My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, September 14, 2018

Are Snippets While Depressed Writing?

Does light writing while depressed "count"?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer a couple each week.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous. Our questions might look a little "thematic" in the next few weeks since they come from disassembled Twenty Questions posts.]

Jere asks:

I have a srs question.  

Let's say someone has many years-long depression that kills most of their will to ever create any kind of art, let alone clean their house or properly take care of themselves besides absolute basic daily needs.

If the best they can do for actual writing is to make pages of notes in building characters or settings, and small snippets of situational scenes for practice, and they keep doing this for years... does this still count as "write every day"?

My reply:

First of all, I'm very sorry about your depression. I struggle with some down energy that kicks my ass for a couple of days but it just doesn't compare to some folks' struggles, and I avoid the D word. I know that mental illness can affect creativity, daily routine, and even just enjoyment of once-enjoyable things, so I don't want to step in here like I have answers a professional therapist would. I have some advice for writing with depression, and there's more to come after my attendance of Worldcon 76, but take it with a grain of salt as well as whatever level of help you might be able to afford and as much gentle self-care you can get. The best we can do is the best we can do.

"Write every day" shouldn't be prescriptive in the sense that anyone is able to be an arbiter of any particular writing adjacent activity's validity as really real writing, and if it is, you have my permission to snap kick the prescriber in their shin*. In that regard, I am unable to bestow the status of what "counts" and "doesn't count." (And neither will the deluge of comments in various social media [most from those who didn't read the article] telling you that absolutely it counts.)

No one––absolutely no one––has the power to take that judgement call away from YOU, whether they say no OR they say yes. They mean well, and maybe they're assuring themselves as much as anyone, but it's still 100% up to you whether it counts.

(*But not really because I have no authority to grant such permission.)

If this is what you enjoy and what you love and it brings you pleasure or fulfillment, then everyone else can take a flying leap into a vat of fecal matter. It surely counts if you count it. If this is the most you can do because of depression, then it's moot how useful or not it might be, and it might make your mood/outlook worse to be unkind to yourself that you can't do more.

If your goals are to be a famous, well-paid novelist someday then the water might get the slightest bit muddy. Writing these snippets is certainly better than doing nothing at all, but your skill for the parts you are avoiding (like any other unused skill) will atrophy over time, and you'll likely have to step up your holistic game before you start to write anything that you might want to submit. In your particular case, Jere, you are likely to find that you're tremendously good at small snippets, world building, and really neat characters that you've really thought through, but may have trouble tying those together with a cohesive narrative or coming up with a compelling character arc that spans a whole work. And of course that is assuming your depression picks up, moves to barbados, and lets you work for a year.

Imagine yourself as a basketball player who has been shooting some hoops from the freethrow line and the three-point line, and gets into the occasional pick-up game. You might be quite good at sinking shots and decent at the game, but it's not the same as the practice you'd need to go pro. You're going to have to learn to move in on the basket, pass, lay up, and move up and down the court for over an hour. You will be in a much better place than anyone who had done nothing, though.

Then again you'd possibly be really good at micro-fiction or poignant vignettes. Or simply at writing works with strong characters and intense moments but a weak overall plot arc.  (You certainly wouldn't be the first published author with such clear strengths and weaknesses. Shakespeare was generally terrible at plot. If the intensity of each moment weren't so fucking awesome you'd probably notice that except for MacBeth, most of his works drag a little.) Perhaps it might work with your mental illness to consider the kind of writing you work well doing, and not trying to force yourself to be a novelist (or write a novel that focuses on something other than a grand plot arc).


  1. Disagree.
    Like any other skill, getting better at writing (or aspects of writing) is subject to the law of diminishing returns. While this sucks the big one for getting super mind bogglingly good at a particular aspect of writing because grinding each successive improvement becomes more difficult than the last, it also means that being passable or even "pretty good actually" requires a surmountable amount of practice.
    So if Jere here focuses solely on a few aspects of writing for years, they're probably better at those bits than most. And when it's time to diversify, they will be passable in most aspects after some practice and phenomenal at a few. So they have an unbalanced skillset sure, but: (and this is key) so what?
    Writing means a lot of things to a lot of people and different folks enjoy different aspects of it. That's why there are so many types and forms of it. There is a sizable audience out there that LOVES the aspects that Jere is fantastic at but less excited about the things that need work and they will happily say: "Well, Jere's major plot arc is kind of simple but OH GOD it's like you're REALLY IN THE ROOM. And the CHARACTERS! they COME ALIVE! You HAVE to read this!"

    And frankly, Jere has a leg up on everyone else because like in many applications, in writing it's better to be a specialist than a generalist. Think of an example of something that you've read that's not BAD, everything is pretty good, or even good, but no aspect of it is really great. That's a recipe for forgettable writing, for a lot of 3 star reviews on Amazon with a comment that says: "It's alright, but nothing really special."
    Conversely think of some writers you really enjoy. Think of the debates you have with your friends that DON'T enjoy those writers. Those go something like: "OK, YES Zelazny writes like he gets paid by the word. and YES, every time his protagonist walks through shadow he tells us about it long form EVERY TIME like we haven't read the first three times he did it in THIS BOOK ALONE. BUT When he wants to punch you in the gut with emotion, it knocks the wind right out of you. And his descriptions are so vivid and at the same time surreal that it's like being in a Dali painting."

    I mean yes, if you want to be a writer you do have to practice all the bits long enough to be passable at them, and yes there is no time like the present to practice all the bits just a little now and again, but at the same time It's OK to be imbalanced and specialized. Maybe even preferable.

    P.S. I feel like I disagree with you every time I comment on your blog. Just please keep in mind that I agree with you more often then not, I just don't drone on about it, and that I'm still voraciously consuming what you're producing so I must like it. :)

    1. I've read this comment twice and I'm not actually sure we disagree, or if we do, you've focused very closely on a small aspect that I didn't word quite exactly as you might have. Because, I pretty much agree with this.

    2. Then I withdraw my objection because I very often DO get hung up on minutiae and miss the forest for the trees. We can just assume that's what happened here. :)

  2. If you write every day, you're a writer. You may not be a good writer, a novel writer, or a published writer, but you're a writer.
    If, however, you are only thinking of all the things you want to put on paper... well, as the old saying goes, "You should be writing".

  3. Funny you mention 'poignant vignettes'. I seem to write mostly these, I get great feedback from people who read them, but have struggled to figure out what to do with them. So what do people do with them? At this point, I'm interested in exposure and/or building an audience. I'm pretty sure I don't want to start a blog. Any advice?

    1. Find a local newspaper and offer to write a regular column for free. If you're even halfway competent, one of them (I've written for four in my little community east of Portland, Oregon) at least one of them will snap it up. Build from there, and you're on your way.