“Every creative must battle demons for their best work to be produced.”
This is the creative stereotype that we’ve been fed with for many years. The traumatized artist is the ideal image; masterpieces fashioned out of ordeal or insanity. The greatest works of art couldn’t have been produced if the artist was not under the wild influence of hard substances or battling with some mental illness.
To some degree, this is true. As a writer battling with mental illness — depression to be precise, I can say from experience that some of my best works have been produced in my darkest moments. But there is also another side to being a depressed creative. My struggles have in no way made me a more efficient writer. As a matter of fact, on most days, I am left with no iota of motivation or drive.
However, after years of falling and rising and falling again, I have learned how to live the most productive life as a depressed creative and knowing that I’m not alone, I have decided to walk you through my journey.
LIFE AS A DEPRESSED CREATIVE
I grew up as a traumatized child. I have written about this a couple of times. However, for many years, I failed to establish a link between my mental health and my lack of motivation. My parents always told me I was lazy. And I believed them. I also thought it must have been as a result of my negative mindset or rather, my struggles with low self-esteem.
I scoured the internet for every article on how to stay motivated and productive. I was told to set goals, to follow routines and plan my days ahead. Some days I tried being an early riser and on other days, I was a night owl. I tried working out every morning, meditating, journaling, reading and what have you. I tried every tip and every hack. I would wake up on some days feeling motivated and ready to hit the ground running. But on most days, I wouldn’t even want to get out of bed. The more I fought to become the person I wanted to be, the more and more I felt like a failure.
I often thought “You have what it takes to live the kind of life you want, yet you’re wasting it all away”. This threw me into more depression, worsened my self-esteem and a crippling sense of regret weighed in.
I knew I had reached my lowest point when my blood pressure fell drastically and I was diagnosed with chronic depression. My biggest concern was not the bodily manifestations of depression. I was more concerned with how it affected my productivity.I wasn’t going to give in to the vicious cycle of unproductivity that was typical of being a depressed creative. I started my research and soon found out that I wasn’t alone.
THE LINK BETWEEN CREATIVITY AND DEPRESSION
Researcher Kay Redfield Jamison, PhD, a psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore reported that writers have depression or manic-depression more often than non-writers. From Author Mark Twain to Poet Sylvia Plath, the list of famous writers with depressionis a lengthy one.
One reason for this according to Alan Manevitz, MD, a clinical psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, is that writing is oftentimes a pursuit in isolation and the lack of social interaction can set the stage for depression.
David Straker, DO, an adjunct assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City also stated that writing late into the night or only at night can throw off sleep-wake schedules which may also increase the chances of depression setting in. According to him, lack of sleep, natural light, exercise and social interaction can be a recipe for depression.
Over the years, psychologist and psychiatrists have come to the agreement that chronic depression is amplified in those who tend to ruminate on their thoughts. And one of the major gateways to thinking like a creative genius is rumination — the act of making sense of and connecting the small details of everything we experience, the good and the bad.
As creatives, we naturally tend to think more and reflect on our very thoughts too. When stressful events occur in our lives, we are naturally drawn to playing the stressful event over and over again, thinking about what happened, what we could have or should have done differently, how the details of the event could affect our lives in the short or long run and so on. According to Yale psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, ruminating over these thoughts could lead to feelings of hopelessness and ultimately depression.
“Creativity is all about thinking, so it only makes sense that all of that thinking would lead to manic episodes of feeling hopeless, alone, or like a failure.” — Tanner Christensen
The rumination to depression process only tells us one thing — depression doesn’t make us creative as most people think. Creativity is what makes us depressed.
THE POSITIVE SIDE OF DEPRESSION
Researchers Andy Thomson and Paul Andrews have concluded that depression is an evolutionary way for us to tightly focus our attention on what needs changing in our lives — a psychological desire to be better, stronger, reflect on where we’ve made mistakes and find ways to improve ourselves overall.
For creatives, depression is what ultimately intensifies our motivation to want to do more. It’s a way of telling ourselves “enough of doing what you’ve always done as a creative. You have to do something different and better”.Shelley Carson, an instructor on creativity and psychology at Harvard University, stated that the upsurge of coming out of a creative slump is enough motivation to produce a massive amount of work to the point where we go above and beyond where we were before the depressed state.
In essence, as soon as we get over the initial events that threw us into depression, we shift into a positive mindset that helps to drive even more motivation to do more creative work. If we can make it through the original decline in energy, that phase of melancholy can be empowering.
To produce our best work therefore, most of us go through a three-phase journey from rumination to depression and then to motivation which ultimately makes our work more prominent and our behaviour recognized. This shift from a devastating state of depression to an active state of productivity and livelihood is what gives people the wrong impression that depression fires creativity. And that’s really not the case.
NAVIGATING THE MURKY WATERS OF DEPRESSION
Learning to maximize productivity as a chronically depressed creative has been a year-long endeavour and one that I may very-well face for many years to come. However, after years of research and trying out various methods, I have found a method that currently works for me which I hope will work for you too.
Depression is different for everyone and there is no one size fits all advice on how to stay productive when depressed. So I’m definitely not going to be telling you exactly what to do. I’d rather be sharing what has worked for me after years of research. My advice can be improved upon or ignored based on your situation. Here are just a few things you can do to keep your productivity level up even in your lowest of lows.
When we really think about it, we can’t ever win a war against depression. Think of a time you tried to do something really creative in a bad mood, you must have found out that your mood took over your clarity of thought and hindered your creativity. No matter how hard you try, you could never produce anything great while you’re depressed and demotivated to do anything.
There will be days or even weeks or months at a time when you simply cannot seem to write a word. But this does not make you a failure. You are not only heavy-handed, But you’re also struggling with one of the most challenging illnesses of the mind.
Depression is what ultimately intensifies our motivation to want to do more. It’s a way of telling ourselves “enough of doing what you’ve always done as a creative. You have to do something different and better.”
On the bright side, depression is not something that happens every day. For me at least, it feels more like a breaker. There are days when it feels like I’m a Zombie and can barely think or create anything. There are days when I get better clarity of thought and the ideas come more easily. And there are the days I look forward to; days when I’m very highly motivated and could write marathons around other writers. This is just how it is. I can’t predict when I’ll have my ups and downs. It’s not something I can schedule.
So embracing depression is the way. Doing this means that when I’m feeling so low and demotivated, I don’t try to force myself to work. I take it as a means to refuel my creative energy and channel what’s left of my dwindling energy to doing activities that will get me out of the loop of depression. I may not be able to do anything at all during this period, but this is what it means to work within the limitations of depression, and not try to work around it or in spite of it. Depression is not necessarily your enemy. You can use it in your favour. So rather than trying to work against it, you should embrace it.
HONOUR YOUR CREATIVE HIGHS
One of the ways through which I try to maximize productivity is by honouring the motivated moments in my life by making remarkable progress on my writing projects. I also try to mark down my achievements on these days by entering each into my gratitude journal as some of the little details I’m grateful for. These documented achievements are a subtle reminder that whenever I’m feeling high on motivation, it’s time to stop bingeing Netflix and go do my magic.
So whenever you experience this priceless high moment, try not to procrastinate by delaying what needs to be done. Honour these moments because you can never tell when they will fizzle out. So what exactly can you do to honour your creative highs?
· Make Creative Decisions
This is the best time to jot down all the ideas in your head. Every idea that comes to you at this moment needs to be documented. Ideas stored in your head are more likely to escape when you are finally ready to put them to use. So make use of your thought clarity, document your ideas and make the best creative decisions for yourself.
· Get Some Inspiration
There is never a more appropriate time to go through the work process of other creatives just to get a hint or two. This is the best time to learn that technique you’ve always wanted to learn in order to create your masterwork.
· Produce Masterpieces
For me at least, my high moments are the times when I roll out massive amounts of masterpieces. My creative energy is at its peak and I always make sure to make the most of it. I honestly don’t follow routines but I work aggressively when I find the motivation to do so. I believe that these moments sufficiently make up for my days of demotivation. So when you feel that creative high, it’s your body’s way of telling you to maximize productivity.
· Connect With Other Creatives
Having just one highly productive creative in my life has doubled my creative output and inspired me to always aim higher. I believe that as creative people, we need as many fellow creatives as possible in our lives. Some of us already have an online writing community that we already belong to. But nothing beats a close personal interaction with someone who inspires you. So, be really picky about whom you allow into your creative life and stay close to the people who make you feel like you can achieve everything in life
HONOUR YOUR CREATIVE LOWS
When the ability to create and make creative decisions become non-existent, I take this as an opportunity to do work that requires less mental energy. Decluttering, organizing and clean-ups are some of the things I do during this period. Sometimes, I decide to take long walks to get some air and hopefully some clarity too. I also try to lift my spirit by listening to inspiring songs or watching a movie that has not yet been struck off my to-watch list.
Part of honouring my creative low is by not doing anything writing-related like replying to emails because my mind gets foggy and I can’t seem to find what to say.
I have also found that I tend to procrastinate when depression gets heavy which leads to a feeling of guilt at being unproductive. So I embrace this period and try as much as possible to do other soul lifting activities to help me snap out of depression and get back to work.
When you’re in a down period, you may have a hard time figuring out what to do. But having some recurrent tasks like decluttering and organizing gives you a feeling of accomplishment and productivity and can help fire up motivation. The key is to always have something to do when you’re down. That is how you embrace your creative low.
During down moments, we often find ourselves perpetually focusing on what needs to be done instead of appreciating the beauty around us. According to Robert Emmons, in his book Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier,
“Gratitude is the acknowledgement of goodness in one’s life. In gratitude, we say yes to life. We affirm that when all things are taken together, life is good and has elements that make it worth living.”
On a personal level, gratitude makes me feel good about myself. It is a daily activity that has not only helped me to snap out of depression real fast but has also helped me to get more work done. It makes me focus on the positive things in my life rather than the negative. I have a gratitude journal app on my phone where I write at least five things I am grateful for each day. And it really doesn’t matter whether or not I’m down because even on darker days, there are always things to be grateful for. Whether it was that yummy breakfast your husband made or your mum helping with the kids, acknowledging all the small blessings in your life has a very high potential to lift up your spirit and fuel your motivation.
In the end, knowing how to navigate and sail through the murky waters of depression to get your work done will set you up for long-term success.