I’ve been thinking a lot lately about mental states — especially for writers.
I don’t just mean in the current divisive, angry atmosphere that seems to have taken over so much of our world events, politics, even snarky neighbor exchanges on NextDoor — although that’s certainly corrosive and omnipresent enough. But life often offers a stream of traumas great and small that threaten to derail our creative impulses — family concerns, money worries, health matters, crises of confidence. The result, often, is that creative work suffers: we get writer’s block, or succumb to crippling self-criticism and doubt, or backburner our work-in-progress as a luxury there’s no time for.
Writers, I think, are more than usually sensitive to such things — do a search on existential depression (as I in fact recently did) and what repeatedly pops up near the top of the results are articles that link it to those who are “deep thinkers” or highly sensitive — two common traits of writers and other creatives.
So what do you do with all that angst that you, as a creative, as an extra-sensitive, deep-thinking, hyperaware artist, may be roiling with at various times of your life?
You use it.
Believe it or not, these powerful, uncomfortable emotions can make your writing even more impactful. As an editor, I’ve noticed a slew of art coming out recently that “leans in” to this unrest many of us may be feeling in the current environment, from books like Amulya Malladi’s roar against sexism in the workplace, The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You, to Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, about institutionalized racism and white indifference; to anthems railing against injustices and hatred, like recent tunes by Pink and will.i.am; to shows and movies grappling with current pervasive issues, like Shameless’s take on mental illness, Pose’s African-American and Latino LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming storylines, BlacKkKlansman’s sharp, timely look at racism.
Many of us are wrestling with how to cope in the world — whether that’s a result of our current increasingly poisonous sociopolitical, ecological, and too often deeply personal environment, or life’s everyday speed bumps — financial, health, personal struggles that can derail even our strongest creative desires.
The power in letting these struggles inform your work is that they are universal. Whether or not all your readers may be feeling all the same things now, chances are good they have wrestled with similar demons in the past: rage, betrayal, loss, regret…and forgiveness, acceptance, love…peace.
Bestselling author Allison Winn Scotch recently wrote a post for Writer Unboxed about how the current state of the world was affecting her as a writer — essentially shutting down her creative font for two years, until she looked straight into the face of the monsters tormenting her and channeled all that into her work, finding a new inspiration from that very unrest. She wrote her novel — which will be released next year — in six weeks.
The marvelous thing about spinning struggle into art is that, counterintuitively, it can make your struggles a bit easier. Letting your characters wrangle with a problem you’re wrangling with not only lets you channel all those difficult emotions into your work, thus infusing it with intimate, visceral feeling and passion; frequently it helps you work through it yourself at the “safe” remove of helping/watching your protagonists do the same. Their battle will help you understand and work through yours — and, in a truly beautiful perfect circle, they often will also help readers recognize and transform their own challenges.
You can even use your current struggles to help create and inform the story — in this essay by Chuck Pahlaniuk he talks about how he did that very thing in creating Fight Club, and offers a couple of specific techniques for helping your characters (and maybe yourself) cope with crises.
How do you deal with life’s challenges, setbacks, and sorrows relative to your writing? I’d love to hear your tips — and let me know if I can share them (with or without attribution — let me know) to offer some practical strategies for authors.
In more than 25 years as an editor, with major publishing houses as well as through her own FoxPrint Editorial, Tiffany Yates Martin has been privileged to help authors, from bestsellers to beginners, tell their stories as effectively, compellingly, and truthfully as possible. She presents editing and writing workshops for writers’ groups, organizations, and conferences and writes for numerous writers’ sites and publications. Get her free 13-page guide on how to find, vet, and hire a reputable professional editor here.