Robison Wells on Writing While Dealing With Mental Illness

Robison Wells is the author of Blackout, Deadzone, Variant, Feedback, Dark Energy, and Airships of Camelot. Variant was a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book, a YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers and a Bestseller. Robison lives near the Rocky Mountains in a house not too far from elk pastures. His wife, Erin, is a better person than he will ever be, and their three kids bring them mischief and/or joy.

Robison has an MBA in marketing, and a BS in political science, with an emphasis in International Relations of the Middle East.

Robison suffers from five mental illnesses (panic disorder, OCD, agoraphobia, depression and dermatillomania) and is an outspoken advocate for those with mental illnesses.

His books have been published in nine different languages, and he is the winner of many awards both in and out of the United States. You can read more about him on his website.


Writing While Dealing With Mental Illness
By Robison Wells

A lot of people know that I wrote the sci-fi, young adult Variant, my national debut, in eleven days. That wasn’t the final draft—it went through a lot of revision before it sold—but it’s still pretty amazing, even to me. But the story I don’t tell as much is that Variant’s sequel, Feedback, was written after I had my breakdown and was falling apart. In six months, I wrote 20,000 words. That’s the equivalent of 104 words per day, or about the length of this paragraph.

I was new enough to mental illness, and it came on so strong, that I simply didn’t know what to do with my brain. The writing did not flow. My depression told me I wasn’t good enough, and my panic disorder told me that I wasn’t going to get it written, that I’d fail to meet my contracts, that HarperCollins would cancel the contract, that I’d have to repay my advance (that I didn’t have anymore) so I would get sued for fraud, and I’d go to prison. I know that’s not how things work in the real world, but that’s how it worked in my head.

It’s called “catastrophizing”, and I am the king of it. Throughout my four and a half years of severe mental illness, catastrophizing has been my constant companion: I worry about something relatively small (not being able to finish my book on schedule) and my mind goes straight to the George Bailey’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” conclusion: Bankruptcy, scandal and prison.

So how did I work my way through it? Well, I haven’t yet. Yes, I have been better at writing and meeting deadlines, but I still catastrophize. I still have debilitating panic attacks which tell me that the world is falling down around me. I still have depression, which makes me feel like I’m a terrible writer and an even worse person. I still have obsessive compulsive disorder, which makes me want to hurt myself, and gives me extremely distracting delusions and hallucinations. All of these disorders and symptoms remain, but they’re under more control than they used to be, and I have coping strategies.

So, what do you do if you’re suffering from mental illness, and your illness is hindering your ability to work? Here are a few tips that I’ve discovered in the last four years.

#1. See A Doctor, preferably an actual psychiatrist. You probably feel like you don’t need a doctor, or that a doctor wouldn’t be able to help. But if your illness is hindering your ability to write, then you’re wrong. Get help. There is no need to fight this battle alone.

#2. Ignore The Stigma. More than one fourth of the people in the United States have some form of mental illness—mostly depression or anxiety issues. You’re in good company. There’s no reason to hide it, and no reason to be ashamed of it. You may feel like you need to bury your illness, to make sure that no one finds out your deep, dark secret. But, in my experience, the opposite is true. The reason that I “came out of the closet,” and started talking about my illness openly is because I had spent so long lying to people: making up excuses for why I couldn’t do things. I couldn’t go because my car had problems, or the kids were sick, or I had a migraine, or whatever else. Telling my friends about my illness was liberating, and that simple step did more to reduce my anxiety than any medication.

#3. Be Easy on Yourself. This is a hard one for me—and for most people, I imagine. But you need to realize that working is going to be more difficult for you than it has been in the past, and that’s okay. I used to write fourteen hours a day (an unhealthy behavior, caused by my OCD). Now, I work about five hours a day. I have a goal of writing two thousand words per day—not the five or six thousand I used to do. It’s frustrating—I wish I was as prolific as I used to be—but it’s my new reality, and I need to be aware of that.

#4. Work When You Can. In the last four years, I’ve worked at many different times a day. During that bad OCD flare, I worked fourteen hours a day, six days a week. Sometimes, I worked early in the morning, from about six to noon. When I was working a fulltime job in addition to writing, I worked during my lunch breaks and during the evening. Currently, I start working at about ten in the morning until about three in the afternoon. (However, during the last few weeks I had a looming deadline, and I worked eight or ten hours a day. I wasn’t as productive during the extra hours as I was in my regular five hours a day, but I still hit my deadline.)

#5. Embrace Your Illness. I might say “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” But instead I’ll say “When life gives you chest pain and hyperventilation and feelings of danger and imminent doom, write a scene in which your characters are terrified.” You’re experiencing feelings that many people are familiar with. All books have some degree of anxiety in them, and you know what feels like. You may just be having the tense, scary anxiety of a panic attack, but you can use that to inform your character who is hiding from the villain. You can use your knowledge of depression to help paint your protagonist who is living through the death of a loved one.

There’s nothing easy about writing when you are mentally ill, but hopefully these tips help. The world needs more authentic voices—real people who are really suffering. Every time—and I mean *every* time—I write about mental illness, I get messages from people who are suffering who say I made them feel better, knowing that they’re not alone. There is an intense loneliness that comes with mental illness; even my best friends—even my wife—don’t really know what it’s like. But that drives me all the more to talk about it, and to get other sufferers to talk to me about it. Opening up for the first time seems impossible, but when you do it—when you stand up and declare who you are and what you’re dealing with—you are taking your first steps on your road to recovery.

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One thought on “Robison Wells on Writing While Dealing With Mental Illness

  1. Oh my word BLESS YOU ROBISON WELLS. I was waiting for the first tip to be like, “make sure to get out of bed on an early schedule” or “do yoga” (things which are technically helpful for some but aren’t going to fix the fact that words don’t work) and instead it being what it is makes me almost cry. Thanks.

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