Writing, Depression, and Chinese Finger Traps

Over the weekend I finally got caught up on my word count goals. I actually have a spreadsheet where I enter how many words I wrote on a given day. It calculates how many words I’ve written month-to-date and year-to-date. It figures out my average words per day for the year. There’s also a “goal” column that tells me, based on my daily word count goal, how many word ahead or behind I am for the year. When I’m ahead, the number is green. When I’m behind, the number is red. It works as a motivational tool for me, to keep me writing every day. Your mileage may vary.

On August 19th I had fallen behind by 20,831 words. My daily goal is 3,500 words. Over 20,000 words seems like a lot, but when you figure that’s a little less than 6 days it doesn’t seem as daunting. It just meant that I needed to write more than 3,500 words per day. My average word count had fallen to 3,410. Not a huge dip, but over time it added up.

The issue was that I got sideswiped by depression over the summer. Not a deep, dark, devastating depression. Just enough to make it hard to stay focused. I still wrote almost every day. There are a lot of zeroes back in June, and other days I didn’t reach my goal. Things got better in July, but there are days where I only did 500 or 700 words and change. I may have only been falling behind by centimeters, but I was still falling behind.

For that past week I’ve been grinding to get things back into the green. Not just to get the spreadsheet looking good — again, this motivates me — but because I’m still a full book behind deadline. I may need to just strike it from my production calendar and reschedule for next year. I don’t know that I can push that hard, for that long, to make up for a whole 200+ page book. Word count is one thing, it can be done in increments. A book is much more complicated.

Being a workaholic, or just a person with a strong work ethic, makes depression into a Chinese finger trap. You probably know those gag toys made of woven bamboo, where you stick a finger in each end. They were big when I was a kid, but I haven’t seen one in years. The way they work is, if you try to pull your fingers out the woven bamboo tightens, making it harder to get free. The trick it to push your fingers together, which feels counterintuitive, but it loosens the weave so you get get your fingers free.

Which, if I have to explain the metaphor, is part of why I ended up falling further and further behind. Doing as much as I realistically can, on any given day, is fine. I need to keep going, because not trying only makes the depression worse. Pushing myself, exerting force, only made it worse. Had I taken some time to relax, I would have gotten free sooner, and wouldn’t still be trying to catch up now.

My solution, knowing that I will always have depression, as well as anxiety and chronic pain to deal with, is to work as much as I can, when I can. As a self-employed person, I also don’t get paid sick days. Make hay while the sun shines, specifically so you can rest when it doesn’t. Sometimes that quest for balance becomes the source of unbalance, but in the throes of depression being objective can be difficult.

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