Following up on my piece about journaling for mental health, I wanted to talk a little more about forming an actual creative writing practice. I have talked a little about crochet for mindfulness, and meditation, but by far the biggest source of daily good in my life comes from my creative writing practice.
How to Keep a Journal for Better Mental Health
A guide from 20 years (and counting) of journaling and therapeutic writing…
Writing is my number one passion, but also the number one thing that gets tossed out the window when depression strikes. Why?
Well, because depression sucks like that. It turns the activities you used to love and that energised you, into impossible, insurmountable hurdles. I have had to create strategies to ensure that when the going gets tough, the very things that will help me most do not disappear into the void. Here is the basis of how I have created a practice that keeps me going, even through the dark times…
Create the physical space
Setting aside an actual physical space in which you do your writing is quite a helpful exercise, both mentally for the desire to do the task and physically to ensure that you are able to work on your craft. Having the physical setup ready to go is often a good way to get around the barrier of knowing you’ll have to set it all up.
When you’re in the grip of a serious depression or anxiety issues, doing very simple tasks like brushing your teeth, getting dressed, heating a meal, etc, become tricky. So don’t add any kind of physical deterrent. Make sure you have the space ready to go, and take pride in making it yours. Decorate it, keep it clean, have a few inspiring quotes or books or other material on hand. My desk has a small light, several plants, a picture of my partner and I together, and a few choice books that aid in material for my novel. I do my best to keep the space as clean as I can otherwise, which means always clearing away tea cups and water bottles.
Conclusion: Give yourself a shortcut. Eliminate barriers to completing your writing.
Showing up for a kind of work that nobody knows you are doing, and about which most people will not care, is tough. Writing creatively is generally quite a solitary activity. So, you have to make an extra effort towards accountability.
Personally, I’ve never liked people asking me routinely about how my writing is going. It’s a fine line between thoughtfully checking in, and applying undue pressure (and I normally feel this from people who I don’t know especially well but who also write, and therefore want to know whether they’re ‘ahead’ or not. The answer, invariably, is: ‘Who cares?’). However, I do like knowing that I am accountable for what I write — I write here on Medium, and I am accountable to the people who follow or discover me. I write my fiction, and there are a few important, close people who know what it’s about and who will help celebrate my progress with me.
There are two key ideas here. The first: Having a public declaration of what you intend to do makes it that much easier to go through with things; we don’t like to let people down, or look like we failed. So we do try harder when it becomes public knowledge. But creative writing tends towards the personal, and requires vulnerability. Finding a way to be accountable without being driven by shame is a better way forward. Entrust one or two precious souls with your progress. Make sure they are non-judgmental, encouraging and understanding folk. Set your expectations with them; think about what you need. Make it known that you are working on something — you don’t have to share the specifics. Just make sure someone who knows you closely knows what you are trying to do and whether or not you’re going to need them to check in.
The second key thing is this: Become accountable to them, but most importantly, become accountable also to yourself. Write down what you hope to achieve — keep it visible, present, in your writing space. Know what you want out of the practice. Become aware of how you can and will fulfil your own expectations for yourself.
Conclusion: Aim to become accountable to yourself, and maybe one or two very trusted souls. What you care about is most important, so know first what it is that you care about.
Make the goals tiny as possible
Set as many small goals as you can — make these achievable. Celebrate each tiny milestone, even if it’s just with a piece of positive self talk. Or buy yourself presents. Whatever feels good during a low period. In the words of James Altucher:
1% a day makes every habit work. Every… Improve a little each day. It compounds. When 1% compounds every day, it doubles every 72 days, not every 100 days. Compounding tiny excellence is what creates big excellence.
You don’t need to be carving into the mountain of writing greatness with every moment of your being, particularly during spells of poor mental health. So don’t be trying to — just do your 1%. Do your 0.01%. That is also something. Celebrate it.
Conclusion: Check in with yourself and set tiny, step by step milestones.
Work on whatever feels easiest
This might feel a little contradictory to a lot of productivity advice out there — in particular the infamous Mark Twain frog-eating saying. For me, morning are the hardest time of day when I’m in a low mood, so this saying is asking for me to immediately butt my head against a wall. Not a good start to a day. When depression or anxiety are in control, we’ve got to take the Twain down a notch. Yes, it’s great to be optimally productive by getting rid of hard tasks first thing. But if you’re already struggling, everything is hard. Don’t start with the mountain. Start with the molehill.
I like to think of it as a steady gathering of momentum — like when you first sit down on a set of swings. You’re completely stationary. You’re not moving. You have to kick off, move yourself back and forward slowly, and build up to a point where it becomes easy to keep on swinging, and swinging higher and faster. The same goes for writing through poor mental health.
Start with whatever kind of writing feels the easiest. This, for me, is my journal or similar — some stream of consciousness, it might be nonsense, it doesn’t matter. This gets the pen on the page and the words started, even if I’m just talking to myself. I am not going to push myself from 0 to 100 in the worst part of a depression cycle — I have to work my way up to that. Maintaining an attitude and awareness of self-care is vital to making a creative practice work long term for (not against) your mental health.
Conclusion: Start with what feels easiest in the moment — whatever kind of writing comes first. Start small, start simple, and work up to tackling the harder projects again in tiny bite-sized chunks.
Work without editing
In continuation of this, I have learned the importance of not editing before the process of creating is finished. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated for me than in the community of actors I work with. The ones who succeed are incredibly resilient; they work through and keep on offering something new. That is the way I like to think of it: it’s an offering.
Offer up whatever you can — and keep on offering. Big or small, silly or serious. Consider your practice as an offering that combats your mental illness — the more you donate, the more bolstered, the more insulated you become. I like to think of this literally, imagining the words as my protective layer. My inoculation.
When things are tough, mental health-wise, editing of any kind is a bad call. There will be time for that, and maybe it can’t be avoided if you have a deadline, but wherever possible, don’t give yourself the opportunity to attack yourself. To read over your work and judge yourself.
Instead of looking over everything I write with a magnifying glass and feeling disappointed, I have been slowly shifting back from self-judgment. This isn’t easy, especially in a depression spiral, when negative back chat gets fierce. Presently, I am aware the back chat will come. I am aware, and I let it do its thing, but I think of it as a radio I need to turn the volume down for. Sometimes I write down the negative thoughts. On paper, they are a lot less intimidating than they are in my head. Sometimes I use an exercise from ACT, saying them out loud in a silly voice. This makes them a bit harder to take seriously, or deeply. The distance is enough to take the edge off, and I am able to get back to my writing.
It is again a matter of practice. In the fine words of Jodi Picoult:
“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
Conclusion: Practice non-judgment. Try not to self edit (or generally edit your work) during a bad phase of mental health. Just write something.
Respond to your particular patterns
Recognising how you experience depression is key to this point. Know yourself first — what does mental illness look like, feel like, smell like, taste like, for you?
It helps to read about how others experience these issues. Take note, figure out what sounds familiar. By understanding yourself, you’re able to better define what it is that can form a kind of success for you. Work out what goals you can set according to the phase of depression or anxiety you are in — at your worst, the goal might just be opening your computer for the day. It might then be writing 100 words, or a 1000, or crafting one really great sentence. Whatever looks like progress for you — the point is just to keep on going, to make it sustainable and responsive to your particular needs.
And the reality is that there will be days where it is too hard. That’s okay too. Of course, I think it’s important not to stop and put down the pen for too long, particularly if, like me, writing is your passion. Because it will genuinely help you out of the bad times, if that is the case. But knowing when things are really too much and you have to take a break is important too. Know yourself first, then determine the best way forward through it all…
Conclusion: Figure out your mode of experiencing poor mental health. What does that look like for you? Find opportunities to celebrate successes that align with your particular phase — your particular limits.
Eliminate the barriers — even if it is as simple as having the book you need to refer to right there on your desk in front of you. Or arranging a check in with a friend. Or having a coffee ready to go. Whatever it is, make the practical aspects that facilitate your writing as simple and ready to go as possible. Make your practice sustainable and achievable. Figure out ways you can congratulate yourself for the work that you do. Feel the importance and contribution every additional sentences makes. Every little bit counts.
Good luck! And happy writing.