Writing in the Dark
Five months ago, I started telling friends I felt burnt-out. My output was slowing, it took longer to get it to a place of quality and I was getting tired quicker and quicker.
And then I went to Edinburgh. For a month. With three commission deadlines to meet.
Now in one way, Edinburgh was One Of The Best Things I’ve Ever Done TM. In another it left me a completely self-loathing, miserable shell of a man. In the weeks and months afterwards, I was anxious, my thinking was foggy and I couldn’t seem to properly empathise with or understand people consistently. As a writer you rely on your clarity of thought and strength of observation so that disconnect was all fairly crippling for my work.
But I had a lot of deadlines.
To be clear, the absolute best thing you can do at this point like this is TAKE A TIME OUT. Don’t read this. Go on a holiday if you can manage it, even if you just spend it in bed with a book you’ve been meaning to read. It might do the trick, it might not. With a lot of occupations – especially salaried ones – you can hope to muddle through until you can get some annual leave or go see someone to get your head sorted (if it becomes as bad as that.) If you’re freelance, however, you could be in trouble since your pay is linked to your output and quality. If you’re anything like me then you’ll have a beautiful Sod’s Law situation when you’re most in demand when you feel like you’re at your least capable. The last few months have been the worst of my writing career in terms of my confidence and mental strength and it just about seems like I’m turning the corner at last. In the meantime, though it was no sort of fun, I still managed to (mostly) make those deadlines. I don’t recommend doing this if you can avoid it, but sometimes you just can’t.
Here are a few tips that helped me get by until I was able to make proper time and space for myself to recover. Use and ignore as desired if you find yourself aching to get away and reset but also needing to drag yourself along a little longer before you can:
1) TRUST YOUR COLLABORATORS AND LET THEM KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON
Whilst I’m usually quite decent at critiquing my own work, when I’m in a trough my compass for what’s good and not good goes right out of the window. After trying to bury this for a little while, I realised I was better off just letting the people I was working with know that I needed more oversight than usual. I did more drafts, looked for more criticism in between them than I usually did.
This can be a tricky proposition with clients/collaborators you don’t know too well and in those cases it might better to not take the job at all, but for those with whom you have a decent relationship more often than not you’re better off flagging it. They (probably) like you enough to want to help you through it.
2) DO SOMETHING ELSE, EVEN IF IT’S JUST FOR A MORNING
3/4 of the way through Edinburgh, I was a total mess. My thoughts were getting darker and darker by the end. I didn’t feel like I could let things go but I also hated everything/myself. Then I had a kind offer from someone I hardly knew to go jogging up a large hill early one morning. And you know what? It was enough. It shocked me out of my state enough to get me through the rest of the festival. So get back in the gym. Go to the park. Play with a cat. Anything that’s not writing/working.
Having said that…
3) STILL WRITE STUFF, MIX IT UP AND LET YOURSELF BE AWFUL
Misery often gets romanticised as a creative wellspring. I know it definitely isn’t the case for me. I rarely wanted to write and what I did needed to be dragged out of me. It’s tempting to sack it all off entirely and whilst that might help for a bit, it’s also true that process can take you through, even when quality seemingly won’t. In fact I’d say maintaining or re-affirming the productive structures/habits you’ve created (provided they in themselves are driving you into the dirt) is more important than you pushing yourself to be at the very top of your game or giving it all up in despair.
That’s hard to accept. At this point, a lot of what you produce isn’t going to be the best work you’ll ever do, it might in fact be really, really, shit, and it will be devastating to you because though we all accept, on an intellectual level, that creativity isn’t a linear curve of progression, we do still hope in our hearts for it to be the case. Do the best you can, but take the foot off your back. Work in shorter bursts. Give yourself longer than you normally would do to try and get your work up to scratch. Try a different method of working to shake off some of the gloom.
4) STOP WORRYING ABOUT WHAT EVERYONE ELSE IS UP TO
Comparing yourself to your peers is inevitable within any community. I’m probably looking you up right now. Sometimes it drives you to do better – it certainly has done for me. But if you do it too much, especially when you’re not feeling in the best of places, it can get pretty toxic, pretty quickly. When the words aren’t coming easily, it’s natural to try and escape your own loathing by seeing what others are up to, which in turn compounds the initial misery. Don’t do this to yourself right now. In fact, you’re better off not doing it too much in general (the occasional bit of social media stalking is ok) as you’ll likely only see the successes not the failures. We don’t tend to post those on Facebook. On a side note, going schadenfreude hunting for people’s failures to make yourself feel better in comparison is the dark cousin of keeping up with the Joneses. That can be a lot of fun but I promise that won’t help in the long run either. You don’t want to be relying on that sort of kick.
There are, of course, some people who seem like utter magicians, producing pounds of quality output, time and time again. If you tell yourself that sometimes everything sucks for them too and you only see the good bits, I suppose that’s half of the truth. The other half is that on the whole they might well be bloody superstars. Someone’s got to be. Accept that not everyone can work that way rather than drive yourself nuts over it. There’s still space for you.
5) REMIND YOURSELF WHY YOU’RE DOING IT
When you’re in a fragile state, your focus is a mess and it can be really hard to understand what you’re leading yourself into. You might pick projects because you feel like you should rather than because it’s what you want to do, and you do that because you’ve lost sight of exactly what it is you do want to do. How do you fix that?
For me, this was going back to narratives that made me want to create in the first place, specifically ones I loved as a kid. I wasn’t exposed to theatre back then but I did have…erm…Star Wars. So I sat down and re-watched the original trilogy over three nights and while of course it didn’t recreate the giddy thrill of childhood Christmas viewings, it reminded me that I wanted to entertain people above all.
And I didn’t even fast-forward through the ‘boring’ bits of Empire Strikes Back this time.
Good luck, kids!