An article in the September, 2016, issue of Doctor’s Review looks at the curious, compelling affliction called hypergraphia: the obsessive need to write. I never knew before this that there was an actual illness of this sort. As someone who is often driven by a deep compulsion to write, I am both curious and a little afraid to learn more. And of course, I turned to the internet.
Curious because I always want to learn, especially when it’s something that might touch me in some way. Afraid because I’ve always thought of my writing as a mere personality trait, a passion I’ve had as long as I can remember, and to discover it may be an actual illness is worrisome. But if I have it, mine is at least a mild form, in comparison with true sufferers.
Hypergraphia is incurable, too. Well, that might not be a big deal for some, since writing itself satisfies the afflicted. And in general writing doesn’t afflict life in a negative way that other ailments do. Hypergraphia is often associated with some of the latter: bipolar disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy and schizophrenia.
I enjoy writing immensely and the act is pleasant, not painful. Not writing isn’t painful either, but I often awaken at night thinking of what to write and how to say it best. Not writing feels like mental constipation; a sense that something has to be released. I don’t often suffer from actual ‘writer’s block’ except when struggling to produce fiction.
Yet if I actually had hypergraphia, I would be in the august company of Vincent van Gogh*, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Robert Burns, Danielle Steel, Edgar Allan Poe, Sylvia Plath, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Isaac Asimov and Lewis Carroll. Their illustrious presence, however does not confer talent, much to my chagrin.
Chantal Martineau, writing in The Guardian, in 2004, noted,
The quality of the work produced by such people is purely accidental, says (Dr Peter Whybrow, Director of the Neuro psychiatric Institute of UCLA). A number of writers as well as researchers might disagree. In her study of manic depression and its links to the artist’s temperament, Dr Kay Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at John Hopkins University, established that “Two aspects of thinking are pronounced in both creative and hypomanic thought: fluency, rapidity and flexibility … and the ability to combine ideas or categories of thought in order to form new and original connections.”
…it often accompanies an inflated sense of divine inspiration referred to as hyperreligiosity, as well as increased or erratic sexual activity and emotional volatility.
Well, I’m beginning to feel left out. As a non-religious skeptic, divine inspiration is not a common trait with me, although I sometimes feel the onset of mundane inspiration. Too often it strikes at 3 a.m. and I can at best hope a few fragments stay afloat by the time I roll out of bed. And it’s more like sporadic sexual activity than erratic – you stay married for this long and you’ll understand.
Wikipedia notes that hypergraphia is, “…a behavioral condition characterized by the intense desire to write.” But clearly it’s also associated chemical changes in the brain and must have its own triggers. I can’t speak for the latter (so many things cause chemical changes, from wine to cats…), but I don’t think I suffer from them more than most of us do.
But as I understand it, hypergraphia is the urge to write anything. It just spills out. It seems to lack much of the coherency and continuity of a considered work. Even a humble blog post such as this requires considerable effort.
I edit, rewrite, work on the rhythm and colour of the words, add, delete. I am pedantic at times about it, but I love playing with words like a painter likes playing in watercolour or oil. Which sometimes spills over to editing the words of others (usually much to their annoyance).
No compulsion in the world is stronger than the urge to edit someone else’s document.
As H.G. Wells is reported to having said… and when I can’t write, i am often reading about writing, about language, usage, style. I have even enjoyed reading pages of the dictionary (Samuel Johnson’s dictionary is an absolute delight to read) or an encyclopedia, just for the love of the words.
But I am also an inveterate doodler, which may be associated with my compulsion to write. Have been doodling as long as I can remember, and still do it. My current notebooks still have marginalia of my scribblings. And yes, I still carry one with me pretty much everywhere.
Another damn’d thick, square book! Always, scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?
Scribble, scribble, scribble. Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, brother to King George III, commented thus in 1781 when he received Edward Gibbon’s second volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But Gibbon was not afflicted with hypergraphia, merely dedicated to the point of obsession with completing his famous history.
I have in my possession some of the notebooks I wrote in, back in the ’60s and ’70s, much of it rambling, stream-of-consciousness stuff, the minutiae that caught my ever-roaming attention, with some poetry and art. Somewhat embarrassing today, these juvenile thoughts in a crabbed hand, nonetheless I still keep them.
To me, hypergraphia and stream of consciousness seem an apt pairing, but I have not (yet) found anything that links them conclusively. But just pick up Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake and tell me that’s not hypergraphia driving Joyce’s pen. But perhaps I misunderstand it, and him.
Another related ailment is graphomania: the chronic urge to publish. I may suffer from that, on a milder scale. Buckminster Fuller seems to have suffered from both hypergraphia and graphomania: he compiled what he titled the “Dymaxion Chronofile:” more than 140,000 papers, 700 volumes and everything he wrote from the age of four. That’s an obsession you can’t help but admire.
There’s even a film about hypergraphia being developed (for release in 2018, apparently), to star John Hurt. It’s based on the life of Arthur Crew Inman (1895-1963), an unexceptional poet who kept a diary that ran to 155 volumes and 17 million words. Compared to him, I’m a patzer in the writing field, a rank amateur, a dabbler, dilettante, hobbyist, potterer, putterer, tinkerer, an abecedarian.
But who knows? With this writing I have penned more than 1.34 million words on this blog alone. I have, I trust, many more years left in which to type. Seventeen million is a long reach, but perhaps it’s the target at which to aim. Ah, but then I ask myself: who will read them? Who will remember them? Who will even care, weeks, months and years from now.
* According to Right Now magazine:
In Arles, van Gogh also wrote 200 letters, the shortest of them six pages long. Each night, after 14 to 16 hours of painting and drawing, he would write to his brother Theo, an art dealer in Paris, and fellow Impressionists, describing the day’s events, including sketches for his next paintings. The correspondence of his brief lifetime fills 1,700 pages.