When the Black Dog Bites: How to Write When You’re Depressed

writer-2The cliché of the depressed writer can seem almost romantic to someone who has never tried to put pen to paper or been in the thrall of senseless emotional suffering. But for those of us who wish to write, depression is more often a bane than a boon. You can hardly drag yourself out of bed, unwanted thoughts swirl around your brain, and the blank page, instead of offering a land of possibilities, becomes a mirror of your own hopelessness.

The first thing is, of course, to get professional help. Visit to the doctor, see the shrink, take the drugs or herbs or do therapy or do yoga or do whatever it takes to feel better. But even when you’re on the up and up, there will still be some days harder than others. Here are some thoughts on how to keep your writing going through those days.

1) Do what you can

Sometimes it may feel like moving mountains just getting up and showering. Some days you may burst into tears for no readily apparent reason. Do what you can. If you try to write all morning and only put in a single comma, well that’s how Oscar Wilde said you should do it anyway. Put in the effort, but realize you’re not going to be running at top speed.

2) Don’t make any major changes

It’s often wisely advised that depressed people not make any major life changes while they’re down. Your head isn’t in the right space. You’re seeing things through distorted glasses and what may seem impossible or inevitable now may appear just the opposite when you’re feeling better. This goes for writing too. If you feel the urge to trash your novel, destroy whole subplots, or change the gender of the main character, shelve that idea until you’re in a better place emotionally.

3) Sink into the world of your story

Depression can inspire escapist activities: spending a few thousand hours on facebook, watching three seasons of Breaking Bad back to back, completing every subquest in Skyrim. Use that escapist impulse to sink into the world of your story. Imagine exactly what your characters look like down to the freckles and really dig into their fears and desires. Let whole scenes play out in as much detail as you can. If you’re having trouble putting words down, just imagine it in your head. When you feel up for writing again, all of this will pay off in a deeper, richer world.


  1. Carol Gray

    Good advice, RJ, especially the part about not skewering your novel when you’re in the pit of despair — something I’ve been tempted to do on those bleak days. Thanks.

  2. Michael Nolan

    Wonderful job, RJ. It’s nice to know I’m not alone out there. I like best your suggestion to imagine the character, even if you can’t write him or her down in actual prose. “Dig into their fears and desires,” as you put it. When you’re depressed, you have that evil, judgemental genie hanging close, just over your right shoulder, looking down, literally and figuratively, on everything you try to do. Sometimes, it might be a good idea for rest of us to tell judgemental-genie to go screw himself. Perhaps then we can examine some of the ideas you put forth in section 3.

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