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  • Bryan W. Alaspa

The depression of finishing a novel

Over the weekend I saw a 60 Minutes piece where they interviewed the legendary spy author John le Carre. I have not read any of his stuff, but I have seen some of the movies made from them. He writes the very smart, realistic, spy novels that try to put spies in the real world. Intense stuff requiring a lot of research and the exact opposite of the cartoonish (but fun) stuff that James Bond does. I love seeing how other writers do their thing, regardless of if their stuff is the kind of thing I like to read, and I found one thing he said near the end particularly interesting.

He said that he goes through a depression every time he finishes a novel. That he sort of sinks into this stupor, having spent all of his energy on the novel that just came out, until the next idea comes and the machine starts up again and he gets energized. I was sort of thunderstruck.

How NaNoWriMo nearly killed me

I have suffered with depression for most of my life. The first time I truly remembered contemplating killing myself was in the 6th grade. My grades suffered. I had always been a steady A and B student and suddenly, that year, I was getting Ds and Fs on things. Of course, that was also the time the hormones and puberty kicked in and I started noticing that girls weren't just slightly-different boys and all that crap started.

In the early 00s, I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo, which is this thing that happens every year. Writers are supposed to start November 1 and, by the end of the month, have a first draft of a novel at least 55K words long. It's supposed to be a huge accomplishment and to celebrate writing and creating. No editing - just writing. I had this germ of an idea about guys walking into a small town right after a huge blizzard and the resulting book was the short, intense, crime thriller After the Snowfall. I was proud of the work - but the very next month I knew something had gone very, very wrong inside me.

I was tired. I was totally not into the holidays. I felt exhausted. Then, come January, things had gotten so bad and so much worse, those voices came into my head telling me it might just be better if I killed myself. I managed to get help, but if I had let it go from there, who knows what might have happened.

That end-of-novel feeling

There is something that happens when I finish a novel and I wonder how many of my other friends feel the same. I have been called "prolific" because it seems I am always working on a new project. I finish a novel on Friday and intend to take a week to two weeks off, and about three days later I am usually working on something else. Even if I successfully take two weeks off of writing a novel or longform project, I end up writing a ton of blog posts and start cranking out short stories.

I have often wondered if this has been some reaction to what happened all those years ago. I was writing a lot more slowly back then and pushing myself to write 2,000 words a day to finish a novel draft in 22 days might have just depleted that all-important energy to the point the depression hit me and, that time, my brain did not have another story for me to start right after it.

I still get that feeling sometimes. With the end of each novel draft, there is relief. There is excitement. There is the feeling of accomplishment. I celebrate, but I have also spent a long, long time with these characters and within the world I just created. I both love and hate the characters because, at that point, they are sort of the guests that overstayed their welcome. I want them to move out - but fear the silence that they leave behind.

I think that's why it's hard for me to just stop working. I immediately feel a kind of fear that maybe the next idea won't come. That maybe I haven't done enough and I start frantically looking for something else to write. These days, there always seems to be something else - but I always worry that things will dry up.

The weird life of a writer

Do you ever run into that? I am always curious about other writers and the things they do. For example, because I am usually so depleted after writing a draft of a novel, I simply cannot jump right into editing that novel. I have to send it off to a Beta reader, warts and all, and wait for them to read it and send notes back. At one time in my career, that gap between first and second draft could be up to a year. These days, a couple of months is usually enough. Each time I edit, I get better, but I rarely make major changes to a story. I have rarely cut out entire scenes or removed entire characters. I make adjustments, but rarely jumble the entire story.

I just can't. Those of you who go out to Amazon bestseller lists, see what's popular and then just rip-off that stuff to make cash - do you feel any attachment at all? I wouldn't think that kind of assembly-line writing would create any attachment between author and story or characters.

It's a weird thing, being a storyteller. We make things up for a living. We tap into something inside the vastness of our heads and imaginations and come up with a tale that, we hope, will seem real and three dimensional to the readers. For that, we bleed and suffer and pound ourselves against the rock of imagination and creation.

People often don't realize how this takes a toll on us. I am not going to remotely say our jobs are dangerous. There are far riskier jobs out there than sitting at a desk writing, but often people don't realize how exhausting it can be. How wrung out someone can feel after writing a draft of a novel or story.

What do you do? How do you cope? Do you feel that depression or sadness? I'm just curious.

Get my latest novel, a psychological thriller, called Storyland at Amazon today in print or Kindle editions.


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