When Mental Health Gets in the Way of Your Writing: An Interview With Emma (Science at Your Doorstep)
All of us have moments, as writers, when what’s going on in our head gets in the way of writing.
Maybe you’ve had times when you’ve struggled against a consistently low mood, anxiety about your writing, or worries that you just couldn’t shake.
Or perhaps you’re facing something more serious.
If you’re going through a really tough time with your mental health – battling against chronic depression, perhaps, or going through PTSD after a terrible time in your life – then writing may feel impossible.
When fellow blogger (and long-time Aliventures reader) Emma got in touch and asked me to write about serious mental health issues interfering with writing, I felt way out of my depth. While I’ve had my moments of self-doubt, and I can be a little socially anxious, I’ve been lucky enough never to have experienced any mental health difficulties.
But this is a topic that I think is incredibly important. So, I asked Emma if she’d agree to be interviewed for a post. If you’re struggling with your mental health in any way, and particularly if you feel it’s affecting your writing, I hope you’ll find this a helpful read.
Introducing Emma from Science at Your Doorstep
Before we dig into the interview … let me introduce you to the fabulous Emma!
I first got to know Emma a little in 2016, when she joined the Aliventures newsletter and commented on an old post of mine, How to Recover Your Writing Confidence (Even if You Think You Never Had Any).
Fast forward to 2018, when I was offering blog critiques/reviews: Emma got in touch and I had a thoroughly enjoyable time looking through her blog Science at Your Doorstep, which she started as a high-school student.
Emma’s blog is packed with interesting posts, all written in a clear, accessible style for those who (like me) don’t know much about science, and all backed up by very solid research. (I especially love her post on how lightning strikes, which I learnt a lot from!) I loved doing blog critiques for the wide range of blogs I got to read … but Emma’s was definitely one of my all-time favourites.
Along with blogging, Emma has spent around a decade working on a sci-fi novel series that follows a young alien woman, brought up by a human family, who struggles to help her people defeat the human military force occupying their world – all the while steadfastly avoiding the trauma of her past.
The dystopian setting that begins Emma’s novel is an outlet for the depression and PTSD she has struggled with since its conception. But it’s also a chance for her to live vicariously as her characters rise from the ashes into a bright, hopeful future. She hopes that humanity itself can find such a future in the real world, and remains optimistic through watching Star Trek. (She shared with me her epic guide to the best order to watch all the Star Trek episodes, from ST:TOS onwards).
Interview With Emma About Writing and Mental Health
Ali: Emma, thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed. When we started the email conversation that led to this post, one of the first things that came up was writing guilt.
And I think a lot of writers (perhaps particularly fiction writers) have that to some degree – that sense of “I shouldn’t be writing, I should be doing something more useful/productive” or the idea that everything else on the to-do list has to be done first.
But I know it’s something you’ve found especially hard to overcome. Can you share a bit about where that guilt came from?
Emma: My mother’s voice in my mind, unfortunately. And a mother has a lot of power over a child.
My writing was always seen as invalid. Worthless. A waste of time. A frivolity. Proof that there is something wrong with me.
I was even told that I couldn’t get my driver’s license until I stopped getting random story ideas. I now have my driver’s license. I don’t get a lot of story ideas anymore. (And when I do, I feel I have the “good sense” not to pursue them.) I guess she thought my writing made me negligent and dangerous.
Ali: I can’t quite get over your mother saying you couldn’t get your driver’s license until you stopped getting story ideas?! (I honestly had to just stare at that sentence a few times going whaaaat.)
Emma: It was really weird. She always punished me for writing. But I had this idea as a kid that she loved my writing – I guess I didn’t know what real support looked like. She always read my writing last, after whatever trashy novels she had on her reading list. She always said she liked my writing because I was her daughter, but it wasn’t really any good.
I asked her for feedback on my writing countless times – she always pointed out the immaturity and amateurity. I tried to get something more constructive out of her. “What do you think of so-and-so?” etc. She got frustrated with me. Scolded me, “I don’t have deep thoughts!” Somehow I didn’t see at the time how weird a protest that was. Just thought I was asking too much.
I spent waaaay too long hearing that my writing wasn’t good, that it was only palatable to the people who raised me and were obligated to support me.
Ali: That’s terrible – not only destructive, but also untrue! I don’t believe that anyone’s writing is fundamentally bad. We all have room for improvement, but most writers are a lot better than they realise. And I can tell you that your writing is fantastic: your blog is clear, engaging, and your voice shines through. But I imagine that it’s hard for you to see that in your own work, with so much critical feedback from your mother early on in your writing life?
Emma: That’s so true. And it’s led me to seek out some unhealthy company.
My first beta reader was a blunt and unemotive person, at least online. I, by contrast, was squishy and sensitive. Her comments on my work felt vicious and destroyed my confidence.
Once, after I admitted that there were some issues with something I’d written, that beta said something along the lines of, “Exactly, so I couldn’t let you post it, could I?” I guess she thought that by discouraging me from publishing, I would be spared the embarrassment.
The closest thing to a compliment she gave me on that particular project was when I asked desperately, “I have improved, haven’t I?” And she basically said, “Well, yeah, probably, every writer improves over time.” Oddly enough, this was after I had incorporated a lot of her suggestions into the work out of sheer insecurity.
I thought she was the best beta reader anyone could ask for.
Ali: That’s a terrible experience. I’ve been lucky with beta readers – but I know there are a few out there who love to tear down writers’ work, perhaps to make themselves feel big or feel better about their own work. Have you got any tips for avoiding that kind of experience and getting more positive results from the beta reading and feedback process?
Emma: The most important advice I can offer is to know your own worth. I know how hard it is to have that kind of self-confidence – if there’s anything I’ve learned from the countless resources and personal accounts I’ve read on writing experiences, it’s that even people who don’t struggle the way I do have trouble feeling confident about their writing!
But I can tell you right now: Your writing is worth it. Even if, objectively, your skills are not fully developed, I promise you there is a seed of something wonderful in your writing. The story you were inspired to tell matters, even if you haven’t yet honed your skills at expressing it in a compelling narrative.
So with that said … know what you want in a beta. What kind of feedback would help you grow the most right now? Maybe right now you need reassurance that your ideas are good and have potential, and you’d benefit from some help in seeing where your writing is already strong. That’s okay. One day you’ll grow the confidence to take constructive criticism.
That’s what I wanted in a beta when I first started talking online with other writers. But I was so eager for connection and feedback that I ignored a lot of “red flags.” By that, I mean red flags relative to what you need from a beta – it’s a subjective judgement, but one that you are entitled to make.
I don’t think that first beta of mine was a bad person, or even necessarily a bad beta. But she wasn’t good for me. And I will admit there were times when she did seem downright mean.
She was extremely thorough in her constructive criticism, and when I would fish for the praise I desperately needed, she said things like, “No news is good news.” In other words, she wasn’t going to say anything positive about my writing, but if she didn’t say anything at all about a particular passage, that meant she saw nothing wrong with it.
It’s debatable whether another writer might have found that beta subjectively helpful, but that was not the kind of feedback that would help me grow as a writer, at least not at that stage of skill development. I wish I could have found someone who would help me nurture the seeds of inspiration in my writing and not focus so much on what needed improvement.
I don’t really have a success story that qualifies me to offer concrete advice. But I can ask you to take my word for it that (1) your writing is worth it and (2) you are worth it, and it is 100% okay to turn away a beta who doesn’t seem to offer what you need! Think about what you feel you need most as a growing writer, and watch out for indicators that prospective betas might be hurtful to you instead.
Ali: I think that’s hugely valuable advice, and finding the right beta for you is so incredibly important. I’m actually the kind of writer who gets on okay with “no news is good news” style feedback, so long as I get some reassurance that the piece as a whole is working well. But I have plenty of writer friends who find that a very discouraging way to get feedback and who would much rather have a good balance of positive and negative comments. I’m so impressed that despite a lot of discouragement, from your mother earlier in life, from that destructive feedback from that beta reader, and more, you’ve managed to keep writing. Can you talk a bit about what writing means for you?
Emma: Writing is one place where I feel I can actually get my ideas across and communicate. Talking, it usually feels like all my words are inadequate and there’s so much more I don’t know how to say. But when writing, I have the power of metaphor and figurative language at my side, and a whole new toolbox built by other writers of the world and the past. It’s empowering. (I was never taught the communicative toolbox parents are supposed to pass on to their children. Just shut down any time I tried to express anything.)
And I suppose, the main reason I haven’t stopped is that I feel I can’t. Generally, I’m a very scientific, very rational person. I have a deep drive to explain the world and I believe nothing is inherently inexplicable. But writing has an element of “magic” to me that I’ve actually shied away from truly explaining. I don’t truly believe in fantasy worlds – I believe in what’s in front of me, what can be proven. But there’s a part of me that believes the stories I write. They feel real. The characters become real. They become vessels for me to live vicariously, but that works because they feel as if they truly exist. It’s important to me to “do right by” my characters, as if anything less would be “unfair” to them somehow – as if they’re real people I could mistreat. I feel it’s important to respect them, almost on the same level I would respect other real humans.
Another important reason is that I had one very supportive person in my life: my grandma. In nearly every sense, she was a real mom to me. She died in 2017, but before that, she always made me feel as if there was so much more to my stories than I initially saw. She envisioned depth and complexity in my characters that hadn’t even occurred to me, and she seemed so genuinely inspired that I really feel my most important projects wouldn’t have become what they are today without her. Ever since I lost her, it’s become that much harder to have confidence in my writing.
But probably the biggest reason why I’ve soldiered on is because writing always has a way of lifting me up. When I craft characters that other people might one day relate to, I feel that much less alone. One of the most powerful moments for me was when I discovered a character in Star Trek who really resonated with me. Somehow, I felt a connection, even though this person was fictional. Years later, I realized why. A real person wrote that character. Moreover, a whole team of franchise writers wrote that character. Other people felt the things I felt, enough that they created a character I identified with.
When I create my own characters, I don’t have that same connection – I’m the writer! But I do feel as if I can bring my own inner world to life in a way I just can’t adequately communicate otherwise, and that way, other people can understand me. It’s comforting to know that someone reading my story will hear me, even if that’s not exactly what they’re thinking as they read it.
Even if you’re not sharing your writing with the world yet, it can still be a useful mode of communication – with yourself. It can provide a way to process feelings and hardships that are too tough to wrap your mind around, especially if your logical mind is down for the count.
I know that a lot of people cope with hardship by turning to their faith. But for those like me who are thoroughly secular, writing can also provide a realm of imagination that sets us free to hope in a way that the non-religious world doesn’t always encourage.
Ali: I can definitely echo how you feel about your stories. Mine feel real to me, too – and often I feel like my drafting and rewriting process is about “discovering” a story that exists, somehow: I’m just trying to uncover it. And my characters feel very much like real people to me, just as other authors’ characters often do when I read.
I’m so glad you had your grandma to support your writing – and so sorry to hear of your loss. I think we all, as writers, need someone who has that ability to see more in our work than we can yet see ourselves: someone who can see what we’re grasping at even when we haven’t yet been able to fully imagine or articulate it.
Emma: It’s true – it really did seem like my characters felt more real to my grandma than they did to me. I can’t overstate her influence on my development as a young writer.
Often, when I’d discuss my characters with her, I’d ask a fairly superficial question about what she thought. These people were still fairly one-dimensional to me. But that wasn’t how she saw them. She would shock me by saying something like, “Well, I think so-and-so likes X, and has been through Y, and wants Z.” She’d compare characters written by her 10-year-old granddaughter to real people she’d known in her life. And she knew people. She loved them. She knew the life stories of everyone in the grocery store because they loved her and could tell she cared.
People were the common denominator of her life – it’s impossible to overstate just how integral knowing people was to my grandma. And she’d talk about my characters as if she’d just met them. She’d speculate about them as if they were actual, live people she was getting to know. She was just as invested in them as she was with her social circle. She made me feel as if they truly existed. She made them come alive for me. She made me love them more.
In fact, she inspired many of my romantic pairings, just by seeing potential within these characters that even I couldn’t see. And I think she and I worked so well because of how much faith we had in each other – that’s the kind of relationship where ideas can flow freely.
As a person, she was unique, but in terms of her support of my writing, she doesn’t have to be. And I have, indeed, found a partner who loves me so much that he loves my stories, too.
Here’s the most important thing I can ask readers to take away from that. You might say, “Wow, you’re lucky.” But I’m not. If I were, I never would have experienced the hardship that I did! This is the kind of “good fortune” that comes with healing.
That is to say, anyone can have what I have. And I hope you’ll take the fact that I found such support twice, not as evidence that my life is somehow better than yours, but as evidence of how many good, supportive people are surely somewhere in your orbit. You have only to find the strength to look, when you’re ready.
Ali: I think that’s so true: there are always kind, loving people around, it can just sometimes take time to spot them and welcome them into your life. Your grandma sounds like such a wonderful person (as does your partner). I love how your grandma helped your characters really come alive for you – and for her too. It sounds like your stories and characters were a great source of joy for both her and you when you were growing up.
I know it must have been really hard to write since you lost her, but in battling forward with your writing, is there anything you’ve found particularly helpful as a writing practice – anything that’s made it easier to write in a healthy, happier way? Or conversely, is there anything you’ve tried that’s really not worked, in terms of your mental health?
Emma: Well, I definitely don’t recommend throwing your writing at random people and begging for approval! I used to do that – which is how I ended up with that unhelpful (to me) first beta reader, and a second beta reader I dropped contact with several years ago.
To attract good, helpful support, you need a bit of confidence in yourself, just like attracting good friends rather than unhealthy mirrors of the original bullies in your life.
You’ve got to start from a baseline of knowing yourself better. The first thing you need to do is understand how your past has affected you – and if you’re reading this post right now, you’re probably off to a good start. What you might be less practiced at doing – I know I was – is being kind to yourself and listening to yourself.
Probably the most important lesson I’ve learned in recent years is to listen to my instincts and intuition. What does your gut tell you is the best thing for you right now?
The healthiest kind of writing for you might not always look the same. For instance, if a certain passage just doesn’t seem to be working, I know to give myself a break. On the other hand, I’ve cost myself sleep on work nights staying up to try to capture all my ideas. And sometimes I lose track of time just reading over my work to reassure myself that I like what I’ve written.
I try to listen to the real critic inside me that knows when something’s a little off and could be improved, not my insecurities. I’m always more likely to like my own work and be happy with my writing if I’ve gone back to fix something and can be a bit prouder of the newest draft.
I’ve often heard advice that writing doesn’t always (or ever) come out perfect, and that it’s ok to just draft, freeform, like a brain-dump. And that’s true. Doesn’t mean it’s easy to shut down the voice of insecurity and perfectionism!
Still, that is particularly good advice for someone with bad memory due to trauma. If at all possible, it helps to get my ideas down before I forget them – because I will forget them. One way I’ve found to circumvent the voice of perfectionism is to quickly jot down notes about what I want to do with the story, or dialog that comes to mind, in a form that is quite clearly not my actual narrative.
Ironically, you can even use trauma-induced memory problems as motivation to write – to get everything down on “paper” before you lose it!
Also, in my experience, the times when I’m utterly unable to write due to stress are the times when there’s something external in my life that registers as a threat. Maybe it’s just flashbacks, harmless triggers, rocky ground with my somewhat more traumatized partner … or maybe I’ve found myself in an unhealthy situation and I need to get out. Either way, if a coping mechanism such as writing seems impossible, then it’s worth asking if there’s something you need to get out of or work through before you cope with the aftermath.
Ali: Yes, that’s a very good point – that what might at first glance look like a writing-related problem can nudge you toward noticing that something else in life really needs addressing before you’re going to be able to write.
When we were initially planning and discussing this post, I rather glibly mentioned that we should encourage readers to seek professional support – but you quite rightly pointed out that this isn’t necessarily that straightforward. We both agreed, of course, that everyone deserves support with their mental health and the opportunity to recover. But there can be a lot of barriers in the way of that. Can you speak a bit to that, for anyone who’s struggling with their mental health?
Emma: First, as an American, I intimately know the struggle of avoiding “bootstraps” mentalities, and I want to stress that it is okay to struggle.
Think of it this way. If you broke your leg, would you immediately force yourself to run a marathon? No, you’d put a cast on it, give it time to heal, rest and recuperate, do some physical therapy to get back up to strength, and soldier on! Mental health is just the same. Psychiatric medication or other temporary interventions can be like a cast. Some time off work or school, if available – yes, this can be time off writing – is your rest and recuperation.
If you can’t get time off (maybe because your country has dark-ages attitudes toward health management, like mine), then there’s no shame in finding some way to lighten the load on yourself. Take on fewer responsibilities, drop some unnecessary to-do’s, etc.
Physical therapy would theoretically correlate to seeing a therapist. It’s what everyone seems to recommend when we reach out for help – which seems to be the new social expectation!
You’d think that would be a good, medically-informed social script. But, years ago, when I was desperately reaching out, I was deeply uncomfortable with seeing a professional. Constant referrals to therapy only registered in my mind as a rejection.
What I wish people had done, back then, was tell me they believe in me, or reassure me that I deserve help and a brighter future. Hearing kind words like that from a stranger might have gone a long way toward restoring my hope. Rather than transferring my burden off themselves and into the hands of a therapist, they would have helped me find the strength to transfer my own burden back to myself.
Now, here I am, in the same position they are – helping someone who has, in effect, reached out to me (by reading this post). And I find that, oddly, I don’t even want to recommend that you see a professional.
In the years since that time, I did actually see several mental health professionals. My most positive experience was being told my depression wasn’t real; my most negative was being traumatized (more than a year later, I’m still triggered by being sweaty, and can’t even talk about most aspects of my experience). I’ve found that many therapists with lots of shiny-looking credentials don’t actually seem to know the first thing about compassion.
Perhaps controversially, I don’t recommend therapy. I’ve found books on healing to be far more helpful, such as Pete Walker’s “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.” (Though that might not be as relevant to your particular struggles.)
And remember, like I said – it’s okay to struggle! This isn’t about needing to be “fixed,” as if you’re some kind of broken machine that needs repairs. (American employers are all too good at reinforcing that kind of image.) The first things you need are to understand your feelings, listen to yourself, and practice some self-compassion. Be patient. Don’t compare yourself to your peers. Mental health isn’t a race or a competition, for goodness sake!
Ali: I think self-compassion is so vital, especially for writers: we can be so hard on ourselves. We talked a lot about things that didn’t make it into this post in the end, so I know you’ve been through some incredibly difficult and traumatic times in recent years, even beyond those awful experiences with therapy – but what I think is incredible about you is how you’re continuing to write and continuing to find your way forward toward your goals in life. Are you happy to share a bit about what your future hopes and plans are with your writing – or even more generally, if you like?
Emma: Honestly, my dreams have always felt a bit grandiose. I always thought that my depression was stupid and I should be one of the most motivated people in the world, considering how much I hoped to do.
Since then, I’ve cut my dreams down to a much more manageable scope – just the things I love the most and couldn’t stand to do without. That feels a lot less stressful!
My first priority is the science blog you mentioned when you introduced me. Science at Your Doorstep is a passion project of mine, and my hopes – perhaps still unrealistic – are for it to reach nearly every corner of the globe. (I’ll settle for avoiding North Korea …) Originally, I planned to write over a hundred posts for each of many science fields. Then I realized that I dreaded moving on from the subject that has dominated the blog for 8 years: astronomy.
Astronomy is my life, and always will be. So I’ve made plans to discreetly narrow the blog’s focus. Those plans aren’t public yet, though.
I once had loads of other massive projects on my to-do list, but I’ve narrowed it down to two other passion projects: the sci-fi series mentioned in my intro, and an epic novel broken up into serialized installments. Finally, I’m actually excited to tackle all my projects!
My only other major goal is a career objective. I’m going to earn a doctoral degree in astrophysics and score a position at a university, where I’ll continue to research and teach. Honestly, I’ve wanted that this whole time. But I haven’t cut it back because I really wouldn’t settle for anything else! I’ve never believed in being “cut out” for anything – I choose the challenge that’s worth it because I love it.
The moral of the story: My reach had exceeded what I even wanted to grasp in the first place. My projects work much better for coping now that they’re not stressors in themselves. And my career goals have become a source of hope.
Ali: All your plans sound fantastic and I love hearing your enthusiasm for them, and also your insights into yourself as you’ve figured out how to focus on what you most want. You’ve achieved so much already – despite facing so much trauma and difficulty in your life. I know there’ll be Aliventures readers who’ve had some awful experiences of their own and who might be struggling to imagine that things might ever get any better. Can you speak to them in particular and share a little about how you’ve managed to keep going and find hope for the future?
Emma: I’ve been emotionally abused by my mother since at least 1st grade, bullied for years, and sexually assaulted. I’ve lost the person who essentially raised me – and had the depth of my grief invalidated. I’ve lived with a man who would’ve crushed every last vestige of my person and turned me into an empty husk, if he had his way. I’ve been let down and betrayed – and traumatized – by countless medical and mental health professionals.
But it’s that fraught past that gives me my strength. It’s the fact that despite all the naysayers and all the abuse, I’ve secured a full-time job, I’ve bought my first car, I’m saving up for college, and I’m working toward my dreams. Sometimes my future feels impossibly far away – but if I just contrast where I am now with where I used to be, I am so clearly a survivor!
Maybe you’re not there yet. Maybe it all still feels crushing to you. The truth is, sometimes I still feel the same way. Sometimes the oily tendrils of the past reach up from the depths of my mind and tangle around me. But there’s one thing I want you to know, and I hope you’ll believe me. You deserve happiness. You deserve help. You deserve all the love and good fortune in the world.
I know what it’s like to feel as if those things can never be true – and to wonder how an internet stranger like me could ever know those things about you. And I hope that, knowing that I’ve come from the same place, felt the same lack of worth, you might begin to believe me, to believe that I can know you deserve good things without even knowing you.
Most importantly, you can reach this point too. No matter what your struggles, there is hope. In the vast majority of cases – the various forms of anxiety, depression, trauma, etc – mental illness is not permanent. I escaped the darkness thanks to one person who reached out their hand and helped me believe I was worthy of happiness. I hope I can do something similar for you, because I’ve felt hopeless, I’ve trudged through depression and wrestled with anxiety and wondered if my misery would ever end, and guess what? It is coming to an end. I can see hope on the horizon. One day, you will too, and sometimes believing that is all it takes to bring that horizon closer. I hope you believe me.
Ali: That’s so true, and so important. If you’re reading this, whatever you’re going through, it can and will get better. Like Emma says, you deserve help, you deserve support, you deserve to be happy. I hope you can find a way forward, and I hope writing can be a refuge and a source of joy for you.
Emma, thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed for this post, and for sharing your own story so openly. I’m awestruck by how much you’ve overcome and how you’re continuing to fight to make progress towards your goals, both with writing and in life in general. I wish you all the best with Science at Your Doorstep and your fiction writing too.
To everyone reading – Emma’s blog Science at Your Doorstep is a fantastic and fascinating place to dip into, if you have any interest in science and particularly astronomy. Emma has a real gift for breaking down complicated concepts and explaining them in a really friendly and accessible way.
I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
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