How Do We Cure The Post-Partum Creativity Blues?

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.

A photo of my children taken four years ago at the M&M store in New York's Times Square. My daughter heads off to college in a year, and I'm already anticipating my own separation anxiety.

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?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

23 Responses to “How Do We Cure The Post-Partum Creativity Blues?”

  1. When I feel this way I take a break and do something else for a few days or weeks. Get out and have some active fun. See some friends. Go to the movies. Recharge.

    A certain resilience is necessary in life, especially the Writing LIfe. Or else we are doomed to be incapacitated by every change. It probably doesn’t do any good to over-indulge ourselves in any feelings that aren’t productive, but sometimes we do need a break.

    So, I would say: Go have some fun. Come back recharged. Get back to writing.

    • Thanks, Cynthia. There is definitely something to be said for a recharge. For 3-4 days after turning in an MFA packet, I don’t read any literature, I don’t think about my next packet, and I don’t do any creative writing. I’ll go out for drinks with the wife, organize a family outing, and catch up on my TiVo content. Implicit in that is an understanding that I WILL RETURN to the writing; I’m giving myself permission to step away for a bit.

  2. Ditto Cynthia, I think a distraction is in order, too, Patrick. If it’s not easy for her to focus, she should just re-prioritize for a bit. She should try to make something else more important to her than writing–just enough until she finds she can’t focus on anything other than writing something in particular again. It’s like not looking at something just long enough that you can’t bear it, and have to look.

    • Thanks, Shakirah. You know, she mentioned to me in a follow-up conversation that she was spending time on her blog and Facebook, and said it in a kind of guilty way, like she SHOULD be spending that time on creative writing. We all have balances we need to make, but maybe I should have said “Take some time with your social media. Prioritize that for a bit, and have fun with it.” I know this: her kids are always a priority for her.

  3. This is a very timely subject for me as I feel like I’m struggling with “post partum depression” of the writing kind, too. Since giving “birth” to my novel I feel completely barren. I didn’t have separation anxiety. I’m currently doing the rounds of query letters to agents and frankly I couldn’t even look at my novel by the time I was able to start that process. I was so done.

    But I also felt/feel “done in,” in a way.

    I am, however, trying to find a more positive way to spin this. I simply need to “refill the well.” I need to recharge as Cynthia says above. When you till soil, at a certain point you have to let it rest or else it will no longer be fertile; it will never yield food.

    So, I feel that this is similar to what’s happening with my writing. I was down working in the dirt, using every resource available to me to finish that novel. Is it any wonder I’m having trouble working up the energy to do it all again?

    I am turning to other creative pursuits. Just a few minutes ago I came home from the library where I checked out a dozen piano books. You see, after 15 years away, I’m going to reteach myself the piano again. (My new keyboard gets delivered tomorrow!!)

    For some reason I’ve become obsessed with this new idea, but I think it’s good. Even if it’s not writing, I think there is a connection, however indirect to get me back to putting pen to paper. So I will be teaching myself how to play music again. I am dancing. I am feeding the creative part of myself, just in other ways.

    I must believe the writing will return, too. The hunger is still there.

    • Thank you for sharing this, Sion. There are so many good takeaways here, in particular the done vs. done in contrast. But I’m going to focus on the farming metaphor.

      Farmers learn that with many (not all) crops, the way to maximize yield is to change up the crops. Different crops create different situations with drainage, soil nutrients, insect attractions, etc. I think about your talent for essays and I could imagine suggesting you write some of those for a bit and stay away from fiction, but you’ve already found another pursuit for your creativity, the piano. That has another advantage of being something new, because after 15 years it is new, in a way; it’s certainly new of you to try to revive a 15-year-old skill. Doing things different and new forces a change of perspective, which is always good for creative recharge.

      Have fun playing music and dancing!

  4. Patrick,

    Sometimes I’m accused of ignoring people’s feelings, and I may well prove that here.

    Here’s what I would tell her: “you invested a lot of effort and emotion in a great essay. Likely, you are burned out, or you’re still focused on feelings you needed at the time, or, like having a baby, you’ve got post-partum depression.

    Take a little time off and do other things you enjoy. However, you are a writer, and a good one. It would be tragic if you didn’t write again soon. The longer you go without writing, the more pissed at you I will be, and the more inadequate your excuses will be. See you at the next meeting.

    (The back-on-the-horse cliche.)

    • I hardly think you’ve ignored her feelings here, Dane, but I think I get where you’re coming from. I think she and her colleagues in our writer’s group would say I can be a bit blunt at times. Perhaps a lack of sensitivity is inherent in us men at times (to reintroduce a gender argument). But I like that you remind her that writing is important, and you did it in a way of showing your feelings, namely that you’ll be pissed if she doesn’t keep sharing her gift.

      And yes, I certainly expect to see her at the March meeting!

  5. I agree that getting out and having some mindless fun is a great way to boost your spirits. I think the actors I know have post-show blues after the closing of the show. As a photographer I have felt this in the past and sometimes enjoying a different creative process works. I have taken writing workshops, acting classes and made some really bad pottery. Thinking and being creative in a different way without any worries really helps replenish me. I hope she comes back to writing soon.

    • Hi Lisa! I like that as with Sion above, you find creative pursuits that are a bit out of your professional wheelhouse. A woman close to me that you and I both know just signed up for a humor-writing course and is taking a class to re-learn French!

      Thank you for your encouraging words; I know she’ll read them at some point and appreciate them.

  6. Gosh, how weird – I’ve just this minute posted about the same topic on my blog http://jenalexanderbooks.wordpress.com/ – ‘Death and the dream book.’ I’m experiencing it like the Death card in tarot, as also a rebirth.

  7. The problem with cliches is that they develop for a reason–usually because there’s an element of truth in them. And so the old “get back on the horse” advice is solid. I can speak from recent experience with novel writing–it sure does feel good to be doing it again. And, on some level, we writers (and creatives) are never going to be truly happen unless we’re creating. But, oh it can be difficult. Thanks for a thoughtful post. I love that you’re willing to explore the question and don’t feel compelled to have an answer.

    • Thank you, Charlotte. It’s great to have this advice coming from someone with experience. And I appreciate your appreciation of my willingness to admit my readers likely have far more wisdom than I do on the subject!🙂

  8. To me the creative process is like squeezing a sponge. First we soak our Creativity in ‘idea inducing water’ (reading, traveling, living, talking, discovering) then we squeeze and become fascinated by the ‘idea juice’ which runs all over our paper.

    However, the longer we go on, the more we squeeze, to the point where eventually our sponge runs dry. By that time we feel we *need* to continue – that it’s expected of us to keep up the same level of quality and quantity. Unfortunately, that stress is often like plunging the sponge back into the water while still clamping our hand around it. The sponge cannot soak anything up.

    It’s okay to relax. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s *essential* to relax. Remember all the reading, traveling, living, talking and discovering that happened before the last big project, and allow yourself to do it again.

    True writers are addicted to writing – meaning you can’t keep them away from the page for long. If they need some time away from it to resoak their sponge, let them. Then, as if by magic, they’ll be drawn back to the page with renewed fervour to produce their next project.

    If, on the other hand, they’re forced to continue when they feel there’s nothing left to give, that can end up doing more harm than good. They may feel the lack of words means they can no longer write, and that raises a mental barrier which will make any project they try to tackle much harder.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents. This is a fascinating discussion. Thanks for asking the questions.🙂

  9. Hi Jessica,

    I like the sponge metaphor, and well suited to a writer to use metaphor. To extend it, and to build on what you’re talking about in being “forced to continue when they feel there’s nothing left to give,” I can imagine squeezing a dry sponge and actually damaging it, breaking down its structural integrity.

    My friend is a true writer and has that addiction; I’m confident she’ll be back eventually. I’m hoping it is soon, because I’d like to read her work for our March writer’s group meeting!

  10. In case anyone subscribes to these lovely comments on Patrick’s blog, I am the “she” that Patrick writes about here. I want to say thank you to all of you for helping out a stranger and lending me advice and inspiration as I make my way back into a new project again (I can see it shaping, though right now it’s on several pieces of scrap paper. I am throwing myself into other things right now, but this other project keeps knocking around in my brain, so I write down on whatever I can when that happens. This also seems to take the pressure off that I “should” be writing). I also want to say thank you to Patrick for such a thoughtful, kind post. I’ve been thinking about it all week. Thank you for taking the time to write about this subject.
    And I’ll be at the next meeting. 🙂

    • Hello, Callie, I’m glad you found the post and the great comments of value, and that it’s helped you as you make your way back to your new project. I hope you’ll be at our next meeting, because your work will be up for review!😉

      • Wow, Callie, your comment gave me goosebumps! It’s very cool to see how others have reached out with their ideas and encouragement, and I’m thrilled that it has helped you.

        What a wonderful writing community you’ve nurtured online here, Patrick!

  11. This is such a thoughtful post, Patrick. I have nothing to add but I think your questions were spot on and I enjoyed reading the comments too.

  12. I’ve experienced this very thing, and like Sion, I’ve found that refilling my “creative well” is often the solution. Especially at the end of a project, I’m likely to push really hard and neglect everything else in my life. I need time to rest, recharge, fill up on the other good things in life, and remember that I love to write.

    FWIW, the more I write, rewrite, complete manuscripts, submit, and move onto other projects, the less this has been a problem. I think letting go of a manuscript might be a skill it’s possible to learn, even though it will never be easy for some of us.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

    • Cheryl, I know what you mean about being consumed at the end of a project; I’ve been in that mode this week and have neglected Twitter. Oh no!😉

      And yes, the repetition of writing and revising can create mental muscle memory. Sometimes just going through those motions, without worrying too much about the quality you’re producing at that moment, can help me move on from a completed project.

      Thanks for the kind words, Cheryl!

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