Creative people are wired differently from others. We feel deeply, question ourselves often, and battle resistance daily.
As such, many writers struggle with depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders, which can lead to negative thinking. Conventional wisdom maintains that negative thoughts are unproductive and nothing good can come from them.
I disagree. Negative thoughts can fuel fantastic, visceral writing.
I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember, and have experienced my fair share of dark thoughts. For years, any time I felt consumed by negativity, I made it worse by anguishing over how it was standing in the way of my creative ambitions. The more I tried to force positivity, the less productive I was.
I finally accepted I’m going to have low points — maybe more frequently than others. But by doing so, I’ve learned ways to use negative thoughts as productive, inspiring tools in the creative process.
(Ed. note: Everyone has negative thoughts — it’s totally normal. But If you’re feeling sad or depressed, you may want to seek the advice of a mental health professional. We’re not doctors here at The Write Life, so please take our advice from a fellow writer’s perspective, not from that of a medical professional.)
Here are five ways you can channel your negativity into productivity.
1. Scrap your negative thoughts — literally
Write your negative thoughts on small scraps of paper and keep them tucked away in a box.
When you hit a creative roadblock brought on by negativity, pull one of the scraps out. Reread your thought, and on the opposite side, write a sentence about how you later resolved it — or continued on in spite of it.
These are the best kind of writing prompts for two reasons: First, they remind you that you will persevere no matter how lousy you feel at the moment. And second, recalling your thoughts and emotions from when you originally penned the negative thought can get your creative juices flowing again and add depth and dimension to whatever you’re writing.
2. Listen to your feelings
Turn up the music. Put on Slayer, Tupac, Marilyn Manson, Adele, or whatever artist speaks to your current state of torment.
Play music that lets you feel your feelings, not suppress them. Listen for 20 minutes in a comfortable position with your eyes closed. Try not to control or react to your thoughts; simply let them come into your mind without judgment.
When the 20 minutes are up, open your eyes and immediately freewrite for 20 more minutes.
Since music has the ability to fight fatigue, increase productivity, and recall memories, you may be surprised by the creative flow that follows this dark indulgence. After all, Chuck Palahniuk wrote Fight Club while listening to Nine Inch Nails’ super moody “The Downward Spiral” on repeat.
3. Quit your job
For an hour or so, that is.
I’ve found one specific time negative thoughts seem to engulf me is when I’ve spent too much time writing for clients and not enough on writing for myself.
When you start to feel negative, take a break to reevaluate and ask yourself what’s missing. Are you feeling antsy because there’s a personal creative project you feel isn’t getting attention?
Remember, the kind of client work you take on and how you plan to complete it is directly tied to your creative flow — and the ability to work on personal creative projects we’re passionate about.
4. Invite negative thoughts
But only temporarily. Anxiety and depression are like all other emotions — we feel them for a reason. Figuring out why is important.
So indulge in a negative freewriting diatribe or two using the Pomodoro Technique.
The general principle of the technique is that by breaking your workday into manageable 25-minute chunks followed by a break — rather than trying to plow through a daunting 8 hour stretch — you’ll get more done.
This technique works especially well because it’ll prevent you from getting lost in negativity (if you need to do a couple back to back sessions, though, that’s fine).
5. Recognize the Lazarus effect
David Bowie said, “What I like my music to do to me is awaken the ghosts inside of me. Not the demons, you understand, but the ghosts.”
I feel the same about writing. For us writers, dark feelings often awaken memories of people, spaces, and times we’ve long forgotten. These “ghosts” can produce a tremendous amount of creative material.
“Among the invisible tools of creative individuals is their ability to hold on to the specific texture of their past,” writer and literature professor Vera John-Stein notes. “The creative use of one’s past, however, requires a memory that is both powerful and selective.”
Use that power and selectivity, no matter how dark some of it may be, to your advantage.
How have you channeled your negative thoughts into productive writing?
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