News your connection to The Boston Globe

Writer's block sign of deeper problems

The way Ernest Hemingway had a drinking problem and Fyodor Dostoevsky had a gambling problem, Dr. Alice Flaherty, a Harvard neurologist, had a writing problem. During a severe bout of postpartum depression three years ago, she wrote so compulsively that the sight of a blank computer screen gave her a narcotic rush. Worried about damaging her family, Flaherty started taking a psychiatric drug to calm her mood swings -- and found that, although ideas still churned in her brain, she was no longer able to put them on paper. It was an excruciating case of writer's block. Thus begins her exploration of "hypergraphia" -- a term used by doctors to describe the overwhelming desire to write -- and its agonizing opposite.


In her new book, "The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block and the Creative Brain," Flaherty lays out all that neurology has discovered about the artist's brain, from the strange profusion of literary giants with temporal lobe epilepsy to the composer Dmitry Shostakovich's certainty that musical notes radiated from a piece of shrapnel lodged in his brain.

The drive to create, Flaherty concludes, is not the same thing as literary talent -- and doctors sometimes ignore it when they are prescribing medications. For her part, Flaherty chose to protect her drive, abnormal though it may be. As she finished the last page of her manuscript, she noted that it was 5:30 a.m., and she had been writing for so long that her legs had become numb.

Why has psychiatry shied away from creativity as a problem?

To do them credit, it's not that neurologists have done any better. It's just a really hard problem. It's like asking why have people shied away from dealing with poverty. Scientists want things with regularity to them -- a predictable outcome -- so kind of by definition creativity is outside the realm of science. . . .. But being deprived of creativity is actually very painful for a lot of people. It's a horrible feeling. They're like border collies that can't chase sheep. They're so full of this energy that can't go anywhere.

In your book, you tease out the ethereal quality of artistic inspiration from the quality of drive, or motivation to write, which you pose as a neurological trait. How did you come to separate those two things?

A lot of it has to do with being a neuroscientist. I think of everything as a mechanism. The thing I have been working on for the last 15 years is the basal ganglia. When I first started working on them, most people thought they were purely motor -- they controlled when your arm moved, and motor motivation in terms of getting your feet started when you walk up the stairs. It's now very clear that it extends to cognitive issues as well, and to emotional ones, and they're all very tangled up in this part of the brain. I was seeing this in my patients with Parkinson's. For example, two weeks ago a patient came in who was a [newspaper] columnist and her first symptom had been writer's block -- then depression, and then Parkinson's. It wasn't a coincidence. It was the same disease affecting different parts of the basal ganglia. We were talking about her writer's block and she began to cry, because no one had taken it seriously before.

What are the most important things you learned from your illness?

I think the thing I learned the most is that sometimes it's better to be "ill" than to be healthy. Especially for a doctor, that was something transgressive. There's always a conflict: If it's good, it's not an illness. At one point, this book was called "Writing Is A Disease." Another thing I learned from my illness was the experience -- the direct, physical experience -- of having ideas pour in that fast, and to feel as if they were coming from somewhere else. That's an experience that's worth everything. It's worth all the misery.

Tell me what it felt like.

Oh, my God. I mean, I remember one time, it was early in the morning. I had to pick up some bread. As I was driving, everything looked different. Everything had this extra significance. You know when you're in love with someone, if you see them in a big crowd, they have a black line around them -- they stand out. [That morning,] everything caught my attention -- the arches of phone lines, the arches of windows, the tops of buildings, and especially trees. Every time there was a [traffic] light, I was writing on my arm. I was watching how the things in the near distance were moving differently from things in the far distance. What struck me was that it was incredibly beautiful.

Where do you find people with hypergraphia?

The easy way? Go to McLean [Hospital], sit in on one of the writers groups for patients. Or just wander around. People will start handing you their novels. It's like a 700-page novel about Vita Sackville-West by a 17-year-old boy.

But it's more common at McLean than at Harvard?

It's not uncommon for TAs to get these way overly long papers from people.

I have friends who can't stop writing papers. And they're the same people who get blocked.

And the same people who write long letters. Like my patient who wrote a 10-page letter to her parents -- while they were in the room.

You love these people, don't you?

I do. It's hard to keep in mind that there are other problems for people in the world, like being able to walk. But I'm like, "Oh, you write? Show me!"

"The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain" will be published by Houghton Mifflin on Jan. 6.

Globe Archives Sale
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months