• Phil Parker

Does your creativity hibernate in the winter?

Spring has sprung and sunshine has beckoned me outside again. I've indulged in some serious pottering in the garden lately. As a result, ideas have started to coalesce in my head, enabling me to get some serious work done on the WIP. In previous years it's felt like, in winter, ideas needed to be levered out of my head as if they were tightly packaged in a wooden crate. By the spring they started to cooperate so I could enjoy the writing process again. A problem I needed to overcome.

I discovered I might be someone who suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder - SAD. Symptoms range from long periods of depression, lethargy, and a lack of motivation, to sleeping issues, feelings of hopelessness, agitation, and difficulty concentrating. This article explains how it affect artists and creative types. The wide range of symptoms people feel make it difficult to research and provide definitive conclusions but medical experts seem to agree that a big factor lies in your levels of serotonin and melatonin.

Serotonin is the brain’s chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood. When it drops, you can experience anxiety or depression, and reduced sunlight is known to cause drops in serotonin.
Melatonin plays a role in the body’s sleep pattern. Changing seasons and their effects on the circadian rhythm can cause a disruption in the body’s level of melatonin.

This article from the mental health charity, MIND, provides explanations and strategies to cope with SAD. It's well worth reading. The bottom line is that creativity goes into hibernation, like your average hedgehog or dormouse. Writers and artists describe it as a sluggish time when the brain can't be arsed to come up with ideas and would sooner curl up under its duvet than try to develop them into your story. For the last three winters I had convinced myself the cause was a simple one: I was a worthless writer. I'd exhausted my supply of ideas because everything I did was rubbish. This year, via social media, I discovered others felt the same way. What a relief! Hence why I decided to find out the cause.


How can I stop being SAD?

There is no one size fits all answer here. You need to find what works best for you. I''ve researched answers various artists and writers have said worked for them. Hopefully something in here will work for you too.

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Supplements may be helpful. If SAD comes from a chemical imbalance then supplements might correct it. Vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin) helps compensate for the lack of sunlight. In some countries it's possible to buy melatonin (not UK) which helps regulate the chemical. 5-Hydroxytryptophan, also known as oxitriptan or 5HTP, also works to harmonise your serotonin and melatonin levels. St. John's Wort is a natural remedy.


A light therapy lamp might be another way of compensating for those darker days. This article tells you more. They can be used for certain skin conditions too. However, it's worth looking at your workplace. Is your computer near to a window to give you natural light?


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Eat the right kinds of food. I'm terrible for reaching for chocolate at such times, which is not a good idea. Foods with folic acid is a good start (leafy greens, oatmeal, oranges, fortified cereals, lentils, black-eyed peas, and soybeans). Cut down on the alcohol (agh!!) and stay hydrated. Reduce your sugar intake, to avoid the highs and lows it generates. To improve creativity nutritionists recommend: fish, avocado, eggs, berries, bananas, mixed nuts, broccoli and oats. The alternative is to eat the wrong things, the sugary sweets that make you put on weight and therefore add to your disquiet. It's a temptation to resist and I will confess that it's one in which I fail quite regularly. No one's perfect!


Redecorate your workspace. Make it an exciting place to work. Plants help to capture a touch of nature and generate some calm. I repainted the walls of my study and had my book covers enlarged onto canvas frames along one wall. The impact was enormous. It feels more like a place where a writer lives now. With lighter walls, a change of curtains, bookshelves and light fittings, I love being in the room. It has an ambience I find comforting. I think this change, above all, has been the one that's made the biggest difference.


Get outside and exercise. It took me a while to realise the significance of that 3 year period of winter blues. It took the form of a black Labrador. Until 3 years ago, at 11 o'clock each morning, regular as clockwork, she would come into the study and nudge me until I agreed to go for our daily walk. Even at the end, when arthritis meant she couldn't walk far, she still got me outside. The thing was, during those hours of exercise, I'd get so many great ideas. There were even occasions when I'd tell her about a particular problem! Yes, I talked to a dog! Just talking it out loud, offering up options to myself, enabled me to find answers to fix a plot point. I still miss her terribly. But my point for you, dear writer, is to get out there and enjoy Nature. It's healing. It fosters creativity. It just requires effort! I'll add one other benefit to having a pet, in this context. They provide comfort and love. When you're feeling down, they recognise the symptoms and will snuggle up to you and you feel better.


Redirect your creativity. Find other ways to be creative beyond your usual writing. Thanks to a tip from my daughter, this winter I got into painting. I started by doing it online. I found it really satisfying to colour these mandalas. It needs a certain degree of mindfulness, shutting out other thoughts to focus attention on developing patterns and colouring in small and awkward spaces. The sense of satisfaction is its own reward. I've recently moved on to trying my hand at watercolour too. I'm no good at it but I am having fun teaching myself with YouTube tutorials. I think a benefit to these activities is that I'm enjoying the creative process but it's less demanding than writing. I don't need to be an expert and each task is complete in itself. Bit size creativity! I recommend it.


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Avoid social media (or, at best, reduce your engagement). I've done this for the last two years and it works. In January I check to see if anyone has got in touch then leave. I do not engage otherwise. Social media can be toxic - and is especially so in the winter when others are struggling with their mental health. By engaging, you flounder in their insecurities and neuroses. Why do that?? I have a great network of writer friends on social media and I tend to email them to find out how they are. It's a good way to protect yourself but still stay in touch.



Switch genres. I'm going to be on a QuaranCon'22 panel on April 8th talking about this subject. I'm looking forward to it, especially to find out what my fellow panelists have to say about it. I've posted elsewhere on my blog about my experiences of writing in a different genre. I started doing it in the winter of 20/21 during lockdown, after my wife challenged me to write something she could enjoy. Thus, Write Off was born.

Writing a story in the contemporary fiction genre meant changing some of the speculative fiction rules which proved an interesting diversion. It was such a different experience! I really enjoyed it. That's why, this winter, I have done the same thing. That WIP is not finished. I'm writing my latest fantasy WIP alongside it. But here's the thing - when I get stuck on one book, I just shift across to the other! It means changing my thinking, adapting to the different rules. It also ensures I approach the 'new' book with a fresh and objective perspective. I'm not saying to write a novel here! Write short stories! Enter competitions! Write for friends! But this process keeps that creative writing spark alive during the fallow winter period.


Conclusion

As with any problem, identifying it is the first step to solving it. The thing to keep in mind in this instance is this: the hormonal imbalance of a Seasonal Affective Disorder is so subtle we don't know it's happening! Creativity can go into hibernation but we don't know why. The reasons are not obvious - and can be clouded by our dark moods and lethargy. I hope I've alerted you to why this might be and offered some ways to compensate. They've worked for me and this year, though I still had my lazy and dark times. I went for a month or so without reading a single book! But that was down to me working on my own needs, my own methods of keeping my mind creative. Like I've said earlier, you find the methods that work best for you. Good luck. Let me know how you cope with winter too!

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