I spend a lot of time trying to remember how to write. I fiddle about at my desk, cleaning the keyboard or attempting to neaten the piles of paper that started off in some kind of order (tax receipts; to read; to shred) and are now somehow comprised of books and art supplies and paper bags and receipts. I used to worry that I never had any ideas, and any that I did have were essentially derivative. It was a symptom of fatigue, I think. Sure, everyone leans on those who have come before to some extent, and more so, probably, when you are pushing yourself (or being pushed) in every other aspect of your life. The brain is not sequestered in a glass case away from the trials and tumbles of the body. But sometimes the ideas are there, it’s just the writing that’s the problem.
I took on a large arts administration contract over October and November, which was necessary to keep the wolf from the door but ate up all my writing time. When I tried to start writing again, the Christmas mania was already descending upon Melbourne and the forces driving me away from my desk were persistent and often time sensitive. I tried to pick up my project again. It was hard. I got depressed. The ideas were battering against the walls of my brain—I have the lists of them to prove it!—but the execution just was not happening.
Writing is a process, and I’ve made an effort over the past 18 months to map the cycles that make up this process for me. The things I have learnt about myself could, if I thought that would be useful, be chopped up into snackable chunks: I work best in 90-minute sessions; the good stuff only comes after the first half-hour; turning off social media and email notifications on one’s phone is a revelation; sitting with your work is almost as important as getting the words down; a regular journal-writing habit will only happen if you give yourself permission to be messy and write about trivia. But it’s surface-level stuff. The real struggle is in how these processes are bound to my emotional cycles, and how they interact with each other.
If I am finding writing hard and progress too slow, I get depressed. Every project, even the small ones, involves difficulty. Sometimes, like now, it’s about getting started again when the wheels are rusty. More often than not though it’s about a third of the way in, when I have to start pulling together disparate ideas in some sort of logical order. (I have, in my thirties, finally learnt the value of an essay plan.) Sometimes it’s simply because the subject matter is tough and the learning curve is steep and I am getting tired of it. I have all sorts of other tendencies to bound up in this, too: perfectionism and a predisposition towards having unrealistic expectations of oneself; fear of failure; old bad habits—fairly run-of-the-mill stuff, but the interplay between them is as individual as a fingerprint. Still, I have come to accept that depression, of a kind, is built into this process, and at this point, all the writing tips in the world won’t help: what’s necessary is managing the funk.
Everyone has their own strategies for managing mild to moderate depression (more snackables: avoid alcohol; get enough sleep; get enough exercise; eat your vegetables; have a treat every now and then; cuddle the cat). They come with a caveat, though: if I leave my work at this point—if I try to make things easier on myself by giving myself a break until the funk has passed (and I don’t mean fifteen minutes for a cup of tea or going out for the evening, I mean whole days together where I do no actual writing on the project)—it actually makes things worse. The real anxiety starts to build then, coupled with a particular kind of self-loathing that comes from a history of starting projects and leaving them unfinished. No, the key is managing the funk while at the same time writing through it.
I do think there is something to be said for journalistic training here—being taught to write to deadline, quickly, simply; filing copy even when you think it might be rubbish; pushing through the hard stuff and the boring stuff to get to the good stuff: these are all things that become easier with practice and take the unnecessary ethereal bullshit out of the creative process. Actually, writing is repetition. Writing is habit. Writing is routine. Writing is boring. Writing is a job. But while it’s easy enough to say ‘just write’, it’s rarely that easy in practice, particularly when not writing will actually make it easier to make ends meet.
One of the most important things I’ve learnt about my own process, I think, is that when I do all the right things—when I stick with the work no matter how awful I think it is or how terrible I feel about it (and myself), I get through it. I resolve the problems. I get the momentum back. Sometimes unexpectedly, I finish.
The funk is necessary, but more importantly, it’s temporary. This too shall pass. The way out is through.