Coffee and a Muffin

What Every Student Needs to Know: How to Beat Writer's Block

I hate this. This blank piece of paper staring back at me, mocking me. Meanwhile there's a deadline dangling over me like Damocles' sword, looming closer and closer. I should have e-mailed my editor long ago and told him there was no way I could finish this article on time. But now it's way too late. He's expecting it. And I can't just call him up at the last minute and say I haven't even started working on it. I'm such a failure.

I continue my futile attempts as I visit my blind, 90-year-old great-aunt. She keeps referring to this article as my "homework." Makes sense. Many people first experience—I shudder to even use the term—"writer's block" as students, according to a new book on the subject by a neurologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School, Alice W. Flaherty. It's something of a cross between a scientific paper on brain chemistry and a memoir, although the title, The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain (Houghton Mifflin), points to the latter, colon notwithstanding.

I struggle to scribble down a few ideas but they dry up in my head before I can get them out, so I turn to Flaherty's book. She describes her own experience with the polar opposite of writer's block, hypergraphia, the uncontrollable urge to write: "The sight of a computer keyboard or a blank page gave me the same rush that drug addicts get from seeing freebasing paraphernalia." I want to slap her. But then, I read, her compulsive writing was triggered by a manic episode after she gave birth to premature twin sons who died. As her mood swung back to garden-variety postpartum depression, her writing frenzy stopped. "I was not really a blocked writer," she explains in her book. "I was no longer a writer at all."

illustration: Matthew Martin

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As Flaherty explores the nature of her compulsion, I begin to ask myself, Why do writers write about why they write? She joins the field already overcrowded by figures ranging from George Orwell and Joan Didion to Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates—two hypergraphics if there ever were any. Personally, I find nothing more tiresome and self-serving than writers who write about themselves and their work. But thankfully the good doctor has parsed reams of scientific research in the hope of pinning down biochemical and neuroanatomical explanations of the act of writing and its extremes. It's not quite beach reading, but I'd rather plow through it than try to write through a block.

Turns out hypergraphia resembles writer's block in multiple ways; in fact, they're more easily understood as complementary states of mind. Flaherty's working definition of hypergraphia matches many of the criteria for manic episodes listed in the DSM-IV, the authoritative catalog of psychiatric diagnoses; the symptoms of writer's block also echo the DSM's checklist for major depressive disorder. Some epileptics whose seizures begin in the temporal lobes—the corners of the brain just behind either ear—display certain behaviors collectively known as Geschwind's syndrome: not just hypergraphic, but also hyper-religious or hyper-philosophical, emotionally volatile, and obsessively detail-oriented (think Dostoyevsky). Injury to a spot in the frontal lobe called Broca's area, next door to the temporal lobe, can cause Broca's aphasia, a frustrating condition in which patients can understand language but have trouble producing it, often to the point of speechlessness—and writer's block. And then there's the double curse of blocked hypergraphics, such as "the epileptic Gustave Flaubert, who crossed out nearly as many words as he wrote."

Now I'm way past my deadline and my editor's sending frantic e-mails asking to see a draft, like, right now. Maybe I can find a way to stall him. I flip through the pages of Flaherty's book looking for a quick fix, to no avail. I'm such a nervous mess. And anxiety, according to something called the Yerkes-Dodson law, exacerbates writer's block: Just as depression immobilizes writers, Flaherty notes, "high arousal does so through the frozen-deer-in-the-headlights phenomenon." Which can lead to procrastination (which is what got me into this mess in the first place; more on that later) or, paradoxically, hypergraphia, "as in graduate students who ricochet between feverish nonwork on their dissertations and reams of e-mail and blogging."

I need a drink. Or a Valium, although Flaherty suggests that antidepressants may be more helpful for blocked writers than tranquilizers are. Anticonvulsants might help hypergraphics and those with writer's block, but it's not like there's been a lot of pharmacological research done on this topic, so it's still [a little] too early to tell. Recent experiments with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), in which a magnetic (magic?) wand aims high-frequency waves at the temporal lobe, have produced in some patients the eerie sensation of an inspirational presence in the room, such as a ghost, an angel, or even a muse.

Are writers ever so desperate that they'll do anything for a cure, even TMS? And where do I sign up? Distraught, I try to get in touch with Flaherty. "Most writers will try every treatment they can to write better," she e-mails back, "whether it's buying self-help manuals, or doing drugs (opium for Coleridge, alcohol for five of the seven U.S. Nobel laureates in literature)." I'm reminded of her anecdote in The Midnight Disease about Robert Louis Stevenson, who cranked out Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—all 60,000 words—during a six-day coke binge. "When a writer can't write," Flaherty continues, "it's like when a border collie is trapped in a Manhattan apartment, dreaming of chasing sheep. It's excruciating."

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