Seven Tips for Getting Past Depression and Discouragement and
Back to Joyous and Passionate Writing
Today I’m depressed. I’m dejected. I’m discouraged. I’ve had trouble getting the contributions I need for the book I’m compiling and which must be completed in a few weeks. When my new book contract didn’t arrive after three months of waiting, I contacted the publisher. After being told in her last correspondence to expect the contract “any day,” her response to my latest e-mail explained that she had “too many projects in the works” and, therefore, had tabled mine. Yesterday I receive a rejection letter from agent who was excited and interested in one of my book projects when I met her at a conference but who wrote that she “just couldn’t get behind the marketing end of the idea.” My friend, who is just starting her career as a writer, landed a $700-a-month, 1,200-word column for a magazine. Her success serves as a reminder that I, with 34 year’s of writing experience and a degree in magazine journalism, am earning hardly enough to pay for my kids' monthly extra-curricular activity fees from my freelance writing. I haven’t actually written a word in a month or sent out a query or a book proposal in at least three months, because all of my time has been spent on other projects, like the all-consuming book I’m compiling for which I only received a $1000 advance. That money I’ve long ago used to pay for phone bills and ink cartridges. I won’t see a royalty check for at least 12 months from the time the book is actually published – and that’s if the book really sells.
It’s no wonder that today I feel “blah.” Despite that fact, I still need to get some work done. An author whose book I’m editing sent me another chapter yesterday, but I can’t seem to drum up the energy to edit it today. Today, another writer has sent me a manuscript and proposal to “doctor,” but I feel too low to heal myself or my own books let alone someone else’s project. And then there are the people to contact for my other book projects. Instead of working, I find other ways to occupy myself while sitting at my desk looking like I’m actually doing something.
So, how do I get myself out of my e-mail mailbox, where nothing new has arrived in the two hours I’ve stared at it, away from the social networking sites, where no one is connecting with me anyway, off the phone, where it is easy to talk about nothing with anyone who will listen, and out of the kitchen, the source of the food that keeps my hands too busy to type and my mouth too full to talk to anyone with whom I really need to talk? How do I get myself out of my malaise and back to writing, editing, and submitting my work and my ideas?
Most writers face days like these occasionally, and some of us have bouts of blah that stop our fingers from even hitting the keyboard for days or weeks. However, there are some ways to get out of the dumps, past the discouragement and depression and back into the joyous and passionate writing, editing and working mode.
Just Do It
First, you can take Nike’s attitude and “Just do it.” This advice is easy to give, and sounds easy to do, but in reality can be quite hard to accomplish. Truth be told, however, it is the best advice. Just start writing something. Just send out another query to that magazine for which you’ve always dreamed of writing. Just put your proposal in the mail to another publisher or agent. Just make that phone call to your interview subject. Just start writing that article or essay. Just do it…whatever “it” is that constitutes your writing work for the day. (That’s what I did today. I began writing this article.)
Just Do It Joyfully
However, I’d add one thing to Nike’s slogan. Don’t just do it; do it joyfully. Again, this is advice that’s easy to give, sounds easy to do but which can actually be quite difficult to accomplish – especially when you’re depressed. I know this from experience. Yet, the energy we put behind our actions actually affects the success of those actions. Proponents of positive thinking adamantly insist that negative thoughts harbored while sending out a query can elicit a negative result. We’ve heard all about writing for the love of writing, for the joy of turning a phrase of the pleasure of getting information out to the public. These positive emotions affect the success of the work we do as well. So, trying to just do it when we are feeling frustrated or negative might not accomplish what we want. That said, it might at least get the energy moving. Once that happens, you can focus on doing it with joy.
If you still can’t get your body to listen to you mind, which is telling it to do something other than sit there feeling depressed, or if “just do it” or “do it with joy” makes you feel like you have to go exercise and like doing it as well, try taking the advice of the wise Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. This mystical Chassidic rabbi (1772-1810) offered awesome lessons on how to get over being depressed and unhappy, and his teachings apply just as well to writers suffering from frustration and dejection as to people feeling negative emotions in general. In fact, I’ve used the following four wise teachings to help me get over my writing slump on numerous occasions. They remind me that today’s rejection letter or returned book proposal are not the end of my writing career. Despite these negative experiences and the negative emotions they illicit within me, I can pick myself up, change how I feel and how I behave, and continue to do what I need to do to write and get published. In the process, I begin to feel better about myself, my work and my writing projects.
Fake It ‘Till You Make It
“If you don’t feel happy, pretend to be. Even if you are downright depressed, put on a smile. Act happy. Genuine joy will follow,” taught Rebbe Nachman. His words echo a much more modern saying: “Fake it ‘till you make it.” In the case of writing, Nachman’s words encourage us not to dwell on our unhappiness and frustration, but to keep moving forward by pretending to be happy….pretending to be a writer, pretending to be published (ah…positive thinking again). If your depression keeps you from the keyboard, act happy and simply sit down and begin to write. If that last rejection letter left you immobilized with feelings of unworthiness, start working on another query with a fresh attitude of worthiness.
Flip your feelings, go to the opposite extreme of whatever negative emotion you are experiencing in the moment, and fake it ‘till you make it. As you behave as if you feel the way you want to feel, whatever you are wanting -- confidence, worthiness, happiness -- will begin to slowly flow forth from your inner self and affect your attitude and your work in positive ways. Plus, as you begin to write and to send out your work, as you get your day’s work accomplished, you will begin to feel better about yourself. You’ll begin once again to feel the passion that made you want to write, and the joy you feel when in the creative process will return.
Don’t Give Up Hope
“Never despair! Never! It is forbidden to give up hope,” said the rebbe. That rejection letter that showed up today from a magazine you queried or that form letter that accompanied the latest return of your book proposal from an agent may seem like the last one you can endure. It might feel like a harbinger of truth: Your or your work just aren’t good enough in some way. You may think the time has come to throw that particular book or article idea into the circular file and go on to something new. Nachman says, “Wait! Don’t give up!” If you really believe you have a good idea, have faith in it. Keep sending it out, and eventually someone will see its worth.
Remember all the other writers – famous and successful writers – that had to suffer the same rejection and frustration and depression you feel now. Many of them could have wallpapered their offices with rejection letters, but they didn’t give up. They refused to let other people’s opinions affect their belief in their own work and their determination to get their work published. They refused to get lost in despair and turned their despair into determination, which then turned into success. That is what it takes to succeed as a writer – determination, hard skin, hopefulness, and faith in yourself and in your work.
At a writer’s conference I attend, I heard Jack Canfield talk about the 123 rejections he endured before Chicken Soup for the Soul found a publisher. He reminded the audience of what Barbara Kingslover said about rejection: "This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don't consider it rejected. Consider that you've addressed it 'to the editor who can appreciate my work' and it has simply come back stamped 'Not at this address.' Just keep looking for the right address."
I once took a class that had nothing to do with writing but which taught me one thing that I found really useful as a writer. The teacher told us that everyone has a “rejection quota.” In other words, you have to receive a certain number of rejections before you start getting acceptances, and this, she said, holds true when asking people out on a date or sending query letters to editors. Now, I don’t really think that you can’t get a “yes” to the first query letter you send out, but when I get several rejections in a row, I remind myself that if I keep on sending the letters out, eventually I’ll meet my quota and get a “yes.”
Remember: Today Could Be the Day You Achieve Success
“Remember: Things can go from the very worst to the very best…in just the blink of an eye.” If Nachman were talking to a group of writers today, he might have said, “Today you got a rejection letter from an editor despite the fact that you thought your query was perfect for that magazine. You couldn’t get an interview with the one source you feel will make your article successful, or your book proposal came back for the 50th time. It feels like the end of the world. It feels like the worst thing that could happen or that will ever happen to you.” He’d pause and then continue: “But…you might check your E-mail and find that the other query you sent to an editor at another magazine has been accepted. Tomorrow you might go to the mailbox and find that instead of a returned manuscript box you have an encouraging letter from an agent asking that you call him. And maybe when you return from the mailbox, your phone is ringing and when you answer it, you find an editor from a publishing house telling you your proposal is exactly the kind of book she is looking for and asking if you would consider signing a contract with a $50,000 advance on royalties.”
Everything can change in a moment. Always remember that. This moment is only your reality for a moment and then it changes. The reality that makes you feel discouraged or depressed in one moment could change in the next, or the next, or the next, into a reality that makes you feel encouraged and elated.
Forget the Past, Focus on the Future
“As soon as an event is over with, forget it completely and never think about it again. Understand this well, for it is a very important concept,” Nachman said. Dwelling on our failures – or rejections -- only makes us continue feeling badly about ourselves and our work. Doing so represents a sure fire mechanism for keeping us in the depths of depression and far away from writing a word of copy.
Nachman advises us to move on and to think about what we want to achieve, which is success. I’m not saying not to think about the constructive criticism that came back from the editor or agent. Definitely take it into consideration and act upon it, if you feel the suggestions are worthy. Then file that rejection letter away. Rewrite the query letter, and send it out again. Find another agent, and send off that proposal one more time.
Then, focus on success, whatever that might look like for you. Imagine what that success will feel like. See yourself with contract and check in hand. See your book on the shelves of a bookstore and yourself there signing copies for a long line of people each with your book in hand. Visualize your article as the cover story of your favorite magazine. Our thoughts and visions have a creative energy all their own that is much like that attributed to positive thinking. “You are where your thoughts are,” taught Nachman. “So be careful what you think.”
Do What Makes You Happy and the Words Will Flow
And if none of these little pieces of wisdom helps you, Nachman would advise that you take some time off and do something, anything, that makes you feel happy. Take a walk on the beach, pet your cat, sing, dance, be silly. Eventually, you will feel happier, and then you can return to your keyboard and to your work.
(I must say, I feel much better now…)
[Note: I wrote this piece in 2005. I submitted it to Writer's Digest, and received - you guessed it - a rejection. Maybe they didn't like my Jewish slant. I know, it's a bit odd for an article on writing. I write a lot about Rebbe Nachman, though, and I'm sure he was on my mind. I'm sure I also was trying to promote my Rebbe Nachman writing projects (books). In any case, I came upon it today, reread it and still thought it was pretty darn good. So, now that we are in the blogging age, I can choose to publish it myself...and I have, because I think it offers some useful advice. I hope you enjoyed the piece and find the tools help you get through those bad-mood writing days.]