In The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain (Houghton Mifflin, January), neurologist Alice W. Flaherty explores the hows and whys of writing, revealing the science behind hypergraphia. Why is it that some writers struggle for months to come up with the perfect sentence or phrase, while others, hunched over a notepad or keyboard deep into the night, seem unable to stop writing?
The initial research began in 1994:
My interest in this is very personal, since my writing is definitely related to the effects of a brain trauma and resulting seizures.
Part of a conversion with Dr. Flaherty:
Q) Writer's block is something we hear about a lot, but I wasn't familiar with hypergraphia until reading your book. What is it, and why did you choose to write about it?
A) Well, hypergraphia is essentially the opposite of writer's block. It's driven, compulsive writing — keeping huge journals, writing letters to the editor at the drop of a hat, that sort of thing. Some people will write on toilet paper if nothing else is available. One of the things that makes hypergraphia interesting is that known brain conditions can trigger it, and they all seem to heavily involve the temporal lobes, parts of the brain that are right behind the ears. The other interesting point is that hypergraphia seems to reflect a component of literary creativity, namely creative drive. And there is fairly solid evidence that drive, and emotional involvement in your work, is even more important than talent in creating something new.
Q) What are the most compelling examples of hypergraphia and of writer's block you've come across?
A) One person who fascinates me is van Gogh, who was hypergraphic and who painted with a fury that amazed others and even himself. He was one of the most prolific artists ever, and at the same time he wrote two to three long letters a day to his brother Theo. Schumann is another example — he wrote feverishly while he was composing feverishly. The incredible drive of those two artists to communicate something, regardless of the medium, is evidence that the temporal lobe is involved not only in the drive to write but in the drive behind other art forms as well.
As for examples of writer's block, the strange thing is how paradoxically eloquent many writers are in describing their block. Because a block is often very genre-specific, as anyone knows who has felt blocked on a big paper and has procrastinated by writing long e-mails. Coleridge is a perfect example of that — he used to churn out metaphysical treatises when what he really wanted to do was write poetry. The recent movie Adaptation demonstrates a trick many writers use in that situation, which is to escape your block by writing about it. Both Coleridge and Wordsworth did that.