Creative Writing Helped Me Work Through My Depression

By writing about my feelings and experiences, I could sort through them, make sense of them, and prevail over them
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Winter blues can be transformed into beauty through creative writing.
Winter blues can be transformed into beauty through creative writing.

January and February seem like never-ending months. By the third week of the new year, December really does feel like it happened last year — as in, way back in the past, you know, before January came along and stomped on it. Then February makes an appearance, reminding you there are still weeks to go before milder weather may (hopefully) lift you out of your lonely blues with its sweet promise of rejuvenation.

That is how I felt when I found myself jobless in January 2018. The coldest part of winter had often been a challenge for me and without a job to keep me connected with others, the winter months appeared more threatening than ever. The big D-word had imprinted itself on me once again. And, truth is, I'm not unique. By the age of 40, 50 per cent of Canadians will have dealt with depression at some point. And of those, only 49 per cent will seek help from a doctor.

In my case, I'd tried traditional therapy, but it hadn't helped much. Talking things out just didn't do it for me. Then I read Dr. Gillie Bolton's book, The Therapeutic Potential of Creative Writing: Writing Myself,in which she writes about the health benefits in creative writing. Bolton states, "writing is a kind and comparatively gentle way of facing whatever there is to be faced." So, I decided to try something new: I'd escape the drab by writing a work of reality-based fiction.

The magical part of creative writing is that it allowed me to express myself and engage my imagination in a way that changed my brain's habitual thought pattern. Rather than succumb to my feelings of loneliness and despair, I grabbed them by the horns and plopped them into my story. My depression had not come out of nowhere, it had a history and was full of cause-and-effect relationships, but it also wasn't something I could do nothing about. By writing about my feelings and experiences, I could sort through them, make sense of them, and prevail over them. Writing enabled me to transform from "victim" or "survivor" to superhero.

Before questioning your ability as a writer, know that you don't need to be an expert in syntax or a guru in knowing thyself to create a piece of meaningful literature. In philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard's words, "We write before knowing what to say and how to say it, and in order to find out, if possible." First drafts are for uncovering meaning, leave the syntax for the following drafts, and the 'guru' moments will pop up as you go.

I did it and so can you. Here's what worked for me.

Get started with a 10-minute brain dump: pick a topic that matters to you and write whatever comes into your mind about it, non-stop, for 10 minutes, no thoughts about grammar or syntax, no rules. Topics could include an event, a person, a dream, an experience, a feeling, or something else that had an effect on you. I chose a traumatic experience I had as a teen.

Now that you have your subject, it's time to develop your theme. What do you want to say with your story? What message do you want to send? My main message was that bullying and sexual assault during the teen years have long-lasting effects that must be more thoroughly addressed. Describe your theme in one sentence.

Writing can be a gruelling process to get started, but once you get going, the health benefits are innumerable.

When you've worked out your theme, decide whether you want to share it as non-fiction or fiction. As I planned to publish my work, I chose to relay my theme through fiction. Although my work would be based on real experiences, I was more comfortable about sharing my message in a way that didn't involve revealing the stories of other real people as they crossed into my own.

Next up is character development. Who will star in your story? What are they like? What do they value and believe in? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Weaknesses make us interesting and offer possibilities for growth — they add twists to our story and give it depth. How will your character respond to challenges? How will your character learn from challenges? How will they help relay your theme to your readers? Who are your secondary characters and how will they contribute to your story?

Now it's time to develop your scenes. For a short story, each second or third paragraph may introduce a new scene and for a novel, it may be each chapter. There are no solid rules, but each scene should have a conflict and resolution. Ask yourself what scenes you need in order to relay your theme and how each scene will contribute to how you choose to conclude your story. Also ask: how will your characters bring each scene to life?

Writing can be a gruelling process to get started, but once you get going, the health benefits are innumerable. Author Laini Taylor advises new writers, "Be an unstoppable force. Write with an imaginary machete strapped to your thigh. This is not wishy-washy, polite, drinking-tea-with-your-pinkie-sticking-out stuff. It's who you want to be, your most powerful self."

Still can't get your imagination flowing? I did most of my creative thinking while on morning walks and solo cross-country ski trips. Before writing a scene, I'd go for a walk or ski and think it through. The Norwegians have an excellent word for this process, tankegang, that is used to describe train of thought, and translates more literally as thought walking. So, grab a pad and pen and lykke til med tankegangen!

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