As it turns out, finding out you’re neurologically “hard-wired” to be a writer isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Hypergraphia, the urge to write excessively, is one of a cluster of characteristics forming Geschwind Syndrome, which is itself a personality-affecting phenomenon that often goes along with having TLE, or Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. Unlike better-known epilepsies affecting the motor-control areas of the brain, TLE influences the sensory-input processing part of the brain, also the part that controls language and memory access. (You may have heard how the “smell” part of the brain resides close to the “memory” part making smell one of the strongest senses that can evoke memory–well, TLE seizures can entail sensory hallucinations such as smell and complex deja-vu hallucinations.)
I had infant febrile seizures–they put me in a coma for about a day. But it wasn’t until about 15-20 years ago I began to learn about TLE and the fact that a scar on one or both of my temporal lobes had left its mark on my very personality for as long as I could remember. An obsession with language, the drive to write, a strong sense of social justice and the tendency to become mildly-obsessed with worlds of the imagination (cartoons, TV, movies, but most often books) could all be attributed to my neurological irregularities. I wrote stories and sometimes when I was too impatient to wait for inspiration I simply copied my favorite books from the library by hand. The thing with hypergraphia is, you want to write a lot; it isn’t necessarily good. Some people write loads of crap. Some who have little imagination just doodle their name all over everything.
But I tried to be a better writer. I began my first novel at age twelve, and by then was probably an even better artist than writer (abstract creativity sort of swirls out of Geschwind Syndrome and related conditions). I studied art in high school and AP English and French, then began a major in art and minor in music that resigned itself to a writing major and the music minor. This writing thing just wasn’t going away. I proved to be a pretty good abstract thinker and was sort of flattered into graduate school in Medieval/Renaissance literature. I adored Anglo-Saxon and the histories of Shakespeare–having already written quite a bit of political-themed stories myself.
By young adulthood, though, I began to be aware that my mini-obsessions, my intensely-curious and driven scholarship (and lack of interest in dating) and overly-developed “inner life” (I think Wikipedia calls it “intensified mental life”) was unusual, and there were some aspects of my routine I had to keep to myself. Color-coded notes and index cards, the tendency to live inside interesting stories and photographs, and always, always the story-writing. I figured it was just me. Er, that is, it is me. Only. . .IS IT?
This is the sinking-feeling reaction and subsequent specific despair that followed my diagnosis. It didn’t matter that I was in good company; many notable artists had TLE (Van Gogh, Dostoyevsky). So did many mystical saints and shamans–Joan of Arc. None of them were very happy in their personal lives, were they?! Destined to be misunderstood outsiders at best.
Far from being elated that I was quite literally hard-wired to be philosophical and detail-oriented and imaginative and a writer, I felt like my entire life of writing was. . .a symptom! It felt like everything that made me ME was simply a medical phenomenon. I walked around feeling like nothing more than a diagnosis. And though it wasn’t a conscious decision, I gradually. . .stopped writing. Whenever I looked at my latest novel I saw it the way a clinical scientist views experimental data: clear evidence of a mind gripped by disease. If I didn’t have a normal mind, how could my observations and opinions ever be valuable?!
And then what happened was, I became Not-A-Writer. For FIFTEEN YEARS. That was the extent of my despair. I had a degree in writing and a Master’s in literature; I had top grade-point averages and won every scholarship and assistantship and fellowship that had come my way. I wrote three doctoral degree comprehensive exams for twelve perfect scores and I had taught writing successfully at the college level for ten years–and still I somehow convinced myself it was all a fluke.
Of course the symptoms still found release during those years; I still told myself some pretty elaborate stories in my head. I had learned to compose and memorize scenes in my head verbatim since those days in high school when staying up late to get just one-last-thought written down became impractical, and I self-imposed a strict “lights-off” schedule. During the writing hiatus I had fantasies after lights-out as lengthy and complex and coherent as any novel I’d ever written–if not more-so because now I was conscious of the need for concise story-telling, since wordiness was a symptom of my “disease”. But I stubbornly refused to write any of it down. I silenced myself more effectively than childhood shyness or low self-esteem ever had.
Still, I read a lot, as many people do, and often I read novels that were okay but I said to myself, “This got published? I’m pretty sure I can do better than that.” Social media netted me some writer friends, then last November 2nd I learned about NaNoWriMo–the online challenge to write a novel in a month. Just draft it. And something about that challenge appealed to me and freed up my self-imposed writer’s block; no one had to see it, you just had to write it. For some reason the time was right and this was the thing that got my butt in the chair and really writing again. Finding the joy in writing again and not worrying about why. That is, I began to feel like a person again some time ago, I found my life, I continued to apply my talents researching and engaging my curiosity. But actually writing every day didn’t happen till last November.
So three months later I had a fairly coherent first draft of 144,000+ words and I guess the dam has burst, the die is cast, I’ve crossed the Rubicon et cetera. Laptops and the Internet writing community make for a very different world since last I was a writer. I don’t know where I’m going from here. But I don’t think I’m going to go quietly.
*Nothing in this post or the reading list should be construed as a basis for a medical diagnosis. If you suspect your symptoms go beyond those of your average neurotic head-in-the-clouds workaholic writer, go say “Hey” to the family doctor. She’s probably happy to see you ’cause it’s been awhile!
…Before my writing break-through, I have to say that I credit Oliver Sacks with finally making me feel human again. His writings about neurological-based disorders were the first I read that asserted his patients were human beings first and beyond any medical problems they may have. He has a belief in the transcendant wonder of life and the abilities of people, probably based in his faith. Alice Weaver Flaherty, furthermore, writes about hypergraphia as both a neurologist and a writer–and a patient.
Altogether this makes for a pretty fascinating beginner reading list:
Flaherty, Alice Weaver. 2005. The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain. Mariner Books.
Jameson, Kay Redfield. 1993. Touched With Fire (Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament). The Free Press/Simon & Schuster.
LaPlante, Eve. 1993. Seized (Temporal Lobe Epilepsy as a Medical, Historical, and Artistic Phenomenon). HarperCollins.
Ornstein, Robert. 1991. The Evolution of Consciousness (The Origins of the Way We Think). Touchstone/Simon & Schuster.
Sacks, Oliver. 1987. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. Harper & Row.
10 thoughts on “I’m hard-wired to be a writer? Whoa”
First off, I’m so glad you found your writing voice again! I also had a lengthy span of time when I did not write, but in my case it was because I lacked the drive. I think for me, it’s writer’s block that I feel as a symptom, and for a long while I couldn’t write because I thought that I was wired not to by depression.
Anyway, I wanted to say that the physical condition behind your curiosity and your drive to write doesn’t spoil the magic of the writing you produce, it doesn’t take anything away from the wonder that you are able to do it well and you are able to touch people. I see that you have come to that conclusion yourself, but I just wanted to say it 🙂
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The Weaver book (above) does speak about depression in its section on all the many kinds of “writer’s block”.
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I’m a top writer on Quora, with TLE and hypergraphia, and most of my life have integrated writing with other aspects of my career. But a stroke at 48 threw me into a position where writing is about all I can do to interface with the world some days (rear ended by a drunk, not to worry, it’s ok, random things happen). But because of all this, I am left with something fantastic. And, I did such a lot in my life pre-injury, I have a foundation, a lot to write about.
Happily, like you, I am also a writer of quality.
Oliver Sacks and Seized were both big parts of me coming to peace with my “I am not a symptom! I am a free woman!” phase. Now I see it as a gift, just as much as the neurological variation that makes me profoundly gifted, which to many people would also be a pain in the ass if they really understood it from the inside.
But shhh, sometimes, I almost feel like it’s one of those secrets. Like a superpower and it’s own kryptonite all in the same package. And today, I’m fine with that.
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Hi Shava! –Shhh, indeed: not sure I’ve ever publicly admitted these things. If we say that we LIKE our condition and that we think it’s a gift, the doctors would think we’re woefully ignorant of the science behind the syndrome and the public would think such statements are manifestations of our “mental illness”.
But, privately, I even like that aspect of it: not so much a middle-ground on the spectrum of mental illness (though I doubt any of it is as simple as a spectrum), rather a third point off the whole scale altogether.
It’s a little annoying, though, that the public will acknowledge the genius of Dostoyevsky or romanticize the tortured artist like Van Gogh, but have very little sympathy or even acceptance of the same phenomenon embodied in a person standing before them. (I know, I know, Senator, you’re no Dostoyevsky. . !)
Super-power and kryptonite all in the same package–I like that analogy!
Thanks for your example. I admit I’m not always completely convinced, even by the scientifically-validated Dr. Sacks, but I’m getting there. Time, and my getting my life back, will tell.
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