Often people who are depressed find themselves thinking or saying, “If only I had. . .” or “I
should have. . .” or I shouldn’t have. . .” The trouble is that we can’t really know what would
have happened if we had done things differently, and we can drive ourselves crazy because we want to believe we can always control everything.
For example, most women who experience a miscarriage or stillbirth find themselves wondering what they did wrong when in fact they did nothing to cause their loss. The bottom line is that often we have no control over things that happen, but that’s a difficult thing to admit, because it means we are vulnerable and being vulnerable is frightening. Instead we comfort ourselves with the belief that we could have controlled the situation if only we had done things differently.
It’s only sensible to look ahead, to think before we act, to realize things can possibly go wrong, and to avoid obstacles as much as we can, but it’s unrealistic to think that things should never go wrong.
I know a man who once made it to his place of employment in twenty-six minutes. He then concluded that it should never take him more than twenty-six minutes to make that trip, and that was how much time he allowed himself. Naturally, he was often late, which made him angry at other drivers and the stoplights—which he decided were “not timed right.” Even witnessing an accident aroused no sympathy for the unfortunate persons involved. Instead he felt they were “screwing up his day.” In other words, “If only they had…” or “They should have…” Needless to say, he was generally unhappy and so were the people around him!
It’s difficult but important to accept that the world is not perfect and we can’t control everything. All we can do is plan prudently.
Here’s an exercise to gauge whether you’re making yourself unhappy: pay attention to the number of times you say or think, “If only I had…” and ask yourself whether you know that you could have avoided the problem. If you don’t know for sure, let it go. If you find yourself saying, “If only they had…,” remind yourself that you can’t control other people.
Comparing other people’s achievements to your own can make you feel small and unimportant. We’re bombarded with images of celebrities and the minute details of their lives that it is hard not to feel somehow left behind.
I once read an article about a young doctor who, after leaving the Navy, established four hospitals and several medical clinics in Laos during the Viet Nam war. He worked under primitive conditions in the jungle, with limited facilities, treating the local people for all sorts of medical problems and still managed to write three best-selling books. He was stricken with cancer, and when he returned temporarily to the U.S. for treatments, he still managed to raise money for his hospitals and clinics. He died a day after his 34th birthday.
I was 34 when I read that article, and for some time afterward I kept seeing myself as having failed to do anything important with my life. It was only after a lot of reflection that I realized I wasn’t cut out to be a doctor, or a nuclear physicist, award winning actor, Olympic athlete, or a rock star. When I looked back at the choices I’d made—to marry a good man, mother my children and teach and write part-time—I knew I was exactly who I was born to be. My duties had no glamour attached to them—staying up at night with a sick child, running a household on a limited budget, moving from state to state for reasons beyond my control, teaching my children to be good people, helping my students and maybe writing a decent piece when I had the time. I loved what I was doing and I loved my life, even though it may not seem important to the world at large.
Awards and recognition won’t make you happy if you aren’t being the person you were meant to be.
Here’s an exercise to boost your self-esteem: Make a list of all the things you do at home, in your job, or for others (including pets) and realize how it would affect other people if you suddenly weren’t there. Watch the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life!
Writing fiction is more than listing events and dialog that tell a story. The writer must create a world for the reader to enter—a world with sights and sounds, smells and tastes. The characters in that world must seem real. Their individual quirks, mannerisms, and speech patterns should, by the end of the story, make the reader feel familiar with them, as though those characters actually entered real life.
A big part of creating a fictional world is being specific in your descriptions. Instead of “tree,” say “maple” or “birch” and show it to us. Are the leaves just budding, turning color, or falling off?
Most readers are visual and you always need to give them something to “see.” I frequently notice problems in scenes with a great deal of dialogue. Yes, your readers are listening to what your characters are saying, but the readers haven’t gone blind in the meantime. Even during conversations the speakers are doing something. Whether it’s frowning, drumming their fingers, picking lint off their sleeves, sighing, shrugging—you get the idea. Show the readers what they would see if this were a movie. Don’t forget the other senses either. Is the fire crackling, the wind howling, the sun setting, or the dog barking? Does the room smell of fresh flowers or stale cigars? Always try to involve as many senses as reasonably possible in every scene.
If your characters are talking in a room, make sure the room has furniture. Let the readers “see” the tables and chairs, the lamps and plants, and the characters’ relation to them. Is one character sitting on the arm of a chair? Is the other looking out the window, his back to his companion?
Here’s an exercise to help make your fictional world seem real: The next time you have a conversation with someone, notice the details mentioned above, and then try to recreate that scene on paper.
When I was teaching, I noticed that many of my beginning students depicted characters that were very similar. I realized that everyone in their stories spoke in the same voice. I advised the writers to think of other people they knew. “How would your mother say this? Your best friend? The person who annoys you most?” It’s important to give your characters different voices.
Similarly, it’s important to give your characters different perspectives. In writing and in life it’s tempting to assume that everyone sees the world the same way you do. When you’re writing, giving your characters different perspectives creates conflicts, providing tension and suspense. In daily life, we’re constantly met with conflicts because the people we deal with don’t see things the way we do. There are two ways to handle that conflict: letting your blood pressure rise, or learning to appreciate that the world is not one-dimensional.
This idea was nicely illustrated to me when we lived for several years in an architecturally interesting home. If you stood to the south and looked at the house, all you saw was a three car garage with an acutely slanted roof. The only conclusion you could draw was that it was a one story house. If you stood to the east, you saw what obviously looked like a two story house with a one story wing attached to the south, and if you looked closely, you could see window wells that indicated there was a basement.
If you stood to the north, You could see the house was a front to back split level, with two stories to the east and two levels lowered a half floor to the west and no indication of a basement. But if you stood to the west, you saw two floors to the north and one floor to the south half way between—a side to side split.
Four people could stand on four sides of the building and argue endlessly unless they each walked completely around the house and incorporated the four different—and seemingly contradictory perspectives!
Here’s an exercise to enlarge your thinking: the next time you find yourself disagreeing with someone, ask a few polite questions (think of it as walking around the building) and see if they’re making some valid points that need to be integrated into your perspective!
here to edit.
Stephanie Kay Bendel is the author of EXIT THE LABYRINTH: A Memoir of Early Childhood Depression – Its Onset and Aftermath, MAKING CRIME PAY: A Practical Guide to Mystery Writing, and A SCREAM AWAY, a romantic thriller published under the house name, Andrea Harris. She has also written numerous short stories and articles on writing.