“I believe that words are strong, that they can overwhelm when what we fear seems more awful than life is good.” –Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon
Writing as a weapon
Depression is an evil companion. It challenges us with a duel to the death but takes away the very weapons we need to fight back: energy, resilience, even the will to keep trying.
At least it seems that way. The truth is we have an arsenal of weapons at our feet, everything we need to wage war and win — if only we could SEE this damned arsenal. There are hundreds of weapons. They’re everywhere. Think meditation, mindfulness, self-help cognitive therapy, gratitude lists, improved diet, individual and group therapy, support groups, medications, electroconvulsive therapy, transcranial magnetic stimulation, ketamine infusions, vagus nerve stimulation… and writing.
If you’re a writer struggling with depression, chances are you’ve been hit with writer’s block too. Maybe you manage to scribble out a few words from time to time. It’s a painful process, getting those words on paper, and they never sound right. Or you write viciously but only about your misery. Your thoughts go in circles and never get you anywhere. Or perhaps writer’s block isn’t the problem. It’s life itself, inside or outside, mild or severe; something has left you stuck inside your head. No matter the case, you can use writing to battle depression.* Keep reading.
NOTE: THIS IS A LONG ARTICLE MEANT TO BE READ OVER A PERIOD OF TIME. FOLLOW THE PROMPTS!
Writing fiction to overcome depression
Gather pen and notebook, and plan to write everyday. Whether it’s five minutes or an hour, write and write and write. If you prefer, you can use a computer, but don’t get stuck in correcting what you’ve written. Write without judgment. Your first words aren’t meant to be stunning or a future bestseller. They’re about healing.
The process is divided into four steps. The first step can be done in a day or two, but the rest should be slow and deliberate. We’re talking 2-4 weeks per step. So take your time, be patient, and write.
“Your creative imagination needs to let flow whatever comes to mind while writing, and let it all fall out as it may… conscious self-editing and commentary on what is being written is poison and leads to a writer becoming frozen….”
— Jeff Vandermer, Wonderbook
Step 1/week 1
We start with a simple task: a wish list. What are you goals, desires, wishes, and passions? Your inner child, your soul, needs to see its dreams scratched down on paper. Don’t believe in the inner child or soul? That’s okay: do it for yourself. Start writing! Don’t be afraid to ask for enormous gifts, like winning a beauty pageant or taking a trip around the world. Be specific, be optimistic, and be selfish. This is about YOU, not saving the world.
Flesh out your list by considering these seven categories. Do one category/day. Sample answers are included:
Health. What improvement would you like to see in your health? “That this depression were over, that I didn’t hurt walking, that I were physically in shape again, that I loved growing old.”
Possessions. What would you like to have in your possession or own? “I wish my apartment had a balcony facing west, that I owned a horse, that my husband had that car he wants, that we win the lottery.”
Leisure. What hobbies or interests would you like to have? “I wish more things interested me, that we had money enough to do stuff, like go to the movies or sign up for a couples dance class.”
Relationships. Are there things you’d like to improve in your relationships or friendships? “That my husband found me beautiful again. I also wish I had more friends. My goal is to make two new friends this year.”
Creativity. What are your creative goals? “I want to play the violin again, madly and every day. Lost interest in life lately; I wish I had more passions.”
Career. What are your employment wishes for the future? “I wish I loved teaching again, that I were healthy enough to work full-time and long-term.”
Spirituality. What are your spiritual or philosophical desires? “That I believed in a kind, personal god.”
Now that you’ve written your wish list, make sure to read it every day. There’s a strange phenomenon here, and you’ll have to suspend your skepticism for a few moments as you read this.
Some people say that every time you pull out that list of dreams and read it, fate pauses to listen. Read it enough times and something shifts in the fabric of reality. Keep reading and the universe itself steps in to cooperate with your bright new plans. That’s what they say, anyway.
But this isn’t magic, not really. The most likely explanation? Seeing your dreams on paper reveals your “True North,” the place you want to go, and this information creates a change in your behaviors. You unconsciously start working towards your goals. This shift is profound. It changes lives.
So start a “wish list” and fasten your seat belt. The most fascinating things follow.
This step should last about a week.
“Numerous contemporary authors, including Graham Greene, have even described their use of writing to manage depressions that were so bad they were considering suicide.” — Dr Schaefer, Writing through the darkness
Step 2/weeks 2-4
Now it’s time for the real writing.
From now on, when you sit to write: vent. Write about the suffering, write in earnest, and get it all on paper. Whether it’s three sentences or a page and a half, spend 5-10 minutes each day documenting how you feel. This isn’t a cerebral endeavor. Don’t problem-solve or intellectualize. Don’t seek meaning. Write about emotion, problem thoughts, bad memories, stress, painful relationships, and whatever it is that’s weighing you down. Jot it all down before moving onto the next paragraph.
Now you’ve written about the bleaker parts of life. There might be some relief seeing it on paper, or the dreary nature of your words possibly creates more misery. It’s okay. Keep going. Now change what you’ve just written. Start with the word, “Rewrite.” Plaster that across the page, R – E – W – R – I – T – E, then go back to the beginning of your “vent” and write everything the opposite way. Taking it one sentence at a time, rewrite the negative into positive. For example, replace the words “angry at myself” with “excited about my situation” or “pleased with life.” The change doesn’t have to be literal opposite. It doesn’t have to wax perfect grammar or profound symbolism. Nor do you have to believe it.
Here are two examples:
Original: “But I am so angry with myself now because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep, dark well, utterly hopeless.” — Vincent Van Gogh
Rewrite: “But I am so pleased with myself now because I can do what I need to do, and at such a moment one feels as though one were soaring across vast skies, a bright world, utterly stunning.”
Original: “The visions are all fled — the car is fled into the light of heaven, and in their stead a sense of real things comes doubly strong and, like a muddy stream, would bear along my soul to nothingness.” — John Keats, Sleep and Poetry
Rewrite: “The good memories are here to stay — the pain has fled into the darkness, and in its stead a sense of delight and life comes doubly strong and, like the morning sun, would bear along my soul to the place it belongs.”
At first, this exercise will seem useless and at times difficult. Even if you don’t believe a word you’re writing, the creative part of you needs to know it’s safe to come out, and this is a great step in that direction. You might notice a slight lift in your depression each time you reshape the negativity.
Make sure to rewrite your prose every day. Do so for 2-3 weeks before moving onto the next step.
“When everything goes to hell, write. If nothing readable comes of it, write… Write not to forget. Entertain the possibility that grief and heartache are cleverly disguised gifts from a benevolent universe that knows beyond knowing that you’re just the writer who can turn pain into a powerful and healing elixir.” — Ariel Gore
Step 3/ weeks 5-8
Like step two, start each day by expelling the negativity. Give yourself a chance to mourn your depression. Write of the anger, disappointment, hopelessness, loss, and physical drain. Are you struggling to keep your head above water? Do your thoughts and worries go in circles without end? Is it hard to get out of bed and dress in the mornings? Write about these things. Get it down in physical form.
Next, you’re going to rewrite what you’ve written, but this time with a bit of imagination in the toss. Write to the contrary of your depression, but in that contrariness find a vein of fiction gold to follow. As you change depression to happiness, twist the facts just a little and let the blurb grow. There doesn’t have to be purpose behind the rewrite. It just needs a little more body. We’re looking for a spark of fiction. Consider:
- What random details can you add? What about an additional person, shift of environment, intense colors, a million dollars, or a pie?
- What good aspect of the blurb can you exaggerate? Augment the positive — and dramatically.
- Is there something fantastical you can add? What about secret roles or callings, magic, special powers, or unexpected love?
Write it all out.
If your depressive words are “I don’t have the energy to clean the house,” what is the opposite, in semi-fiction form? Too much energy? A clean house? A simple, random contrariness would involve something like, “I’m filled with energy, and today I cleaned the house in record time, a grand mansion of a place with 123 bedrooms and an enormous living room. My neighbors applauded my effort and brought me an apple pie. It tasted good.” It isn’t pretty. It’s sort of absurd. But the creative part of you needs to play with words and ideas. Remember, this isn’t about quality prose. This is about your brain healing, and it needs a playground to do so. Here’s another quick example:
Original: “There’s no god. There’s no hope. Psychic ache is deep. Ache is deadly. I’ll never get over this. Even God has forsaken me.”
Rewrite: “A god stands nearby, his figure tall, with gentle eyes and hands… no, he’s sitting on that box over there by the entrance to my house. I can hear his breath and occasional smack of the lips as he listens — and he listens. But what do I have to say? There’s so much, isn’t there? Finally the god raises his eyes to meet mine, a spark of a look, glistening eyes… I see it. He knows everything. He is everything. And with that a voice meets me in the air: “You want your depression gone? I promise, then, that it will be gone.”
At first the rewrites will be a painful process. They’re a lot of work, and you’ll avoid them for fear of failure. Please press through. Writing badly is better than not writing at all. In time the reshaping will become easier, your blurbs longer, and on occasion the fiction will take off on its own.
By now you have a notebook of journal entries. Grab a yellow highlighter and read over your writing. First, highlight your wish list. This is your future. This is where you want to go. Second, highlight feel-good rewrites, especially the ones that hit the right cord. But as you read through your diary, stay away from the misery; depressing prose can be powerful and moving, but don’t get drawn in. Highlight only the positive. Seek out your dreams and future, search for uplifting prose, for that’s where you want to be.
Keep doing step three for at least 2-4 weeks before moving onto the next part.
“Virginia [Woolfe’s] need to write was, among other things, to make sense out of mental chaos and gain control of madness. Through her novels she made her inner world less frightening. Writing was often agony, but it provided the ‘strongest pleasure’ she knew.” — Peter Dally, MD
Step four/ weeks 9 -12
So far you’ve allowed positivity to step into your day. Your inner child, your soul, YOU are starting to trust life again. Despite all the heartache in the world, there is beauty out there too. It’s okay to dream. Now it’s time to use your imagination — fiction — to combat problems and increase positive emotion. There are many ways to do this. Here are four effective tools to use in your recovery. Devote one week to each method.
(1) Write a different ending. When faced with disappointment or tragedy, when an experience leaves you emotionally paralyzed, rewrite the event– with a good outcome. By establishing a different, better conclusion, you free yourself from the past. This gives you room to breathe and move. It also reminds the frightened kid inside you that things can turn out okay. One way or another, you can always confront reality at a later point, when you’re ready. People find this exercise easier when it’s written in third person. If changing the outcome doesn’t feel right to you, consider altering your perspective in a beneficial way. The conclusion is the same, but the protagonist gains some benefit or insight from the situation. Here’s an example of writing a different ending:
Original: “My friend had an accident today. He injured his spine and now can’t move his arms and legs.”
Rewrite (science fiction): “Igor was maimed in a fight, his body left crooked and pained. He would never walk again, never move again, we all knew it, but we tried to cheer him up with delicate humor. It didn’t work. He just lay on the ground and complained — until we heard it coming. Scratch-woop, scratch-woop, scratch-woop. It was a noisy multi-legged, metallic, blinking device, and with some effort it walked over to Igor and slithered around his body like an overgrown python, covering all four legs, torso, and both arms. Igor was upset about the process, but when the device was finished, Igor rose up upon his feet, clapped his hands with satisfaction, and grinned. ‘An external movement device… guess this contraption saved the day, eh?'”
2. Predict a positive future. Do you have an uncertain or stressful situation coming up? Use your writing to weave success into the future. Write about the event as it’s meant to happen, but lend it whatever magic you need to create a positive outcome. Be specific and exaggerated, and don’t be afraid to wax on the impossible. Again, don’t fear bad writing. Here’s an example:
Original: “I’m scared about my new teaching job tomorrow.”
Rewrite: “This new school makes sense. As I walk through the hallways, students and faculty stepping past, I’m surrounded by delighted faces, a contagious sense of well-being, and I realize I belong. The walls around me glisten white, a powdery, shiny pearl-white color that reflects the window’s sunlight, surrounding me with vanilla kindness. Even the walls are happy I’m here. They rejoice at my arrival.”
3. Bring forward good memories. Depression robs us of good memories and paints a bleak sense of now and future. But a great trick to help mood is to project warm memories into the future. Use your writing to bring those memories closer. Remember detail. Don’t forget those five senses. And if needed, twist the memory into something even better. Write in the present tense. This brings the past forward and reminds the kid in you that the best is yet to come. Here’s a quick example:
Original: “A mess. Can’t shake the feeling. I’m too depressed to go back to teaching students. I never was good at it anyway. Those kids would eat me alive.”
Rewrite: “I love teenagers. The class of adolescents before me, if you can call 11-year-olds ‘adolescents,’ is a fidgety, bright-eyed, curious, and sticky bunch. They steal my pencils, try to frighten me with tarantulas, amaze me with their know-how, overwhelm me with their hugs, and challenge me to come up with a hundred new strategies to keep them under control. But they match my excitement. They really do. I care about these kids, and that’s what makes me good at it.”
4. Fictionalize your wish list. Remember those dreams from step one? Now it’s time to make them happen — in your writing. Choose a wish from the list and write a detailed account of what that desire looks like when achieved. Focus on detail, action, emotion, imagery, and thought. What exactly does fulfilling the wish mean? Create a blurb of fiction with yourself as the protagonist, and use any enchantment you need to write a sensational future. Why is this important? Your brain needs to see its dreams in writing; it delights in the details.
Wish list: “That we buy our own house this year, one with a library.”
Rewrite: “I sit in my own personal library. Walls are cramped with books — all the books I’ve given away over the years, all the books I’ve lost, all the ones I’ve kept and read a dozen times… It’s a two-story library. Here’s my section, the writing studio, a woodwork desk oh-so-soft to the touch, an overlook window just before me. It smells of incense and tastes of a thousand projects ready for the doing…”
There’s a little kid in each of us that needs to be spoiled. There must be beauty in life. Whether achievable or not, the wish list does just that. Make sure to add chocolate syrup to the ice cream by unfolding your dreams on paper. This raises resilience and joy and gives your unconscious self more information about your true north, where you really want to be.
Next steps/after week 12
Keep using fiction in your journals. Fill your notebooks with words. Write about the pain, then rewrite your reality using any of the techniques above. Remember, once you start using fiction, keep using fiction. All four steps are long-term endeavors.
Review what you’ve written. Take care not to glorify sad quotations and prose. Focus your energy on the uplifting and beautiful. Highlight what resonates with you in a positive way, and read those parts often. Make sure to revisit your wish list intermittently too.
It takes time for your inner child, your soul, to remember the world isn’t all dark, that it’s safe to come out and play, and that the page is a fun place to dwell. Gradually your hopelessness becomes hope. Your black perspective remembers color. Worry is lit by moments of joy. Then depression gives way to imagination, and you realize one day that fiction has saved your life.
“I will not be ‘famous’ [or] ‘great.’ I will go on adventuring, changing, opening my mind and my eyes, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped. The thing is to free oneself: to let it find its dimensions, not be impeded.” — Virginia Woolfe
* Remember: when faced with a beast like depression, you need to use as many weapons in your arsenal as you can! Write, and write obsessively, but don’t limit yourself to this one intervention. If the depression is bad, seek professional help. Writing is a powerful tool but shouldn’t be a substitute for regular treatment. Also, keep in mind there’s been no formal research to either support or debunk the technique described in this article; this method is based on anecdotal evidence. And a last point: some of the points in this article are more intuitive than scientific, like the effect a wish list has on our psyche and behaviors.