The Washington Post
Friday, January 23, 2004; Page C03
Daily Book Review
WORLDS APART by Carolyn See
(who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com)
THE MIDNIGHT DISEASE
The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain
By Alice W. Flaherty
Houghton Mifflin. 307 pp. $24
At the beginning of the year, there it was again, rolling past, the Rose Parade, down Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, Calif. There were all those floats, and somebody engineered them and drove them, and flocks of someones had stuck on all those dried peas and shredded bulrushes. Then the bands and all the folks on horseback, smiling and waving, and, in bleachers and sleeping bags, there was everyone who came out to watch, smiling and waving back.
And somewhere, out across the nation, cringing in front of their television sets, often nursing hangovers, were the sinners, the depressives, the eccentrics, the troubled and disturbed -- the writers, oh, God -- trying to make sense of it all: the New Year, the turn of the season, the slaughter of flowers, the nature of trombonists and tambourine bangers; the writers all the while thinking -- while reaching for the eggnog's last dregs -- why can't I be out there? Why can't I march? Why couldn't I have been out there with my fellow man, pasting on cabbage blossoms like everybody else?
Often, then, the writers might put down their drinks with trembling hands and breaking hearts, and maybe write a thousand words about the beauty, the deeper meaning of the Rose Parade. That's all we can do. Because we're different, they and we, them and us, the "normals" and the writers.
Alice W. Flaherty, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, would put this down to differences in our physical brains. Extra activity in our temporal lobes, including seizures, may compel some of us to write. Shifts in our limbic system -- which affects our rages, our hungers, our desires -- may, at another whole level, also compel us to write. This writing may, in fact, be a manifestation of mental illness: Writers are 10 times more likely than the general population to be manic-depressive; a great many writers through the years have had epilepsy. But can these illnesses be, in fact, a gift? The author would think so: "If we are all a little bit sick, it is not all that sick to be sick." "The Midnight Disease," earlier titled "Crazy About Writing," is another book about the writer's life, to be added to those by Anne Lamott, Natalie Goldberg, E.L. Doctorow, Terry Brooks and dozens of others, including me.
But this one is different for two reasons. In addition to being a writer, Flaherty is a neurologist; her training and grounding are mechanistic, focused on the real, physical brain. More importantly, perhaps, after each of two pregnancies, in which she lost a pair of twin boys and successfully bore twin daughters, Flaherty suffered postpartum depression and then bouts of mania in which she felt compelled to write -- extended works full of meaning, on sets of the very smallest Post-its available. (Here, the reader, if she is a writer, has to laugh.) There's no posturing here, no help, no "inspiration for others," no pretentious blather about the literary life. In the clearest, cleanest possible way, the author has had it all and cured it all; been there, done that. She's written, not written, been sane, been crazy and knows enough about the brain to essay a set of theories (and facts) that might explain all those activities.
This is a learned book. It's chock-full of information on drug use and alcohol, hallucination and vision, advice and caveats from writers of every stamp. Some of the information is poignantly practical: Hot showers and clean clothes may sometimes help writer's block, and stay away from the snooze button on your alarm because it won't help your mental state! There is the story of a child who tried, literally, to climb into a book and broke down sobbing because he couldn't. And a marvelous chapter on metaphor and inspiration, dealing with use of language and the connections between the muses who speak to writers and the divinities who have spoken (or is it our own inner voices that speak?) to our visionaries and saints.
One of the gifts of the author's mania has been to take her from the ranks of "them" (scientists, who live in a C Major, provable world and write atrocious prose in the passive voice) over to the squadrons of "us" (for whom the irrational is often full of meaning and literature is the highest truth). But then, her training has batted her halfway back again. She spells out, again in the cleanest possible way, why we write, whether it be to confess our sins, or sing the world into being, or express ourselves in fits of naked egoism or change our imperfect world into something we think might be a little bit better.
This woman is the real thing. When you call up her bio on the Internet, she says, after "Foreign languages spoken," "French, sort of." There's not a lie in here, at least that I could find. And her writing magically transforms her own tragedies into something strange and whimsical almost, almost funny. She continues the 17th-century metaphysical debate between the Body and the Soul: "All the works of the spirit," she writes, "are made with corrupt bodies." She gracefully grants merit to both.