The Depressing, Suicidal Days of Winter—Really?

The days grow dim and nights stretch long. Ads inundate the airwaves with buy, buy, buy, home-for-the-holidays, and expectations of family gatherings. No one escapes the bombardment of images and the 483,231 versions of “I’ll be Home for Christmas.”

No one.

With the constant barrage of images and expectations of gluttony and greed, the various news media chime in with story upon story detailing the dire effects of the season, how depression and suicide rates increase around the holidays. The assumption makes sense, after all. War (someone’s always fighting, especially in the Middle East), the pressure to spend more than a person can afford, pending family gatherings wrought with tension and conflict, dimwitted pundits condemning this or that group’s seasonal celebrations or word choice for good wishes—yes, winter is definitely ripe for depression, and depression for some readily leads to suicide.

As the season of insanity (Need proof? Go shopping on Black Friday.), of hopelessness and desperation, winter becomes the perfect setting for dark fantasy and horror stories. Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick certainly made good use of the season in the novel and movie versions of The Shining. Scores of other authors have also made winter the optimal setting for spotlighting the soul’s darkest corners. But do our assumptions about the season’s dark side pan out under scrutiny?

The holiday season in my youth was an opportune time for my parents to act out. They weren’t fond of each other, and holiday visits to each set of relatives provided them with excellent opportunities to explode into battles in their ongoing war.

Hallelujah, Christmas!

Then came the year my mother took me grocery shopping late Christmas Eve afternoon. When we arrived home, my father was waiting on the front steps with the story of how, while taking a bath, he’d heard someone sneak into the house. Through the crack in the doorway to the living room, he said he’d seen Santa quickly unload a few toys from his bag and flee. Later that night, I overheard my parents talking low in the living room about the true delivery of those toys and more serious matters. Their voices were strangely calm as they agreed on terms. On Christmas day, they separated. It lasted for a couple of weeks before they decided to give things another try. A few Christmases later, they separated for good.

Melancholy tinged winter holidays followed for a few years, and I bought into the myth that the season fostered depression and suicide. Perhaps you have, too. But statistics bust the myth to pieces. In fact, the U.S. suicide rate decreases during the holiday season, only to rise in spring as weather brightens and days lengthen. Psychologists speculate the winter decrease may result from increased interaction with family and friends who provide support that’s lacking the rest of the year. When moods bump up in spring and everyone returns to the daily greed and grump, folks subject to depression may feel worse because they don’t experience the same “normal” boost others enjoy.

That’s all fine and good, but where do the facts leave dark fantasy and horror writers? Would Jack Nicholson’s body in The Shining’s maze be as effective if the story were set in spring or summer?

Take away those winter myths in which we indulge ourselves, and what’s left?

Cold, dark days.

And that’s just depressing.

The Business

Samuel Montgomery-Blinn is the publisher/editor of the extraordinary magazine Bull Spec. Recently, I contributed to the magazine’s web-column, The Hardest Part, where authors contribute articles on the “hardest part” in bringing their latest books to publication. Contributing to the column was a pleasure and honor in several ways because the book, Rise Up, on which the column centers, takes its name from the story “Rise Up,” the cover feature of Bull Spec’s debut issue. It is always a delight to work with Sam and Bull Spec. Please visit Bull Spec’s column site for this article and more by other authors on “the hardest part.”

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I am not a businessman. Nor am I a public relations expert. And I do not want to be.

So it’s no surprise after nearly three decades as a professional writer–newspaper staffer, magazine editor, and freelancer—the business of writing—manuscript marketing and book promotion—remains for me the hardest part of the process. That doesn’t mean everything else comes easily. Creative writing is work, no matter how many Joe Blows brag “I’ve got a really great idea for a novel I’m going to write as soon as I get a little extra time.” The talent for writing creatively, contrary to hot air declarations, is not developed overnight. In fact, most career writers rarely feel they’ve developed the craft fully, no matter how long they’ve been at it. But they understand and accept the devotion, self-motivation, and sacrifice of time with loved ones required in choosing writing as a career, forsaking pursuits that may offer more immediate rewards.

The ability to hook publisher or agent interest in a manuscript is a mystery to me, a tall hurdle to clear, and I’m astonished with each success. After all, an author must compete with an ever-increasing number of seasoned and novice writers by summarizing a complicated plot and months, perhaps years, of work into a single paragraph that delivers everything a publisher or agent requires to say yes, even though the book/story/article is probably no better or worse than the majority of its competitors, only different. Talk about odds… Once that first sale is made, subsequent sales may become easier—Rise Up, my latest book from Mundania Press (I’m quite proud the title story appears in the debut issue of Bull Spec) may have had an easier time due to an established relationship with the publisher and the fact that most of the collection’s stories have been previously published in magazines—but the business is rarely, if ever, a cakewalk.

The second hurdle comes after publication when promotional responsibilities–including those traditionally assumed by publishers—fall increasingly upon writers. Writers are now charged with securing most reviews, promoting through blog events, arranging signings and promotional events for which the writer supplies the books to sell (all once upon a time the publisher’s responsibility), purchasing and placing advertising, and more. For those who haven’t had the good fortune of hitting the bestseller lists—meaning most writers—promotional funds are usually a tad limited, crippling the ability to promote effectively. So writers must go after less costly opportunities, from the obvious free copies to reviewers in the hope of scoring a published review, to contributing to various blog events, to exposing the book to potential readers through channels such as my bimonthly newsletter, developed to promote my work and the work of other musicians and writers, regularly offering special perks such as free eBooks and music. Further, a writer must maintain a presence on social networks such as Facebook.com (crap) and Goodreads.com (excellent), operate an active, frequently updated website, participate in conferences, conduct workshops, and engage the press at every opportunity. For someone who shuns the personal spotlight, these activities are quite daunting, consuming precious time that could be devoted to producing new work.

Beyond the hurdles of manuscript marketing and book promotion lies the reward of engaging readers by providing what I hope is a story that’s entertaining and thought provocative. To personalize Rise Up, I include a short introduction to each story, detailing story inspiration or specific challenges encountered from the original publisher. Connecting with readers is something I relish, second only to the creative process.

As for the business of writing, I crave its elimination, an impossible eventuality. Of course, I could do an Emily Dickinson, shoving my work into a drawer to languish until I’m dead and gone, but that’s simply not an option. So what’s left? For me, it’s to continue the figurative pounding on publishers’ doors, enticing reviewers, participating in an endless array of promotional activities—in other words, doing whatever it takes to get my work into the hands of readers. And though the business is the hardest part, I refuse to cave in desperation and defeat. I love the act of writing and the engagement of readers too much to give up.