In the last year and a half I’ve gone through several project milestones on a non-fiction project–completing the manuscript, wading through final edits, poring over proofs, and waiting for it to be published. The milestones came with tight deadlines which were additional workloads on top of the usual day job and family schedule. Getting it all done was exhausting but surprisingly energizing. I had to work at an intense pace, with extreme focus. I got Efficient (Capital E intended) at getting through the daily requirements so I would have time for the manuscript. I jettisoned unnecessary commitments. I let my spouse take on more of the daily chores. As I immersed myself into the writing, inspiration seemed to come hand in hand with the overload. I saw more and more connections, reached better insights. And then, after each deadline passed, I was euphoric, hopeful, excited, . . . sad.
What? Sad? What was wrong with me? I had no reason, no excuse, no justification to be sad. And yet there was no denying it. After each deadline, instead of getting up early to write I was sleeping past the alarm. Instead of being efficient at getting through the day’s requirements so I could have time to write in the evening, nothing got done. Not even the day’s basic non-writing requirements. It was a low almost equivalent to the writer’s high I had been on.
My initial response was to invalidate the sadness. To tell myself how lucky I was and that I should get over it and on with life. Not surprisingly, that approach was an utter failure. It simply added guilt to the lethargy.
It took only a little research to discover I was not alone in my experience. In fact, according to a 1987 New York Times article by Charles Salzberg, I was in exalted company. Writers including Jack Kerouac, Joseph Heller, Larry McMurtry, and Joyce Carol Oates (among others) experienced versions of what Salzberg termed ‘postwritum depression.’ Allison Winn Scotch wrote about it on our very own Writer Unboxed. A google search for ‘post-publication depression’ offered a host of other articles–some satirical, many serious. This brought me to a very helpful realization. Post-project depression is NORMAL. It might even be necessary, a way to replenish the batteries before tackling the next project, the next deadline.
What would change if I called my experiences a post-project recovery instead of post-project depression? It would shift the focus off what I wasn’t doing, and onto the true problem–figuring out how to transition between the ‘not-normal’ life pre-deadline and the ‘normal’ life post-deadline. Each of the authors mentioned in the New York Times article had different strategies to get through the weeks immediately following the completion of a large project. I needed to develop my own.
For months, I had lived and breathed writing. That focus had given my days a purposeful intensity. After the deadline, the mundane demands of my ‘normal’ life just felt so darn small, and well, purposeless. I missed the project and the clarity of what did and didn’t matter in the daily schedule. If I could immerse myself in another project, I could regain some of that purpose. But I needed a project of a more manageable scale. One that could fit in the bounds of normal rather than requiring every spare waking moment. It was a good idea, but it didn’t work. Every time I tried to flesh out a new project idea, I got nowhere. I would stare at the blank screen, or clean out the office, or start surfing the internet. This was certainly not returning a sense of purpose to my days.
I decided I needed self-care before getting back to work. Perhaps I was just exhausted, my creativity at an all-time low. I needed to recharge the creative spirit and the energy needed to direct it. I had just spent more than a year of my life doing little other than work, family and writing. I could afford some time to rediscover my favorite pastimes. I picked up neglected hobbies, added exercise and recreation back into the schedule. Watched movies. Read books. Painted. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t make me want to jump out of bed before the alarm with renewed purpose. And after a week or two of it, self-care started to feel a lot like self-indulgence.
Both of those strategies had been extremes–either a return to a big project or an aimless passing of time on pleasurable nothings. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to find a middle ground–a place between deadline and drifting. I’m making progress, but it is a daily battle of discovery and self-control.
I’ve had the most success when I carve out some writing time but limit myself to working on exercises or short pieces rather than starting the ‘next big project.’ I’ve also felt better when I allow myself guilt-free self-care time but put limits on it. Watching one movie makes me feel better. Binge-watching a whole series makes me feel worse.
My hope is that after a while I will have both the energy (from self-care) to start the next big project and well-honed ideas and writing skills (from daily writing) ready to go when they are needed.
How about you? Do you experience post-project depression? How do you turn it into recovery? How do you transition between deadline and normal?
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