Shadow Boxing

A blog that probes the mind's dark secrets

When Writing Will Not Be Denied

The compulsion to write is a complex mix of symptom and expression.

When people ask me how I manage to write so much, I jokingly say, “I have hypergraphia.” I figure they’ve probably never heard of it, but it sounds sufficiently exotic to possibly be true … and scary. Since I’m preparing for the Philadelphia Writers Conference, it seems like an appropriate time to ponder this strange compulsion.

Hypergraphia is an all-consuming desire to write. I’ve certainly felt this at times, but I can’t say that it has controlled me. (My friends would probably disagree.)

In fact, hypergraphia can be related to some types of mental illness, like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but more often with temporal lobe epilepsy. First described in the medical literature in 1921, hypergraphia can inspire something like obsessive and meticulous documentation. I know someone who keeps a daily journal, on an hour-by-hour basis, including everything he eats. It’s a verbal selfie. Now that’s compulsive!  

I’ve also seen cases of people with paranoid schizophrenia who write daily letters to government officials to alert them to some danger, or to complain.They don't seem to know that they're endlessly repeating themselves.

One of the most poignant cases in which this condition was a factor involved a murder investigation.

A woman named Virginia who’d disappeared for 30 years was found dead from apparent suffocation. The prosecutor suspected that her husband, Alvin, who was an angry recluse, had kept her prisoner and eventually had murdered her. The dilapidated house showed evidence of hoarding. The windows were boarded up and signs on the fence firmly encouraged others to leave him alone. Clearly, the DA thought, he hadn’t wanted anyone to see his captive.

Alvin claimed that Virginia had been his beloved wife and had not wanted to be seen, but he was arrested and tried.

During the trial, Alvin brought in a large suitcase. His defense attorney hired a medical expert to show that Virginia could have had an epileptic seizure in bed, smothering accidentally while facedown on her pillow. Finally, the defendant opened the suitcase.

Inside were thousands of pages of Virginia’s writing, which matched writing all over the walls of their home. Included were letters of love and devotion, her daily activities, recipes, and Bible verses. Everything had been dated and signed. She wrote about her life with a husband who adored and understood her.

She did not portray him as the monster people had imagined but as a caring and attentive spouse. These same sentiments were expressed in the writing on the walls, as love notes and poems. Virginia had suffered from agoraphobia and was grateful that Alvin had protected her from the outside world. Her hypergraphia had alerted an expert to the possibility of epilepsy.

Alvin was acquitted.

Sometimes, hypergraphic output can be quite creative, but other times it’s just copying phrases over and over. To see it in action, rent a copy of the movie, Quills. Regardless of how true the story is, the character demonstrates the urgent need to write, no matter what it takes.

Some of the best accounts of this condition can be found in The Midnight Disease, by neurologist Alice W. Flaherty. I found this book, no surprise, at a writers’ conference.

Flaherty teaches at Harvard Medical School and specializes in mood and movement disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. She has studied the biology of creativity and she herself unexpectedly suffered from a bout of hypergraphia following a tragic incident in her life.

She’d given premature birth to twin boys, who had died. She grieved for ten days and then “suddenly, as if someone had thrown a switch, I was wildly agitated,” she writes, “full of ideas, all of them pressing to be written down.”

She soon discovered that mania and depression can become a complicated mix. One feature for some people with this kind of depression is hypergraphia. Flaherty says that her writing became like a disease. “I could not stop, and it sucked me away from family and friends. Sensations outside of language dried up: music became irritating discord, the visual world grew faint.”

Yet, she also enjoyed the experience immensely. Ideas would wake her in the night, floating around her, and the sight of a pen or computer gave her a heady rush.

Eventually, she got through it, but even when she was writing in what she called a normal mode, her pulse sped up and she felt in the grip of something larger. In retrospect, she knew she’d been in an unusual brain state. She wanted to understand it, which led her to look at other cases and write her book about what neuroscience tells us about the drive to write and create. She got the title from Edgar Allan Poe.

I recommend Flaherty's book to all writers, whether fluid or blocked, if only for new insights about the fascinating narratives involving several of our role models. For some, it's a burden, for others quite mystical.

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., an expert on murder and other shadow themes, teaches forensic psychology and has published 46 books.

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