Sunday, January 14, 2024

Writing with Dysthymia



In late October 2023, Lee Murray emailed me to ask if I’d be interested in contributing an article the Holistic Horrors column for the Horror Writers Association Newsletter. The column focuses on mental health in horror, and Lee suggested a couple topics, one of them being how my dysthymia affects my writing process. That’s the topic I went with, and now that it’s been a couple months since the article appeared, I thought I’d share it on my blog as well.







In addition to being a writer, I teach composition and creative writing at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio. In my composition courses, I tell student to avoid beginning their essays with “According to Webster’s Dictionary . . .” and then defining a term that readers are already familiar with. “We don’t need to know what a dictionary says,” I tell them. “We need to know what you say.”


So guess what I’m about to do?


According to John Hopkins Medicine website, “Dysthymia is a milder, but long-lasting form of depression. It’s also called persistent depressive disorder. People with this condition may also have bouts of major depression at times.” (In my defense, dysthymia isn’t a term that most people are familiar with, so a definition seems in order. I can imagine all my composition students past and present laughing their asses off right now, though.)


I’d never heard of dysthymia before I was diagnosed with it. My first marriage had imploded, and I was in therapy to help me deal with the emotional fallout, and – more importantly to me – learn how to help my two young daughters cope. My therapist mentioned in passing that I was dysthymic, and I asked her to explain what that meant. She did, and it explained so much about me. I knew I experienced regular bouts of depression, and I figured there was a genetic component to it since my mother was a depressive agoraphobic, but I also believed my episodes of depression were just that: episodes. The idea that I was always depressed on some level was a revelation to me, and not exactly a welcome one. I live with lower-case depression every day, and I have to be careful that it doesn’t turn into Depression with a capital D – especially when those life circumstances I mentioned above rear their ugly heads. Therapy and meds help a lot, but they aren’t miracle cure-alls. Over the years I’ve made an uneasy peace with my dysthymia, but it still affects all aspects of my life, and that includes my writing. So what’s it like for me to be dysthymic and how do I cope?


·       I write to self-medicate. I’m considered a fairy prolific author, and while a number of factors contribute to this – I spend a lot of time envisioning what I want to write beforehand, I write fast, I make decisions easily and quickly when I write – I rarely feel as good as when I’m writing steadily and completing projects (which means I write a lot). I spent all of October writing a novel that had a short deadline, and I wrote every waking hour that I wasn’t teaching. I finished the book, and I was on a creative high the entire time I was writing it. When I was working on it, my current wife remarked – not for the first time – how much happier I am when I’ve been writing steadily. I’m lucky that I can mood alter by writing. I have no interest in drinking alcohol or taking drugs, but if I didn’t have my writing, who knows how I might self-medicate?

·       But I’m careful to avoid becoming a workaholic. I usually take breaks between projects, and unless I have an extremely tight deadline (like with the book I just mentioned) I’ll write for two or three hours a day, and may skip a day here or there if other things demand my attention. But I’m still mindful not to let writing take over my life to an unhealthy extent.

·       The highs aren’t very high . . . I don’t feel positive emotions intensely, so when something good happens in my career – such as landing a new contract or winning an award – I know not to expect to feel an intense high, and I know the positive feelings I do feel won’t last long. If I didn’t know this about myself, I might start to question the point of writing when the emotional rewards that come from it can be so ephemeral for me.

·       . . . and the lows can be very low. Before I learned to deal with my dysthymia, setbacks in my writing career could hit me pretty hard. My first novel deal fell through when the publisher said they were no longer “comfortable with the book.” (I never found out what the hell that meant. My agent at the time said, “Who cares? It’s a no, and we move on.”) This was the first “Tim Waggoner” novel I wrote, the one that was 100 percent me, and having that deal fall through felt like a repudiation of not only my work but of my unique vision as an artist. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, rough. That book was The Harmony Society, which eventually found a home with Prime Books and later Dark Regions Press, which still publishes it today. If I’d known at the time that I was dysthymic, I might’ve been able to prevent the resulting depression from becoming as bad as it did, and maybe I would’ve been able to come out of it sooner.

·       But I have a lot of experience dealing with the lows. But every time I had to deal with a setback like UNNAMED PUBLISHER changing their minds about my novel, I learned more about handling the deep depressions that could result from them. And once I learned I was dysthymic and understood how prone to full-blown depression I am, when a setback came, I knew a depression would likely follow. I came to view my episodes of depression like bad weather. I knew they would pass eventually. Because of this, my depressive episodes lost a lot of their power over me. I knew they were natural responses (natural for me) to setbacks or negative events in my life, and this made it easier for me to get through them without wallowing in my misery and making the situation ten times worse.

·       It can sometimes be hard to find the motivation to write. I’d say this is probably true for the vast majority of writers at times, but dysthymia has different levels to it before it slides into a major depression. Sometimes I’m at my normal level of feeling down, and I can function well enough. But when my dysthymia hits a deeper level, I find it harder to do anything. Reminding myself that writing helps boost my mood helps get me going sometimes. Other times, I tell myself who cares how I feel? The point is to produce words, so I should just get to it. Often, my mood improves when I take this approach too. If I can’t focus on my writing no matter what I do, I do something else that contributes to my writing career – work on a blog, a video for my YouTube Channel, the next edition of my newsletter, etc. I’ve learned over the years that as long as I’m making something, whatever it might be, my mood will eventually improve.

·       I was afraid taking antidepressants would affect my creativity. When a therapist first suggested I start taking meds for my depression, I was afraid to do it. I knew anti-depression meds alter a person’s brain chemistry, so what if they altered mine in a way that interfered with my writing? What if I needed to feel depressed to write? I’d always told myself I didn’t believe in the idea that artists must suffer to produce their best work, but there I was, believing it anyway. I eventually decided to try medication, and my doctor put me on 100 mg of Zoloft. I’ve been on that dose for over two decades, and in that time, I’ve published dozens of novels and maybe 100 short stories and who knows how many articles. Medication isn’t magic, though. I still feel down most of the time, but I’m less likely to experience deep depression, and that’s made a huge difference in my life.

·       I know the voices lie. I don’t literally hear voices telling me negative things. This is crap, you’re crap, you’re a failed writer, you should quit and stop putting yourself through all this grief . . . These are my own dark thoughts, of course, but sometimes they feel like outside voices, and when I start thinking these kinds of things, I remind myself that the voices lie. If I try to fight them, if I put energy of any sort into them, they only get stronger. But if I realize that what they say isn’t true, I can ignore them while they talk, and eventually they grow fainter and shut up altogether. I know they’ll be back, sooner rather than later, but that’s okay. I know how to deal with them.

·       I try not to compare myself with other writers. An old writers’ saying, which I’ve written about many times, is that “Envy is the writer’s disease.” It’s hard not to want what others writers have – bigger contracts, more readers, critical acclaim, regular appearances on best-of lists, being invited to write for the most high-profile anthologies, etc. – and while we may work for these things and achieve some of them (or maybe even all of them), there are still things we will never achieve or obtain in our careers. Stephen King still longs for the acceptance of the literary world. Literary writers bemoan their small readership and lack of sales, even though their work wins prestigious awards and is respected by literary critics. It’s only human to yearn for what we don’t have, but if we’re not careful – and are prone to persistent negative thinking like dysthymics – comparing ourselves to other authors can send us spiraling into a major depression pretty damn fast. I still compare myself to other writers all the time, but I try not to let my envy get the better of me, and while I have some bad moments here and there, for the most part, I do okay.

·       Write with intent, but without attachment to an outcome. I learned this from Taylor Grant, and it’s been a lifesaver for me. When I write, I do so with clear, specific intent. I want a book to be the best I can make it. I want it to be a good book of its type (horror, dark fantasy, media tie-in, etc.). I want it to be both an effective artistic expression and an enjoyable piece of entertainment. If I accomplish my intentions for a project, then I’ve already succeeded. But once I finish the book (or story, or article), I am not attached to any particular outcome. If the book doesn’t sell, oh well. I’ll write another. I don’t write on spec often at this stage of my career, but I currently have two on-spec novels – a psychological horror/thriller novel and a middle-grade horror novel – still making the rounds. They were two books I wanted to write, I wrote them, I think they’re good books, and I’m proud of them. Mission accomplished. I still want them to published, but that will be icing (sweet, sweet icing!) on a finished cake. I’m not so attached to their being published that if they never are, I won’t be emotionally devastated, and I’ll just move on, although I may shed a tear or two before doing so.

·       I have dysthymia, but my identity isn’t centered around it. For me, it’s all about balance. I accept that I have dysthymia, but it’s a condition. It’s not who I am. It’s part of me, but not all of me. When I was first diagnosed with dysthymia, it was a challenge not to use it as an excuse. If I didn’t feel like writing on a particular day, I could shrug my shoulders and say, “Oh well. Not my fault. I’m dysthymic, and I’m feeling too down today to do much more than watch TV. I wonder what’s on?” There are days when I’m too depressed to write, and even if I try, I can’t make myself do it. When that happens, I don’t beat myself up about it. I just try again the next day, and the day after that, until the words start coming, maybe slowly at first, but eventually they come faster and easier.

I’ll never be free of my dysthymia, but that’s okay. I’ll keep trying to understand it better and find new ways to work around it, work with it, work through it, or work despite it. And if it sometimes gets the better of me, that’s okay too. I just have to wait for the rain to pass.




Two Books Coming Out in April


One of the (sometimes) awkward things about being a fairly prolific author is that sometimes I’ll have books coming out from different publishers almost as the same time. That’s the situation for me in April when Lord of the Feast and The Atrocity Engine will be released two weeks apart.


Although the books are being released more or less at the same time, Lord of the Feast was written a couple years before The Atrocity Engine. Both books also deal with the same mythos and share settings that I’ve used in a number of my novels, but Lord of the Feast is a horror novel and The Atrocity Engine is a dark fantasy adventure. Do they literally take place in the same world? Yes, but I also consider them as separate because of their different styles.


You don’t need to read both novels. You can enjoy each one on its own terms, but it might be interesting to read both and see me present my mythos in different ways.


Lord of the Feast


My new horror novel is due out from Flame Tree Press on April 16th, 2024.




Twenty years ago, a cult attempted to create their own god: The Lord of the Feast. The god was a horrible, misbegotten thing, however, and the cultists killed the creature before it could come into its full power. The cultists trapped the pieces of their god inside mystic nightstones then went their separate ways. Now Kate, one of the cultists’ children, seeks out her long-lost relatives, hoping to learn the truth of what really happened on that fateful night. Unknown to Kate, her cousin Ethan is following her, hoping she’ll lead him to the nightstones so that he might resurrect the Lord of the Feast – and this time, Ethan plans to do the job right.


Flame Tree Press Paperback and eBook:


Amazon Paperback:




Barnes & Noble Paperback:


Barnes & Noble eBook:


The Atrocity Engine


The Atrocity Engine will be out from Aethon Books on April 30th, 2024. It’s the first of a dark fantasy trilogy, and the other two books – Book of Madness and The Desolation War – have already been turned in to my editor. I don’t have publication dates for them yet. I’ll keep you posted.


Here’s the publisher’s description of The Atrocity Engine:


Men in Black meets Hellraiser in this rollicking mash-up of urban fantasy and cosmic horror from four-time Bram Stoker Award-Winning author Tim Waggoner.


Creatures from dark dimensions infesting your home? Demonic beings trying to drive you insane? Alien gods attempting to destroy your universe?


Just call Maintenance.


This underpaid and overworked secret organization is dedicated to battling forces that seek to speed up Entropy and hasten the Omniverse’s inevitable death.


Neal Hudson is a twenty-year veteran of Maintenance. A surveyor who drives through the streets of Ash Creek, Ohio constantly scanning for the deadly energy known as Corruption. Since the death of his previous partner, Neal prefers to work alone, and he’s not happy when he’s assigned to mentor a rookie.


But they better learn to get along fast.


The Multitude, a group of godlike beings who seek to increase Entropy at every opportunity, are creating an Atrocity Engine. This foul magical device can destroy the Earth, and they don’t care how many innocent lives it takes to build it. (Spoiler alert: It’s a lot!)


Just another day on the job. . .


Amazon Hardback:




B&N Hardcover:


Kirkus Reviews on The Atrocity Engine


Kirkus reviews gave The Atrocity Engine a great review! “This gripping dark fantasy boasts an indelible cast and an unwavering pace.” You can read the full review here:


Let Me Tell You a Story


In Let Me Tell You a Story, I present stories from my own publishing career and use them to illustrate writing techniques and discuss ways writers can improve their own work. It’s a how-to book, but it’s also a career-retrospective short story collection, and a memoir as well.


You can order Let Me Tell You a Story directly from Raw Dog Screaming Press here:


But if you’d prefer to order from Amazon or B&N . . .


Amazon Paperback:


Amazon Hardback:




Barnes and Noble Paperback:


Barnes and Noble Hardback:


Horror Hero’s Journey


I’ll be teaching a class for Horror University, The Horror Hero’s Journey, on March 25, 2024, 8pm. You and find more info at the link below:




StokerCon 2024. May 30th to June 2nd. San Diego, California.


IGW Genre Con. August 17th and August 18th. Huntington, West Virginia.