Writers and Depression

Tessa McGovernGuest post by Tessa Smith McGovern

Tessa’s observations here may not apply to most simple life writers who write part time and very much for pleasure and self-exploration. But her points are well taken in any event, especially the one about choosing which content to write about. That fits with James Pennebaker’s admonition to mix plenty of bright memories with the darker ones to keep depression at bay. I thank Tessa for sharing these points. It’s always good to know the risks of “turning pro.” 

According to the website health.com, writing is one of the top 10 professions in which people are most likely to suffer from depression. Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Hemingway…the list of writers who have fought depression is long. But what about people with no history of depression? How might writing affect them?

Well, let’s see. Take an otherwise healthy person, shut her up alone for hours at a time, day after day, month after month, year after year, watch her pack on the pounds (as physical exercise becomes a thing of the past), ask her to write, knowing that the end result can never be perfect and, to boot, tell her there’s no way of guaranteeing if she’ll be published, or paid.

Hmm, tricky question…

So what’s to be done? Well, one option is to choose, when we can, what we write about. Some stories cannot be manipulated. Some demand a sad ending. The bleak beauty of Alice Munro’s short stories, for example, would be lost if her endings were happy (or even bearable). But sometimes, when the first thoughts and images are just stirring, we do have a choice. We can mold content and/or conclusion.

I discovered this for myself by accident. A few years ago, I was reading my mum’s copy of the Daily Express, a newspaper designed to make English senior citizens rant and rave, when I came across an account of pensioners stealing free biscuits from their local cinema. It was so funny, and just happened to fit perfectly into the story I was writing. Each morning, I was amazed to find that I couldn’t wait to continue working on the story. This, after fifteen years of writing! Now I keep a file of strange or funny or awe-inspiring articles. Every now and then, one fits into a story, and makes the writing fun.

Award-winning author and founder of eChook Digital Publishing Tessa Smith McGovern will be chatting about what it takes to write and publish a short memoir, live on BookTrib.com Tuesday, December 7 at 3 p.m. ET. Tessa will be here ready to answer all of your questions and discuss her three essential memoir-writing tips.


Jacqi said...

Tessa's link between writers and depression is certainly one that has demonstrated itself in notorious ways. Perhaps that tempts one to view this in a chicken-and-egg way: does the writing cause the depression, and thus tips for factoring in uplifting elements help? Or is it the tendency to depression, itself, that draws the eloquent to polish their craft?

When I saw The Heidi Chronicles, it called to mind what perhaps what is at the root of this writer's dilemma: a sensitivity to the significant buried within the minutiae of life and a deep urge to capture its essence and transmit those observations to others--in the writer's case, via words on paper.

Creativity Coach-Sherrie said...

Jacqi asked what I came here to state. I honestly believe that depressed people look for ways out of their depression. Today, many people take pills prescribed by their mental health professional and then may or may not stop there.
Personally, it has been suggested many times throughout my life that I take anti-depressants, but I am not a fan of Rx meds or surgery so I have continued to look for other ways to deal with depression. For me, writing is a cure, not a cause of depression, and I wouldn't be surprised if this turned out to be true for many writers and other artists, for that matter.
I also agree with Jacqi's very elegant way of saying that we writers and other artists are just more sensitive to what is happening in the world and find the need to try to make sense out of it.
The sad thing is the number of people who do NOT try to understand their world, their feelings and their life.
It is certainly something to consider. It would be interesting to see what some of these authors have written on the subject.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Jacqi and Sherrie

Thanks for your insightful comments. Actually, research is validating what writers and therapists have long known -- that writing can be a ladder out of the pit of depression. Any form of writing will work. So, perhaps those writers were reaching for the light in the way they knew.

Joe Vitale, an eminent inspirational speaker, has stated that he intended to be an author when he was young, and it took him a long time to realize he was modeling his life on writers such as Hemingway and Jack London, who lived lives of turmoil and ended them at their own hands. Joe had unwittingly believed this chaotic lifestyle was part of the program for writing success. When he became aware of that belief, he jumped the train and found his on healthier way, becoming a prolific writer as well as speaker, author and entrepreneur.

What does that have to do with anything? Maybe nothing. You can decide.

kathleen said...

Dear Sharon & Tessa,

Very interesting points here. The best writers, I am told, evoke emotions in their readers i.e.,"no tears in the writer , no tears in the reader" (can't remember the author)but I do not think that has to automatically translate into all writers being depressed and in turmoil as Ernest Hemingway was. Writing certainly does promote periods of solitude and sedentary physical habits that have to be monitored and sometimes countered. Overall, I find writing to be a very healing process, painful at times but an antidote for depression.I feel it's up to each individual writer to determine how they will manage their writing life. It can go either way depending on our choices.For example, I could sit and write for 12 hours straight but I know that is not healthy so I try to make sure I do something to move around everyday. Some days are better than others,but if I want to publish a book, I have to commit to writing and if I want to live a healthy life, I have to commit to nutrition and exercise. I just have to figure out how to manage it all. Thanks,both of you, for a great discussion!

Tessa Smith McGovern said...

Hi Sharon, Kathleen, Sherrie and Jacqi,

Your points are well taken.

I'm not a health professional, and I haven't (fortunately) suffered with depression per se but for those who want to explore further, there's a book called 'Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression' which offers a inside look at the topic.

Jacqi, "...the writer's dilemma" - beautifully stated, and you're so right; sensitivity plus a deep urge to communicate is an undeniable driving force for writers. It's so primal I wonder if it has an evolutionary function - survival of the species, perhaps.

Sherrie, props to you for finding your own solution, and I agree that there are bound to be many people who look for ways out of their depression. Sometimes, if we're fortunate and happen upon a mix of topic and lifestyle that works for us, I think writing can be more about elevating the levels of joy and meaning we find in life. Are there any other solutions you've found?

Sharon - the lives of famous authors becomes a very influential part of their mystique and how brilliant that Joe Vitale became aware of his belief before it did him harm. I'm always curious about writers' belief systems; as a reader I'm always wary being hijacked by writers whose world views or intentions are questionable. I hate it when I've invested a lot of time in a novel that takes a turn for the worst. Has that happened to you? It's one of the reason I love short stories.

Kathleen - I know exactly what you mean; I also find writing painful at times but healing. Sometimes it's the only way to address an experience that needs tears shed over it. In those times, writing can be like an emotional breathing tube, a reed to the surface of the water.

Let us know how that whole nutrition/exercise balance thing goes! Not very good at it myself, although I remind myself frequently of Deepak Chopra's quote: "Everything in balance, including balance."

Happy writing to us all!


I am a writer who also struggles with depression. I take two separate medications daily because lifestyle changes alone weren't enough. I also work full time so as much as I'd like to, I can't sequester myself in a writing room for long hours. I think a healthy sense of humor helps shed light on the darker topics I write about. I had never thought to check the paper to find quirky writing ideas. Great suggestion. Thank you, Sharon for sharing the podium and thank you Tessa.