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The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain [Hardcover]

Alice Weaver Flaherty
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Jan. 6 2004 .
Why is it that some writers struggle for months to come up with the perfect sentence or phrase while others, hunched over a keyboard deep into the night, seem unable to stop writing? In The Midnight Disease, neurologist Alice W. Flaherty explores the mysteries of literary creativity: the drive to write, what sparks it, and what extinguishes it. She draws on intriguing examples from medical case studies and from the lives of writers, from Franz Kafka to Anne Lamott, from Sylvia Plath to Stephen King. Flaherty, who herself has grappled with episodes of compulsive writing and block, also offers a compelling personal account of her own experiences with these conditions.

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From Publishers Weekly

Flaherty (The Massachusetts General Handbook of Neurology) mixes memoir, meditation, compendium and scholarly reportage in an odd but absorbing look at the neurological basis of writing and its pathologies. Like Oliver Sacks, Flaherty has her own story to tell a postpartum episode involving hypergraphia and depression that eventually hospitalized her. But what holds this great variety of material together is not the medical authority of a doctor, the personal authority of the patient or even the technical authority of the writer, but the author's deep ambivalence about the proper approach to her subject. Where Sacks uses his stylistic gifts to transform illness into literature, Flaherty wrestles openly with the problem of equating them, putting her own identity as a scientist and as a writer on the line as she explores the possibility of describing writing in medical terms. She details the physiological sources of the impulse to write, and of the creative drive, metaphorical construction and the various modes of stalled or evaded productivity called block. She also includes accounts of what it feels like to write (or fail to write) by Coleridge and Joan Didion as well as by aphasiacs and psychotics. But while science may help one to understand or create literature, "it may not fairly tell you that you should." To a student of literature, Flaherty's struggle between scientific rationalism and literary exuberance is familiar romantic territory. What's moving about this book is how deeply unresolved, in an age of mood pills and weblogs, that old schism remains. Writers will delight in the way information and lore are interspersed; scientists are more likely to be divided.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Why do some of us have an urge, a compulsion, to put words on paper? And what happens when, without warning, the words stop coming? The author, a neurologist, introduces us to an unfamiliar term: hypergraphia, the brain state that produces an overwhelming desire to write (she also introduces us to the brain state's flip side, which produces writer's block). By examining the elements of creative writing and tying them to various elements in the brain (for instance, there is a direct link between the temporal lobe and metaphorical thinking), Flaherty asks us to consider writing not simply as an art form but also as a manifestation of the way our brains work. Simplistic notions like the one that says creativity is a function of the right side of the brain go out the window, to be replaced by complex, yet entirely plausible, correlations between brain states and creative acts. This won't tell you how to find a publisher, but it will explain how you came to need one. David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A passionate neurological ramble March 20 2004
This book is a hybrid of memoir, neurology, essay, confessional, and anxious monologue. It veers between rationalism and passionate loquacity, itself intensely hypergraphic. I read it all the way through and decided, after I had finished, that I hadn't learned much more about the neurological basis of writing but I had learned a great deal about the innards of Flaherty's interestingly informed but manic consciousness. Fortunately, it's not badly written, and the anecdotes, quotations, and summaries of current research are informative and interesting.
The Justice poem, which I looked up because it seemed so apt, is only quoted in part and isn't nearly as striking in the original.
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4.0 out of 5 stars right brain/left brain, she speaks the truth. April 27 2005
By A Customer
As you may or may not know, Hypergraphia is the neurological term describing the brain state of a person with an overwhelming desire to write. (hyperlexic people have the overwhelming desire to read, which seems to be my brain's minor).
Edgar Alan Poe described this experience now called "hypergraphia" as "the midnight disease." This term lends its use to the title of my new bible "The Midnight Disease: the drive to write, writer's block, and the creative brain." I was hesitant upon reading the book as reviews were mixed about its faults being "filled with medical jargon and bias." I found the opposite, the author, Alice W. Flaherty admits her bias' from the beginning chapter and her background in the neuro field but uses them as tools in combination with descriptions of her own experience of "hypergraphia."
The term 'hypergraphia' is not meant to be synonymous with 'disorder' but her interest is in isolating the parts of the brain as contributing factors. Flaherty attempts to dispel the myth that "right brained people are the creative ones" and focusing on the frontal lobes' role as well. She considers how historically diagnosed as "mentally ill" with one disease or another, authors have utilized this to create. As a diagnosed bi-polar patient (manic depression), her exploration of the way "manic" phases contribute to this state were of particular interest to me. The book also delves into hypergraphia's antithesis, writer's block, as a component to this state.
I am always skeptical to reward theories and anatomy as explanations for creativity but she doesn't dismiss it, in the process of the book. Flaherty merely attempts to provide a definition to people inherently "hypergraphic.
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5.0 out of 5 stars When writers are driven...... April 20 2004
Hypergraphia, about which I knew nothing prior to reading this book, is the medical term for an over-powering desire to write. Writing, Dr. Flaherty tell us, is the domain of the cerebral cortex, but the desire to write is the domain of the limbic system -- the hypothalamus and the structures of the temporal lobe. It is altered temporal lobe activity that is associated with creativity. On the other hand, frontal lobe processes are involved in writer's block. This area, as science, struck me as new and very much evolving. The most interesting section of the book, even more speculative than the location of writing proclivities, is her commentary on the inner voice and its role in writing. This is an area where strands fuse -- religion, creativity, psychosis. For Dr. Flaherty it was one morning "that bristled with significance. The way a crow flapped its wings as it rose heavily off the ground was a semaphore, signalling something just past my understanding." And not long after she heard, "the opposite of writer's block," her signal to write about hypergraphia. This internal/external presence of a voice became manifest to her following a depression brought on by the death of twin infants. Remarkably, if not miraculously, she later gave birth to another set of twins, thriving at the time of her writing. This is an unusual book. She interweaves her personal history and her clinical training. Coupled with a wide and diverse reading, Dr. Flaherty demonstrates in this book an intense mind; reading her is like riding with a mind in over-drive. I look forward to her next book, and she has all but assured us that one is in the making.
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1.0 out of 5 stars did I read the same book? Feb. 21 2004
By A Customer
As a writer with a mood disorder, I deeply appreciate the efforts of writers/psychiatrists, such as Lauren Slater and Kay Redfield Jamison, to delve into the creator's psyche without overly pathologizing it. While some find Slater's poetic style too distracting, I enjoy it, which may be why I had such difficulty with this book.
First off, it reads like a psych textbook, and as I assume it's being marketed to a more general audience, this is not a plus. In fact, I found it even harder to follow and duller than my old psych books from college. I was hoping to learn more about various disorders that seem to predominantly affect writers, but not at the expense of skimming over their quirks and lifestyles. What do I mean by that? Well, I'd have my interest piqued by a description of a writer, only to be unceremoniously plunged back into four-syllable word paragraphs.
Here's a random sentence: "Also unlike Broca's aphasics, patients with Wernicke's aphasia have much more trouble with semantics than syntax, suggesting that syntax is primarily a frontal lobe function and semantics a temporal lobe function." (pg. 157) While it's understandable, it's hardly the sort of thing you want to curl up by the fire by. It's also hardly the sort of thing someone with depression would want to plow through in order to gain insight into their condition.
My suggestion: Read Jamison's works on manic depression if you are a writer who would like to know why you have some of the unusual habits you do.
My other complaint is how lightly Flaherty seemed to present her hospitalization. Nine out of ten patients are probably too ill to care where the room with the Capn Crunch is, so I assume her visit was atypical. You don't get a strong sense that she identifies with the mentally ill people she sees regardless of in what capacity. (Although I believe she is sincere those times she does express sympathy, it just doesn't pervade the whole book.)
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