Writing When You’re Running on Empty: Depression During the MFA

Last time I sat at my computer and whipped up a post for the ol’ UCF MFA blog, I had just returned from AWP, the biggest conference in the creative writing field. If you take a peek back at my blog post, you’ll see that I had a great time. I met Roxane Gay, spent a night out dancing in crowds of strangers, and left with free lit mags and overflowing inspiration. But what you can’t see in my post is the jet lag from crossing four time zones on the way home and, what it triggered, the most intense depressive episode I’ve ever had the misfortune of experiencing. The episode lasted all spring and throughout most of the summer, a special treat on top of my usual anxiety, and a major block to finishing the first draft of my thesis. You, dear reader, may feel a familiar sinking in the stomach as you read this introduction, because as it turns out, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, followed swiftly by depression. The silver lining is you’re not alone.

Depression still reaches its ghostly fingers into my day to day life, and physical manifestations of my anxiety wait, twitching, only a cup of coffee away. But I’ve developed a few strategies for making it through when I’m running on empty.

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. I have no idea how to make the Big Sad go away, and I if I did, I would be writing a very different blog post. Instead, here are some ways to work around your slumps. What works for me may not work for you. We all have different cocktails of mental, physical, and other personal issues. However, I’ve consulted with a few other MFA students and included their tips and tricks in an effort to cover as much of the experiential continuum as possible. Their help got me through some of my worst days. Thanks pals. 

Another Disclaimer: See a therapist.
You know what I just said about not needing to apply all of my advice? This is an exception. Everyone, every single person, needs to see a therapist at some point in their lives. If you are feeling anxious or depressed, now is the time. UCF offers a free counseling service through CAPS. Take advantage of it, or see a community counselor. Also, it is my personal belief that you should never tell your therapist you’re a writer unless you want to hear, “I knew we would get along! I’m a screenwriter. Have you ever read The Artist’s Way?” But then again, maybe I’ve just had weird therapists. You’ll have to let me know.

All right, let’s dig in.

Control the controllables.

You can’t decide when your brain is going to slide into a slump, so do what you can to make things easy for yourself when it does. Here are the boring but necessary steps you can take to help out your future self.

  1. Make a schedule.

Does scheduling mean taking up bullet journaling and using color coordinated Staedtler pens? No, but it can. Personally, I like to keep my to-do list in a physical notebook and my assignments documented in my phone’s calendar. I set alarms for a day ahead so I’m never surprised. You know yourself. Use the tools that work for you, and don’t waste time finding the perfect leather-bound planner. A plain spiral notebook will do.

Why is this important? Because when you’re too sad to care, you’re not going to remember what’s coming up next. Having all your upcoming events and deadlines will ensure you don’t miss any absolute essentials, like the deadline for papers or final portfolios.

  1. Plan your writing time.

One of my peers shows up to his writing desk every day at 8:30 a.m. and writes for a certain amount of hours. My schedule is too erratic for that kind of consistency during the semester, but over the summer I reserved the same study room in the library 7 days a week, showed up, pounded out 500 words, and then went home to do whatever I wanted for the rest of the day. That habit got me through a 25,000 word thesis draft, and by the end of the summer, I voluntarily stayed to finish 1,000 or even 2,000 word days. Successfully finishing a task every day helped me slowly rebuild the confidence depression had violently evacuated from my brain.

  1. Go to bed early and consistently.

If you feel like garbage the next morning, you will not want to write. Jet lag triggered my depressive episode, so I knew that throwing my sleep schedule off balance would only make it worse.

  1. Use the Pomodoro method.

This thing is a lifesaver. 25 minutes working, 5 minutes taking a break. Repeat 4 times with the last break extended to 15 minutes.

When working: No Twitter, no Facebook, no texting, no Pokémon Go, no calls from you mother, no Snapchat, no YouTube, no email, no Old Navy sales, no nothing. Put your computer and phone on airplane mode if you must. Just you, the page (screen), and your little fingers tap tap tapping away. When taking a break: Go pee, Snapchat your misery, talk a walk around the library floor or your apartment, or go outside for a brief glimpse of the sun. Isn’t she beautiful? Drink water.

Like I said, this method radically changed my productivity. I used http://www.marinaratimer.com/ to power through, and before I knew it, I was done for the day.

Find (some) motivation.

  1. If you can, stay curious.

Why did you start the program in the first place? What did you want to write? Who inspired you? Instead of thinking “I am here for the MFA,” think, “I am here at the MFA to work on what I really care about–a zombie space opera.”

In his Ted Talk, Dan Pink talks about why incentive-based work (“After 1,000 more words, I’m going to have a pepperoni pizza!”) actually doesn’t produce the same quality result as autonomous, curiosity-based work. I don’t necessarily recommend watching the entire Ted talk. Pink is In Love With Capitalism and Afraid of Touchy-Feelies, and seems like the kind of guy who would snort at creative writing. Read through the transcript or take my word for it: If you can connect with your own personal desire, rather than just thinking about the class deadline, you’ll get a lot more work done.

I like to watch my favorite movie, The Tree of Life, when I’ve forgotten why I’m trying to bring something new into the world. When writing, I alternate between Enya and Nicki Minaj playlists, depending on the kind of energy I’m lacking. Lame? Maybe. But those are my favorite things. Other students like to watch Ted Talks, read aloud their poetry, listen to beautiful/calming/inspiring music, and meditate.

What lifts you up? What makes the world real to you again? What makes you ball your hands into fists or stand up straight? Get out of your head and reconnect with the potential of your art form.

  1. If you can’t, plan goals and set up rewards.

When I was at the lowest of lows, I wasn’t even thinking about my writerly goals and aspirations. I was laying on my bed wondering why anyone tries anything at all if we all die and the sun is going to destroy the Earth sooner rather than later. What I could get behind? Ordering in my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, playing bootlegged Pokémon games on my laptop, buying new pen sets, and watching new movies with my roommate. I’m not saying you can’t give yourself treats anyway, but save up what you really want as rewards for achieving your goals.

I used an app called Habitica all summer. As you complete your to-do list, you earn bonuses and can collect little animal friends, which, with more successful completions, turn into steeds for riding. It’s cute, and somehow games can pull you into productivity when your inner muse is hibernating. Similar apps and programs are available for both your phone and your computer, so it might be worth it to Google around and see what you like.

Do what you can for yourself, then let yourself off the hook.

Most resources on dealing with depression will list a few major suggestions:

  • Exercise
  • Stay connected with others
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Go outside

Obviously, when you’re depressed, it’s hard to do the above. In fact, I didn’t do any of it, except for walking to the library and talking to my roommate. (Does Subway count as healthy eating?) The only antidepressive measure I actively pursued was dragging myself to therapy.

So if you can do some light exercise and eat vegetables, please do. Maybe you’re really good at picking up your room or taking relaxing baths or reading for fun or cooking delicious and healthy meals for yourself. I’m really good at drinking water (due to another health problem, but hey, it counts). Capitalize on your awesome habits, then let yourself off the hook. Play a game, read a book, and don’t chastise yourself for not attending 7 a.m. spin class.

Final Thoughts

Brendan Stephens, a friend and fellow MFAer, summed up what helped me most. He said, “The main thing that I discovered is to just be honest with your partner, family, and friends.” He’s right. Once the people who love you know you’re feeling down, they can give you the support you need while you search for your own best coping mechanisms.

You’re only human, dude. Your writing aspirations might be Herculean, but sometimes you have to take it slow and take it easy. Hopefully the tips I’ve drawn from my own experiences can help you push through to get what you need done, but if you feel like you’re going to fall apart, go ahead and take a break. It’s worth it. And that blank page isn’t going anywhere.

allie-and-connorAllie Arend is a second-year MFA candidate in Fiction at the University of Central Florida. She also works as Graduate Assistant and Editor for UCF’s Office of Prestigious Awards. Her work is forthcoming in Rust + Moth. She loves a little dog named Connor.

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