I’m feeling quite empty right now and can’t seem to focus on any one piece of writing.
That’s what a writer friend of mine wrote to all of us in her local writer’s group in explaining why she needed to skip our monthly meeting this evening. She would face no expectation to write at our gathering at a French-style bistro; we gab, nosh, and workshop. But she told us she needs to lie low because something happened recently when she finally submitted a personal essay she had been laboring over for months. “I literally had some kind of separation anxiety/panic attack when I mailed it… I’m just feeling blue because I wake up thinking about [the elements of her essay] and they have moved on.”
The National Institutes of Health defines post-partum depression as “moderate to severe depression in a woman after she has given birth.” Putting aside my annoyance at defining an expression by using one of the words in that expression, this definition cuts to the heart of the matter: A woman spends nine months nurturing a new life in her womb, and then the connection is severed. Literally, in the case of a cut umbilical cord.
It’s fair to say my friend experienced a similar trauma when those words she had caressed and shaped for months were sealed into the darkness of an envelope and handed over to strangers. But what can we learn from this analogy that will help my friend find her way back to her creative self? Because I know she’s not the only creative writer to have experienced this, and I have to believe this occurs with painters, composers, inventors, and any other creative you could name.
I’m tempted here to adopt a blogging trope and write a post titled “7 Steps to Post-Post-Partum Creativity.” Pedagogical lists are a favorite of SEO gurus. But as was the case last week when reflecting on possible gender differences with creative writing, I find myself with more questions than answers. So I’m going to jot down some of my thoughts and invite you, my readers, to share your experiences and advice.
- Isn’t this just burnout? I worked for a few years with a D.C. think tank, and our signature event was a high-level policy and business summit in Aspen, Colorado. It would take the better part of a year to plan and execute. When the conference was over and the last CEO was “wheels up” (the term their harried aides would use to refer to when the executive’s private plane had taken off from Aspen’s tiny airport), none of us wanted to even contemplate ever doing this again. Yet, after a month or so, we’d start brainstorming new topics and possible keynoters. Putting on that conference was an execution of creativity, and we were indeed burned out when each conference concluded. But I don’t believe any of us felt separation anxiety; if anything, we wanted quickly to separate ourselves from that otherwise delightful Rocky Mountain village.
- Does solo creativity invite more depression? Before us conference organizers went wheels up in the coach section of a United Airlines puddle-jumper, we’d gather poolside at the 39 Degrees Lounge in Aspen’s Sky Hotel and unwind. We’d share a laugh about the drunken trophy wife of the media conglomerate CEO who shouted an obscenity during her husband’s keynote. By doing so we’d rely on each other to defuse our shared anxiety. My friend can reach out to those of us in her writing group for sympathy, but while we workshopped drafts of her essay, we weren’t an intimate part of her creative process. She gave birth to those words, not us. She alone is carrying that separation.
- Is there advice that isn’t just a cliché? My first advice to her was to find another writing project to shift to; she must have some other project in the works or in mind, and busying herself in that one might help distract her from her separation anxiety. I’d call that cliché “getting back on the horse.” But in that quote above she said she can’t focus right now on any one piece of writing, so by telling her to do it anyway, was I really helping her? Paralyzed stares at a blank screen could aggravate her depression.
I feel I’ve gotten to know this writer over the past year. She is a resilient woman, the mother of two young children who has done better than I did at her age of staying true to an art-committed life. At some point she’ll be in an MFA program, I’m sure, and that program will be lucky to have her. I have every confidence she’ll meet the program’s monthly packet deadlines. But what she’s experiencing right now is real, and I wish there was something I could do to help her.
Any thoughts, readers?