This is a blog about writers melancholy but it applies to all entrepreneurs and creatives.
When I was growing up, in the 80s, in a tiny coal-mining town in a hemisphere far away, there was a kid’s movie that divided all pg-rated film-watching households. It was all down to a single scene.
It was a time of VHS players, bright colours and video stores full of pinball machines that were open seven days a week.
The movie, a staple in my house but banned in others, was The NeverEnding Story, and the offending scene was the horse scene. Remember it? The hero Atreyu loses his last friend in the world, his horse Artax to the swamps of sadness.
Atreyu pleads with his horse not to give in to the feeling of desolation. His coaxing and cajoling descend into panic as Artax sinks into the mud and disappears. I’m tensing up now at the memory of watching it.
Many, many, many year’s later, this scene returns when I’m feeling the inevitable melancholy about my work. Atreyu’s blood piercing scream echoes out of my memory bank, forcing me to stop and take note.
I say inevitable because as much as we can build structures and habits around our writing, we can’t dispense with the level of uncertainty that any creative endeavour thrives on. In those spaces where ambiguity resides, melancholy lurks behind, trying to stop you from getting in.
It’s that uneasy feeling you can’t put your finger on.
For me, it’s often sparked by an external incident, compounded by another. Perhaps a week of rejections or bad stats or finding out one of your clients have gone elsewhere. It’s not writer’s block, a complete grinding standstill. It’s more of a cloud, followed by a mist over a day or longer.
It manifests in distraction, low resistance to social media, which can add to the feeling, long slow days with insufficient to show. You know how it goes.
As much as you know and understand the excellent advice to focus on your craft and not on how the world sees you, a few confidence knocks have started working you into a frenzy of doubt.
What can you do? Seeking more good advice doesn’t work because you’re fighting fire with fire and what you need is some water which can only come from inside you.
Does simply identifying it help? No. Awareness is okay, but it won’t go away all by itself.
You need to move the melancholy on so you can get back to your writing work.
My writer’s melancholy is a feeling of hopelessness, a void. It’s not writer’s block in that you can’t write or move ahead; it’s something else; a temporary inability to connect with your writing, which for a writer can feel pretty terminal. It’s a feeling that you’re no good at what you do and that you should leave the stage immediately.
But you can’t leave behind something that’s such a big part of your core being.
You could let it run on its own and hope it goes away, but if fear is a lack of control over your writing capabilities, the objective needs to be taking back that control.
You need to return to your base, the place it all started and where you can tool up and head back out again.
A few notes on writing melancholy:
· It’s horrible, but it will go away.
· It isn’t a reflection that you are terrible at your craft.
· It’s not something that affects only you.
· It’s not permanent though; it will be back from time to time.
· It’s okay.
Starting again more than once in life has left me with the need to make my base an internal place. A place made of pretty simple things for my part, which makes a return to base an achievable step. Here are a few helpful things that I use to get me through writing melancholy.
The One Story
What’s the one story that kicked it all off for you? The one story that you read or watched that made you want to write? Spend some time reading that again.
If it worked the first time to inspire you, it might just work again to get you back on the road.
My favourites change all of the time. I read one book, and I want to be an author; I watch a particular film, and I feel that desire to create screenplays. I get inspired and return to the story I’ve been stalling on for months.
Inspiration stoking works every time for me. Sometimes it’s an hour of reading; other times, it’s watching a film at 10 am when I should be working on my website content.
Whatever story or stories drove you to create in the first place hold a vast stock of gold for you.
Your Core Strength
Return to an activity that makes you happy and relaxed; the one that restores your faith in just one session. Writing a fantastic script makes me feel blissful. But it can’t happen in one afternoon, and it’s not that relaxing.
Reading is my thing, and when I’m feeling sad, struggling through the next chapter of Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex isn’t going to help. I want to reread a crime novel I’ve read twenty times before or whatever my favourite book is. It’s time for allowing myself whatever indulgent and sense-free activity that I know will make me feel better.
If you’re reading this about writer’s melancholy, the chances are that reading is your core strength activity too. So what’s the book that will get you off the couch and on the road again? Or film, or a piece of music.
Think about one connection that made an impact recently. I’ve had a stifled week of writing but a great week of connection with people on Twitter, Medium and email, and that has given me a good yank back into reality.
How can you spend more time harvesting that kind of connection rather than focusing on some of the negative things you’ve experienced recently?. You’ve done it at least once; you can do it again.
Or reach out and make a new one. The right community is so powerful; it can pick you up and take you along with it.
Memory is one of the ultimate parts of our composite essence. Bad memories can still make me shudder; they make me avoid certain behaviours and follow certain instincts. But on the flip side, a good memory can be more potent than a European holiday for happiness and fulfilment.
If you can capture a good memory, especially one about a writing triumph, it could help guide you more swiftly through the melancholy.
Is what you’re struggling with really what you want? Hopefully, it is, but maybe you’ve come off the rails for a moment or two. I do this all of the time and have learned to have a weekly recap session with myself.
Sometimes we can end up so far from where we intended to be, and sometimes this is good, but other times we need to get that compass back out and realign.
Maybe your article’s aren’t getting enough traction, or your story was rejected for a competition, but what’s your core purpose? Is it to get views, or is it improving your craft? If it’s just views, what real value is that to you?
Melancholy has its place, but not for the wrong reasons.
Have you done something you wish you hadn’t? Or not doing something you wish you had? Back in your core, you can fix this most of the time, and if you can, you owe it to yourself to do it.
List/listicles/writing big swathes of pleasurable things for you to do.
A list of the next ten countries or states you will visit. A list of people to invite for a drink when the virus has died down. Ten different massages. Ten crazy stories to write.
Frivolous writing is useful to loosen yourself up. So if you’re focusing intensely on writing academic articles or literary reviews and this is causing you melancholic pangs, try something light. Maybe it will not just blow that cloud away but take you on a new adventure.
I know that food doctors and productivity whizzes say that junk food doesn’t provide you with comfort and that the phrase is an oxymoron. Still, I say it works for me sometimes, and if you’re trying to shake off the feeling of doubt and gloom do you want to add another set of rules to your stress?
Sometimes reaching for the biscuit tin just is the best thing to do. When you’re back on form, you can remember not to fill it up again, but when you need to give yourself a break, I say do it.
With the constant stream of expectation and judgement that comes from writing, it’s no wonder it brings on occasional bouts of melancholy.
But if you’re reading this far, then you are a dedicated writer, and your life will only be unsatisfying and more permanently sad if you put your pen down and stop altogether.
We’re durable beings writers, and though it might not feel like it when you’re in this mist, you will come back stronger each time you rescue yourself from the clutches of melancholy. Then, of course, you’ll feel substandard, and you’ll feel like quitting, but the way through is to find your way back to yourself.
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This blog was first published here at The StartUp on Medium.
If you’re a fellow creative writer you might be interested in this blog about creating mythologies within your stories.
Thanks for reading, and good luck on your writing journey
I’m on a mission to unpick the myth of creative genius and have put together a short, digestible guide on creativity and how small businesses can develop this mindset. Find out more here.