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The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block and the Creative Brain

Alice W. Flaherty

New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.


I write because when I don’t, it is suffocating.  I write because something much larger than myself comes into me that suffuses the page, the world, with meaning.  Although I constantly fear that what I am writing teeters at the edge of being false, this force that drives me cannot be anything but real…. (266)

So ends Alice Flaherty’s fascinating look at the twin disorders of writing: writer’s block and its opposite, hypergraphia. 

Flaherty’s book was quoted in Lee Gutkind’s creative nonfiction how-to book, Keep It Real, so I hunted her down to read more of her delicious brain talk for myself.  She examines two areas of the brain often neglected in discussions of writing: the temporal lobes and the limbic system, the seat of emotion and drive and feeling inspired.  Damage to the temporal lobe can sometimes result in hypergraphia, the unstoppable urge to write, and manic depression shares many mood and personality characteristics with temporal lobe epilepsy, with hypergraphia being one of the symptoms in the manic phase.

Dostoevsky had temporal lobe epilepsy.  So did Lewis Carroll.  Ditto Gustav Flaubert.

*I* have temporal lobe epilepsy.  It cost me my driver’s licence, and I’m bitter about its limits on my freedom.  I also suspect it is the reason for my awful memory.  Bitter again.  I was hoping to discover something about it in this book, a balm for bitterness in more knowledge, but since my seizures only result in episodes of profound deja vu, which she mentions only briefly, and since I have not written an Alice in Wonderland or a timeless classic of a novel, I found out little about myself in Flaherty’s book. 

Luckily I found a lot of other things.  In the end, the science is not what enthralled me.  It was Flaherty’s own experience with hypergraphia that most moved me.

In part, this book emerged out of Flaherty’s own experience of mental illness.  She was hospitalized for a psychotic breakdown after giving birth to twins who did not survive, and one of her symptoms was hypergraphia.  Her husband found her on the floor of her office surrounded by post-it notes on which she was maniacally scribbling in miniature writing.  She did not feel at all in need of help.  She was not troubled by her unstoppable urge to write, but because it was unstoppable, she accepted his judgement.

In some ways, this book feels like work on the symptom.  Often, this read as a book in search of a thesis, and its focus was pulled in too many different directions: science, psychology, psychiatry, literary history, literary criticism, memoir.  The chapters are clearly organized, and she examines writer’s block both as a mental state (psychological) and then as a brain state (physiological), but the book does not have a clear drive.  In fact, the hypothesis she is testing, proves wrong:

I began this book with the suspicion that writer’s block might be the opposite of hypergraphia from a neurological point of view as well as from the viewpoint of productivity and pleasure.  Hypergraphia—and metaphor, and inspiration—are associated with altered activity in the temporal lobes.  Might writer’s block be the opposite temporal process?

The more research I did, however, the more likely it appeared that writer’s block is a frontal lobe process rather than a temporal lobe process.  (Granted, the two lobes influence each other strongly.)  Block shares the strangled muteness of Broca’s aphasia, the inflexibility of perseveration, and the task specificity and stress dependence of writer’s cramp—all frontal lobe neurological disorders.  And the two psychiatric disorders most closely tied to writer’s block are depression and anxiety, both with evident neurological underpinnings and both showing decreases in brain activity that are especially severe in the frontal lobes. (147)

She has this wonderfully dry wit that pops up unexpectedly in the middle of a discussion of scientific facts.  This is her quip about the debates about the use of drugs or behavioural therapy in treating mental illness:

People fear drugs, rightly, because they fear the very real side effects.  But behavioral techniques have significant side effects, too, and not effects we can necessarily predict.  A student who goes to college to get a liberal arts education may inadvertently pick up values that turn her into a stockbroker. (110)

That wit kept me engaged.

She also captures beautifully the ambivalence of healing after a mental illness:  “While my hypergraphia felt like a disease, it also felt like one of the best things that has ever happened to me.  It still does.” (11)  It is her autobiographical excursions that stay with me, and I am grateful for her teasing out, not the science of the brain as it relates to writing, but her own mixed feelings about her own work:

during my postpartum break I discovered a mystery: I loved my sorrow.  It was as if I had been preparing all my life for that event, that I had entered into my birthright.  When I was in graduate school, my husband and I lived in an apartment over a ruined garden that had a grapevine as thick as a child’s body, coiling up the fire escape to my window.  At night I could lie in bed and reach out into the dark and pluck grapes to eat.  My grief was like that, as if it had given me access to a shadowy world that lies so close to this one that when I concentrated I could push my arm into it and pluck dream fruit.  It is a world where beauty cannot be separated from pain, and should not be, as when a scalpel is needed to expose the exquisite organs of the belly.  A pen can be a scalpel too. (205)

This book counts towards my 3.14, easy as pi, science book reading challenge.

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