Advice on post-project depression
"I can’t find the juice and then I just feel terrible."
Dear Subtle Maneuvers,
I’m lucky enough to be a working writer and radio maker (podcaster? producer? the name of that job always eludes me) and for years have been on a constant hunt for a daily routine that will allow for the perfect combination of artistic magic and no-nonsense productivity. When I’m in the middle of a project, I can usually find something that works, but where I struggle is when I finish something. I just turned in the first draft of my first book to my editor. It is a huge accomplishment, of course, but it has left me bereft. I know I need a break (by the end of the draft I was really limping along) and I know I should celebrate. Covid, of course, has made both those things difficult. But even in non-Covid times, I always get a little depressed after the exultation of completion. I sometimes call this phenomenon le petite mort after the French euphemism for orgasm. I sit around for much too long, worried I’ll never make anything again, fearful that there is nothing left in my creative brain, terrified I’m a failure. I was really looking forward to working on some personal essays in this time while I wait for my editor’s notes, but every time I sit down to work on them, I can’t find the juice and then I just feel terrible.
Although I assume I’ll get over it in a few weeks, or a month, I have to say that this process is pretty inefficient! And although taking a few weeks of self-indulgent angst after a big project was OK as a young, free-wheeling person, now I’m 37 and hoping to have a baby soon, and feeling anxious about how the pressures of time will push down on me even more when I have a small infant and as I get older (shouldn’t I have done MORE by this point?). So, I suppose my questions are: What do you recommend when finishing a creative project? How do you enjoy it? How do you not fall into a pit of depression? And then... Do you have any recommendations for thinking about new motherhood and a creative life?
—Heather in Brooklyn
Thanks so much for your letter, parts of which felt so familiar that it was a little uncanny. I, too, am on a “constant hunt” for that “perfect combination of artistic magic and no-nonsense productivity.” And I, too, really struggle at the completion of a big project. After both of my Daily Rituals books were done, I felt a brief surge of elation followed by long periods of torpor, listlessness, lack of conviction, lack of direction, you name it.
You may take some comfort, as I have, in hearing that this is extremely common and perhaps inevitable. Partly it’s sheer physical and mental depletion, which I think you have to expect. Writing is a major cognitive challenge, and getting through an entire book draft means marshaling a huge amount of energy; of course you’re going to feel run-down afterward!
Interestingly, the best descriptions I’ve found of this run-down state come from painters. Helen Frankenthaler, for instance, said: “I tend to focus on a body of work intensely and one day put down the brush and feel emptied out.” A small break could be refreshing, she said, but a long one was frightening:
I will often get back to painting after a break and panic and not know where I left off. I seem to start at day one again. I sit around and sharpen pencils, make phone calls, eat handfuls of pistachios, take a swim. I feel I should, must, will paint. It is agony. It is boredom. I become impatient and angry with myself, until I reach a point of feeling I must start, make a mark, just make a mark. Then, hopefully, I slowly get into a new phase of work.
In a similar vein, the painter Grace Hartigan wrote the following in her journal in January 1955:
I am in one of those terrible times when I feel “painted out.” I alternate between ennui and restlessness—an ennui that stupefies me, keeps me curled in my chair for hours and hours, reading anything—movie books, detective stories, “literature,” old journals. Or the restlessness that makes me walk the floor, staring out one window and then another, or sends me dashing into the street to stare into people’s faces or dash from one gallery to another, or pace frantically through museums looking for what, some clue, some hint, anything thing in life or art that will get me out of this pit.
What Frankenthaler and Hartigan are describing is depletion, yes, but also loss—another probably inevitable feeling when you complete a project that’s been central to your life for months or years. It’s interesting that you reference la petite mort, literally “the little death.” I do think there’s a bit of grief tied up with the completion of a big project, even if you’re also excited and relieved to be done with it. And there may also be a taste of your own mortality, the feeling that even after you’ve exerted so much energy and intelligence and judgment to create something out of nothing, the world pays hardly any notice and keeps on turning, with or without you and your works.
Or maybe it’s not that complicated. There’s a line in Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary that feels apt here:
Often I believe I’m working toward a result, but always, once I reach the result, I realize all the pleasure was in planning and executing the path to that result.
In any case, feeling depressed at the end of a project is not only incredibly common but also, perhaps, an essential part of the larger cycle of a creative career. The playwright Lillian Hellman once said that her writing moved forward on successive currents of “elation, depression, hope,” and I always thought that sounded about right. There’s the elation of being in the work—at least when it’s going well—and then the depression of being done with the work and maybe feeling dissatisfied with it, wishing it had been better, or just feeling empty without it. And then, eventually, there’s the hope of a new idea and a new project.
You write: “Although I assume I’ll get over it in a few weeks, or a month, this process is pretty inefficient!” Sure is! (And, honestly, a month sounds optimistic to me!) But I’ve come to believe that resisting this process actually slows it down even more. If you’re telling yourself that you need to buckle down and get to work on those personal essays but you really feel like, I don’t know, staying in bed and watching Netflix—then, for god’s sake, stay in bed and watch Netflix! At least for a while, at least as much as you can given all your professional and personal obligations.
Whatever you do, please, please don’t label this period “self-indulgent angst.” That’s like telling someone who just finished a marathon, and who’s standing on the side of the road huddled in one of those reflective silver space blankets, sipping from a paper cup of water and eating a sad little banana, “Hey, bud, stop slacking off and get started on your next race already, will ya?!?!”
You just finished the first draft of your first book! Indulge yourself! Again, at least as much as you can, given Covid and without, you know, endangering your livelihood. You say, “I know I need a break” but you also seem reluctant to take one. I’ll let Carl Jung scold you on my behalf. He said: “I’ve realized that somebody who’s tired and needs a rest, and goes on working all the same is a fool.”
You’re hardly alone in expecting too much of yourself too soon. I think so many writers, artists, and other creative strivers feel like we should always be doing more, always be vaulting from one professional peak to another—when, really, that kind of internalized productivity pressure is unrealistic and damaging. You have to take breaks, and they actually have to be breaks (i.e., no essay writing, please!). It may feel inefficient, but I’m certain that resisting it is more inefficient in the long run.
Which brings us to your question about new motherhood and a creative life. Obviously, this is an enormous topic that I can’t really do justice to here. But I do think a lot of creative people’s main anxiety about having kids is that they’ll no longer have the time for their creative work. And what you hear from writers and artists who are parents is basically: Yeah, you’ll have less time, but it’s OK.
I asked the painter Julie Mehretu about this in a 2016 phone interview. She told me that before having kids she often worked really long hours, sometimes painting late into the night. Since having kids, though, she almost always stops work and heads home at 5:30 or 6:00 p.m. And she thinks that she’s actually become more productive as a result. “I’ve been able to use my time much more wisely and much more potently,” she said, “and I don’t waste as much time.”
I like that part about using time more potently. Americans especially have a tendency to obsess about how much time we spend working, when I think we all know that you can work a ton and not accomplish much of worth—and, conversely, you can accomplish a lot of worth in not much time. (I know I’ve sat down and written things in 30 minutes that are better than things I’ve spent weeks over.)
So how do you use time more potently? I’d say that you don’t do it by fighting against your moods, forcing yourself to work when you really need a break, telling yourself that you should have done more by this point in your life, or worrying that your energies are dwindling and it’s all downhill from here.
Instead, consider the possibility that the periods when you feel you’re not doing any work are actually the periods when, later, you’ll realize you were doing the most important work. This is something the artist Sarah Lucas has said, and it also came up in a conversation between the poet Eileen Myles and the actor Daniel Day-Lewis that is excerpted in Stuart Horodner’s book The Art Life:
Eileen Myles: In some weird way, the spaces between the work are what’s really interesting.
Daniel Day-Lewis: Definitely. That part is obscured when you’re young because your drive is always leading you from one place to another. It’s the resting places or the periods of lying fallow where you do the real work.
EM: The thing that’s scary about not doing anything, or not doing what people are inviting you to do, is you feel like you are facing death in a way.
DDL: Yeah, I think you’re right. It’s a little death and you have lots of little practices.
“It’s a little death and you have lots of little practices” !!! Somehow that feels like the perfect note to end on. But before I wrap up, I want to invite readers to share your own advice for Heather on the open discussion thread that I’ve created for her question. Please leave your thoughts here, and I’ll be reading and replying this week.
In thinking about this letter, I ran across articles on postwritum depression, post-creation depression, and avoiding “the downward post-book spiral” that were, well, nothing mind-blowing but at least mildly interesting.
Hari Kunzru’s new novel, Red Pill, begins with a depiction of post-publication ennui that I found highly relatable and also quite entertaining.
Some of Virginia Woolf’s most fragile periods of mental health came right after she finished a book. According to Leonard Woolf, she had “an almost pathological hypersensitivity to criticism, so that she suffered an ever increasingly agonizing nervous apprehension as she got nearer and nearer to the end of her book and the throwing of it and herself to the critics.” This doesn’t sound like Heather’s experience, so I left it out of the above. But Virginia’s response to these periods was interesting. She wrote to herself: “I mark Henry James’ sentence: observe perpetually. Observe the oncome of age. Observe greed. Observe my own despondency. By that means it becomes serviceable. Or so I hope.”
Finally, here’s another Grace Hartigan journal excerpt that I didn’t manage to squeeze into my answer: “It seems that every period of productivity fools me into believing that it will last forever. It never does.”
That concludes another installment of this advice column! To submit your own creative dilemma, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org (or just reply to this email) and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into writers’ and artists’ work habits.