Writing and Depression

Can you be a happy person and a writer too? Or are accomplished writers inherently depressed?

Tim and I bat this question around a bit in this episode of The Story Grid podcast.

To listen, click the play button below, or read the transcript that follows.

[0:00:00.1] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is the show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl and I am a struggling author trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me soon is Shawn Coyne. He is an editor with 25 plus years experience. He is the creator of Story Grid and the author of the book, Story Grid and he is helping me get through all of the common hurdles and mistakes that new writers make.


In this episode, we talk about several different things but we eventually get to a question that I feel is very important and the question is, do you have to be depressed to be a good writer? This seems to be a pretty wide ranging deeply held belief among writers and I think it’s an important subject to discuss. So Shawn and I talk about it and we don’t necessarily fall on the same side of the issues. So I think it’s an important discussion to start and I hope you enjoy it.


Before we jump into the show, I want to remind you that my friend, Joe Bunting, runs this great site called The Write Practice — thewritepactice.com. If you want to become a better writer, get some writing props, be a part of a community where everybody is working to become a better writer, this is the place for you. So check out The Write Practice, he is just a friend of the show and I want to share it with you because I think it will help you out.


So thanks for listening, we’re going to jump in and get started.




[00:01:30.1] TG: So Shawn, I got to say and I’m sure our listeners, they’re listening to the Story Grid Podcast so there’s only so much praise I can keep on striking without people rolling their eyes but I will say…


[00:01:43.3] SC: Oh bring it on. Bring it on.


[00:01:44.8] TG: Okay, writing this book with all the work I did ahead of time has just become so much easier to sit down and write. The other day, I made the decision of buying a puppy for my wife on her birthday but what that meant is I was caring for puppy all weekend instead of writing but I got this 30 minute snippet of I can put on my headphones and write and because of all the work I’d done gridding out this story and getting it ready, I was able to sit down and bang out 500 words in that short period of time.


What I found is, I can sit down, I put on my headphones, I have this one album I’d play on repeat that’s like my writing album. So my head is like, “Okay, you’re in writing space.” I read, the last thing I wrote for three minutes and then I just start writing and having everything just like plotted out so I have everything laid out in front of me, is just been so much easier to keep moving on my book than I thought it was going to be.


Anyway, that’s really not a question there. It’s more like I’m just surprised how I’ve been able because other times when I’ve written or write a little bit and then I sit there and then I would like to just tweet on my thumbs for four days and this has just been my most consistent writing I think I have ever done.


[00:03:09.6] SC: Well again, this is really great to hear because Story Grid, as you know, it is something that I created as a way to help myself edit other people’s work. When I was at the major publishing houses, I was an editor and things would come to me and I would acquire them but they would need work and I had to figure out a way to communicate with the writer, the problems with the book and also offer them solutions and tools so that they could fix the problems as fast as humanly possible.


That is a very, very important element here is speed. The Story Grid is a tool and it’s all about speed in a way because when you’re an editor and a major publisher, you have very limited time to get the book to perfection. In fact, you can’t get it to perfection. What you need to get it to is a salable product as fast as possible. So if you buy, and when I say buy I mean acquire, and what that means is when you’re an editor, you get submissions from agents and they say, “We are offering you this, what do you think?”


If you love the project, you would say, “I’d like to offer you a contract. I’d like to commission the writer to do it,” and then you do legal stuff and you give them an amount of money depending upon the demand for it. That’s called buying a book, that’s par lance and editorial world. “You know I just bought this book yesterday from Esther Newber,” that’s the kind of thing that you would say.


After you buy a book, it’s incumbent upon the editor to get that book into production as soon as possible, which means getting it to copy editing, proofreading, cover design. You have to get it in a schedule, you have to start planning marketing and if you’re spending a lot of money on a book like I used to when I was in publishing anywhere from $100,000 to millions of dollars, the more money you spend, the faster you want to get that thing out in the public’s eye because you need to recoup that money for your corporation.


So the Story Grid was a way that I could really jettison the process of editing to get it going as quickly as possible to create a language that I could use to communicate with the writer in a way that wasn’t flowery or unspecific or silly. Saying things like, “Well, I think the middle needs a little work there. It’s a little slow.” That’s completely unhelpful to a writer. In fact, it just brings them to their knees in despair.


So the fact that you’re seeing the machinery of the Story Grid and you’re basically reverse engineering Story Grid to use as a tool as a writer is really exciting to me because I always thought, “You know what? If somebody were able to apply these principles to actually creating a story from whole cloth, they would find that it’s a much more streamlined way of working than plumbing the depths of your soul day after day and hoping for the best.”


[00:06:20.4] TG: Yeah, I was learning a little bit about how Apple, inside of Apple stores, the employees, when they give each other feedback, it’s this grid. So you can have positive and negative feedback, I think that’s the Y access and then you can have vague and specific. So if I just say, “You’re awesome” that’s vague and positive and if I say like, “You suck” that’s vague and negative and so what they say is and that’s what and a lot of these…


[00:06:52.9] SC: That’s great.


[00:06:54.8] TG: You get this kind of vague like, “You’re doing great Tim,” and it’s like, “Okay, what am I doing?” And so what they say is the only kind of feedback that you’re allowed to give is specific. So it can be negative specific which is like, “You did this specific thing, we don’t like to do that because of X.”


Or it can be positive specific, “You did this and it was great so keep doing that.” I think what’s been helpful going through Story Grid is it’s helping me get really specific about things and that’s what made a pop in my head is you said that kind of gives this vague feedback and so what the Story Grid allows you to do is take that vague stuff and get really specific.


So I think that combined with what we talked about of story gridding Harry Potter and kind of using that as my road map has been two of the most helpful things of getting it going. What’s neat is, I sent my outline because I built my outline inside of the writing app, Scrivener, and you can export your outline and send it to people and so I send it to a couple writer friends of mine and one of them came back and they’re like, “The story is really solid,” and I was like, “Awesome!”


[00:08:12.1] SC: That’s unspecific positive Tim.


[00:08:14.2] TG: Well yeah, that’s true but both of them said it was compelling that kept them engaged at the end and I only asked for feedback from people that I believe will give me bad feedback if it’s bad and what that said to me was all of that work ahead of time of like it took me forever to story grid Harry Potter and then going back and forth and then story gridding the sequences of Harry Potter of like, “Where is it going? And I need to do that in my book,” and all the different characters that made me create.


That work ahead of time built this thing that has a very solid structure and now I’m just feeling like I’m going in and I am filling the gaps with actual words and writing. I am roughly halfway, who knows how long it’s going to end up being but I believe I’m about halfway through. So I felt really good and each day, I am able to sit down and write pretty quickly. I am doing the whole, I’ve got to only write forward, I’m not changing anything, the only time I go back and look is to remind myself of something I need to refer to and what I’m writing now, so that’s been good.


I did get some feedback I want to run by you. So what I’ve realized is, I’ve left some hanging things in the book. There was this one book I read, I forgot the name of it, it was really interesting and it’s a really good book. But they introduced two cops early on and the writer spent a good deal of time introducing who they were and they did a bunch of investigation and then they dropped off and you never heard from them again and that was weird. I went in the reviews and people are like, “Yeah, this was a great book but what happened to those cops? We never heard from them again.”


And the guy that was giving me feedback on my book pointed out a couple of those things. Of like, “Okay, this guy you spent a lot — it looks like you spent a decent time on him but he’s on two scenes in the entire book,” and there was a couple of things like that and I introduced this tool that I made it sound like it was really important and then it never shows up again and is that a pretty common problem that you’ve run into when you’re writing a book the first draft?


[00:10:22.9] SC: It is and it’s not something to panic about. The reason why you’re doing it is while you’ve been doing your story grid scene by scene plotting, you are working from a very analytical point of view and often times and this is the magic of writing, once you start the writing, you have your intention for the day and you have your scene work that you have to do that day and you do it.


But for whatever reason and I know this happens for me, you can start getting on a jag. Your sensibility starts — you fall in love with the character or you fall in love with a thing and you give it a little bit more juice than you actually intended to when you started and what you’re going to discover is you’re going to find those things. What you’re doing right now Tim is really difficult because you are in the process of creating and doing your first draft but you’re doing it, it’s sort of like taking a shower in the middle of Central Park with no shower curtain.


[00:11:34.1] TG: Nobody wants to see that.


[00:11:38.0] SC: But what you’re doing is you’re showing your process as you are creating your process. So what you’re doing is you showed your outline to people a little bit early before you had a first draft and they’re pointing out things to you that you would have discovered as you’ve started your editorial work after you’ve finished your first draft, but I hope it’s because I’m helping and keeping you from jumping off the ledge.


But when they point those things out to you that could send somebody who doesn’t have a resource, like some crazy editor like me, over the brink. Because those are the moments when you can say to yourself, “Oh my god, I don’t know what I’m doing. Look at this, I’ve created this character and he’s in a half a scene and I’ve spent 2,000 words on him. What am I doing? I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve got to quit.”


You would be surprised at how many people really do quit on something that trivial and a lot of times what happens is you’ll write a first draft and then you’ll, you know like famously, Harper Lee, her first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird was go set a watchman and after that first draft, she shared it with her editor at Harper or her agent, I forgot which. I think it was her agent and her agent probably said to her, “You know this isn’t quite there. Why don’t you think about this some more?”


Actually, I think it was her editor and her editor said, “Hey, have you ever thought about when you go into the voice of Scout, it’s kind of cool. Have you ever thought about maybe reconstructing the story and telling it from the point of view of Scout?” And so Harper Lee because she got some really great advice and she was open to it, she went with that and she went with it in a way that allowed Scout to take over the book.


Sometimes what happens is in your first draft there might be a character even a McGuffin and the fact that you are creating a tool and you’re not using the tool, usually a really great tool is a McGuffin that could be used by the antagonist or the protagonist to overcome the antagonist in the critical hero at the mercy of the villain scene. So you may or may not know it but that tool might come in handy later on when you’re faced with a very difficult problem.


So this is all to say that as you are using the analytical approach to have an intention for every day of work, you’re still being visited by the mysterious muse and she is sort of feeding things to you that you don’t understand nor should you understand at this point.


[00:14:23.0] TG: I have to keep stepping in and out because if every week we got on here and I’m like, “Okay, I have written another 7,000 words,” and you’re like, “Awesome,” that wouldn’t be a great episode so I have to keep stepping in and out and I took this because we were texting my buddy and I copy and pasted it in a word document.


I printed it out, I printed it my notebook and I’m not looking at it again until after the first draft so I’m trying to do both but it was interesting having his feedback. I basically started down these paths that I was like, “Well I don’t know where this is going yet so I’m just going to start,” and I guess that’s stuff everybody has to clean up in their second draft.


[00:15:05.0] SC: Yeah and if they don’t, their editor should really help them do it for them after they ask for an opinion. When you are bringing up the novel about the two cops who do some investigation and then we never hear from again, yeah that is something that you can’t, unless you’re David Lynch and you’re doing some sort of quasi anti-plot thing like what was that famous, Mulholland Drive or something?


Anyway, there was some characters in one of his movies that are very critical in the first half and then they disappear and then you never hear from them again and that’s not my kind of story telling but some people like the anti-plot kind of art filmy or art story transgressive fiction world and I will say this about Story Grid, Story Grid is really for mini-plot and arch plot stories that have a through line and use the traditional forms of storytelling.


If you want to write in this absurdist drama akin to early Edward Alby play or postmodern fiction, the Story Grid would probably be a great thing to know not to do but in terms of commercial fiction, meaning people who engage the most, if you want to engage the most people in your story, I suggest you steer clear of anti-plot and transgressive fiction.


[00:16:34.2] TG: Yeah, one of my realizations that really made me pull the trigger on like “I’m finally going to write fiction” was sitting in the new Star Wars movie and I felt such exhilaration and joy that I only get through great books and great movies and I was like, “I have to at least try to do this for other people,” and the books that I love the most are when it feels like they just grab a fistful of my shirt and just grips me through the entire book.


The ones where it’s like 3 o’clock in the morning and I’m smacking myself to stay awake just so I can keep reading. So yeah, that’s what I’m trying to read. I’m not getting into the other stuff. I just want a very linear plot that gets me through but you were mentioning about when the muse shows up, so in my book there is this character that’s looking out for my hero and then this character that’s actively working against her.


As I’m writing this character that’s looking out for her, I’m really falling in love with him. He’s really taking care of her and he protects her a couple of times from bad things happening to her and as I’m reading and as I’m getting through it, I’m like, “Oh no, he’s got to be the guy at the end that’s trying to kill her,” it just like dropped on me and I’m like, “No, no, no,” I kept pushing it back. Finally yesterday when my buddy was giving me this feedback, which had nothing to do with this particular point, I was like, “Yeah, I’ve got to make him the bad guy at the end. I just have to.”


And I remember like in Harry Potter, that was what it made it so great is this guy you never assumed he ended up being there but what I’m going to have to do is take the guy, which then got exciting to me because what that means is looking back at last episode when you were talking about the power of 10. I’m like, “Okay, on my rewrite I’m going to have to go back through and make him more likeable and make him somebody that you feel like is really going out of his way to take care of her so when he shows up at the end and he’s the one trying to kill her, it goes to a new level.”


[00:18:51.6] SC: Yes.


[00:18:52.0] TG: Does that make sense?


[00:18:53.0] SC: What you’re talking about is, I’m glad you brought it up. There’s a great word that’s been around forever and it’s called Catharsis and what catharsis is, is at the very end of the story when the revolution of the story and the ending payoff is so emotionally chilling to the reader or to the viewer that they have an emotional response.


So this is one of the reasons why great storytellers can be very powerful people. If you can create that moment in a reader or a viewer where they have an emotional response, they start to cry or they laugh hysterically and they can’t stop or that sour feeling in the pit of your stomach when you come to the realization that everything you held dear in your mind to be true is actually false.


Those are the moments that you’re shooting for as a storyteller and I write about this all the time, stories are ways to show people how change happens, how we can change our world view, how we can change the way we see the world and the people in it and how we behave, how we can be more humane. All of those things that are so difficult to change in ourselves so the tools to create catharsis aren’t very sexy.


They really are what we’ve been talking about for the past half year on this podcast, what they are, are being very, very specific and taking the time to really push yourself to not accept the first idea that pops out of your head and one of the ways to check yourself to make sure you’re not doing that is to use that concept of the power of 10 that I’ve talked about last week that you so wisely brought up now.


The way to build catharsis, is to really — and it doesn’t have to be, it all comes from the creator. My level of three on the scale of irreversibility of a particular scene might be a five for you. It doesn’t really matter. It only matters to the creator. It’s self-evaluation that is the most important. I wouldn’t suggest that you find a group of writers and everybody assigns a power of 10 number to each one of your scenes and then you have a big debate about whether or not scene A is a three or four. That’s a waste of time.


What’s important is for you to do it individually yourself. When you think about something internally that may go on in your life and you don’t share it with other people and you say to yourself, “You know I was kind of mean to that cab driver the other day. I wonder what was going on for me? Is it because of this or that or the other thing?” And you start to self-evaluate.


It’s the same thing you need to do as a storyteller and using the power of 10 to evaluate your scenes and say, “Okay, well yeah. I’m slowly building. I’m going from two to three to five to seven to eight to nine and my catharsis, I need to pull out all the stops of my catharsis. I need to solar plexus punch my reader and my viewer in such a way that they’re going to have an emotional response.”


The fact is, when you fall in love with your antagonist, that’s a great sign because you have to really understand the humanity of the dark side as well as the light side and I’ve said this again and again and again, it’s the dark nature of humanity that drives people’s curiosity.


[00:22:59.8] TG: I think it was surprising though to me how I got there because I’d been trying to think about, we had talked about your antagonist and making sure you know you’re really planning out your antagonist and all these stuff and I kept trying to do it and I’m like, “It’s not working,” because I am looking at this one character. I can’t break through the wall so I’m like, “I will keep writing and see what happens.”


That’s when I realized and I feel so weird talking about it like this but that’s what I realized. It’s like, “Oh that’s because he’s not my antagonist it’s this other guy over here,” and then I know then all these things click-click into place and how I realized that, that that’s what needed to happen. You know when you say you did something like you’re nasty to your wife in some way and you haven’t talked about it or thought about it yet. But in your mind, you are clicking off all these reasons why you are right even though you knew you are totally wrong.


So you’re like, “Okay, I am getting my list of things in place of why my response to this was totally justified,” and then finally, I get to this point where I’m like, “All right, I just need to admit that I was a jerk,” and it felt exactly like that. Where I kept like, “No, no, no I’m going to need him later in other books and he’s going to be fine.” I am focusing over here and I kept ticking off all those reasons because I didn’t want it to be him and then finally I’m like, “Oh geez, it’s him,” you know?


[00:24:36.7] SC: Well, I think that’s fascinating when you think about it because just exploring the notion of change for a minute and we talk about this in an episode a long time ago on the seven stages of grief but what you were just describing is the bargaining element in change, right?


[00:24:55.6] TG: Yeah, yeah.


[00:24:56.4] SC: Yeah, so when we need to change our behavior, we go through a whole stage, you know, The Kübler-Ross stages of grief which are shock, denial, bargaining, depression, I am messing them up but it’s not…


[00:25:12.2] TG: Yeah, I’ve got to look here, hold on a second.


[00:25:13.9] SC: Oh okay.


[00:25:14.4] TG: Go ahead.


[00:25:15.6] SC: So what’s interesting for the writing process and this is why people love to write and want to be writers because writing is a process of creating your own internal change as you’re writing a story and Steve Pressfield has been writing about theme for the past couple of weeks on his website, Stevenpressfield.com and a lot of people get confused by what he writes because he says, “You’ve got to know what your theme is before you can really understand what to do for your book and how to have your characters behave but I have written books and not know the theme.”


[00:25:53.1] TG: Yeah but we talked about that here.


[00:25:54.6] SC: Right, so it seems like this crazy disconnection of like, “What’s he talking about? You’ve got to know your theme but you don’t know what the theme is and you wrote a book?” And I think what that disconnection is all about is writing is a process of internal change for the writer as well as the ultimate viewer or reader.


What I mean by that is internally, as you are creating a story, there’s something in your unconscious that’s at play that you don’t understand and it is, you are giving it a venue for it to display itself in your work. So things like you’ll create a character and you don’t know why you did and he’s got 2,000 words in one scene and then he disappears. You don’t understand what that’s about, well just keep moving on. That something inside of you that’s blurted that out, you might cut it, you might end up using that in a completely different way after you look at it again.


So these moments of, “Oh my gosh, that’s not my antagonist! My antagonist is over here and I’ve really built up a great life history for that guy and it’s perfect and no, I don’t want the good guy to end up being the antagonist.” So you are bargaining with yourself until you hit a level of, “You know what? My good guy is a bad guy. It’s a bummer, now I’ve got to fix it.”


[00:27:13.3] TG: Right in the Kübler-Ross curve, the thing that comes after bargaining is depression.


[00:27:18.2] SC: Yes because you can’t bargain yourself out of the truth right? This is the thing, you can live in denial your entire life and never go beyond denial but once you hit bargaining, you either convince yourself of your own baloney or you hit at depression. You hit the dip as Seth Godin calls it and the dip is that moment of realization that your idea is maybe wrong or your process needs a tweak or there’s something you haven’t figured out yet. It’s that depressive moment that’s crucial in creative work and business work and any kind of work.


Psychoanalysis, it’s really an important moment and this is what is in every story by the way. The depression moment is the all is lost moment and it’s usually at the end of the middle built. It’s the moment when the protagonist realizes, “Oh my gosh, everything I have tried to achieve has failed. There’s no way I can continue on in the way that I’ve continued my entire life. There’s only one thing I can do. I have to change. I have to figure out an innovation. I have to figure out a way to move forward in my life that will change my life and I have to accept that life for me will never be the same,” and then, you have to move forward and what’s the next stage after depression?


[00:28:52.6] TG: Deliberation.


[00:28:54.4] SC: Deliberation.


[00:28:54.9] TG: Then choice, then integration.


[00:28:56.7] SC: Right, okay so the deliberation moment is saying, “Okay, here’s the story. My company is falling apart. It’s not going to be what I always wanted it to be so what do I have to do? Well, let me deliberate it. I’m going to have to cut all my payroll. I’m going to have to sadly say goodbye to my most trusted employees and apologize to them for not being able to keep the company the way it was going. Then, I’m going to have to come up with a new idea and a new product.” And this is what Steve Jobs did when he came back to Apple after he was shunned and kicked out of the company.


They brought him back and he had to say, “Oh computers aren’t going to be our thing. Guys, we need to think of something new. We have to innovate. You know what would be really great? Is if we solved the music problem,” and he came up with the iPod. He didn’t came up with the new age Macintosh, he came up with the iPod and he came up with the iPhone. He created a computer, a handheld computer. He created a super computer that you could have holding your hand. He didn’t reinvent and come up with a new desktop. He came up with a super computer that you held in your hand.


So it’s those moments of depression that lead to deliberation that lead to a choice that lead to the final change and when Steve Jobs made that change, he was extremely successful in his first, you know, living in his own little world at the beginning but then he hit a depression moment and he had to innovate and the innovations that he brought changed the world. Storytellers face the same thing in their writing. Now, that stuff can also way lay you meaning when you hit depression and you’re going to hit a depression Tim. I hate to tell you this but you’re going to hit it.


[00:30:49.6] TG: No, I play it too good, I won’t admit it.


[00:30:53.6] SC: No, I’m convinced that within four or five episodes, you’re not going to want to do the call. You’re going to say, “I’m not going to do it this week, something came up.” But when you hit that depression, it’s that moment when you always say, “Oh, I knew I planned for this depression but this thing, I can’t beat it. There’s no way I can beat it.”


Storytellers go through the hero’s journey in much the same way that their characters do and you’re finding that something in your story is not quite working and figuring out a solution to it and making a deliberate action to change your path is a good sign. It means that you’re not being too precious about your work and grinding and grinding and grinding until you can make it perfect, your perfect vision. You’re going with the flow and that’s a good sign.


[00:31:46.4] TG: Yeah, it’s been interesting because all of my writing basically before this has been non-fiction and so it’s been such a different thing with fiction for me and I think that that showing up and realizing I had the wrong antagonist was the first time I kind of got that brush against the muse. The thing that lives in the ether that nobody can explain.


It was that tingly feeling of, “Oh, this is what everybody talks about,” you know? Because it is. It’s been hard because there’s been these times of like what I’ve decided is, my default is I keep writing and so I let things stop me but only if I feel like I’m pressing against something. Like kind of in my personal life, what I feel like is when I come up against something new, I kind of in my mind, I put my hand in the door and push.


If the door starts swinging open, I’ll keep pushing but if it pushes back at me, I’d say “Okay, never mind,” and you and I were just talking about this before the call about a project that we were thinking about and it just felt like it was pushing back. So it’s like, “Okay, I’m going to let that go,” and I’ve taken that into the writing where like when I was running against the antagonist problem and you are telling me like, “You’ve got to think about your antagonist. You’ve got to plan it and you’ve got to know your antagonist even more than you know your hero.”


Every time I tried to do it I’m like, “Man, I can’t. I’m just pushing on something that’s not going to give,” and so I’m like, “Okay, I’m just going to keep writing.” And so that’s the rule that I’ve made. One of the things that I’ve realized is that I’m going to actually have to track down like a molecular biologist and get him to help me because I have a little bit of that in the story and I don’t know what I’m talking about.


I was Googling equipment in a molecular laboratory and so I’m like, “Okay” and so I’m learning about the equipment so I can put that in the story but knowing that I am probably messing up everything but I don’t want to do that and I will do that later but learning that balance between stopping and doing a little bit of work, like we’re talking about. Like coming up with names for characters and that kind of thing but then knowing when to be like, “I’m just going to keep writing. I can’t figure this out right now.” It’s a tricky kind of thing.


[00:34:04.3] SC: It is and I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before but one way to jumpstart a problem with an antagonist or a protagonist, or the thing about the antagonist and forgive me if I’ve said this before but you can never say it enough. The thing about the antagonist especially in a thriller or an action story and essentially any story, you need a moment of clarity of their point of view in their story.


What I mean by that is you need to give them some sort of platform or speech where they can say the thing that is motivating them. The rationale. When you were talking about having a disagreement with your wife and you know the minute you get home you’re going to sit down and “talk about it” and when you “talk about it”, you’ve got to be prepared, right? You’ve got arguments nailed.


You’ve got to say, “Well, when you said that thing, it reminded me of that time back in Buenos Aires,” so you can really keep yourself prepared. So think about antagonists in the same way, so what do I mean by that? What I always like to do is think like the antagonist and literary come up with my own speech and write it down or say it to a tape recorder and take the point of view of the antagonist.


Here’s somebody who is probably been dedicating their life to one particular goal and the goal to them is righteous. Whether or not you believe it or not or a third party believes is righteous or not, they wholeheartedly believe that it’s righteous. So for example, I have read a book review recently about a time in the United States at the very beginning, the turn of the century, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of forced sterilization of so-called imbeciles, right?


So in the United States, there was a law that said that the State of Government could impose a sterilization practice on people of an intelligence level that were determine by third party scientist as imbecilic. So there is a moment when you say to yourself, “How the hell did that happen? That is crazy! In the United States of America there is literary a law pass?” And you ask any lawyer and you mention this and they’re like, “Oh yeah, that was Stevens versus blah-blah.” Because they teach this in law school to explain this very fact.


So how did that happen? You have to think to yourself, somebody thought, and this was the time of science macerating as absolute truth. So people at that time thought that science was the answer to everything and science at that time said, “What we have a problem with are genetic gene pool of the human race so all we have to do is eliminate bad genes from procreating and having children and we’ll be cool. So let’s just get rid of all the bad genes by sterilizing people against their will so that we’ll get better. We’ll have a master race.”


And some really nasty horrible people really attached to this idea. But if you think of that rational thinking, “Well if you don’t have bad genes in the gene pool, they won’t reproduce.” This is absolutely against current scientific theory which requires a lot of different genes in the gene pool. It’s not a black or white thing, genetic engineering and genetic research is not a black and white thing.


Mutations occur, if you don’t have a really thick gene pool of different kinds of genes, then mutations that make us have better abilities to adapt to our environment will never happen but anyway, you have to think about those moments in history or those moments in your own life when you make a really stupid decision but you thought to yourself you have a goal in mind and you did something wrong but you thought you were doing right.


[00:38:21.9] TG: Yeah.


[00:38:22.0] SC: So that’s a way to look at creating your antagonist. What is that thing that they are wholeheartedly in favor of? A lot of very powerful people sometimes have to make very difficult decisions that are not good for everybody but they’re good for the majority.


[00:38:40.9] TG: Yeah.


[00:38:41.5] SC: If your antagonist is like, “One of us is going to have to die or we all die, so I chose you Tim. You’re going to die.” Now if you’re Tim, you’re like, “My god! This guy is a maniac!” But you know what I’m saying I think.


[00:38:55.9] TG: Yeah, yeah.


[00:38:56.4] SC: Think of this as contextual. Everything is context.


[00:38:58.1] TG: It’s empathizing within.


[00:39:00.5] SC: Exactly.


[00:39:01.2] TG: And see it from their point of view. Okay, so I want to take a little side thing here before, to make sure we talk about this in this episode because this is important to me. So I started following this Twitter handle, it’s Advice to Writers, and he posts all these quotes from writers and actually set it up where I get a text message every time he’d post.


So all day long, I’d get these quotes from writers which is probably not good but he’d put this one up from Kurt Vonnegut and I haven’t done background checks to make sure Kurt actually said this but this was the quote, “You cannot be a good writer of serious fiction if you are not depressed.” Actually just this morning, I was talking to a buddy and he talked about, we were Stephen King’s On Writing, and how the best line in that book is when he says something like, “You’re life isn’t a support system for your writing. It’s the other way around.”


It was talking about how he had been on drugs and all this stuff and came out of it and then later, and again I have to check this to see if it’s true but my buddy was like, “Yeah, I was watching this PBS thing with him and he actually says when he wrote that line of On Writing, he was high at the time.” There’s just this level of belief, working in publishing like I have, you meet all of this people that have decided that have to die for their art or live a totally depressed and deprived or never happy life to have good art. Do you believe that?


[0:40:46.3] SC: I think it attracts a certain personality but just to circle back to what we were talking earlier about the Kübler-Ross. It seems to me that the depressive state is one that we intuitively know can lead you to a deliberate revelation. What I mean by that is, the things that Kübler-Ross wrote about in hero’s journey that we’ve talked about. There is always that moment where things just — they didn’t work out.


Things just didn’t quite work out the way the hero thinks they’re going to work out. Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz thinks that as long as she gets the broom of the wicked witch of the west and she brings it to the wizard of Oz, he’s going to send her home. Guess what happens? She gets the broom and she brings it back and he says, “Oh I’m sorry, I’m a fraud. I really can’t send you back to Kansas. I’m sorry.”


She has to reach this level of depression where, “Oh my gosh, everything that I’ve done to get back to where I need to be failed.” That’s a depressive state. I think this whole sort of thing where the writer or the artist is a depressive, I think there’s something to that notion that we intuitively know that if we reached a certain level of despair, it will force us to deliberate a way out.


People try and sort of get to that depressive state without doing any of the work that gets them to the — if you know what I mean. They’re not shocked, they’re not denying anything, they’re not bargaining. They are sort of just going from zero to depression without any of the thought processes or work entailed in the rest of that Kübler-Ross curve.


A real artist is someone who sees something in the world that they find shocking and wrong. What they — they find that shocking and wrong and they say to themselves, within their spiritual selves, some literally, probably a lot just through whatever circumstance. They’re shocked by something in the world and they need to create something to address that shock.


Then what happens is they deny doing that thing that resistance bears down on them and tries to stop them from creating something that can address that kind of shock. I’ll just use a specific example. Before Steven Pressfield ever showed anybody the pages that would become The War Of Art, it sat in his desk for 10 years because he found this thing that was shocking to him. People would always say, “Steve, jeez, you’re so disciplined, how do you do it?”


He kept saying to himself, it’s pretty simple, you got to just crank yourself up and sit down and do the work and he thought about it and he came up with this notion of resistance. You know what? He didn’t just publish that thing immediately, it kind of sat in his drawer and he would give it to people when they would ask him this question so he wouldn’t have to listen to them anymore.


It took him 10 years until a moment of not crisis but a moment where he said, “You know what? I’m going to take a chance and I’m going to show this — I’ve never written any nonfiction before. I’m going to show this to my friend Shawn and maybe something will come of it,” and it did. My point is that the shock is an artistic expression, an artist expressive shock at the state of the universe, he goes through a process of denying, actually creating something to address that.


And then he goes through bargaining, why you should or should not do it and then he’ll reach a level of depression like man, I don’t know, what am I going to do? It moves forward from there but I think the point of Kurt Vonnegut saying, you got to be depressed to be an artist, I think what he’s saying is that you’ve got to go through a level of… it’s not easy to create something.


[0:45:09.4] TG: I think there’s points of depression and then there’s this belief that you have to be in anguished person in order to create. I’m asking this, if I’m being completely honest, out of this fear of I’m a generally happy guy, since I’m like a happy guy that pretty much enjoys life and have not dealt heavily with depression or demons in those ways. Am I going to be able to write something good if I’m not one of these people that are like sacrificing my happiness for my art?


Me, you and Steve were talking about this a couple of weeks ago and like, when he was like, you got to like — everything’s got to sacrifice to the writing. I’m like, “God, I hate that answer because it’s not. I have like kids and I work out and I go to church and I love my wife and I got another business I run and I’m also trying to write.” When these things kind of pup up, “Okay, you got to be depressed to be a good writer.” Or like, “Everything in your life’s got to sacrifice to it,” I react very strongly to that because I really want to believe it doesn’t have to be that way.


[0:46:32.3] SC: I think that’s a good question Tim and I don’t really have an answer for you. I can understand both points of view, knowing Steve as long as I have, I have so much respect for the choices that he’s made and he has really sacrificed a lot of things in order to reach the level of craft that he brings to the table every single day. It did not come easily to him. You also have to remember that there was a moment in time that old people like me sort of look back nostalgically. When the novel, when the writer was a national treasure.


We look to the writer of novels and fiction as a way to think about our world in a deep way. We would, when a new Hemingway novel would come out or a new Philip Roth novel would come out or Don DeLillo is coming out with a new novel in a couple of weeks, these are the people that we would look to or John Cheever short story and in that area of the deep thinking, important fiction novel as driver of the culture, unfortunately or fortunately, depending upon your point of view is gone.


What drives the culture now is very much informational video driven, story that’s probably say television is the main driver of the culture and ideas today. Film is pretty much spectacle stuff that’s action oriented that has very archetypical figures like Iron Man and things and Star Wars which are pretty much morality plays that are pretty simplistic but very exciting and interesting to watch.


The reason why I’m saying this is that after — when you were raised in that era of the novelist being like a philosopher king kind of cultural figure and today the novelist does not have anywhere near that stature and 50 Shades of Grey is celebrated as this wonderful thing and maybe it is, I haven’t read it whereas back in the day, Portnoy’s Complaint was like the talk of the town or Underworld by Don DeLillo or The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.


Anyway, there’s a level of this high art versus low art thing that has been going on for a long time but the story driven fun spectacle kind of fiction is sort of taking that over. Do you need to plumb the depths of your humanity to create a great super hero novel? No, you don’t. What you need to understand is the craft of storytelling and to create some very innovative characters and some innovative conventions and obligatory scenes that the viewer will be reenergized by.


That they will say to themselves, “I’ve never seen that twist before. Holy cow, this guy’s incredible.” But are you going to deliver an existential revelation on a par with something that Hemmingway wrote or F. Scott Fitzgerald? I don’t think so. Those guys were seriously impressive people who were really, they were really at the edge of their psychological breaking point. I don’t think you need to go there and I think here’s the other thing.


I think the more you write, the more you will approach those big cathartic moments in your fiction writing. But to obsess about this stuff as you were in the process of learning the craft is a great way to give resistance a big hand at keeping you away from your chair.


[0:50:40.6] TG: Okay. I like that way of thinking about it. I think that’s a helpful way…


[0:50:45.9] SC: Times have changed.


[0:50:49.1] TG: Well times have changed but there’s still — it’s hard for me because I’m more of the side of “the more, the better”. I think what’s great now is that you can find the things that speak to you, there’s always more of what will speak to you, I don’t know, I’m probably messing this up but I feel like it’s just interesting as you are talking because it’s like those types of books that you were describing. I’ve tried to read those and I’m like, “Oh my god, I hate this.”


I really resonate with that — I heard somebody say, “Classics are the books that everybody wants to have read but doesn’t actually want to read.” And I was like, “Oh man, that is me.” I think it’s interesting the way you put it of just like they are plumbing these depths that I just personally am not plumbing and so it doesn’t resonate with me which means that’s not what I read and that’s not also what I’m going to write.


Sometimes when I talk to poets and they’re talking about how to find commercial success and my real answer is like, “Dude, not going to happen probably.” There’s this level of having to become comfortable with the fact that your muse or whatever you want to call it is not currently, in your time and life, commercially viable.


One of the lessons of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is not just the 10,000 hour rule, it’s also were you luck y enough to be born at the right time? If Steve Jobs or Bill Gates have been born 10 years later, they would have been too late and if they’ve been born 10 years earlier, they would have been too early and we would never have either of them.


There’s this level of luck of the draw of I have to be okay with, I’m never going, probably never going to write those kind of things that have touched those kind of people because that’s not who I am.


[0:52:54.8] SC: Yeah, that’s absolutely valid and again, there’s a lamentation process for people as their generations grow older. I grew up in a similar sensibility as Steve did but I was the next generation. I was really at the end of that moment when a writer was really deep thinking guy who wore a beret and really knew language in a way that I would never understand.


What I favor is deep, well examined storytelling that is also popular. You’re probably going to roll your eyes when I say this, as many people have before when I’ve said this before, I think the Silence of the Lambs is a deeply literary story that can operate on so many different levels. It operates at the level of a chilling serial killer thriller that your heart is in your throat the entire time.


It also has deep resonance, thematic imagery and metaphor from his historical Judaea Christian theology. You can look at it in any way you want and pick out whatever you want depending on how deep you want to go. I always think that that is the Pen ultimate way of creating art. If you can create work that reaches the every man who doesn’t want to read the classics because they’re boring and he goes, “Oh man that was great!”


You can also reach the people in the Ivory Tower who were looking at the imagery of the Judaea Christian imagery in Silence of the Lambs and say, “Did you see what he did with that thing on that thing in the way he positioned that?” That is really — they’re both valid. That I think to me is really reaching a new level because to be crassly commercial just to enthral people, just the spectacle, just to make a buck, I think that’s cheesy and not the way to go about anything.


But if you have an intention of plumbing your inner world in a way that you can innovate a particular genre using the same tools as other people before you and go deeper and deeper with each successive work. I think you’re on the right path. All of this is to say is I think you can have great literature inside a great story and appeal to a wide, wide market of people on different levels. To me, that is the goal of working on your craft.


Right now, you’re in a position where you’re just trying to learn the great storytelling craft. You want to hold people’s attention, you want to excite them and you want them to have a cathartic moment of excitement at the end of the story. Totally cool, I’m down with it, I think it’s great. Maybe in 15 years after you’ve written four, five, six, seven, eight other novels, you may say to yourself, “You know what? I want to go a little bit deeper here and see if I can use some deep seeded imagery and metaphor that will bring another level to this.” That’s what Stephen King did.


You look at Carrie and then you look at the Misery. Misery is just a wonderful story and it’s also so deep, it’s all about dealing with success, it’s dealing with all the internal demons that are out there to destroy you. You look at Stephen King’s career and you see him go deeper and deeper in each book. Now he probably say, I’m not thinking about deep stuff, it’s in there. So he is.




[0:56:55.7] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, you can see that at Storygrid.com. For any past episodes, for any show notes, if you want to download the Harry Potter Story Grid I did a few weeks ago, all of that is available at sStorygrid.com/podcast.


Thanks as always for listening, for sharing the show with your friends, and we will see you next week.



4 comments on “Writing and Depression

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Another great discussion!

    The idea that writing and depression (or writing and alcohol or writing and drugs) are inseparable is an interesting (and IMHO a mythical) one. I’ve thought about it a lot and I think that, in the context of this discussion, we might be mistaking depression for the curiosity that a writer must have and the willingness to go into dark places to poke around and to ask “why’ and “what if?” But that willingness is different from a required permanent consignment to darkness just for the sake of one’s art.

    I’ve worked in the mental health field for more years than I care to admit, and I subscribe to Steve Pressfield’s assertion in The War of Art that if more people could successfully beat back Resistance, a lot of therapists would be out of work.

    As always, guys, thanks!

  2. Anna-Marie O'Brien says:

    This is great, you guys, thank you. It touches on everything I’ve been feeling these past few weeks. Working on a memoir. I think I have my theme – but who the hell knows? I’ve figured out that my antagonist is a place, not a person. I kept trying to pin it on a person, and it dawned on me – I’m fighting geography in my story, and I’ve had to accept that. Just after the tingling glory of writing an amazing scene, I fell into a funk/depression where I felt guilty for feeding my children take-out and letting the laundry pile up while I worked. Am I sacrificing too much to get this book done? Or just a season that I’m passing through? I actually asked myself if I would be happier not writing. No, no I would not. Real life is so annoying sometimes, and the struggle is real. Thanks for lighting the way a bit.

  3. Ray says:

    Thanks for another great session guys. As someone with a lifetime of depression I should be able to write a brilliant book!

    I’ve finally found the time to start writing. Just a few thousand words so far, odd scenes I wanted to get out of my head, notes, scraps of plot, while I re-read the Story Grid and get ready to plan it properly.
    Todays podcast made me re-read what I’ve written so far and it’s actually pretty dark, but it’s good. But I couldn’t imagine writing anything lighter, so maybe that’s the effect of depression. It’s finally paying off, woohoo 🙂

    Thanks for the advice and motivation guys, you don’t know how much help you’ve been in getting me started.

  4. PT says:

    It is true that writing and depression can definitely go hand in hand. Mix a cocktail of: 1) trying to write “literary/post-modern/metafiction/experimental” books that avoid traditional story lines. 2) The misplaced hope of becoming rich and famous for writing said books. 3) Enough motivation and stubbornness to never give up on this endeavor. Shake for fifteen years and garnish with the ashamed responses of people who can’t finish reading your work.

    Not to toot the horn of Shawn’s website too much, but… Writers should be required to get licenses to write. They would be required to study this website and learn about genre, obligatory scenes, etc. and all the other things that make “literary/post-modern/metafiction/experimental” writers recoil. I know I didn’t want to hear the truth, yet persisted in my own denial about the craft of storytelling. Let’s help others not spiral into that depression.

    Having been a creative writing college student and matching the story above, Shawn, you are a breath of fresh air. None of them would dare to say what you do. It has helped me greatly in realizing my love lies with storytelling, not 100k word stream of consciousness wordplay! Keep it coming!

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