A Personal Glossary of Writing Disorders

An example of “alien handwriting” courtesy of www.abduct.com

We’ve all heard of post-partum depression. But after giving birth to premature twin boys, who later died, Alice Flaherty developed a rare case of post-partum mania, and with it hypergraphia, a chronic, compulsive urge to write.

“The world was flooded with meaning. I believed I had unique access to the secrets of the Kingdom of Sorrow, about which I had an obligation to enlighten my –very tolerant–friends and colleagues through essays and letters.”

In time it subsided, and the grief thawed. She became pregnant again, this time giving birth to twin girls. The hypergraphia returned. Soon she had wallpapered her house with post-it notes. But this time she was better prepared.

Flaherty is a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and also teaches at Harvard medical school. She decided to curb the second bout of hypergraphia with a prescription for mood stabilizers.

But this gave her writer’s block, leading to a depression severe enough to hospitalize her. In the comfort of a psychiatric ward, where her credentials gave her access to certain privileges like “how to get into the room with the Cap n’ Crunch”, she discovered a culture of manic-depressive writers.

“…the hospital had a literary tradition–and a physical campus–more impressive than that of many liberal arts colleges. One day a staff member gave me a virtual tour from my window. He pointed out buildings where two famous poets had stayed. If I pressed my nose against the window’s steel mesh, I could just see where a third had taught poetry to patients soon before being admitted herself. All three, manic-depressive. The scientist in me can quote the study (the single study I must point out) that finds manic-depressive artists to be more productive when they are adequately medicated. The residual psychiatric patient in me is not convinced–it thinks I wrote better when I was a least a little bit ill.”

Flaherty went on to write The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, a book about the neurological basis for both writing disorders and writing talent.I’ve drawn from this book for the first few writing disorders presented here. The others I’ve drawn from my own life.

Hypergraphia: As described above, an overwhelming urge to write. Hypergraphia may seem to be the opposite of Writer’s Block. But that depends on how you define writing. People with hypergraphia don’t usually write well, though they often think they are.

What’s significant about this disorder is what hypergraphic writing lacks, that special substance that compels a reader to keep reading. We know what’s happening in the brain when someone writes compulsively. But what is happening in the brain when they’re writing well? What’s the difference between mania and the productive drive and disassociation better described as “the muse.” Forget all those right brain, left brain self-help books. Flaherty’s book suggests that this is still almost as much of a mystery to modern neurology as it is to us.

Writer’s Block: “Dissecting writer’s block” is according to Flaherty as easy “as carving meatloaf at the joints.” The problem is we don’t often know if we’re blocked. Maybe we’re just procrastinating, maybe we’re processing an idea. Flaherty uses two criteria as a basis of diagnosis. First that the blocked writer is not writing, despite being intellectually capable. And second that this writer is suffering from not writing. If it doesn’t bother you that you’re not writing, then it’s not really writer’s block.

But it’s not only a question of output. Writers can be both hypergraphic and blocked if they’re not writing the kind of writing they love. Coleridge was a hypegraphic journalist, but struggled over his poetry. Oliver Sacks writes about an agonizing block while writing Uncle Tungsten, where he trashed 2 million words of writing for 100,000 word book.

Sometimes the block is a result of being hypercritical. Think of all the self-help books on de-fanging the inner critic. Still, no writer ever progressed beyond mediocrity without the willingness to endure at least a little fang.

Graphomania: Often confused with Hypergraphia, sometimes deliberately because it sounds scarier. Graphomania is actually the chronic urge to publish.

Flaherty claims it was coined by Milan Kundera who argued that this condition arises from emotional isolation and ennui, and

“Takes on the proportions of a mass epidemic whenever a society develops to the point where it can provide three basic conditions: 1) A high enough degree of general well-being to enable people to devote their energies to useless activities. 2)An advanced state of social atomization and the resultant general feeling of the isolation of the individual. 3) A radical absence of significant social change in the internal development of the nation. (In this connection I find it symptomatic that in France, a country where nothing really happens, the percentage of writers is twenty-one times higher than in Israel.)”

Ithink we can now safely add one more condition: the invention of technology that enables quick and easy publication for anyone with a computer:

Dysgraphia: My son has this disorder, which affects the ability to master the muscular co-ordination needed to write quickly and legibly. I discovered this when he was five. His neurologist caught it two years after he was diagnosed with mild temporal lobe epilepsy. Now you know the origins of my fascination with writing and neurology.

You might think that handwriting is a separate problem from the cognitive process of writing. But a kid struggling with the mechanics will soon learn to detest everything involved with the demands of writing. I’ve seen this with my very bright eight year old who has plowed through four Harry Potter books since Christmas. Every time he starts a writing project he does best to convince me that he can’t because “I have no ideas, Mom. Really. None.” If you can successfully block your imagination on demand, no one can ever make you write. This would be my strongest argument against Flaherty’s second criterion for diagnosing writer’s block. Just because someone doesn’t admit to suffering, doesn’t mean they’re not.

And there are other problems linked to dysgraphia, which is typically only the most obvious manifestation of:

Dyspraxia: This is a disorder that affects the gros motor-skills. People who have this often have a hard time with hand eye coordination, sports, anything involving muscular planning.

What does this have to do with writing? They typically have poor posture making it uncomfortable to sit for even small periods of time at desks. Children with dyspraxia who are sitting on a chair that is an inch too high to plant their feet firmly on the floor will have a tendency to experience a low grade vertigo that will make it difficult for them to concentrate. They become fidgety and seek sensation.

Because dyspraxics have a poor sense of space they are typically messy, chaotic, and slow. Bright dyspraxics usually get labelled as lazy, unmotivated and slovenly. It is not unusual for kids with dyspraxia to fail or abandon school around grade nine or ten when projects become too long for their poor organizational skills. It’s estimated that about 2 to 10% of the population suffers some degree of this.

But sometimes they compensate for their problems by becoming actors, storytellers and choosing professions that allow them to develop their oral and performance skills. Daniel Radcliff suffers from dyspraxia. He fell into acting because he was failing school. His mother figured he needed something to boost his confidence. The next thing he knew he was on his way to Hogwarts and a hero to school aged children around the world. _______________________________________________________________

So what about you. Anything here strike a bell? Aware of a disorder I haven’t included?

And are disorders necessarily a bad thing? As Flaherty mentions time and time again, it is rare to find a writing genius who hasn’t struggled with some form of writing imbalance. Correctly naming your disorder, if you have one, can be the first step to curbing its excesses and maybe even taping its power.

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1 thought on “A Personal Glossary of Writing Disorders

  1. Pingback: Hypergraphia | Scripturient

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