News your connection to The Boston Globe

Doctor conducts thorough examination of the writing process

Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain
By Alice W. Flaherty, Houghton Mifflin, 320 pp., $24

Usually, books about creative writing are written by creative writers, with the authors explaining everything in the same emotionally based way that they do all their writing. What makes "Midnight Disease" different is that a doctor wrote it, from the viewpoint of a scientist, with what she calls "the bloodlessness of scientific writing."

Alice Flaherty is a Massachusetts General Hospital neurologist who began writing, she says, almost against her will, after an illness. It led her to explore why writers become writers, what drives creativity, and the problems of not being able to write when one wants to. She challenges the simplistic notion that creativity is a function of the right side of the brain, and poses the idea that since emotion and drives are controlled primarily by the limbic system, which sits under the cerebral cortex, the cortical area that is the most closely connected to the limbic system is probably the temporal lobe. There are actually studies, she points out, in which people who performed creatively on a creativity test had increased frontal lobe activity.

What this means to the layman is that a variety of brain functions, and not just emotions, have an important relationship to the amount a writer can produce at a certain time, and even to the amount of creativity shown in finished work. Professional creative writers, Flaherty writes, have a significant love of "the surface level of language: the sound of it; the taste of it on the tongue," and to give readers a taste of that love of language, she introduces some medically based words for writing situations that may be new to the creative writer.

"Hypergraphia" is one. It means "the overwhelming desire to write." It's driven, compulsive writing, embodied by keeping huge journals, feeling nervous when one is not writing, a desire so manic in her own case, she says, that "the sight of a computer keyboard or a blank page gave me the same rush that drug addicts get from seeing their freebasing paraphernalia."

People who have temporal lobe epilepsy, such as the writers Flaubert and Dostoevsky, as well as the huge proportion of bipolar patients who happen to be writers, experience florid hypergraphia when manic, contends Flaherty. In these illnesses, as well as in writers who are schizophrenic, changes in the temporal lobes can be seen when they are tested. Another inducement for hypergraphia is drugs. For instance, Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" was written during a six-day cocaine high during which he generated 60,000 words.

The reason for writing this book, Flaherty admits, is a personal one. She gave birth to twin boys who died soon after the birth, and her grief was so profound that she was hospitalized for depression and labeled psychotic. She also began to experience hypergraphia, with the urge to write so great that she says at times she felt the same way the writer Milton did when he described feeling "like a cow that needs to be milked." She says that both hypergraphia and writer's block arise from complicated abnormalities of the basic biological drive to communicate.

Depression afflicts writers at a rate eight to 10 times higher than the general population, Flaherty writes. Many of the classic symptoms of depression are also symptoms of writer's block. Studies using functional brain imaging techniques have begun to show patterns of cortical activity during depression. Frontal lobe activity, in particular, decreases during depression by the same amount that the frontal lobe activity increases during creative thought. The good news, Flaherty advises, is that writer's block can be treated both pharmacologically, with medication, and behaviorally, in the form of exercise and psychotherapy. These are the same treatments that can help anxiety and depression. And if the drive to create can be stimulated medically, all the better, Flaherty contends, because she has found drive is surprisingly more important than talent in producing creative work.

The book is packed with examples of well-known writers through the ages who, though they might not have known the medical term, were epileptic, bipolar, depressed, or ill in a way that probably helped their writing, if not their lives. This is similar to the link between creativity and mental illness that Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison makes in her books. What most writers call stumbling blocks or trouble, Flaherty calls alexithymia. This is the inability to read one's own emotions, or the loss of words for one's feelings. Writers also experience graphomania, the desire to be published, which arises from emotional isolation and ennui. Flaherty cites the novelist Milan Kundera, who explained why he experienced graphomania: "The reason we write books is that our kids don't give a damn. We turn to an anonymous world because our wife stops up her ears when we talk to her."

Throughout the book, Flaherty demonstrates the similarities between the creative mind and the mind of one who is mentally ill. "Psychotics," she notes, have "the belief that ideas are being put into their minds or dictated to them by another being. In psychotics, psychiatrists call this thought insertion or auditory hallucination. Artists call it the muse."

Interestingly, although writers may feel protective of their muse, Flaherty notes that recent experimental studies are suggesting that in the future, medical treatment may help with problems of creativity. "There has been some evidence," she says, "that transcortical magnetic stimulation using a wand over the temporal lobe can produce in some people the sensation of being visited by the muse."

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives