The first time I found myself inspired to write, I was about thirteen and staring at a picture of Oscar Wilde in English class. It was a faded photo of him reclined in a fur-covered armchair, looking into the middle distance as if he was staring down a man called “Writer’s Block”. There was a quote plastered below the photo, written in bold:
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
It’s both an elegant and heartbreaking statement. But I didn’t realise quite how much of a bitter-sweet declaration it was until I read up on Wilde’s exuberant personality, and how life crushed him to a husk by the end of his life.
Van Gogh shot himself; Jane Austen died poverty-stricken; Virginia Woolf drowned herself in the ocean. Even F. Scott Fitzgerald crippled his own mind by becoming a raging alcoholic. I began to think, “Is there no way to write and be happy?”, and for years I believed there wasn’t.
Depression and anxiety seem to be a running requirement of writing — one that’s been perpetuated throughout history, or perhaps by history.
It may be true that heartbreak and crippling experiences inspire creativity, but is there not a simpler, happier way to write? A way that doesn’t involve sacrificing mental health for the sake of relatable writing?
Below are 3 ways to keep yourself writing, but more importantly, to keep yourself happy.
1. Have a life outside of writing
According to Happify, only about 40% of our happiness levels are determined by ourselves. Ipso facto, external sources are responsible for 60% of how we feel — a frankly depressing statistic.
However, that 40% is still controlling a big chunk of our feelings — and we can control how we use it by living a happier, healthier, more varied lifestyle.
A few years ago, I’d never have believed there was such a thing as “too much writing”. But having spent most of my furloughed lockdown last year staring at a blank page every day, consistently, for five hours — now I know there is. Soon, writing feels more like something of a chore than something you do to feel liberated.
Writing is dependant upon good sources of inspiration, so when my ideas dried up, I did the following:
- Learned British Sign Language: It’s a skill so few people have, and yet it’s opened so many doors for me. I’m even considering volunteering in my local deaf community to meet new, interesting people: people I might be inspired to write about.
- Attended a virtual slam poetry live-stream every week: I’m not much of a poet — but this was single-handled one of the best things I did in lockdown. It introduced me to a new way of expression I’d never seen before.
- Learned a new programming language through Udemy: My day job is being a programmer: I’m a writer by night. But I’d never explored web development before, and learning to create actual, beautiful websites flicked my creative switch.
Soon I was back to writing quality work again. Why? Because if my ‘writing mojo’ was still hiding, it didn’t matter so much. I had other, external goals to work towards and be proud of.
2. Keep a gratitude journal
This one is a bit of a cliché, but that makes it no less useful for keeping your mental health in check. According to a study conducted way back in 2006, writing in a journal every day is as effective as behavioural therapy in preventing episodes of depression.
Not only that, but journaling is a great way to hone your writing craft without even thinking about what to write. If you can’t write down your thoughts when you’re feeling as unlucky as Frank Selak, then what can you write? It’s as if God invented journaling specifically for writers as a combined antidote for low moods and writer’s block.
If you think that you already spend too much time writing (“Why would I do it even more if it’s depressing me?”, I hear you ask), then don’t stress. I set a timer for ten minutes every evening to write in my gratitude journal, and I’m usually done in half of that. Here are some ideas to fill the time with:
- What did you finish today that you’ll thank yourself for tomorrow?
- Who are you most grateful for in life? If you could thank them to their faces, what would you say to them?
- List three things about your health or appearance that you’re grateful for. This one can be hard if you’re particularly self-conscious. But everyone is capable of saying “I’m grateful my body hasn’t deteriorated since yesterday.”
- Be grateful for what money you have, no matter how small. Remind yourself that you are likely more stable than a lot of the worldwide population
- Every day, I thank the world that I am literate. I can read; I can write. It is the greatest gift I have been, or ever will be, given.
3. Do not sacrifice financial stability for the sake of writing
“If money didn't exist, would you still chase your dreams?”
“Follow your dreams” is a phrase tossed around everywhere these days. And whilst it’s true having ambitions is healthy, don’t sacrifice a good, stable life in the process of following your dreams — especially writing ones.
Most of us know that it is perfectly possible to work a full-time job and write in our free time. That way, you have a stable paycheck at the end of every month, and any money earned writing is extra money for savings or pocket money.
Although it is possible to write full time, this usually takes years of work and a reliable flow of income from a well-developed audience. But until that point, being a full-time writer would pose a lot of financial instability — which is one of the leading causes of depression.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if you are financially secure enough to pursue your writing full time. If you want to take a year out to write, then fine: but do you have a year’s worth of savings to fall back on? If your writing falls over, how can you ensure your finances don’t as well?
There’s no way of controlling every aspect of your life — sometimes, life just happens, and your mental health can deteriorate with the ups and downs. But try filling your time with non-writing hobbies by meeting new people and learning new skills. Save as much money as you can whilst doing it so that when the time comes for you to pursue your writing dream, you’re prepared and secure.
Writing is a difficult, hard dive into life’s experiences, but it’s a talent and skill not many people can harness. Being a writer means being observant of society and having ambitions to write about it — but in the process, our own mental health can suffer. To avoid it, you have to keep the parts of your life you can control as balanced as possible.