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[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Jim C. Hines on Writing with Depression

NOTE: This installment of Special Needs In Strange Worlds features a guest post from author Jim C. Hines! – Sarah Chorn

Jim C. Hines is best known as a fantasy novelist and the guy who did those gender-flipped SF/F cover poses. His first novel was Goblin Quest, the tale of a nearsighted goblin runt and his pet fire-spider. Actor and author Wil Wheaton described the book as “too f***ing cool for words,” which is pretty much the Best Blurb Ever. After completing the goblin trilogy, Jim went on to write the princess series, four books often described as a blend of Grimm’s Fairy Tales with Charlie’s Angels. He’s currently working on the Magic ex Libris books, which follow the adventures of a magic-wielding librarian from northern Michigan.

He’s also the author of more than forty published short stories. His first professional story sale was the award-winning “Blade of the Bunny,” which took first place in the 1998 Writers of the Future competition and was published in Writers of the Future XV.

Jim is an active blogger about topics ranging from sexism and harassment to zombie-themed Christmas carols, and won the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer in 2012.

He has an undergraduate degree in psychology and a Masters in English, and works for the State of Michigan. He lives with his wife and two children, who have always shown remarkable tolerance for his bizarre and obsessive writing habits. (The cats, on the other hand, have no tolerance whatsoever, and routinely walk across his desk when he’s trying to work.)

Writing with Depression

by Jim C. Hines

I get anxious every time one of my books comes out. Will this one sell as well as the last? Will people like it? Will Spielberg finally call me up and offer me an obscene amount of money to turn my books into blockbusters? Will this be the book that tanks and destroys my career, forcing me to live on the streets and hunt rats for food?

From what I’ve seen, that anxiety is pretty typical for most novelists. But I’m particularly nervous about my next book, Unbound. This is the third book in my current series, and will probably be out in very early 2015, give or take a few months. I’ve put my protagonist Isaac through an awful lot in the first two books. As a result of those events, when we see Isaac again in Unbound, he’s struggling with clinical depression.

This isn’t the casual “had a rough day” depression people often think about. This is the debilitating one, a mental disability that’s damaging Isaac’s health, his job, and his relationships. This is…well, in a lot of ways, it’s similar to what I was going through two years ago. (Admittedly, Isaac’s depression is a bit more extreme, and I didn’t have to worry about cursed thousand-year-old magical artifacts, or accidentally setting a cathedral on fire with a lightning gun.)

Looking back, I’ve been dealing with depression off and on for much of my life. I just never really labeled it as such until 2012. I still made it to school and to work. I still met my writing deadlines. I was functional.

But I was also stressed, impatient, and living a life almost entirely empty of joy. I snapped at my wife and children. I isolated myself in the bedroom, both for their sakes and because I just couldn’t deal with One More Thing. I was utterly burnt out at my day job. I found myself going through the motions day after day, with no thought that anything would ever get better, and nothing to look forward to.

Yeah, that pretty much sucked.

My wife started pushing me to get help. After a fair amount of resistance on my part—I’m not really depressed, just stressed; I should be strong enough to get through this without help; I don’t want drugs messing up my brain—I finally dragged my ass to the doctor’s office, where we ran through some screening questions, talked for a while, and he pronounced me officially Depressed. I started on Zoloft that same day, and began looking for a therapist who could help me to get my life and my brain back under control.

Everyone is different, and what works for one person might not work for the next, but for me, the therapist and medication have made all the difference in the world. It wasn’t an overnight thing, but I felt like I was waking up, like I was finally becoming me again.

For people who believe mental illness helps your creativity, or that medication will ruin you as an artist, I’ll note that the past two years have been the best of my career. For a long time, I was writing one book a year, but I’ve doubled that pace and turned in two in the past twelve months: a secret project I’m not allowed to talk about, and Unbound.

I put a lot of myself into Isaac’s character, especially in this book. In Libriomancer and Codex Born, Isaac is an unapologetic geek. He loves science fiction and fantasy, has a miniature TARDIS hanging from his rear view mirror, and randomly quotes The Princess Bride or Monty Python. He takes particular joy in the existence of magic, his ability to reach into books and create everything from shrinking potions to light sabers. Magic isn’t a curse or a burden; magic is awesome!

In the beginning of Unbound, he’s lost that joy. He’s on the verge of losing his job at the library. He’s not sleeping or eating enough. All of his time and energy go into trying to undo certain mistakes from the last book. He’s irritable and angry at himself, his loved ones, his friends…pretty much everyone and everything.

We tend to imagine someone with depression as tired and listless, either emotionally flat or crying all the time. An Eeyore who struggles just to get out of bed in the morning. And that’s certainly one face of depression, but it’s not the only one.

Isaac’s depression is truer to my struggle. I worry that he’ll be too unlikeable…because that’s how I felt at the time. I worry people will say he’s too weak, that this character should just man up and get over it, because that’s how I felt. That’s what I expected to hear if I talked about it. I worry about readers who don’t understand that depression isn’t something you just snap out of.

Shame is a big piece of it. Depression feels like failure. The brain-weasels of despair crawl into your skull and whisper that it’s all your fault, that you’re not good enough, and that nothing you do will make it any better. And because we feel ashamed, we don’t talk about it. We put on a mask and trudge through one day after another and wonder why we’re bothering.

I worry about how people will react to this book, but it’s a story I wanted and needed to write. Isaac is a smart, skilled, and ridiculously stubborn character, but he’s also human. We aren’t invulnerable. We pay a mental and emotional toll for events in our lives. Isaac’s struggle with depression isn’t because he’s weak; it’s because he’s human.

Because the goal isn’t to make my readers depressed too, I’ll spoil things and tell you that Isaac ends up in a better place by the end. And because it’s one of my books, there’s will also be plenty of smart-ass banter, nifty magic, and at least one belch joke.

Unbound is a book about battling monsters. Some of them are human. Others less so. Isaac has spent two books fighting monsters out there in the world, but sometimes the toughest monster is the ones inside your own head.

11 Comments on [GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Jim C. Hines on Writing with Depression

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this, Jim.

    Depression is a monster…but its a monster that can be countered. And must.

  2. Thank you for sharing this!

  3. Thanks for putting together this post, Jim. Like you said, not all roads are the same, even with the same/similar diagnosis. Like you, I suffer with mental illness, but it’s not something to be ashamed of (not saying that you were, but just stating it). In my case, I have a chemical imbalance in my brain. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t cause it. Only staying on my proper medications and seeing a therapist have kept me around this world long enough to keep enjoying it.

    Thanks for bringing light to your endeavors. I hope it encourages more people with mental maladies to seek help.

    • Morgan Brilliant // May 20, 2014 at 4:13 pm //

      Absolutely, J.T.

      Medication can be a life-saver. On those occasions early on after my diagnosis, I felt defensive about being dependent on a drug to function properly, or at all. Then I realized something about drug dependency: anyone who takes heart medication to prevent a fatal heart attack is dependent on a drug. They take medication in order to have a rest of their life. So do I. I shouldn’t be embarrassed or ashamed of that any more than that heart patient should me. I’m no less entitled to a rest of my life.

      Thank you for sharing, Jim.

  4. Great post – thanks for sharing. We don’t talk about our deep, dark, hidden issues enough, and that secrecy is what creates a social stigma. Kudos to you for putting it all out there on the page (so to speak).

  5. It’s the writerly curse. I too experienced bouts of depression most of my life without ever labeling it as such. It was only when it became severe, after my daughter was born, that I was able to recognize it for what it was. And then only when my husband insisted. (Because it’s normal to feel like everyone would be better off if you got hit by a bus, right?) I saw a therapist for a while but in the end found that the whole mindfulness thing (the latest “big thing” in psychology) was the right fit for me. We’re lucky to live in a time when depression is better understood, and no longer viewed as a weakness or failure by most people. Thank you for sharing your story, and congratulations on finding your way back to the light!

  6. Oh goodness you described functional depression so well. I must send this to my husband because it’s so agonizing sometimes once you realize you have a problem and you really don’t want to talk about it because it’s the elephant in the room but you need your partner to understand and when they don’t it just makes things all the more worse. So excited to read Libriomancer (I literally just purchased it recently so thought I’d peep your guest post) Now I must bump it’s priority!

    And no..thanks I don’t want to be a depressed ready – hence I usually stay away from the uber sad looking stuff.

  7. Nice post, Jim. It’s really relevant for me, because I’ve also suffered from clinical depression. It’s not something that ever helped my creativity or productivity. Depression is an illness that can be chronic for many people–you go into remission, but it can creep back out of the shadows. I always have to be on the watch for it.

    I want to read your trilogy now, both because I think I can relate personally to your character and his struggles, but also because I’m also working on a novel where the protagonist has to deal with depression. I’ve had the same worries you do, especially when I read all those threads on writer’s forums about how much people hate “emo” or “angsty” characters (I think emo and angsty are codespeak for depressed, or at least self doubting).

    You’re a good writer, and I’ll bet you did a good job with presenting your character’s issues in a way that will engage readers. Some may not like it, but universal popularity isn’t something any book (or writer) gets to enjoy.

  8. Having been through depression myself, and with a spouse still actively struggling with it, I really appreciate both this post and the depressed protagonist. I can think of a few others, and they are hard to read sometimes, but I hope that depressed point-of-view characters also give people without depression some insight.

    And I’m not sure emo=depressed per se, in regards to a prior comment. Harry in Order of the Phoenix would be emo but not depressed, for example; although in that case, it struck me as a painfully realistic portrayal of the emotional roller coaster of teenage life, so perhaps the bigger point stands.

    Again, thanks, Jim; I’ve got several of your books already, and I’ll be getting this series as soon as the last one is out.

  9. Helen Espinosa // May 21, 2014 at 11:50 am //

    Thank you so much for having the courage to share this!

  10. Thanks so much for sharing this. You basically described my life and have encouraged me to face my fears and find help.

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