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Bookmarks Issue: 
10-May-June-2004
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The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain

A-MidnightDiseaseIf you suffer from hypergraphia, you might be mad. Then again, you might simply be programmed to write novels on scraps of Post-its just as Flaherty, a Boston neurologist, was when she experienced postpartum mood disorder. In this part-memoir, part-medical treatise, Flaherty examines the brain's role in the creative process. Citing the madnesses of creative geniuses like Lewis Carroll, who wrote more than 98,000 letters during his lifetime (most in purple ink), she argues that shifts in the limbic system or extra activity in the temporal lobes, not just the right side of the brain, cause mood disorders, and hypergraphia or its opposite, writer's block. As a result, writers are ten times more likely to be manic-depressive than the general population. But, she concludes, if writers "are all a little bit sick, it is not all that sick to be sick."
Houghton Mifflin. 307 pages. $24.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer 4 of 5 Stars
"This is one of those precious jewels of a book, a volume that sparkles with some fresh insight or intriguing fact on practically every page; it is an underliner's delight." John Marshall

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"In the clearest, cleanest possible way, the author has had it all and cured it all; been there, done that. ... And her writing magically transforms her own tragedies into something strange and whimsical almost, almost funny." Carolyn See

SF Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What is missing in most scientific writing is not missing in Flaherty's; add to that a natural wit and a knack for crafting epigrams: 'We write instead of speak when we are ashamed to look our audience in the eye'. ... But the comparatively scant research in the field means that Flaherty often relies on theory or her own well-oiled intuition." Marc Smirnoff

Rocky Mtn News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Some will no doubt lament Flaherty's attempt to bring the muse down to the level of neurons and brain tissue, but science will eventually trace most traits to the brain, she notes. ... Flaherty's fascinating, wide-ranging discussion is punctuated by wonderful anecdotes about famous writers, eloquent passages of her own experiences and, to warn the scientifically challenged, some rather dense passages about the science of the brain." Patti Thorn

Critical Summary

"Researchers will soon be able to see which patterns of brain activity underlie creativity," Flaherty claims. By offering some powerful physiological theories for the creative process, Flaherty debunks the idea that creativity stems from psychological inspiration. A few impenetrable parts notwithstanding, she eloquently translates scientific information into layman's terms, instilling her narrative with fascinating literary and personal anecdotes and practical advice for writers. Citing skimpy evidence, scientists might take issue with Flaherty's claims. Yet Flaherty, who tries to remain impartial, expresses a deep ambivalence about the correct approach to creativity. The book, she emphasizes, is "not meant to be the final word on these complex subjects, but to spur further debate." For us locos, it certainly will.