Can Wintertime SAD Enhance Creativity?

In Anna Lamott’s phenomenal book about writing and life, Bird by Bird, she warns her students not to start writing their manuscript on a Monday in December.

… December is traditionally a bad month for writing. It is a month of Mondays. Mondays are not good writing days… So I would simply recommend to the people in my workshop that they never start a large writing project on any Monday in December. Why set yourself up for failure? (Lamott, xxviii).

As my fingers and toes quake on this frosty winter afternoon, I can’t help but agree.

Every day in December (and I’d argue this for January as well) is something like a Monday — cold, endless, and a little creepy. Mondays are a day we generally wish to avoid, whether this information has been sold to us or not. After a weekend of freedom, we are forced to return back to the grind, thus pressing reset on whatever motivation we hopefully experienced in the preceding work week. Therefore, Mondays in December are by far the worst of the worst. Nothing good can come, especially not  great work of creativity. As pessimistic as this seems, trust me, I’d be happy to be the person to disprove this theory.

When reading through this passage, I wondered whether Anna Lamott was referring, in some capacity or another, to SAD — seasonal affective disorder, and its ability to cripple the most enduring human being.

Since the temperature dropped, the air is full of frost and small talk about the cold weather. Human beings are great at speaking about the weather. Who knows? Maybe if we chat enough about the temperature it’ll be tempted to rise a few degrees. But it’s hard to ignore that the weather plays a large role in one’s ability to achieve.

I’ve heard many question the realness of SAD. Does it exist because we expect it to? The suggestion of “the winter blues” is a common one. Many stresses come into play around the holiday season and cases of icy sadness may be a result of confirmation bias. Regardless of suspicion, SAD is mentioned in the DSM-5 as a sub-disorder under depressive disorders.

Most people don’t know that SAD, for most people, actually begins in the fall and from there, manifests into the winter months. Naturally, symptoms start out mild and worsen as the season goes on. Symptoms include the following:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having low energy
  • Having problems with sleeping
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty

It’s hard to fathom that a seasonal change could cause such strong emotions. While we all suffer from the short days and frigid weather, there are those who can’t be held responsible for their lack of productivity in the winter.

While there are ways to treat SAD, there are also ways to reconcile self-diagnosed cases, the ones many of us claim to suffer from — the ones that make you feel like you’ll never be happy again until the snow melts and the trees turn green again.

But do I need to let winter bog down my creativity?

In Psychology Today’s article about “winter mindfulness,” winter is labeled as “a time of great discovery.” The article quotes Henry David Thoreau and concludes that winter is a “season of rest, reflection, and conservation of your physical and psychic energies, of finding safety and creativity in the bare energy of life–nature’s and your own.”

We naturally view hibernation as a negative thing — or at least I do. Hibernating means wasting time, and implies lack of productivity and creation. It means rest and holding still — which anxious and busy people aren’t great at.

But living on the East Coast means embracing a four-season-cycle — and a natural one at that. It means living in uncertainty and is the reason the weather makes for such great small talk — because it’s always changing. With that said, we still have the option to personify and weigh each season. Just as spring is intuitive of light and rebirth, winter is equated with rest, death, and darkness.

Winter allows the mind to rest and become restored. It may also be seen as a womb, a place of strange smells and nourishment; a temporary holding place. In the winter months we wait for greatness, we wait until things warm up, but do we really need to pause our lives and our creative hands?

According to Psychology Today, “‘staying at the ‘grinding wheel’ for too long, without restoration, can have a wide range of harmful effects on your health.”

Does this mean that Anna Lamott had it right? Maybe the body and mind need time to rest. Whether diagnosed with SAD or not, we all suffer from frozen bones and lack of motivation.

Maybe I’m hanging out with the wrong people, but I’ve never met anyone who undergoes serious bouts of creativity in the winter time. The weather plays a large role on the human psyche, and that’s okay. I’ve spent most of the winter trying to battle the cold, angry at my lack of ability to go outside without layers of clothing and heavy boots that hinder my speed. Instead of accepting my role as a reader, an audience member, and a thinker, I’ve forced myself out into the cold, with the wrong shoes on, at all hours of the night.

But why should I fight the seasons of life? The seasons of love? The voice in my head that says sleep in, enjoy, read a good book! Stop fighting yourself so much. It’s not time to start your manuscript yet. Alternatively, it’s time to look within and start planning for the spring.

“Winter is a great time to become more self-aware, get in touch with your life’s dream and creatively assemble all you have cultivated to help get you there. This is your cycle to take a slower look at what you have ‘grown’ and gathered throughout the year. And it is your time to begin to creatively assemble this wisdom and potential into a scaffold to help you launch the path to your goals” (Psychology Today).

Maybe the winter really is a time to listen to the mind, to quiet down, and snuggle up, and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe the way to beat SAD is to appreciate this special and natural time. It’s supposed to be cold, we’re supposed to keep going, and we’re going to be okay.

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