The Midnight Disease: Writer’s Block & The Drive to Write


midnight.gifI recently read The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, in which Boston neurologist Alice W. Flaherty explores the science behind the drive to communicate and what can stand in the way of writing. The book is understandably heavy on brain research terminology, but Flaherty also draws from her personal experiences with depression and hypergraphia, writing eloquently and candidly about the emotional difficulties she has encountered in her life.

Instead of writing a detailed review of the book, I’ll just share two passages that I thought travel writers might find interesting. The first is from the chapter about writer’s block as brain state, where Flaherty outlines what can affect writer’s productivity. When discussing seasonal affective disorder and sensitivity to light, she mentions behavioral strategies that can aid writers whose output drops in the winter:

Some are able to edit in the winter even though they lack the energy for new writing. If they shift their writing to the summer and their editing for the winter, they may greatly increase their productivity. Finally, choice of habitation is crucial. The expatriate writers who have long flocked to Paris should particularly beware short days, since Paris is on the latitude of Vancouver. (On the other hand, Parisian health insurance, unlike that in this country, covers light therapy – providing more justification for its description as the city of (full-spectrum) lights.) Writers in the US often self-medicate with a winter trip to Key West (Ernest Hemingway, Elizabeth Bishop, Walker Percy…)

So now might be a good time to mention the January 2007 Key West Travel Writing Workshops. Or, if you prefer, wait for the longer days of summer and enroll in Rolf Pott’s July 2007 Creative Nonfiction Writing Workhop in Paris!

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The second passage is from the chapter that explores why humans write. Flaherty explains that the hippocampus (in the temporal lobe, part of the limbic system) is necessary for encoding new memories and then provides this info:

In rats, the hippocampus has many “place cells” that fire when the animal is in a particular location but not in others. Place memory is probably a function of the human hippocampus too. There have been several studies of London taxi drivers, people who in the course of their jobs must memorize thousands of places. When images of their brains are compared with the rest of us, they turn out to have significantly larger hippocampi, and the size increases the longer the person has been driving taxis. And knowing your place is crucial for more than not getting lost. The vivid moods we attach to places, and the evocative writing about place of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha or of Toni Morrison in Beloved reflect the limbic overtones that the hippocampus has added.

Could this mean that some travel writers might have enlarged hippocampi as well? I’m no scientist, but it’s just a thought that struck me as I read this.

There are countless other passages like this throughout the book — nuggets of the writing life unearthed and explored — but many are sandwiched between paragraphs of technical writing that were sometimes just too complicated for me to fully grasp without the help of a medical dictionary. Still, I’d recommend it to any writer interested in learning more about the science behind the drive to write. You can read a lengthy interview with the author here.