Mental Health for Writers: Redefining Creative Success

April 1, 2022

The cursor on the blank page blinks off and on, taunting the fingers sitting still against the keyboard. The phone beeps a cheery tone from across the room, reminding you, yet again, that your first draft is overdue by a week. To distract yourself from the words that just won't come, you click into your email and are confronted with a message from your editor, the subject line: "Status Update?" 

As a writer, it's so easy to slip into bouts of anxiety or depression due to the pressure to succeed. Quality mental health for writers can feel like an impossible goal, especially when we tell writers their value lies in churning out exceptional work every day—work that's worthy of high advances from Big Five publishers, an exclusive space in a literary magazine, or prestigious awards. It can be incredibly difficult for writers to explore their passions and creativity without feeling at least the lightest pinch of this pressure at their heels. 

However, good mental health for writers isn't a fantasy. Writers don't have to accept the status quo that emphasizes productivity and professional achievement over creative expression and health. When we work together to redefine what it means to be successful in the writing industry, we can release some of this pressure and focus on what actually matters: sharing stories with the world. 

In this article, we’ll discuss positive changes the publishing industry—and our society as a whole—could make to better support mental health for writers, as well as offer a few essential tips for writers to protect their mental health. 

Why Is It So Tough to Talk About Mental Health for Writers?

The greatest writers are able to shed light on the human condition in ways that feel deeply resonant. It’s ironic, then, that mental health for writers is often so poor. Writers might spend hours exploring emotional turmoil in their characters while completely neglecting their own emotions and mental health. 

One reason why mental health for writers is still such an issue in the publishing industry is because it’s usually seen as an essential part of the creative process. Mental illness in writers is even romanticized in mainstream media. Society tells writers that they must suffer for their art, working long hours for little or no pay, stressing over tight deadlines, and agonizing over every sentence. 

Some also have a fairly narrow definition of what it means to be successful in the writing industry, which significantly harms writers’ mental health. Being a successful writer traditionally means:

  • Producing at a fast pace and publishing as many novels, essays, and collections as possible
  • Having a top agent represent you
  • Getting traditionally published (ideally with one of the Big Five: Penguin/Random House, Hachette, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, or Macmillan)

Even if you’ve achieved all of the above, it isn’t always enough to feel successful. Many writers feel the pressure to take things a few steps further by: 

  • Earning a high advance from a publisher (and “earning out” that advance through book sales)
  • Being nominated for some of the best awards in their chosen genre, like a Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker, Pulitzer, or Booker Prize
  • Pursuing an MFA at a top creative writing program 

If these seem simple enough to achieve with a bit of hard work, you’d be mistaken. The writing industry has installed gates at nearly every step, and heavily guarded ones at that. It’s difficult for writers to break through, regardless of work ethic. 

This is something many writers are aware of, but are often discouraged from saying. If writers complain, they’re told to “grow a thicker skin.” Constant rejection from gatekeepers in the industry almost becomes a point of pride—a trial by fire. Getting dozens of form rejections from agents makes the one offer of representation feel all the sweeter, writers will say. Likewise, if your manuscript dies on submission with publishers, you might get some coos of sympathy from fellow writers, but many will remind you, “That’s just the publishing business.” It can be cold and unforgiving. 

Modern writers have to cope with rejection and criticism on a scale many other professions don’t. This also impacts how writers value their own work. Writers feel pressure to write to the highest quality every day, even when they’re sick or burnt out. They might feel the need to write to the market, rather than let their creativity run wild. And even those who have some success often feel there’s still more to achieve; it’s never quite enough. 

Sure, this is how the writing industry has worked for many decades. But that doesn’t mean it has to continue. When we redefine success in writing, we can start to unpack some of these harmful ideas and promote better mental health for writers. 

Let’s Redefine What It Means to Be a Successful Writer

How can writers redefine creative success? As we’ve seen in other achievement-oriented industries, it involves first opening up about issues that have been swept under the rug for far too long. 

Writers can take inspiration from an unlikely source: professional athletes. Gymnast Simone Biles and Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton have advocated for better mental health care in their respective sports. Both have spoken openly about the immense pressure they’re under to succeed no matter the cost to their physical bodies or their mental states. 

Biles famously withdrew from the 2020 Olympics to focus on her mental health, and in an interview with NPR, she explained, “It's OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are—rather than just battle through it.” For Biles, mental health is not optional; it’s the key to her long-term success.

Professional athletes and writers both have immense passion for what they do, and often feel the need to sacrifice their emotional and physical health in the name of their passions. What Biles and Hamilton prove is that no matter how successful you are, mental health should always come first. Just as the Olympics can wait, so too can that first draft of your novel. No success is worth sacrificing your mental health, even if writing is how you earn your living.

And as we’ve seen with the tiny house movement, people are rethinking old ideas of success in all aspects of life, not just in sports and the arts. Today, the definition of success has expanded to any goal that’s achievable, sustainable, and fulfilling. We don’t have to cling to traditional ideas of being rich, famous, and praised anymore. 

While writers will likely always face some critique and rejection (art is still subjective after all), the publishing industry can at least encourage writers to open up about these struggles and put less weight into traditional literary achievement. 

However, writers themselves will have the greatest impact on the publishing industry. When we reframe what it means to be successful and support mental health for writers in our peer circles and workshops, we can change the industry from the bottom up. 

Here’s what creative success could look like for writers: 

Old Idea: All writers should strive to be published through a Big Five house. 

New Idea: Traditional publishing and self-publishing are both valid. Pursue the publishing option that works best for your writing and audience—or feel free not to publish at all! Who says you can’t just write for yourself?

Old Idea: The higher the advance, the better. 

New Idea: An advance is not a reflection of the quality of your work. It’s only a reflection of the market.

Old Idea: To be a real writer, you have to write every day. 

New Idea: Write at your own pace. If you need a break, take a break. The world won’t end if you write less than 1,500 words today. 

Old Idea: If publishing gatekeepers reject your work, your work isn’t worth reading. 

New Idea: The work may not be the right fit for that publisher, agent, or reader right now, but your story is still worth telling. 

Old Idea: If you’re nominated for this literary prize, get accepted into this MFA program, or get published in this literary magazine, then you’re a successful writer. 

New Idea: Your success as a writer isn’t tied to external achievements. Writing isn’t like earning points in a game. Success means whatever you want it to mean, whether that’s finally finishing your first draft (even if no one else reads it) or working up the courage to join a local writer’s workshop. 

Old Idea: “Real” writers make big money, or at least support themselves with it.

New Idea: Real writers write. Period. If your writing pays your bills, great. If you need it to pay your bills, you might want to rethink that, because income and creativity don’t play well together. (As Elizabeth Gilbert says in Big Magic: To yell at your creativity, saying, “You must earn money for me!” is sort of like yelling at a cat; it has no idea what you’re talking about, and all you’re doing is scaring it away, because you’re making really loud noises and your face looks weird when you do that.)

Next time you feel that pang of guilt over not being productive enough, or you feel frustrated because you’re not making progress or money in your writing career, take a step back. Ask yourself what success really means to you. What are you asking of your writing and of yourself? And if you see another writer struggling, consider reaching out with kindness. Commiserate over your shared struggles so they know it’s safe to be vulnerable. 

Tips for Improving Mental Health for Writers 

Redefining creative success in the publishing industry (and within ourselves) takes time. However, there are a number of simple things writers can do right now to improve their mental health, including: 

  • Take breaks: Getting up to stretch throughout the day is a great way to reset, but so is taking a day, a week, or even a month off from writing. We don’t have to be productive every hour of every day. 
  • Don’t fear “the block:” Writer’s block is a big source of stress for many writers. However, the more you worry about being blocked, the greater the block grows. In his book Catching the Big Fish–Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, filmmaker David Lynch says, “Desire for an idea is like bait. When you’re fishing, you have to have patience. You bait your hook, and then you wait.” Rather than forcing your way through writer’s block, be patient and gentle with yourself. Trust that the ideas will come. 
  • Practice inspiration, not comparison: Jealousy is the green monster that threatens to eat others’ work as well as your own. Writing is not a competition. If you see a successful writer, reflect on the things you appreciate in their work and use it as inspiration to fuel your own. Every writer is on a different journey, and there’s room for everyone. 
  • Ask for help: Writing is usually solitary, but it doesn’t have to be. If you’re struggling with the pressures of being a writer, reach out to your peers. Chances are, they’ve faced something similar. By asking for help, writers can create a culture of support and move away from vague, callous advice like “toughen up.” Together, writers can normalize compassion. 

To improve mental health for writers, it’s helpful to remember why we write in the first place. When the world’s first writers etched their stories in clay, they weren’t thinking about literary prizes, publishing houses, or perfecting query letters. They simply had the desire to share something important to them. While the publishing world is much more complicated today, it doesn’t mean we have to lose sight of that essential fact. Writing is a way for us to express the deepest parts of ourselves and unleash our creativity. This, in itself, adds to the collective “library” of human experience. Whether your readership is two people or many thousands, you matter. There’s no greater success than that. 

Do you have any stories of finding support in the writing industry? How do you stay sane and balanced? Share with us below. 

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