Writing and Your Brain
Wow. This is fascinating!
This interview with a neurologist explores the connection between processes in the brain and impulses to write. In 1998 Dr. Alice Flaherty lost two premature twin boys at birth. Ten days later she developed hypergraphia-the compulsive urge to write. She scribbled random thoughts and notes everywhere and on everything and found herself unable to stop.
Dr. Flaherty now has gained more control over her compulsions, though she still goes through periods of writing mania. In this Harvard Medicine interview, she mentions several authors who can be characterized as hypergraphic (though many of them are less than pleased to be labeled with the term), among them Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates. The interview also explores the relationship between mood disorders-depression, bipolar, and schizophrenia- and writing. According to Flaherty:
“The rate of mental illness is about 70 percent for musical performers, poets, prose writers, painters, and composers, but only 25 percent for doctors, scientists, politicians, and businesspeople.”
Why is mental suffering so strongly correlated with creativity? Is that all creativity boils down to? An imbalance in your temporal lobes? Is there scientific backing to the “tortured artist”? As artists, how do we make our work our own, and not the byproduct of firing neurons?
All my life I’ve been involved in the arts-theatre, music, writing. And it’s true that there was more drama in the drama club than a lot of other cliques in high school. Many of my friends friends suffered from anxiety and depression. There were at least two who I, personally, believed to have narcissistic personality disorder. Then there was me. I had my own issues that I kept pretty quiet-obsessive thoughts, anxiety, depression. In dark periods I either never wrote a word or filled 20 pages with my fears. During one particular panic attack I sat on the edge of a hotel bathtub and filled an entire notepad with some less than stellar story about a girl who was teased about her weight. In the moment, quality was not the concern. My goal was to keep all my energy focused on the page, to make that pen keep moving. I suppose that therefore my work can occasionally be tied to “hypergraphia.” Perhaps every writer has experienced this sensation to some degree. It is only when it becomes isolating and never-ending that it transforms into a disease, as in the case of Dr. Flaherty.
As Dr. Flaherty says, you don’t have to be sick to be creative. However, it is interesting and important to note that many who are wired a specific way drift towards the arts. In my own experience, the arts have done a lot for me-writing has helped me make sense of my feelings and ground them in something a little less abstract than my mind. Both theatre and writing make me feel part of a community, and therefore less alone.
So if you happen to write and suffer from bouts of depression, don’t panic that you’re crazy (a fear I struggled with for a long time and occasionally still haunts me) and that your talent is nothing but a symptom. As long as that creative brain of yours doesn’t get out of control and become a detriment to your life and work, consider it a blessing. The way you are helps you to see things other people can’t. You have the ability to create beauty. You have the ability to see below the surface. And in the end, I really do believe we are all more than firing neurons. Artists have more than just this type of brain or that-they have a highly sensitive and attuned soul.