Flaherty, Alice W. The Midnight Disease
Houghton Mifflin, 2004
Hardcover, 307 pages
Trained as a scientist, neurologist Alice W. Flaherty always enjoyed writing. But after the birth and death of premature twin boys, she had a mental breakdown that made her write nearly constantly, a condition known as hypergraphia. She took medication and was hospitalized for her mental state; the medication curbed her compulsion to write but also took away most of her emotion and passion about life. Her purpose in this book, subtitled The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, is to examine hypergraphia, writer’s block, and creativity as brain states. In looking for scientific explanations of these states she discusses the functions of different areas of the brain and the role each area plays in creativity or blocked creativity.
Most writers have experienced writer’s block at some time and know that almost everything written about overcoming writer’s block consists of exhortations and exercises to help squelch their inner critic. Yet experienced writers who have been successful in their writing before often know that an inner critic is not what’s keeping them from producing. These writers may find some new insight from Flaherty’s discussion of block as a state associated with both anxiety and depression:
Writer’s block that is linked to anxiety is often also tied to procrastination–the process that leads you to suddenly clean out your basement the week before a writing deadline. Procrastination of a different sort can accompany depression. For at the most fundamental (or simplistic) level, there are perhaps only two types of writer’s block, high energy and low energy. Unlike low-energy block, high-energy block may worsen as your deadline approaches; it makes you sweat, makes you sit down only to jump up again. [. . .] In low-energy block, the desire that makes you sit down to write is a dull sense of guilt. Instead of ideas, you have only sterile ruminations on how things used to be when you could write, when the world had color.(p. 135)
Although scientists are still discovering how the brain works, Flaherty does have some suggestions for summoning the muse and avoiding writer’s block. “Three ingrained cycles are important for both mood and creativity: sleep, the seasons, and hormonal cycles” (p. 125). Many people, she says, sleep later than usual on weekends, then wake up on Monday with something like jet lag. “The treatment, studies have shown, is to keep the time one rises as constant as possible. The time one goes to sleep is less important” (p. 126). About the relationship between fatigue and writer’s block she says:
A short (less than fifteen-minute) nap during such a lag may be much more effective than coffee. The length of your nap, however, is important. Naps longer than fifteen minutes usually allow you to transition into dream sleep (rapid eye movement or REM-stage sleep), and you will wake up much groggier than if you had remained in nondream sleep. [. . .] sleep deprivation itself seems to decrease creativity, rather than increasing it.(p. 129)
It’s hard not to appreciate advice from a writer who declares, “I don’t write to forget what happened; I write to remember. There are worse things in life than painful desire; one of them is to have no desire” (p. 205).
© 2004 by Mary Daniels Brown