In the first post of this series (and I urge you to read it if you haven’t done so), I talked about the healing potential of writing and a few do’s and don’ts to make it as helpful as possible. That’s important to know, but the general concepts don’t tell you how to get started. Since getting started is likely to be one of the biggest hurdles you’ll face, I’ve pulled together a few pointers that have worked for me.
I’m drawing these ideas partly from my own experience, but also from the best-known books of three remarkable teachers. They are Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Each offers excellent guidance on how to start writing and to bring it into your daily life. But they’re not writing manuals. They come out of the personal struggle of each author to heal and to find out what’s been holding them back.
Here are some of the ideas that have helped me learn how to use writing as part of recovery. They’re all ways of fighting off the depression voice that kept telling me not to try.
You may want to jump in and start writing. I’d urge you first to take a few minutes to think about what you’re doing. That will make it easier to stay with the process. It may take a lot of space to summarize these points, but none of them should take very long. If you spend lots of time preparing, you’re probably putting off the actual writing.
Forget Writing. Writing to deal with depression isn’t Writing. Don’t get caught up in any preconceived ideas you may have about poetry, fiction, creativity, inspiration and the rest of those lofty abstractions. This isn’t about becoming a writer, it’s about you, your thoughts and feelings right now. The writing is only a technique to capture your thought. I think of it as looking through the words to see more clearly whatever I’m looking at.
For your eyes only. My absolute rule is never to show this type of writing to anyone. If you do show it to even one person, you’ll probably find yourself with a censoring reader over your shoulder – the inner critic and voice of depression you know so well.
Basic Tools. Paper and pen, computer software – whatever mechanism you use should be one you’re already comfortable with. No learning curve – I can’t tell you how much time I’ve wasted trying out writing software programs. Each one took a long time to learn, and they diverted me from writing. Just take what you already use, and keep it as simple as possible.
Place. It’s best to be in a familiar place where you feel comfortable. But you might not be able to do that during a busy day, so write down your thoughts wherever you might be. Don’t try to set up the perfect writing environment. That’s just another distraction, another delay tactic.
Time. Since writing, like everything else, takes a little time, you need to set some aside for it. And I mean a little. If it’s hard to get going, take fifteen minutes to get stuff out of your head and into words. If you work full-time, take a few minutes in before or after work, over a lunch hour or whatever you can manage. If you wait until you “have” some time, you won’t do it very often. Same time, same place each day is best but not essential. If you just keeping writing, it gets to be a habit.
Light on Method.
There are numerous ways to structure what you put down, but I’ve relied on two of the simplest. One is keeping a journal. Another is the method Julia Cameron calls Morning Pages. I avoid timed writing, writing prompts – or any of the prepackaged methods. I happened to hear about morning pages from a friend and adapted it to my needs. What I did was sit down before doing any other work and write a few sentences to get out whatever was on my mind. I might stop there or keep going. In either case, there was an immediate calming effect in imposing a little order through words on a chaos of thoughts and feelings. Those morning pages helped me to overcome all my resistance to the act of writing and to get more and more deeply into the emotions and hopelessness of depression.
What to Write About.
If you find yourself resistant to writing, the resistance itself would be a great topic to start with. This strategy proved very effective for me, so I thought I’d list here some the compelling reasons that might keep you from writing. One way to start is by writing out all the reasons why you can’t write regularly.
No time – too many responsibilities. You could describe each of those responsibilities and how much of the day they take up. You could write down why each is important, why you’re the only one who can do it. You could write an answer to the question: Could I do each of these better if I weren’t so depressed? You could write about how you would feel if you took 15 minutes a day for yourself away from one of these activities.
Too depressed to do anything. You could write a couple of sentences about how you spend the day when you’re this depressed. Or you could say a little more about how this depression makes you feel – tired all the time, weighed down, slow-moving, empty, hopeless, convinced there’s no point to doing anything – all of the above?
Not in the right mood. What is the mood you’re in? What is the mood you would need to be in to write for 15 minutes? How does that feel? Do you often feel that way? What do you do when you’re in that mood?
Therapy makes me feel worse. What type of therapy have you tried? What was the therapist like? What did they want you to talk about? How did you feel after a session? Or if you haven’t tried therapy, what, if anything, helps you feel better?
Nothing to Write About. You could do a brain dump at the beginning or the end of the day, putting down whatever thoughts you have about anything. You might vent on paper about everything that’s gotten you worried or angry or disappointed or hurt. Or something you feel good about – whatever is in your head, no matter how trivial it seems.
These are a few possible starting points. It’s important to try this sort of writing for a week or so, not just once or twice. It takes a while. Above all, you shouldn’t expect it to cure you or immediately make you feel better. Nor do you have to try to explain anything or imagine there’s a right or wrong way to do it. You’re getting the thoughts and words that are flowing through your mind into written form. That’s all it takes to start.
If you take to this approach, sooner or later you’ll get into deeper emotions. To get the most out of writing for this purpose, you need to confront those feelings and have a close look. That’s never easy – and that’s what the next post in this series will explore.
Does writing as a form of therapy make sense to you? Is it something you’ve tried? Perhaps you’re already doing a journal or some form of daily writing. Do you find that helpful in dealing with depression?
Writing about my feelings just makes me feel more depressed. I have been severely anxious and depressed for 35 years on and off, but mostly on. It’s a horrible way to live.
If I had to name just one thing that I would recommend to someone who is depressed, it would be writing. When I was too depressed to do anything else (I mean ANYTHING), I could still sit at my desktop computer and write about how I felt. For years I told people that I didn’t have feelings. I just felt dead inside, or at least numb. Because I never cried, I figured I had no emotions. Then I saw a list of emotions, maybe 100 on one page. And that wasn’t a comprehensive list. I realized I simply didn’t know how to NAME my emotions. Once I started pausing several times a day to NAME what I was feeling it felt like my world expanded. I wasn’t only Depressed, I was Angry, Fearful, Bored, Engaged, Excited, Devastated, Euphoric, etc. I felt like a more complete person rather than having only two dimensions: depressed and anxious.
The other important discovery I have made with writing is the 3×5 cards I may have mentioned on this site before. I write myself a few things to remember when I realize I am crashing into deep depression. For instance, if a disappointment triggers the crash, I can pick up and read the card that reminds me: “No version of success is worth my self-respect or my will to live.” Then I can take a deep breath and say, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that. It’s true. I wasn’t successful when trying to socialize in a group today, in fact it was awful. But that is not going to cost me my self respect or my will to live.” These cards help me put things in perspective.
So writing can be used many different ways. And as John said, I don’t write these things to show them to other people. Once I framed one of my helpful reminders about the cost of survival. To me these aren’t trite memes, they are meaningful in a big way. But a man who was making repairs in my apartment laughed at it. (ha – I guess that was one of the costs of survival, right?) And I took it down and put it in a drawer. To me, it was too precious to put out for others who didn’t understand.
I have just started writing again in the last few days, after being away from it for a number of years. I think writing is helping to ease some of my depressive symptoms. I feel relief as soon as I start writing on any topic, not thinking too much about it, just doing it.
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, Roberta –
I’m glad you’ve gotten back to writing. It sounds like writing helps you a lot. I couldn’t keep going without it but did avoid writing for years at a time. That never worked. If you have this bent, it’s something you need to return to, sooner or later. It’s a way of making sense of what you feel and what you’re going through.
Good luck with it –