June 21, 2016

9 Steps to Overcome the Paradox of the “Unhappy Writer.”

Paul Thompson/Flickr


So many people want to write and so many people have this idea that if they could just write and get published they’d feel fulfilled and happy.

So why is it that so many published writers are unhappy?

On the one hand, there is more and more scientific evidence that writing makes people emotionally and physically healthy. Researchers like James Pennebaker and Lewis Mehl-Madrona have done great work in this area. And yet, the cliché of the tormented, struggling writer points to a different truth. There have been numerous studies showing the higher rates of mental illness and distress in writers, from Kay Jamison’s famous study linking madness and creativity to more recent ones about the increased risk of suicide among writers.

I’m choosing to share my own story, because this is a paradox that I’ve tried to untangle.

My father was a writer and I grew up surrounded by writers and books. Perhaps it’s not surprising that I always wanted to be a writer myself.

Fast forward: I grew up, got a PhD in English, and started to publish my creative writing widely. And yet, it wasn’t making me happy. I loved to write, but it also made me anxious. I questioned and turned things over. I felt driven and unsettled.

And truth be told, many of the successful writers I knew and spent time with also seemed anxious and unsettled. Even though their writing was deeply important and engrossing, well-being wasn’t exactly the quality they seemed to be cultivating.

Then, in my mid 30s, two of my good friends—both successful, published writers—committed suicide.

What was going on?

Maybe it had nothing to do with writing, but I was worried. We don’t need to wrack our brains to come up with a list of unhappy writers or ones who committed suicide. Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf are just a few who come to mind.

Nor had I noticed that my father’s writing, much as he loved it, never gave him much peace or equanimity. Perhaps I had inherited this writing-bug as a kind of habit energy. Perhaps it was time for me to reconsider what I was doing with my life and put my energy elsewhere.

I had two little children, and I wanted to be present for them—and for myself—-completely. I wanted to cultivate not just questions, but also answers, acceptance, inner peace and well-being. These were qualities I wanted to be able to give my children, and I needed to find them for myself in order to be able to pass them on.

So I focused on being a mom and on looking deeply at my inner life. I could see that while so many people think what they need for happiness is outside rewards, when those rewards come they often don’t bring the sense of completion and fulfillment that people expect. Where then, do we get our happiness from, our sense of fulfillment and completion?

I wanted to get to the root causes. I continued to teach writing, but my “me” time was spent on therapy, meditation and yoga—not on writing. If I could listen to and understand myself, maybe I could understand the roots of my psyche and emotional life.

After a lot of inner healing, I came to see that I could be my own witness. I didn’t need the outside confirmation that I thought I needed. In the process, my physical body became healthier. I became a better mom. Eventually I felt I had something I could offer to other people as a healing modality.

But something else happened, too. I noticed that during those years that I had stopped writing, I actually hadn’t. I couldn’t stop writing and I didn’t want to.

I still loved to read. And I loved to write. And I loved to teach. That wasn’t going away.

So I found myself with another question: how can I—how can we—write toward well-being and wholeness while still creating great work?

Was that possible?

I’ve taught literature now for over a decade, and while I see the deep divide between the supposed rewards and the actual rewards of writing for many people, that doesn’t have to be our reality.

I’ve seen that we can write with the intention for wellness and wholeness and the intention for great, well-crafted, complicated work that looks at the whole range of human experience. The complexity of writing and our intention toward well-being need not be in contradiction. But we need to be aware of the potential challenge, write consciously and look deeply at ourselves.

Over time, I also came to see my friends’ lives and deaths differently. Certainly it wasn’t writing that had made them unhappy; for them, as for so many, their despair was rooted in a variety of other causes. Writing was one of the bright spots in their lives. But I wonder if it might have been even brighter had their writing been aligned with an intention of healing, without worrying that would compromise their craft and art.

In order to do this, I believe we need to approach our writing practice with certain parameters. Here are some practical guidelines that I offer to my students:


1. Write with the intention of wholeness and of health.

I used to write with the goal of expressing how I felt in the moment, in both a beautiful and original way. But now, I always ask myself whether that expression also leads in some way toward health for myself and my readers.

2. Create a safe place for yourself when you write.

Make sure you have a safe physical and emotional space to write in. Make sure, for example, that no one will inadvertently read what you write if you don’t want them to.

3. Write first for yourself, without concern about external or internal judgment.

I try to put aside how “good” my writing is and write the first draft as freely as possible, letting myself really get into the flow and step out of self-judgment. Edits can come later.

4. Ground in and feel your body as you write—don’t get cut off and stay solely in your head.

Writers can feel removed from their bodies. I know I can get completely absorbed in my writing, so I try to set a time and take breaks to get up, move my body and breathe consciously. This not only makes my body healthier, but my writing feels lighter and more dynamic.

5. Be comfortable with making mistakes, being imperfect and existing just as you are.

Again, stay away from self-judgment. We write partly to explore and learn. We cannot learn and grow without making mistakes.

6. Remember your writing is not you. You are bigger than your writing and bigger than the sum of your work.

Sometimes I still get trapped in the false belief that if my writing is not “good,” there is something less-than about me. But I also know that this is old habit energy from my education, and from generations and generations of ideas held in our society. We are all worthy. And we are all more than the sum of our parts.

7. Hold onto love as you write.

For me, everything that I value comes down, on some level, to love. If you write about something that makes you angry—injustice, violence, prejudice—let that anger be rooted in your love and concern for the world.

8. Write the best work you can and concentrate on your craft.

But let the flip side of “good” be not bad, but interesting, worthwhile and full of growth. Perfect is boring. When writing, consider the Japanese idea of Wabi-Sabi—the beauty of imperfection and transience.

9. Don’t forget to smile while you work.

Remember, creativity doesn’t have to be serious. Have a good time!


Author: Nadia Colburn

Image: Paul Thompson/Flickr

Editors: Nicole Cameron; Emily Bartran


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