Unstick Your Thoughts: Breaking Through Depression to Keep Writing

Photo by Freddy Castro on Unsplash

I write my best work when I’m at my worst. There’s something about the nihilism of a truly bad depressive episode that lets me write recklessly, building bridges between ideas with ease, creating a flow of words that carries readers through my ideas like a river carries a rowboat. There’s something about the feeling that nothing matters that sparks creativity. There’s just one big problem — how on earth do I find the motivation to start typing away when I want to blink out of existence?

The tortured artist is a common cliché, but it can be beyond your control when you struggle with an ongoing mental illness. And, if you’re like me, not writing through the dark days isn’t an option — after all, I need to complete my pieces by their assigned deadlines so I can feed myself next week. On some days, that alone is enough of a push to get me typing away. On other days, though, it isn’t. So here are a few of the strategies I’ve used to get words on the page when my brain doesn’t feel much like cooperating.

Get Sidetracked

When I was a kid living on a ranch in the mountains, my parents adopted a donkey. They are inordinately thoughtful creatures, which leads to them being mislabeled as stubborn. You could try and pull Emily Louise with a tractor and she wouldn’t budge an inch unless you could convince her there was a damn good reason for her to take a single step forward. And if you did, you’d have to convince her there was a reason to take another step in the same direction.

Emily Louise, largely retired from having to deal with our nonsense, living her best life in the snow. And moving forward, because Mom’s holding a marshmallow and that seems like a really good reason to move forward.

When her feet got stuck, we couldn’t convince her to move forward, but we could usually convince her to move in any other direction besides that one. The distraction of changing direction was frequently enough of a change that she forgot why she didn’t want to go forward, so off she’d go, heading the right direction the next time you asked her.

“I’m a writer,” You say, “Not a rancher. Why are you telling me about donkeys?”

My point is — get sidetracked. If you can’t move forward on a project, step sideways to something else (It’s exactly what I’m doing in writing this when I have tasks due today). Stop beating your head against the brick wall of writer’s block, and see if there’s a way you can walk around it. Getting words on your paper is hardest when you absolutely need to get them down, so try starting on something that doesn’t need to be done right now. You may find your flow carries you right past that writer’s block.

Draw Up an Outline

I’m not an outline person. I know where I start, I know what I need to cover, and I know where to end, and I write from start to finish. Changing up my method, however, is a great way to change the way I’m thinking, which, when I’m not thinking normally, can push me back into a better headspace for writing.

Outlining your article, blog, chapter, or project is like creating a to-do list. I need to write these things today; is one of them an easy spot to start? If so, don’t start at the beginning, start there. Warm up before you get to the hard part.

Change the Scenery (Or Your Playlist)

I’m really guilty of listening to the same Spotify list ad nauseam, working in the same space (my teeny home office), and generally getting in a big funk because I feel like I do the same thing every single day. Rather than living through a Ground Hog Day-esque existence until the weekend comes, I make a point to switch it up when I’m feeling bad.

Take three minutes to find a new artist or playlist. Go take your laptop to work standing at the kitchen counter. Open the blinds. Open the windows. Choose a different coffee shop. Whatever your habit is, change it. Even if it’s for one day. You may be able to shake your miserable mood for long enough to get some real work done.

Now that I’ve sidetracked myself, excuse me while I go move my laptop to the kitchen table and find a new playlist.