Tuesday 16 March 2010

No dogs allowed?

I am going to tie up the black dog by the door and get back to this blog. I'm very sorry, kind followers, for being absent for so long in the Pit of Despair. But while the dog is tied up, I will say a little bit about it.

Depression stalks writers with enthusiasm (that is, it stalks enthusiastically - not it stalks enthusiastic writers only). As someone who dislikes dogs and is allergic to them, I generally avoid dogs, black or other colours. But I was out walking in the dark and it was that contributory negligence which led to the dog following me home.

In the end, many writers make breathtaking art out of their depression (Gerard Manley Hopkins, for instance - but there are many others), but that is as emotion recollected in tranquility. At the time when the black dog is gnawing your leg off, you aren't going to get much useful writing done. (But see
Postcards from the Slough of Despond for someone who got a small amount of writing done.)

Now, this is not going to be a miseryfest here. You probably don't want to know why I have been depressed or whether I have written anything. More useful is the question of what a writer who depends on their writing income should do when too depressed to write.

1. Always, always, have a back-up fund that is insurance against disaster. Easier said than done, I know, but
all people who work freelance should have this. You never know when there will be a recession, or when a string of domestic traumas or tragedies will leave you unable to put finger to keyboard. Or both, in quick succession.

2. Don't instantly email all your editors telling them what a terrible time you are having. Leave it a while. They won't notice (unless tragedy hits on the day of your deadline and you haven't written the book yet. But then it was going to be late anyway.)

3. If you need to buy time, do it without whingeing and without giving too much information. You can say you have domestic difficulties or illness and will update them in a few days (if you think you will be up to it in a few days), or in a short time (which is pretty elastic). This gives you time to spend several days drafting your explanation.

4. Don't tell different people different things. You might tell some people more and some people less, but don't allow any inconsistencies into your report as you will probably be found out and then no-one will believe anything.

5. Try to do something, however little, as soon as possible. That will give you a sense of whether you are going to be able to work soon and how well you will be able to do it.

6. When you are ready, which should not be long after your first email, tell your editors what is going on. They need as much notice as possible if they have to rearrange a publishing schedule and they will be far more sympathetic and helpful if you tell them in good time that you have a problem - especially if you feel you have to pull out of the book completely.

7. Be professional (that's also 6., really): tell them you are having intolerable problems, but you don't need to be specific unless you want to. Don't complain. Apologise once and say what you can do - which might be deliver your book three months late, or pass all the research to someone else (if it's a non-fiction book), or even just pay back the advance and wear sackcloth for a year.

Should you tell your editor you're suffering from depression or just tell them you have a trauma/illness? This is an entirely personal decision and must reflect your relationship with your editor and what you know of them as a person. I'm not going to tell you what to do - I'm not even sure if I'm doing it right myself. Many writers - many people of all types - are very secretive about depression and any other form of mental ill-health because non-sufferers are generally not sympathetic and don't understand. But they will never understand if we all hide it. Then again, you might not want to be the guinea pig/pioneer. Fine - dont' let anyone (especially me) bully you.

Lucy Coats has written with admirable honesty about her experiences of depression and she is a writing star so I'll follow her lead. I think if your editor can see that you are handling the situation with professionalism, decorum and maturity (even though all those seem lightyears from your grasp - fake them) they're more likely to respect you than to panic and cross you off their white-list. I hope. But we'll see. I'll report back if all my publishers ditch me. Or I won't, as I won't be able to afford the broadband any more.


  1. Thank you stroppy author for such sound, practical advice. I always think that depression is the other side of the creative coin - it's the price I pay for peering into the abyss. Writing is staring into the darkness until the images begin to dance, but it's a dangerous game. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Wise & helpful thoughts especially when you may not be feeling so yourself! Thanks