Monday 7 September 2015

Keeping the Darkness on the Page - a Writer’s Guide to Building Resilience

By Nick Cross

To the uninitiated, writing appears to be a simple process of putting words onto the page. But the fact that I’ve re-written the sentence you’ve just read six times seems to indicate that perhaps it’s not that easy. To write well requires us to make a deep personal connection with the material, and this is where the trouble starts.

Ernest Hemingway famously said:
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

A trifle melodramatic, you might think, and just imagine the mess it caused to the internal workings of his typewriter! But we understand exactly what he meant. And there’s another use of the word “bleed” that is even more pertinent to the writing experience – the way that our daily experiences, ideas and emotions bleed into our work. Writing is not an activity that respects boundaries, in fact it actively thrives on recycling our happiest and saddest moments, tapping into our deepest fears and exposing our most shameful thoughts.

This might all be fine if the transfer was only one way. But the process of writing, editing and getting published generates a whole host of other emotions which can, in turn, affect our lives away from the desk. Often, we may not realise that we’re building a psychological house of cards, until the sudden, brutal event comes that causes it all to collapse. Life happens.

For me, the trigger event was the simple failure of my novel to find a publisher (something I covered in detail in my earlier Slushpile post). For others, it can be something far worse. In Cliff McNish’s post from June this year, he talks movingly about the death of his wife and how he found himself unable to write the ghost story his publisher wanted:
“Day after day I wrote less and less until finally ... I just stopped. I didn’t want to be in this dark place. I had enough darkness going on in my life.”

Cliff, I’m pleased to say, found a way out of the darkness and is back to writing books again. And so am I, for that matter. But what is it that allows us to see past shattering events and gradually bring our lives back onto an even keel? Psychologists call this trait “resilience” and the American Psychological Association (APA) defines it as follows:
Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means "bouncing back" from difficult experiences.

Building resilience is a core skill for writers, but something that’s often overlooked. The APA have an excellent factsheet about building resilience, and here (very briefly) are their 10 tips:
  1. Make connections
  2. Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems
  3. Accept that change is a part of living
  4. Move toward your goals
  5. Take decisive actions
  6. Look for opportunities for self-discovery
  7. Nurture a positive view of yourself
  8. Keep things in perspective
  9. Maintain a hopeful outlook
  10. Take care of yourself
The factsheet is very good, and I suggest you read it so I won’t have to regurgitate any more of the information here! Instead, I’d like to share some personal strategies that have worked for me, in the hope that they’ll prove useful.

Write what you want – not what you think you should

You may think you’re writing what you want to, but are you? External pressures such as market trends, agent feedback or peer pressure can subtly affect what projects you choose to pursue. And there’s also the element of “doing what you’ve always done.” We’ve seen that already in Cliff McNish’s piece, and I was struck by another recent post by Sarah Aronson where she talks about changing writing direction to find peace of mind (and also success!)

Like Cliff and Sarah, I found that writing dark, difficult books worsened my mental condition, which in turn made my writing worse. So I decided to change direction and write lighter, funnier stuff instead. I wouldn’t say it’s been easier exactly (I still find writing pretty hard work), but it’s allowed me to tap into the positive, and make myself laugh into the bargain.

“What about the cathartic effect of writing?” I hear you say. Well, I agree that you can use writing as a form of therapy, and I think that’s why my short stories have been getting darker in the meantime (You can read more about the process behind that). Short stories are perfect for me because the process is much, much shorter than writing a novel – I can get the darkness out of my brain and onto the page without wallowing in it.

The darkest of my recent stories

“Too much of anything can make you sick.”

I’d love to attribute that quote to a great philosopher, but in fact it’s the opening line of Cheryl Cole’s debut single Fight for this Love! Nevertheless, the sentiment holds true, linking nicely into my previous point.

Doing everything in moderation is important to both mental and physical health. It’s tempting to lock yourself in a room for eight hours and burn through as many words as possible, but it’s not a healthy long term approach. Varying when, how and what you write can help you work around external pressures and will probably improve your creativity too.

Worry about Your Worrying

Writers are great worriers. This can be a positive trait, because it allows us to catastrophise, imagining all of the worst things that can go wrong in any situation and make sure they happen to our characters! But the same overactive mental process that allows us to plot stories can manifest in other situations as worry and rumination. Here’s a quick definition if the latter term is unfamiliar:
Rumination is the compulsively focused attention on the symptoms of one's distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solutions.

Rumination is believed by psychology practitioners to be a leading factor in depression and anxiety. It’s a big risk for people who are naturally introspective and spend a lot of time inside their own heads. Er, that’s us, people.

Cognitive Behavioural Treatment (CBT) is a common way of handling negative thought patterns. I’ve had a fair bit of CBT treatment over the past five years, but it’s only in the last six months that it’s really started to stick. Your mileage will doubtless vary, and there are other treatments that may work better for you instead. See the resources section at the end for more details.

Don’t be an emotional sponge

The world is full of awful events, which – while being horrible, immoral and upsetting – don’t tend to touch our lives directly. So we experience them at a distance via news and social media, sending out our empathy in place of direct experience. This is (once again) a double-edged sword, because the process which allows us to write convincing characters by stepping into their shoes, also allows us to be very quickly overwhelmed by other’s woes.

When I was at my lowest ebb, I can remember sitting on Twitter and feeling that I was being crushed by other people’s sadness – here was someone going through a divorce, or coping with sick kids, or lamenting a parent who died years ago. I had lost perspective of the positive posts, sucking up the painful and the negative emotions like a sponge.

The simple solution for me, was to take a break from Facebook and Twitter and BBC News, to insulate myself from the grief of the world until I was strong enough to face it again.

Beware the end-of-project blues

These are a big issue for me – after the wave of euphoria and relief that a big project has been completed, I will invariably sink into a period of low mood. The Friday before last, we delivered a brand new website at work, after an incredibly ambitious and stressful ten week schedule. As the first step in a projected ten year programme, the site was an unqualified success, and I had every reason to feel extremely proud of my contribution. But instead, I mooched around the house throughout the bank holiday weekend, feeling sorry for myself.

Writing projects are no different, and the stresses can be much worse because the completion of a final draft is invariably followed by submission to agents and editors, which creates its own anxieties. I know that other writers advise you to always have more than one book on the go, so that you can immediately switch to the other one. But I find I work best in intensive bursts, which doesn’t always suit that manner of working.

I remember reading about fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s suicide, which was triggered, in part, by reaching the end of a fashion project. As McQueen’s psychiatrist told the inquest into his death:
“Usually after a show he felt a huge come-down. He felt isolated, it gave him a huge low.”

Try to plan for the end-of-project blues and have a strategy to cope with them – this may be as simple as allowing yourself not to feel guilty about the low that inevitably follows a high. Although your body and mind will need a rest after an intensive period of work, try to ramp down slowly and structure your downtime.

Build a Support Network

Everyone needs supportive friends and family to celebrate the good times and get them through the bad. Build and nurture your support network by finding like-minded people to share your journey (hello SCBWI!) If you have mental health problems and seek out a community of fellow sufferers, be vigilant to the difference between supportive friends and ones who can become a burden or project their own woes onto you (the emotional sponge problem).

Additional Resources

Living Life to the Full

This is a free self-help website set up by a Scottish psychiatrist and partly-funded by the NHS. It offers a range of online CBT courses and factsheets to address problems such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and addiction.

NHS Choices

This site has lots of mental health advice, including the Moodzone which focuses on stress, anxiety and depression.

Manage Your Mind

This bestselling book by Gillian Butler and Tony Hope is a very approachable and comprehensive guide to mental fitness. At 500 pages, its size can be a little off-putting, and I was scared of reading it for years! But once I finally opened it, I found it both comforting and useful. (full disclosure – my employer publishes this book, but that’s also one of the reasons it’s so good!)

Therapy and Counselling

There are lots of websites and directories of therapists/counsellors, and the choice can be confusing as there are many different types of therapy available. Always look for someone with accreditation – the more reputable sites will show you this information (for instance, It’s Good to Talk is a directory of practitioners who are accredited by The British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy). Always “try before you buy” - the practitioner-patient relationship needs to work in both directions to be effective, and good therapists will offer you a free trial session before you commit to regular meetings.

As well as private therapy, I have had counselling on the NHS in the past, although mental health services have been hit very hard by recent government spending cuts and you may struggle to get a referral unless your condition is serious.

Life Coaching

Life coaching is not an alternative to psychotherapy but more of a complement – it won’t help you with deep-seated psychological conditions, but is useful for addressing issues such as confidence, motivation and reaching your career goals. I’ve recently had a course of sessions with a life coach and found it immensely helpful (if pretty expensive). In fact, the confidence it’s given me is pretty much the reason I’m writing this blog post.

Although she wasn’t my life coach, I’d like to give a shout out here to the lovely Bekki Hill, who runs a website called The Creativity Cauldron and specialises in coaching writers through their creative troubles.

OK, I think that’s quite enough from me! I hope you’ve found this post both useful and enjoyable. The issue of mental health for creative people is one that doesn’t get enough focus, so I hope I’ve redressed the balance a little.

Stay resilient,

Nick Cross is a children's writer, Undiscovered Voices winner and Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures Magazine.
Nick's writing is published in Stew Magazine, and he's recently received the SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.


  1. Thanks for this, Nick. Darkness always seems to be waiting around the corner and it helps to know how to keep it at bay. I was chatting with other writers yesterday about how difficult it is to keep the weight of expectation, fear from crushing you on a daily basis!

    1. It is a daily battle, Candy, so being able to cope with that and bounce back is essential.

  2. Dear Nick, thank you SO much for this wonderful post. I feel as if it were written for me this morning, as I have felt v overwhelmed these past days, and sadly know, as it has happened in the past, that it will happen again in the future. I am going to print it out and re-read its wise advice frequently.I think this post will help a lot of us.

    1. Glad the post found you at the right time, Anne. I still get very stressed over workload at times and these tips are as much for me as anyone!

  3. Great post, Nick. Writers often worry that they won't be published then worry when they are published. Being a worry-wart can be wearing and building resilience must be key to staying healthy.

    1. Worrying can actually be constructive up to a point, but then quickly becomes destructive - I'm still learning techniques to manage and limit it.

  4. One of the most useful posts I've read recently. Will be linking several people to this. Thanks.

  5. Truly awesome post, Nick. And yes, Candy, a daily process ... I'm using a watertight excuse (work) today to keep me from (or delay, at least) confronting the writing task ... and demons.

    1. I got halfway through a new short story about a week ago and then ground to a halt! I still haven't finished it and have used work, this post and the Blog Break as excuses not to get back to it. But I can feel it hovering there at the edge of my brain...

  6. Really interesting and practical post - thanks. I am particularly impressed by the way you managed to seamlessly quote both Hemingway and Cheryl Cole. I wonder if there is an added pressure on children's writers specifically to remain chirpy and upbeat, when the reality can be quite different.

    1. Yes, I think you're right that people see children's writing as "easy" and "fun", and expect that to translate to all children's writers. Some people do have the personality type that allows them to be relentlessly positive and upbeat, and other people don't - both kinds of people may be equally good writers.

  7. This is so timely for me! End of project blues combined with emotional sponginess and real life worries has left me a bit of a mess the last few days - am printing out that factsheet as I type.

  8. The news stories over the last week or so have certainly been bad for the emotionally spongy amongst us :( Hope you feel less messy soon, Kathy.

  9. Over the summer I have been involved in two drama projects with my book, and a very close friend has been seriously ill, I am absolutely drained of all energy and creativity. It was our NE SCWBI meeting last Saturday in York and although I felt I had nothing to offer, I just went to meet up with all my great SCWBI friends, so pleased that I did as I came back feeling supported and cared for. Thank you NE SCWBI's.

    1. So glad you were able to re-energise, Morag. SCBWI is a wonderful organisation.

  10. Thank you for sharing this, Nick. You've dealt with a serious issue that most people are reluctant to discuss when it affects them. I wonder how many others reading this post shared my feeling of relief that it's all right to talk about it?

    1. Thanks, Gill. I hope we can gradually normalise the discussion of mental health so it doesn't seem like a hidden problem. In actuality, 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year.

  11. ...and I love the fact you quoted Cheryl Cole!

    1. I've been wanting to use that quote for years - it just needed the right context! Actually, it took on an ironic heft when the single first came out, because you heard it everywhere and I quickly became sick of it.

  12. What a brilliant, honest and insightful post! Thanks Nick. The process of writing and promoting work does feel like being on a roller-coaster ride. In terms of keeping things in perspective, are there ways of separating how we view our writing from how we feel about ourselves?

    1. I think that kind of separation is healthy in terms of being able to see rejection for what it is - a rejection of the writing and not the writer. But I'm sure I'm not the only one who finds it hard in practice to disentangle the emotions that created a work from the emotions caused by a work.

  13. Great piece Nick, and wonderfully written (as always!)


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