…But does hypergraphia, or other symptoms of mental illness, help create successful writing? Not necessarily.
Occasionally, one runs across the claim that (unipolar) depression creates successful authors. However, the recent book, The Midnight Disease, by Alice W. Flaherty, a neurologist and professor at Harvard Medical School, counters this claim. Astute and well-written, The Midnight Disease explores the author’s own experience with manic-depression and reviews the current research on the matter. Before I discuss the book’s thesis further, there are a variety of reasons why I believe that crediting an author’s success to depression is not only ignorant oversimplification, but also shows a lack of cultural understanding:
- Most successful authors have no diagnosed mental illness.
- Crediting the ability to create to a mental illness oversimplifies the complexities of experience that contribute to creativity.
- The cultural climate surrounding mental illness and the treatment of it is often ignored in studies, yet can impact how a patient reacts to and utilizes his or her mental illness.
- Only very specific types of mania and hypergraphia can help an author write, yet these symptoms are not always present with all mental illnesses, nor are they always mild enough to allow for the creation of coherent writing.
Flaherty sums these perspectives up nicely on page 32 of her work:
“During depression, people tend to write much less (and, oddly, their handwriting often shrinks in size). In fact, writer’s block is much more likely than hypergraphia to accompany depression. When depressed people do write, it is generally when the depression is agitated; that is, when it contains a mix of manic and depressed features. How, then, to explain the long tradition of linking depression with the literary drive to create? This belief was written down as early as the fourth century B.C.E., when Aristotle famously asked, “Why is it that all men who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry, and the arts are melancholic?” A major reason is that Aristotle, Plato and other protopsychiatrists of that era closely linked melancholy to periods of “frenzy.” That is, they did not strictly distinguish manic-depressive (bipolar) illness from depression without manic periods (unipolar illness). Nor did medieval, Enlightenment, or even most nineteenth-century writers.
…Of course, you need not become manic-depressive to write, any more than you need to develop temporal lobe epilepsy [a cause of hypergraphia]. Most writers do not have either trait–at least, to the degree that they have had a diagnostic label pinned on them.”
So, yes, mental illness, specifically hypergraphia, encourages prolific writing. Whether or not that writing is clear, readable, or of any redeeming literary or popular quality has more to do with an author’s experiences and talent than any mental illness.