag.”

She then goes on to talk about the strange affection writers have for depression. I can certainly relate. In my early years as a writer I truly thought that depression was my muse, that it gave me a certain depth of understanding for the conflict and pain with which my characters struggled. It took me a long time to realize that I could write without that muse, in fact, I could write more, meet deadlines, and impress publishers. Depression is a terrible muse. It eventually takes its toll, wearing you down, destroying ambition and creativity, even driving you to self medicate with alcohol or other drugs.

One of my worst depressions occurred after I finished writing my first novel. I didn’t know that this is a common occurrence. That many writers, after finishing a long project, tend to get sick, get drunk, get depressed, or all three. Thanks to the intervention of family and friends I saw my doctor and began taking an anti-depressant. I then found a wonderful therapist and received cognitive therapy that helped me climb out of the dark hole I had fallen into. Therapy also gave me tools to help me recognize when I was approaching that edge again.

If you think you’re depressed there are steps you can take. Do not suffer in silence. Talk to your doctor, your friends, your family. Be honest. Get help. Don’t fall for the myth that depression makes you a better writer. You need time and energy to be a writer. Depression can rob you of both.

Pam Bainbridge-Cowan

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12 thoughts on “Writing and Depression by Pam Bainbridge-Cowan”

  1. Given that last part about post-publishing depression, the answer is to avoid finishing anything. So, I've been on the right track all along?

    Facetiousness aside, a good and timely article.

  2. I use my writing to combat the 'blues'. Sometimes it feels like a sink hole where you can't even breathe but the thought, "you have to finish this book, and the one after it, then the one after that," motivates me along. There are fights, family problems, shitty customers at the 'day job', depressing news about war or home invasions; then you can retreat into your room, turn on your computer, light an incense stick, put on some ambient music and write. When that book is finished, there's editing, formatting for paperback and ebook, marketing etc etc. Then there's the next book. What I learned in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is don't worry about the big things, just concentrate on the little things, the things you can do. Observe, Describe, Participate, Non-Judgementally, One-Mindfully and Effectively. Focus on what works. (steps down from soap box and moves away) 😉

  3. What a fascinating article. I especially like that you pointed out the depression that sets in after completing a big project. I thought that was depressing till I spent money on advertising…haha.

  4. Good article, Pam. I've already known that I'm not alone, but being in about the worst depression I've ever encountered, I guess it helps a little to know that while working at my exhausting physical labor day job, and coming home with no will to write anymore…I'm not alone.

  5. I think for many of us Pam, and definitely for myself, we write because there are problems in all of our lives. Writing/reading is our escape into another realm, for a short period of time. A definite escape if we're reading, and a way of control as well, if we're writing. I've often said the hardest part of writing is coming back to reality, where there are no happy-endings sometimes. We still have to deal with the day-to-day crap that happens in all of our lives. Finding balance is critical for any artist, and it's not easy. But none of us is alone, if we just reach out and ask for help. Even if it's just a friendly chat on Facebook with a friend. If you're having a bad day, week, month, year, or decade, reach out to a friend or family member. You don't have to go it alone! 🙂

    1. Some interesting thoughts, Pam. As a young man I also used to think that my depression gave me avenues of insight into the human condition. As I grew older, perhaps a bit wiser, but most definitely less depressed, I realized that my depression limited my writing. To really have a deeper understanding of people, we need to have a fine balance of being in touch with ourselves, but keeping an open mind about others- seeing the bigger picture; something that is difficult to do when you're wrapped up in your own dark place. Now days, when I find myself if a funk, I can't produce a word… at least not anything worth publishing :-)I'm very happy you found the support and help you needed. Thanks for sharing and thanks for caring enough to write this article!

  6. Thank the Great Whatever for the internet. At least I can go to Belize, in pictures, when it's a dark and dreary day on the Upper Left Coast. Trauma loops do not respond so well to cognitive therapy because they do not reside in the logical part of the brain. For those, one needs to trigger visualization, so I like to think of turquoise water. Thanks for writing about this. It is that time of year here.

  7. This is so true. I think writers create pain to write about, to feel what their characters feel. As a reporter for too many years to count, I felt lonely, isolated and as if I were writing in a vacuum. I never got any response, except for being roundly criticized every six months when I made a typo and had to write a correction. The subjects I covered for much of my career were, for the most part, depressing as well. I feel better and less depressed now as a fiction writer. I'm finally writing a novel (after my first two final drafts of other novels were brutally destroyed by someone close to me). It took me a long time to get over that and the feeling of being "less-than" because I couldn't just bounce right back and recreate those works. Part of feeling better now is that my day job now is teaching instead of non-fiction writing, and it's not such a huge leap to "Becoming Fiction" as it was. Being part of Northwest Independent Writers Association helps, too. I finally feel part of a group of people that are like me, not divas like some journalists and editors, and are truly supportive of each other. I think it's important as a writer to have the help and company of other writers who are not in direct competition with each other as are journalists. Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts.

    1. DBT? 🙂

      Thanks Pam. I'm a brand new author, hot off the press…literally. While I suffer from SAD anyway…ahhhh, the Midwest…I've been noticing that my depression seems much worse this year. I didn't know there's a new good reason for it. Thanks so much. This Indie thing can be a lonely proposition. I'm glad (or sad) that we aren't alone in that crash after the quest. I need to shift to promotion, promotion, promotion…But it's been a struggle with the weather, depression, etc. I thought I was crazy because I should be on cloud 9, but have been feeling sluggish and getting sick.

      Merry Christmas. Check me out at http://www.inaflash.org. I'm wrote a spiritual story of hope….And I'm depressed! So pathetic it's funny. No judgement there!


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