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Writing when SAD
Written by
Pam McGaffin
February 2016
Written by
Pam McGaffin
February 2016

I’m more than two-thirds through an edit that I hope will make my young adult novel ready for the final round of submissions to agents and publishers. It’s been a hard, slow slog, but I like the changes I’ve made. The world I’ve created feels more tangible, the plot more plausible, and the troubled mother-daughter relationship at the center of my story rings truer.

So why do I feel so depressed?

Some days I can’t even bring myself to open the 87,000-word document titled “Leaving Year 4.” Instead, I’ll play an on-line Scrabble game, read emails and my Facebook news feed, do the dishes and the laundry, walk the dog, talk to my mother on the phone, fix dinner, ask the boys about their day and whether they have any homework, remind them to brush their teeth -- all the while telling myself “I’ll get to it when ___, but when never comes, and I go to bed hating myself for wasting another day.

Is it laziness? Yes, in part. I’m so overwhelmed by all the work I’ve yet to do that I don’t do any at all. Or, I come to a summary paragraph that needs to be a scene, but I can’t face the need to drill down and tap into my deepest self so I can make my characters live and breathe. So I leave my computer to do something else, like load the dishwasher or grab a snack. And I never get back to the chair.

Even when the words flow, I doubt myself. “It’s too easy. It must be bad,” says the evil critic in my head.

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her best-selling book, Big Magic, blames fear for stifling creativity. (I’ve been waiting weeks to read a library copy because I’m too cheap to buy the hardback.) I’m sure that once I finally get to read it, I’ll recognize myself in her words. I am, after all, a perfectionist procrastinator extraordinaire.

It’s easier to keep that illusion of perfection in my head than to struggle with it on the screen. So I stop working or put it off. And end up hating myself. Who was it that said, “Writing is hard, but not writing is harder?”

I know I feel better about myself after I’ve written, even if it’s just a few paragraphs. So why has it been such a struggle lately to get my head in the game? I’m not sick, but my mood feels like it has the flu.

While taking a walk the other day, it dawned on me: It’s that time of year.

The hubbub of the holidays has passed, but the days are still short, the weather’s still stormy and spring feels like a remote promise. On this particular day, we’d just endured four straight days of rain and I’d been cooped up in the house with a restless dog, two non-communicative teenagers and a husband dealing with his own issues.

I’m depressed, I realized, because I’m depressed -- as in clinically. I take medication for it. And most of the time it keeps my head above water, but during the bleak mid-winter, the water table rises too high and I’m sunk. My energy ebbs, my anxiety grows, I consume way too much sugar, caffeine and chocolate, and generally feel like s—t.

(By the way, I know some experts don’t put much stock in SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) as a legitimate diagnosis, but it’s real to me.)

So here I am a writer living in Seattle. Ah, the irony. I have to laugh.

On that walk, as I stepped around puddles and looked to the thin silver light of the sky, I realized I also have to forgive. Myself. Self-flagellation on my bad days won’t make them better or more productive, quite the opposite.

Now is the time for a little self-kindness. I need to get outside and walk, breathe the rain-freshened air and soak up all the lux I can. If that means stepping away from the page to walk the dog or going for a run instead of tackling a rewrite, so be it. Because here’s what I know. The days are getting longer, and I will finish editing my book.

Photo credit: Maelick

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  • Kathy A. Johnson

    I love the line, "I'm not sick, but my mood feels like it has the flu." That describes a feeling I get perfectly. You're not alone, and you will get through it! Thanks for sharing this post.

  • Pam McGaffin Promoting

    Hang in there, Lynn! I had many dark days when writing my first draft. I went back to the beginning a few times, I will admit, but I also forced myself to go forward and eventually finish it. Now, after much editing, I have a book I'm ready to send out. If I can do it, you can. Keep going and be kind to yourself! 

  • Lynn Goodman

    Oops - hit that button by mistake...

    I wanted to say thank you for writing this, and you are quite correct: beating myself up constantly for not being productive is not making things better, it is making them worse. And it certainly is not helping me write.

  • Lynn Goodman

    I've been struggling for the past year and a half to finish my first novel. I don't even have a draft done yet, and already I feel like I need to go back and rewrite from the beginning. It has been an absolutely terrible time - deaths of loved ones, grief, injuries, surgeries, and I've been fighting clinical depression as well.

  • Pam McGaffin Promoting

    Patricia, I agree. And I did get through the editing. Onward and Upward!

  • Patricia Robertson

    Continue to be good to yourself. Do whatever it takes to get through this. When you do get back to your editing it will be easier for having given yourself a break.

  • Pam McGaffin Promoting

    Thanks, Sherrey. I usually love where we live, but the dark, rainy winters can get a bit oppressive. Thank heavens for spring! Best of luck with the editing process. I look forward to hearing about your memoir.

  • Sherrey Meyer

    Pam, I loved this post from beginning to end and beyond. You see I too live in the rainy, dark Pacific NW, Portland to be specific. In November and December, I was editing my memoir and revising for the fourth time. Suddenly, the pains and hurts of my childhood became too real and I lost all interest in the book. Like you, I wandered from this chore to that and bounced off the walls a couple of times. Then it occurred to me that it was my depression facilitated by that time of year when SAD kicks in! It is real. I know it is, and so do you. Thanks for being so courageously honest. Love finding another writer who understands the season of SAD.

  • Pam McGaffin Promoting

    Thanks, Kamy! Sometimes we just need to give ourselves a break. Good luck with "starting." That's the hardest part for me, as well. (And I switched my settings. Thanks for letting me know.)

  • I love this post, Pam. It's so brave, and so true. It's hard sometimes to differentiate between when our moods are tied to our writing, and when they are just our moods, and we should try to untangle them from the work. I have been struggling lately myself and I do think part of it is just what's happening in my life right now, though I think part of it probably does have to do with fear of starting something new. But you're right. You will finish editing your book. :)