Trying to Understand
the Ever-Elusive Source
Of Writing Compulsion
There are several books on and about writing that have rightly been installed in the informal canon, and which I think belong on any ambitious writer's bookshelf. I'll try to post my list sometime soon, which I hope will spark a dialogue from readers that will sharpen, add to and perhaps omit from my list. But of course that list is always in flux, and one recent addition is a book that's far less well-known than some, but which I think belongs in that canon, The Midnight Disease--The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain, by Alice Flaherty, a neurologist. It's full of tremendous insights into the sources of creativity and the compulsion to write. Flaherty writes that her drive to understand the neurological sources of creativity and the writing impulse are more a result of an accident she had (she was hit by a truck) than the fact that she makes her living from understanding the human brain. She writes in the introduction that "I wrote this book to try to explain to myself what had erupted in (or into) my brain to turn me, almost against my will, into a writer." You can learn more about her by reading this interview. And below, with apologies to the author and her publisher, are some excerpts that I found especially interesting.
"One group of studies by Alice Brand provides evidence that writing, at least on personally chosen subjects, satisfies some urge and has measurable mood efffects. In both students and professional writers, the act of writing both intensified positive emotions and blunted negative ones. This outcome was something of a surprise to researchers in the field of composition studies, as the standard view of writing emphasizes the anxiety induced in students by writing assignments. The findings were consistent with what has been described by many writers, from hypergraphic patients to Joyce Carol Oates, who said, 'I have forced myself to begin writing when I've been utterly exhuasted, when I've felt my soul as thin as playing cards....and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.' Ernest Hemingway saw Oates's half-full glass as half empty: 'when I don't write, I feel like shit.' Some writers, such as the poet Tina Kelley, describe a physical sensation of unease or restlessness that torments them if they haven't written for a few days. For others, it is a sort of headache, a stuffy, swollen brain. Milton described feeling like a cow that needs to be milked. For many, there is the primal conviction that they should not do anything but write--because it is their vocation, in a nearly religious sense. Writing is what they were meant to do, and the headaches and the restlessness are their body's rebellion when it is kept from fulfilling its destiny."
"How does writing differ from speech? Writing is harder, and more culturally dependent. Nearly everyone learns to speak but in many countries almost no one learns to write. Even in the United States, with its universal public education, 10 percent of adults are functionally illiterate and write at less than a sixth-grade level. Why? Writing is not obviously a more complex task than speech. If anything, the much greater speed at which speech is produced and deciphered, the smaller territory allotted to auditory than visual processing in the brain, and the contortions of the tiny larynx should create even more of a challenge than writing. One argument has it that writing is more difficult for humans because it is evolutionarily recent, not hardwired the way speech seems to be."
"Several factors besides skill are more significant in professional writers than in most amateurs. One is love of the surface level of language: the sound of it; the taste of it on the tongue; what it can be made to do in virtuosic passages that exist only for their own sake, like cadenzas in baroque concerti. Writers in love with their tools are not unlike surgeons obsessed with their scalpels, or Arctic sled racers who sleep among their dogs even when they don't have to. Another difference between amateur and professional writers, almost by definition, is that the latter more successfully engage their audience. It is partly a question of skill, but more often a matter of goals. Amateur writers tend to write primarily for self-expression, whereas writers able to become professional can hide or transform their own agendas enough so that they are of interest to others."