– Mark E. Smith

While walking through This Ain’t the other week, I had a recurrence of my Eats, Shoots experience of reading the cover of a book and immediately slapping my hand down to claim it. The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain by Alice W. Flaherty discusses the brain states concerned with writing, writer’s block, procrastination, hypergraphia, and other actions of language processing and writing. Note well: Brain states, not mental states, a distinction that is eternally difficult but actually quite clear by the time you finish the book.

I whipped it open at once to the sections on procrastination. Really, dear diary, do I ever talk about anything else about myself? Yet I must say that Flaherty’s discussion was a disappointment. (I just re-reread everything to triple-check.) There’s a reasonable neurological explanation that ends in this advice, which I alluded to elsewhere (p. 117, emphasis added):

Looking at procrastination as an energy-conserving mechanism that has spun out of control explains why many techniques aimed at helping procrastinators don’t work. Attempts to improve “time management” fail because the procrastinator generally knows exactly when he should be doing what, but simply cannot bring himself to do it.

Separately, I can remember perhaps a handful of rather blah pages. I was, however, flatly offended by the reinforcing elitism of the following passage (p. 46):

Who counts as a prolific – if not quite hypergraphic – writer? […] Of course, who gets on the list is influenced by factors other than output. For instance, my list contains few genre writers [like neuroscientists?] because of the convention that genre writing isn’t quite writing. But Isaac Asimov, for instance, worked seven days a week, writing as fast as he could type, ninety words a minute, and reportedly never suffered a blocked minute. He had completed 477 books by his death at age 72.

And of course not one of those books matters, because some bookstore clerk’s little chapbook of brutal gay short stories set at a country fairground is writing while science fiction “isn’t quite.”

But apart from all that, I can declare with assurance that every other page scintillates with new facts, autobiographical details from Flaherty herself (unimpeachably qualified as a writer, neurologist, and former psych-ward patient), and a charming writing style that is dense with information yet reads as smooth as silk. And she likes to write all this while sitting around with her twin daughters going apeshit in the same room.

Thus! Alice Flaherty is my new heroine. I wanted to proceed in full-on fanboy mode to her office when I was in Boston to get her to inscribe my book and have any passerby, any at all, take my photograph with her, but sadly, she wasn’t in town. (And the E-mail she sent was itself witty and charming and drew on her own experiences.) If you’re ever in the market for a writer–neurologist from over the cuckoo’s nest, Flaherty’s your girl.

Now, then. What’s she got to say?

  1. The lobes of the central cortex are large in mammals, especially smart ones. They… make it possible to do complicated tasks such as singing lieder and embezzling. [p. 20]

  2. [S]ome writers are left with self-criticism or perfectionism as a source of block – in Franz Kafka’s words, having “to see the pages being covered endlessly with things one hates, that fill one with loathing, or at any rate with dull indifference.” [Or bad type. ¶ p. 83]

  3. Perhaps the most practical implication is not to keep yourself from writing when not inspired, but to be ruthless about writing whenever inspiration hits. This approach requires always having paper or a palmtop computer with you, and above all to avoid answering the door or E-mail when you are in the middle of something good. [p. 86]

  4. The writing researcher Mike Rose argues that many cases of writer’s block stem less from emotional problems than from deficits in cognitive skills – for instance, having overly-rigid compositional strategies. Such as a rule against sentence fragments. Another skill problem is too-early editing: A writer begins criticizing and altering a text before there is enough of a rough draft to evaluate. [p. 88]

  5. [Excessive motivation and h]igh-arousal block may alternate with hypergraphia in the same person, as in graduate students who ricochet between feverish nonwork on their dissertations and reams of E-mail and blogging. [pp. 134–5]

Check the superb interview at Identity Theory.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2005.03.27 18:34. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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