“You Write Better When You're Depressed”
Or Dealing With People’s Perception of Your Work
To be fair: we were 14. And teenagers simultaneously know everything, and nothing, about heartbreak. They all also want to start a band.
At least, we did anyway. Starting a band (or falling in love with a lead singer) seemed like a one-way ticket out of boring suburbia based on the movies we were watching in the early 2000s (looking at you Lizzie McGuire & Cheetah Girls).
Of course, we lacked follow-through and any knowledge of the music industry. We did have feelings though, so that was a good start.
Already a poet, I was the resident lyricist for our “band,” and I was going through my first heartbreak. We were in the hallway during the passing period and my friend was greedily reading the latest song I’d written in my newfound angst.
“I’m sorry, but you write better when you’re depressed,” she said. Oh, that made me mad. What an incredibly back-handed compliment.
I never want to believe my ability to write well hinges on my emotional state. How absolutely awful would it be to have to be depressed to write well?
It’s possible I’ve been shaping my writing in spite of that “assessment” ever since. Is this the origin of my comedic proclivities? Perhaps.
I’ve always been a fan of a poem focused on hope or joy (even dealing with the hard stuff) and have long ground against slam poetry’s specific tendency towards making the traumatic a spectacle. I have never believed depression is the secret sauce that makes an artist great. That’s a harmful stereotype.
I don’t think this belief is entirely based on what a friend haphazardly said to me when we were teenagers, but I’d be lying if I said that moment didn’t impact me. After all, I’m still thinking about it all these years later.
In retrospect, I think that it was just teenage-speak for “You’re being real here, and I appreciate it.” And I get it, those gut-punch poems just hit different.
But happiness is real, too.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that how people perceive your work, and how you deal with it, is part of being a writer. Sometimes people are gonna say things about your work that hurt at the worst or, at the least, don’t make any sense.
Part of your life as a creative is learning to navigate those choppy waters.
A related story:
The first poem I ever got published can’t be found online anymore. And honestly, thank god, because I was 15 when I wrote it and submitted it.
I discovered this because I was looking for it recently. It came to mind for whatever reason things pop up when you’re trying to go to bed. But because I still wanted to see it, I went digging for it in the hard copy of the magazine I still have tucked away.
As I pulled the magazine out, I remembered the last time I read it, or rather heard it read to me by a man who handed me shame for it. I almost put it away without reading it.
To be fair, that’s because when I told him about it, I handed him the script. I told him it wasn’t good, so why would he think anything else? He just handed me the opinion I’d already given him.
True, he could’ve been kinder himself, but…I can’t control how people respond to my work or my personhood. I can only control what I present to the world.
There are going to be people who don’t like your work—it’s unavoidable. But don’t make it easier for them by doubting yourself.
You need to believe in your own work, even when no one else does.
At the time I was embarrassed by the poem because… well, I didn’t like it anymore. And our brains like to trick us. It likes to tell us if we say the hurtful things before anyone else does, they’ll hurt less. Unfortunately, that’s not true.
It still hurt when he didn’t see my poetic genius™ in a piece I told him was just an angsty teenage manifesto. (I’m being cheeky.)
Now, pulling the old magazine out of my closet, I read that poem and see my younger self. She only wanted to be taken seriously. I see the seeds of my current artistic voice in those early images and it’s really beautiful.
I wonder how that man would have responded had I said “I’m really proud of this piece. While it certainly doesn’t reflect my current voice, but it was an important step to where I am today.”
We’re meant to grow and change, it’s okay for our past work to reflect where we were at the time without becoming a source of shame.
And, as an aside, just because I don’t like a certain poem anymore, doesn’t mean other people can’t still enjoy it or get something out of it.
Either way, I’m still kinda glad it’s off the internet. And that’s ok, too.
At Poetic Underground we talk about creating a “brave space” because it’s vulnerable to share your story with an audience. Putting your work into the world can be terrifying. Comedian, poet, burlesque dancer—all vulnerable in different ways.
There’s a 100% chance you’re gonna get hurt or misunderstood at some point. So, maybe it’s not worth it—to let yourself be seen.
But I think you already know it is.
So, if you’re going to do it? Be all in. Be proud of your work, even as you’re growing.
I’ve collected some new (and classic) blog posts I’ve written that are related to taking your creative work seriously!
3 Writing Prompts
Has someone ever said anything to you about your work that you’ve not been able to forget? Spend time writing in response to what they said.
Revisit some of your earlier work and write a response to yourself.
It’s that time of year again. Write about your time in school.
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