Sometimes, the depression I have over the winter slowly fades away with each sunny day. Sometimes, it disappears suddenly and all of that energy I was lacking over the last two months appears. All at once. And I spend all of my free time over four days creating a large painting of flowers.
It’s been a while. I don’t really have an excuse except for this: Depression is a hell of a thing. Or what I mean is, depression is hell.
I went almost all summer without writing hardly anything. I didn’t do any painting either. No drawing. I didn’t bake. My garden was a mess, planted and then forgotten about until the tomatoes hung rotting on the plant. I slept late, pulling myself out of bed at the last minute. I kept my house clean-ish. I took showers and I kept my children alive. That was the high-functioning part of it but even that was drudgery, a slog. It was trying to get somewhere while always feeling like I was wading through chest-high water.
Eventually, the depression subsided.
I don’t mean that I waited around until I miraculously felt better. It required work. I went to therapy every week and saw a psychiatrist who changed my medication and this time I didn’t fight the concept of being medicated. I worked on being kind to myself, on not beating myself up for the loss of productivity. I read a lot of books, but only those that were funny or had happy endings. Everything else felt like a trigger. I worked through each day, one at a time
I’m grateful for the people that were there for me and supported me through this miserable time. Even more than that, I’m so glad that they didn’t give up on me. This might not be my last episode of depression but my hope is that each time I have them they become shorter and less severe.
Also, I want to remind anyone else who is reading this and is suffering through depression, you deserve happiness. You are worth whatever effort it takes to get through it.
I’m painting again and back to writing every day. I have exciting things to look forward to. What I mean is: I’m back.
For the second year in a row, I participated in Inktober. Last year, I had done a sort of half-marathon, only churning out about fifteen piece of work. This year I doubled that number. I tried to push myself to approach ink in a different way, despite wanting to just use an ink and a brush. Here are a few of the things that I tried.
Continuous line drawings
I liked just moving my pen along with what my eyes were seeing, without worrying too much about what my finished picture was going to look like.
Similar to the continuous line drawings, these were really just explorations of my subject matter, with once again not worrying about the end result. I think of it as working to connect my eyes to my brain to my hands and to be able to more correctly draw what is in front of me. Worrying less about what it’s supposed to look like and concerning myself more with shapes and shadows and lines. I also did a series of speed drawings, which are always a great way of loosening up when drawing.
Another fun way to loosen up was to use scribbles to put in values. I drew the woman on the left while waiting for my son to get out of dance class and I imagine people must have thought I was a crazy person scribbling furiously in my sketch book.
Because I’m so often drawn to drawing people, especially portraits, I tried to do a few landscapes. I like painting landscapes, but drawing them in black and white wasn’t really a lot of fun for me.
The best and most exciting part of Inktober this year was finding a new style of drawing, especially my preferred subject matter, faces. Using different line widths and using the spacing between those lines I was able to create different values in my work. I wouldn’t have discovered this new style if I hadn’t forced myself to continue to work with pens for the first half of the month. This has become one of my new favorite ways of drawing and also has led me to approach my painting in a different way as well.
Throughout the year, I don’t often get an opportunity to draw as much as I would like, as I use the bulk of my spare time for writing, but I’m always happy to participate in Inktober. It’s a great way of getting back in the habit of regularly making art and it also pushes me to discover new ways of creating.
Most of my free time is working on my writing, a process that becomes more and more agonizing the more I try to push myself to be better. There are days that the joy of creating the story is lost in the labor of perfecting the words.
That’s when I find myself reaching for some other creative outlet. Of course I like to draw and paint, but even then I can still feel myself become too attached to what I’m doing, worrying about if it’s going to look right and if I’m going to make a mistake.
So, this summer I rekindled my love for sidewalk chalk.
I’ve found there is something wonderful about a brand new container of chalk and my clean black driveway. Whether I make something beautiful or not, I don’t get to keep it. It’s gone with the next rainfall. If the kids want to come over and help me with what I’m doing, it’s fine. In fact, it’s encouraged. If they want to ride their scooters through it or shoot it with water guns. They can. The end result doesn’t matter, only the process of creating.
I’ve gone through buckets of chalk and I think the neighbors must think I’ve lost my mind.
I went through a Smiths phase when I was a teenager. Maybe a lot of people do? Most likely, I have my older sisters to thank for it. If I had been left to my own devices, I probably would have listened to garbage music. I can go a pretty long time without listening to the Smiths, but out of nowhere one of their songs will pop in my head.
Lately, I’ve been thinking of the song, “You Just Haven’t Earned it Yet Baby.”
It has become my “pick yourself up and dust yourself off” song. When I feel overwhelmed by editing. When I lose at something I wanted to win. When I want success now, not a year from now. I hear it.
Whatever it is that I may want, I haven’t earned it yet. I haven’t been writing that long, not seriously anyway. I haven’t even begun to suffer through rejection. I’ve managed criticism fairly well, but everyone who has given it has been supportive and constructive. There are trenches where writers spend years, working on their craft and toughening up. I’ve barely put my boots on.
I don’t know how long it will take me to get where I want to be. I don’t know what path will get me there. I’m trying to take every path and road I can without getting lost. The only way I know I won’t get there is if I never try or I just give up. Sometimes, the things we really want are costly. We pay with time and commitment and even disappointment, but I think we can earn it.
Great. That song is stuck in my head again.
When I was pregnant with my son, I wanted to know what childbirth was going to feel like. Giving birth was no longer some event in the future but was close enough that I had an idea of when it would happen. Not before my due date, my mother had warned. Boys don’t want to move out. She could tell me he would be late but she couldn’t articulate what it would feel like. She wasn’t the only one who couldn’t tell me. I was told story after story of how each baby was born, but whether it was a problem with memory or not having the words, no one could really describe the pain.
My mom told me how when it would start again, the contractions would begin, and it would all come flooding back to her. She would think, oh this. I remember this. Not this again. Why did I put myself through this again?
You forget after they place the baby in your arms. If you remembered clearly what it was like after it happened, maybe a lot of women would not have more than one child.
When my sister was preparing to have her first baby and asked me what childbirth would be like, I joined the army of women who could not describe it. When it comes to pain, I too have a faulty memory.
In November, I was hit with depression. It was a direct hit, a low I hadn’t felt in a long time. For four months, I struggled. I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. Every day felt like wading through waist high water. I couldn’t get anywhere. I didn’t enjoy doing anything. It effected the type of mother and wife I was. Finally, I went to a therapist. I considered anti-depressants. I didn’t need to be blissfully happy all of the time. I just wanted to feel something other than numb, heavy and slow. I needed a boost out of bed that could stay with me all day. I wondered at times if I would ever be okay again.
Then March came, bringing with it a few days of warmth and in the evening an extra hour of sunlight. The depression that had been a constant companion for winter began to slip away. And now, as I’m returned back to a closer version of myself, I find I am unable to articulate what I had been feeling. Did I actually have a hard time getting out of bed? Did I ache from it, as if sadness was in my bones and radiated pain outward from it? Did I really find no joy in what I used to love doing? Who was I? After I had my son, I wondered if contractions were that painful or was I simply unable to deal with any pain at all. Now that the depression is fading, I wonder, was this seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or was I merely, lazy, tired and a touch melodramatic. My therapist assures me this isn’t the case.
I’m not sorry my sadness has faded once more. Of course I’m not. I don’t like feeling so dependent on the season but my therapist has recommended being prepared for next winter, whether with lights or with medication so I don’t have to spend four months in misery.
If and when SAD strikes again, I imagine it will be like remembering labor. I will think, Ah yes, I remember this pain. Not this again. And I hope I remember to do what I can to not put myself through that again.
My first experience with critiques was when I was going to school for graphic design. They happened regularly and varied in terms of how painful they were. But, they were helpful. There wasn’t a single project that I created that wasn’t made better with the eyes of my classmates. Now that I’ve started working with critique partners on my writing, I’m feeling that familiar pain that comes from criticism. Here are a few things that I try to remember when getting feedback.
- Criticism is a gift
Remember that the person who is looking at your art, or listening to your music or reading your words and giving you feedback is spending their time and energy to do so. I’m sure there might be some people who like to criticize as a way of tearing people down, but I have found that for the most part people want to help you get better. Maybe they believe in what you are doing and they want to be part of making it the best that it can be. Even if they are doing it to be mean, if you are getting something useful out of what they’re saying it’s still helpful.
- Look past your own blind spots
It’s easy to get defensive. When someone doesn’t see something the way we see it, it’s easy to look at them as the problem. What do you mean you don’t understand the symbolism? What do you mean that this paragraph is redundant? What do you mean that the whole thing is too wordy? It’s a book, it’s supposed to be wordy. If your first response to feedback is to explain and argue, you might be letting your own blindness get in the way of improving your craft. That doesn’t mean that you have to take every little piece of advice that you are given, but don’t discount it either. Get another set of eyes. Get another opinion.
- It’s okay to feel bad/hurt after receiving criticism
It can be difficult to hear that something we have worked hard on and have poured our soul into is flawed. The more we love something, the more difficult it is to accept the imperfections. The most painful criticism I have received was when I thought what I was presenting was really good. Nearly perfect even. Every word that said otherwise was like a physical blow. I remember locking myself in a bathroom stall and trying to choke back tears. I hated feeling so emotional, but it was a natural response to a big disappointment. Give yourself permission to feel sad, or hurt, or even angry. But don’t lash out at the person who gave you the criticism. Giving out criticism can be difficult as well. Don’t take it personally.
- Find a way to deal with the criticism
Criticism can sting. What is the balm that you can put on it? I always joke about drinking whiskey after particularly painful feedback is given. Time and space work for me as well. Not too much of either. I may put it away for a few hours. Do something else. Give myself time to process it. I also like to research. I like to find other writers and artists who have been where I’m at and I like to read how they got past it. Find your own way but get to the place where you can most constructively use the feedback.
- Don’t give up
Don’t get discouraged. It wasn’t going to be easy. No one is going to be able to create perfection at the beginning. There are growing pains. But if you stop now, you will never get better than you are right now. What they said about you will always be true. You will never rise above it. You owe it to yourself and your craft to keep moving forward.
“So, what do you do?”
When someone asks you that question, what do you say? Do you talk about the job that you have that pays your bills? Or do you talk about the things that you do that you love? If you’re lucky, the answer is one and same. But, what if it isn’t? And what if you are passionate about more than one thing?
When I’m asked what it is that I do, I often have a difficult time answering. Back when I served food at various area establishments, I felt like I had to give some sort of explanation for what I do, as if I had to justify my job.
“I serve food. It’s just to pay the bills while I go to school. It’s pretty good money and I like meeting new people.” I’m pretty sure there are strippers who are less defensive of their work. There’s nothing wrong with serving food. There are even days when I miss it. I just always felt that I had to explain why I wasn’t doing more with my life.
It got a little easier when I was a graphic designer. I didn’t feel like I was wasting my time and talent, although I did often have to give more thorough information when I told them that I was a designer for a hair replacement company. Mostly people wanted to know if I designed toupees. I did not. There is a science to hair systems and trust me when I say I was no wig scientist.
When I left my job as a designer, burned out, with no desire to open up photoshop ever again, it was to have babies and take care of them. A stay-at-home-mom. Say those words to anyone and you are going to get mostly the same replies. A lot of people told me how lucky I was and how important and difficult that job was. And I get it, I’m pretty #blessed. But I couldn’t help feeling that another name for stay-at-home-mom was unemployed. I also couldn’t help but feel that the positive and kind things that people said about stay-at-home-moms were the sort of thing that they were expected to say. Those words didn’t help me get through some of the long days of diaper changes and meal making and mess cleaning. I also couldn’t help saying when asked what I do that I was “just” a stay-at-home-mom. As if it wasn’t enough.
To be honest, it wasn’t enough for me. This isn’t a comment on anyone else who is a stay-at-home-mom and has found happiness and fulfillment. If anything, I’m a little jealous of them. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to shake a certain restlessness.
That restlessness has been what has pushed me back into painting and now whole-heartedly into writing. However when people ask me what it is that I do, I find that I’m back to not knowing what to say. If we’re talking about jobs or careers, I guess the truest answer would be still that I’m unemployed. Of course, that doesn’t say much about who I am, so usually I use the mom explanation. It’s been very difficult for me to say that I’m a writer, in the same way that I’ve never been able to say that I’m an artist. I may create art. I paint. But to be an artist feels like something far more than what I do.
With writing, it still doesn’t feel like I’ve earned the right to say that I’m a writer. I work really hard at it, all of my free time is devoted to either writing or reading. It started as a hobby, but it has become so much more than that. I have two completed novels. I have another one that’s getting there. I blog regularly. So, when am I going to be an actual writer? Is it when I’ve landed an agent? Or maybe, it will be when I have a book deal? Or, will I wait until I have a published book? Maybe, even with a published book, it will still feel like a fluke. Maybe I need more than one book published. Maybe, I’ll work at this my whole life and never feel like I have the right to call myself a writer.
The first time I told someone that I was a writer was last year. I just wanted to see what it felt like. He was an eye doctor, the eye doctor that took my new health insurance so it was the first time that I was meeting him. He asked me what I do.
“I’m a stay-at-home-mom,” I said and after a long pause I added, “I’m also a writer.”
I felt like such a liar. But, he started telling me about how he used to write fiction in college and how he wouldn’t mind getting into it again. I was open about the fact that I was fairly new to it, but that I was hoping to in the near future to have a career doing it. We had a nice conversation and in the end I shared something about myself that was true, even if just to me it felt like it was a lie.
I’m trying to be more open about what I do and what my dreams are and where I want to be. That means when asked what I do, I will say that I’m a writer. That’s who I am. That’s what I want to talk about. Of course, I will still say that I’m a stay-at-home-mom. I’m still that too. And, I like talking about my kids best of all. They really are cool, little beasts.
I’m not going to keep looking for the always changing finish line, waiting for someone to approve me as a writer. What we do doesn’t always have to be tied to a paycheck. Who we are isn’t tied only to an end result, but is part of our failures as well as our successes. What we do is defined every day that we get up and do it.
I’m doing it. I’m a writer.
I’ve come to love writing the first draft of a book. It’s the sprint through the letters and the words, a pulling together of paragraphs and pages to get to the end. You’re not required to make every word perfect. You aren’t required to patch up any plot holes. It’s no big deal if your characters need a little work or your dialogue is stilted. All of those things are merely a blur as you rush past.
I’ve written about it before, about how I can’t look for perfection here. If I do, I won’t finish. I’ll be on the first page, agonizing over the first few words.
There’s also the discovery in the first draft. There are two types of writers, the pantser and the plotter. I’ve tried to be a plotter. I’ve tried to outline everything, make notecards, make a detailed map of where my story is going to go from start to finish, but it never works. I feel sort of suffocated by my plans. No, I like to have a couple of characters, a problem that they have and a vague idea of where I want them to end up. It’s a crazy sort of thing, writing something, not always sure how I’m going to get from one space to the next. It can be stressful, but man, it’s fun.
Now, it’s time to pay the piper. I imagine plotters usually have a better handle on what it happening in their books. They’ve done a lot of the hard work up front. I would imagine that at the end of their first draft, they have a pretty tight story. Pantsers have to make up for their fanciful dance through their story, with big changes in the next draft. I’m like the grasshopper that played all summer long and is now facing an uncomfortable winter.
So, onto the next drafts and the edits that come with it.
This doesn’t feel like playing anymore. This feels like work. I’m reading through paragraphs and it all feels clunky and disjointed and a mess. Maybe, the structure of it is good, but I’m going to have to really make the writing better. So, I make notes. I highlight the rough sentences. I think this is just like painting. I’ve roughed in the large swathes of color and now it’s time to really get in with the detail.
Pen is up.
I know how to work past the paralysis of the first draft. I know how to just zip right along and not take myself too seriously. That time is over. Now, I really do have to do my best to make it perfect. Perfect is paralysis. How do I find the right words? Do I take this out? Should I add this in? Am I taking a piece of writing that had life and spark and movement and am I with every pen stroke murdering it? Am I turning my writing into wood?
It’s just as easy to doubt myself now as it was before. Maybe it’s worse. Now, it’s not just a case of not being able to do something well. It’s about ruining something that might have been good. This may be a little dramatic but it’s like dismantling a bomb and not knowing which wire to cut. Okay, no, that really is too dramatic. Actually, it is just like trying to find your way without a map. You hope that you’re going the right way and you’re using the little you know to orient yourself, but until you get there, you can’t really be sure that you’re heading in the right direction. I don’t have an answer for this. If you’re reading this and you do have the answer, I hope you’ll tell me. I think it must just all be about experience. As I become a more experienced writer, I hope that it will become easier. Of course, something tells me that there will always be space for doubt here, no matter how long I’ve been writing.
I’m just going to keep moving forward. It is the only advice I can give myself and anyone reading this who might find themselves in this place with me. Keep working. Keep moving forward. Let’s hope we’re not lost.
I hate the word depression. I would rather use any other word than depression. I usually say that I am blue. Sometimes, I say that I’m sad.
I’m blue right now. God, I hate admitting that. It feels like a terrible weakness, a part of me that I don’t have any control over and that I can’t just fight through. I can’t make myself feel happy. In fact, I’m having a difficult time making myself feel anything at all.
It’s something that happens this time of year. Usually, it occurs in January and February. This year it has arrived a little earlier. It always coincides with the short days and the long, dark nights of winter. I’ve never been diagnosed with depression but if I was going to self-diagnose I would guess that I have seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
SAD is characterized by a change in mood that occurs with the changing of the season. It’s characterized by irritability, and low energy. It’s tied to melatonin and serotonin levels and if I had the energy I would look up what that is, what it does and what it means. But I don’t. You have the internet. You look it up.
At any rate, it’s a miserable feeling.
It happens to some degree every year and yet every time it happens, I am surprised. You think I would remember. You think I would recognize the signs. I fight it as long as I can. I think to myself that I just need to soldier through it. I just have to keep working. I’m a big believer in the most important part of getting good at something is showing up and doing it. But, when I sit at the kitchen table, it’s so much harder to find the words. I can sit for hours and not get anywhere. It would have been better if I had just sat on the couch and binged on some Netflix.
Maybe I’m just paying for my frenetic, nearly manic productivity of the summer. It’s the summer when I am busy every moment of the day. I work in the garden. I take my kids places. I pick baskets of fruit in sweltering orchards and take them home to preserve them. I write thousands of words every week. I paint. I feel invincible. I feel powerful, even limitless. I marvel to myself at my work ethic, at my drive, at my ability to accomplish everything I set out to do.
Basically, I’m the little engine that could. All summer I coast down the hills, happily zipping along. Then fall hits, and I have to start chugging up the next hill and by winter I’m basically ready to give out. What was once a feeling of being able to do anything becomes a feeble, “I think I can.” And sometimes it just becomes a sad, little, “I can’t.”
It happened last year, towards the end of December. The book I was working on completely fell apart and by January I had trashed it. The book I’m working on now is a mess. I don’t think I’ll trash it, but I have a strong desire to put it away unfinished for a while.
I don’t know what’s worse about this inevitable slowdown. Is it the sharp decline of productivity or is it the terrible feeling that it’s never going to rise again? All of the habits that I formed will just erode away until I am once more weeks away from the last time I wrote anything or painted anything. This past year, I eventually found my way again but what if next time I don’t?
So, this year, I’m going to do my best not to give out, to keep that creative engine going. It doesn’t matter if I’m not producing the same quantity or even quality as I was before. The important thing is to continue moving forward. I’m adjusting my goals, giving myself a little more downtime. I’m allowing for an afternoon nap now and then, an early bedtime, a ridiculous novel read only for the escapism it provides. I may write less and paint more. I may go for walks or just listen to music. Maybe, I’ll bake bread. On days when I feel more like myself, I’ll work harder. I’ll keep moving.
When the sun is brighter and warmer and the manic productivity of summer returns, I hope I’ll be ready.