Write for Advice
In my early twenties, I went to graduate school to study English literature. I was deeply passionate about the written word and knew from the moment that I could read that I wanted to devote my life to this pursuit. Idealistic, I felt like providence had led me to that moment in my life, and I was ready to enter the academic and literary world where I would finally “belong.” Instead, I was met with a small circle of individuals who had greater desires for tenure than the actual sharing of knowledge and appreciation of language. The program was more clinical than I needed it to be. I was miserable in that environment and left graduate school early feeling confused and betrayed by the system that I had worked so hard to enter.
After leaving, I sank into a deep depression, only partly cured by a new relationship. I met a poet and fell for him quickly, all my passion for language being channeled toward him instead. I loved his poetry and the emotions that he conveyed with words. I felt fulfilled through my relationship with him (although it was a tumultuous one) and was inspired to write as we shared the same creative spirit. It was a long-distance relationship though, and he cheated with a woman he then married only a few months later.
In mourning that relationship, I met another writer who picked me up off the floor more times than I care to admit. I hate to sum him up as just a “writer” too, because he was everything to me. He had the same acute sensitivity to the world that I do. Every pain I ever felt echoed the same inside of him. We took turns spinning into depression and then giving/accepting consolation. We fell in love with each other’s words over and over again. Even his emails were art to me. He was the most precious part of my life and I trusted him implicitly (although his love of story telling often led to superior forms of embellishment).
He shot himself in the head almost four years ago.
I miss him.
All of this is to say that I do not know what to do with myself. I feel like I have writer’s block of the mouth and pen. I shy away from everyone and anything that I used to gravitate to because I feel so wounded by it all (whatever “it” is). I don’t know how to connect with people anymore. I don’t know how to write anymore. I feel so profoundly but have no outlet. I am disappointed in life, do not know how to go on without my partner even after several years, and do not know how to find others like me or make myself understood by those that are different. I am not under the impression that life should be happy all the time. However, I would like the ability to experience just a little bit of it every once in a while. Sometimes.
What should I do to get out of this current un-life? How do I find others with the same sensitivity to the world that can relate to me and I them? What do I need to do to feel inspired to write again?
Thank you for being there,
Despairing Former Writer
Dear Despairing Former Writer,
How do we recover from loss? We do it slowly. I am not surprised that you are still recovering from this traumatic loss, or series of losses — the loss of your graduate school dream, the loss of your intimate partner, the loss of your own creative practice.
As a first step, I suggest that you see someone trained in the treatment of depression and ask, candidly, if you appear to be depressed. If the answer is yes, then spend some time working with a therapist who is trained in the treatment of depression, sorting things out, getting help and support. I know what depression is like, and I know it can be treated and life can get better, and I also know the numbness and hopelessness and sense of worthlessness that come with depression.
At least find out. If you aren’t depressed, it will be good to have an expert opinion to that effect. You may just be grieving.
Either way, write through this pain. If you have not tried doing morning pages, as suggested in the book The Artist’s Way, try that. It is a good way to habituate oneself to daily writing after a period of inactivity. You do not need to feel inspired to write in order to write. You need only to write. Strangely enough, the writing will cause the inspiration, not the other way around.
May I share something with you? I, too, sought the companionship of fellow lovers of literature in graduate school and I, too, despaired and left, after learning mainly how to drink in bars.
I, too, have lived through bouts of depression. I have gotten help both professional and nonprofessional. What I cling to, and what I keeps me on this side of the suicide line, here with the living and not over the cliff with the suicides, is knowing that things will get better and that the steps I take will slowly help. In the bad times, in the down times, I do things to get through the day.
Writing will sometimes get you through the day. This morning I have been writing about my father, who had literary dreams but did not finish things, and how sad that was for me as a boy to watch, and how I have at times repeated my father’s pattern. And I have been thinking how painful it is to want to do better than one’s father, and the conflict that can bring, and how after leaving the family and all its particular horrors one wishes to find one’s genial tribe, and how there are many false tribes that will disappoint you, and how one’s true tribe are not found where you think they would be found — not necessarily in the graduate English department but out on the lawn smoking pot or working in mailrooms or as cab drivers, or devoutly following a calling.
In seeking our tribe we are often drawn to the ones who burn the brightest and promise the most. But do the ones who burn the brightest really have what we need, or are we just drawn to them because they burn so brightly? It seems to me it is often those who burn the brightest who let you down the hardest. Having fallen for this writer, having lost him so traumatically, you must be wary now of any trust, and not know how to distinguish between the dazzlers and the true friends. You may be wary that the ones who will dazzle you will also break your heart but not know who else to turn to. This is sure: Your heart cannot stand to be broken again. You need someone to be good and strong and kind to you. You do not need another romance with death.
Let me ask you this: Is there anyone among your close friends that you can totally rely on? Is there anyone you can lean on? Someone who loves you unconditionally? Family, a friend, a fellow lover of literature, a woman friend, someone? You need someone, not a lover, but a friend, not necessarily a brilliant person but a loyal person. Maybe a therapist would play that role; that is often the unexpected beauty of therapy, that we are able to fall in a kind of love with someone in an unproblematic way, for our own good, to reawaken our own capacity for love. This person need not understand your aesthetic complexities. You just need someone you can lean on.
I will tell you a little about my own recent experience of depression. First, some bad things happened, so it wasn’t like depression came out of nowhere; bad things happened both medically and socially. So when I sought treatment for depression, the professionals’ first thought was that I was socially isolated and needed IPT — InterPersonal Therapy. It then became apparent that I had some deeper issues that needed a psychodynamic approach. But out of that psychodynamic approach finally came the strength for me to essentially do IPT — to repair my social network. So now I am answering the telephone and responding to emails. I am cherishing the friends I have. I am reaching out. That is helping. Also I am working methodically on my literary craft. That, too, is helping. And I participate in 12-step meetings. That, too, is helping.
Maybe you still need to grieve this loss completely. I’m not sure, frankly, how one does that. I suppose that for each person it is personal. But there is some good to be had by saying it out loud: I need to grieve. I am grieving. Out of that comes acceptance of the melancholy, the heaviness and slowness. One can say, I am feeling heavy and slow with grief still. That does not mean there is something wrong with me, just that something terrible happened.
Something terrible happened. You are not over it yet. Eventually you will be.
Ask a professional about depression. Strengthen your social network. Identify people who are there for you. Lean on them. And write your way through it, too, not trying to be brilliant, but trying to tell the truth.