Here’s a secret writers don’t usually talk about: After publication comes depression. While working on my memoir, Estranged, I couldn’t wait to be done. I imagined holding my hardcover and feeling blissfully accomplished. Publication would, I assumed, not only bring literary validation, but also finally put my difficult family story behind me. It would liberate me. I’d wake up energized. I’d exercise every morning, Marie Kondo my house, and chaperone my son’s elementary school field trips. Then I’d write a (funny, smart, charming) novel. I’d feel content.
So I was perplexed when, shortly before my book was published, a writer friend warned that I might soon become depressed. She spoke in the same way that a mother might caution a pregnant friend about the risks of the postpartum period. The release of the book would be euphoric, she said. But there was a chance that, in the months that followed, I wouldn’t want to get out of bed. That I’d experience a debilitating writer’s block.
It was hard to imagine that she could be right when my lifelong literary dreams were about to come true. On a July evening a few weeks later, as I discussed my book in front of a packed audience of readers, writers, and my closest friends and childhood classmates at my favorite Brooklyn bookstore, while my husband and our young son beamed, I couldn’t have felt happier. I’d written the book I was born to write. That summer my phone buzzed with press mentions and heartfelt notes from readers.
But back home in Maine, after the rush of congratulatory e-mails dwindled and my modest book tour ended, the dark chill of fall descended and a depression set in. For years, I’d been laser-focused on writing during the hours my son was in school. Now I drifted around the house in my gray sweatpants, refreshing Twitter and Instagram, and reading Knausgaard and Cusk. I felt despondent. Rudderless. Tired. Inexplicably, I felt like a failure. Rather than feeling gratitude for what had happened, I obsessed over what hadn’t. My book hadn’t become a bestseller, received a rave (or any) review in the New York Times, or landed me my ever-since-girlhood fantasy interview with Terry Gross. I judged myself for the brass rings I hadn’t grabbed. As much as my memoir mattered to me, to the rest of the world it was just another book.
Post-publication malaise isn’t typically something writers talk about. It’s unseemly to complain when so many manuscripts go unpublished. As Emily Gould, the author of the forthcoming novel Perfect Tunes (Avid Reader Press, 2020) and co-owner of the feminist publishing imprint Emily Books, tells me, “People think you should be unmitigatedly happy that your book is being published. Like you won the lottery. So you’re being churlish if you have any response other than joy.” Gould’s first book, And the Heart Says Whatever, came out in 2010 from Free Press. When reviewers critiqued her, or made assumptions about her, rather than her work—a collection of essays about life as a young woman in New York—she felt unfairly dissected. The disappointment she felt was “really hard to relate to from the outside,” she says. For Gould, post-book depression presented itself as anger. She had a difficult summer after the book’s publication, feeling an “incandescent rage, an upset tinged with mania.” She went for long walks and tried to ignore the haters.
Memoirists sometimes write about devastating experiences with the hope—subconscious or otherwise—that publishing their side of the story will bring resolution, or at least a sense of control over what they’ve endured. My memoir was about child abuse and family dysfunction; publishing it couldn’t give me a new family, or a do-over on my childhood. Any closure I might have hoped for was fleeting.
In her beautiful and heartbreaking memoir, The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguin, 2014), Emily Rapp Black wrote about what is perhaps the most difficult experience a person can go through: losing a child, her son, Ronan. The book collected glowing reviews and went on to become a bestseller. But success didn’t inoculate her from a post-publication letdown. “None of my issues went away,” she tells me. “The status, the reviews, the interviews are all external accolades. You can never get enough.”
Then there’s this: Writers want to be part of the cultural conversation. When we’re not, it’s easy to feel inadequate. Or irrelevant. As Gould says, “The work is meant to be read. I’m not Hilma af Klint over here.” (The Swedish painter Klint ordered that her art be kept secret until twenty years after she was dead.) If a book doesn’t capture the attention of the public, it can feel as though you’ve written into the void. Writers I talked to say the period right before a book comes out is especially challenging. The book publicist becomes your new best friend, her e-mails addictive. The fiction writer Charles Yu, author of four books including the forthcoming Interior Chinatown Pantheon, 2020), describes his publicist as “the bringer of all good things.” If you’re lucky—and working with a major publisher—each day brings a steady stream of theoretically exciting news. It’s hard to keep calm and manage expectations when hearing your book is being pitched to morning television, NPR, and newspapers. But unless you’re Michelle Obama or Howard Stern, much of it won’t materialize. Then one day the publicist stops e-mailing.
Practical matters compound the pressure and disappointment writers often experience. Many writers harbor a fantasy that once their books come out, their money troubles will be over. That almost never happens. Even for the few who, thanks to day jobs and spouses or savings, are not counting on book money, sales are still an obvious way to judge the success of your book—and to be hard on yourself. For all but the biggest titles, advances tend to be modest and royalty checks rare. A stolen look at my Amazon ranking could ruin my day.
Can authors avoid the downward post-book spiral? Some depression may be inevitable. There’s an inevitable loss that comes with sending a book into the world. The work that has consumed you for years is done. Your book is no longer solely yours. Now it will be not only read, but judged. Yu considers this as he prepares for his new novel’s release. “Even though this is exactly what I had worked for and dreamed of,” he tells me in an e-mail following our phone conversation, “finishing it means losing something. I’ve lost the potential of what the book could be (the imagined ideal has congealed in an actual form, far from the ideal). And I’ve also lost that period of time with it—those years spent with it alone.”
Akhil Sharma, author most recently of the story collection A Life of Adventure and Delight (W. W. Norton, 2017), understands it differently. “Even when we [writers] get the things that we want,” he says, “they’re not going to be sufficient because we’re still left with ourselves.” Sharma steels himself around publication time by finding “as much pleasure as possible.” His advice? Get out of bed. Have a coffee. Meet a friend. Go for a slice of pizza. Don’t read your reviews or press, if you can help it. After months of struggling, a morning work-out routine gave me the endorphin push I needed to start brainstorming a new project. Talking to fellow writers about their publication stories helped enormously too. Others, myself included, find support and space to speak freely about the lows of the process in therapy.
Here’s what I wish I’d known, and what my friend was trying to tell me: Publishing a book is a singular, special, and exhilarating experience that should be savored. But a book, no matter how best-selling or how acclaimed, no matter how much it moves readers, is not going to bring complete fulfillment, validation, or inner peace. So don’t be so hard on yourself, or put quite so much pressure on publication. A book is not “the sum total of your worth in the world,” says Emily Rapp Black. “You did it. Great for you.” Once it’s on shelves, try to move on. “Just let it go.”
Los Angeles-based psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb agrees. Gottlieb works with writers in her practice and has published nonfiction that braids journalism, and, more recently, her clinical work, with the story of her private life. She manages to keep herself (mostly) positive by concentrating on how lucky, and grateful, she is to write in the first place. Her latest, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist and Our Lives Revealed (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019), debuted at number five on the New York Times bestseller list. She embraces her time on book tours and in the media spotlight, but what she really looks forward to is being back home with her teenage son. “When you have your month in the sun, enjoy it,” Gottlieb told me. “But don’t let it go to your head.”
It’s been two years since my memoir came out. Looking back on the several years I spent on it, what I miss most is the writing process itself: The concentrated hours carefully crafting sentences and living inside my memories and imagination. The moments when writing felt effortless and unstoppable, like standing in the ocean with the current tugging at your hips. That precious, delicate feeling is what eventually brought me back to my desk. That, and having an idea I couldn’t ignore. The only real cure for post book depression? Start writing something new.
Jessica Berger Gross is the author of Estranged: Leaving Family and Finding Home (Scribner, 2017). Her essays have appeared in the Cut, Longreads, and the New York Times Magazine.