Are Writers Certifiably Crazy?

The symptoms are getting worse. I wake up at night, my mind racing at a frantic pace, the ideas flooding me with a tidal wave of creativity. Afraid that I will forget something, I race downstairs to jot some notes so that I will remember everything in the morning. When I come to the breakfast table, I find my laptop surrounded by a sea of sticky Post-Its.

My sleepless nights might be considered a bad thing, but for me – a writer and author – they are very, very good. I write a lot in the dark hours, if you accept that coming up with ideas is a vital part of the writing process. Between these bursts of creativity, I manage to get in some actual sleep as well. As tired as I may be the next day, physically, mentally I am alert and hyper-awake.

Here is what is happening to me: Besides getting inspiration while writing in my sleep, I also find myself daydreaming, but that’s normal. As other authors will be certain to confirm, daydreaming is part of a writer’s job description.

The problem, for me, is when ideas burst upon me when I am in the shower, or while driving my car. At first I had a notebook next to the steering wheel; I would long for traffic, or a red light, so that I would able to write down keywords suggestive of the things that raced through my mind.

Now my smartphone got a bit smarter – I installed a voice recorder. I am capable of recording a quick message while driving. At home, these recordings, and the concepts they represent, will be transferred to my computer for use in future writing.

How does one put up with a writer?

Jumping out of bed at night to write a plot line on a sticky note comes at a price. Each time I leave the bedroom it disturbs my wife’s sleep. I have begun leaving my phone next to my pillow. When I wake with a brilliant idea at three in the morning, I jot it down as a note in my phone. “I can hear you tapping,” my wife whispers to me.

Why is this happening to me? Am I going crazy? Maybe this is a side effect of the antibiotics I have been taking to treat a seasonal case of pneumonia. My mind needs to slow down. I need bed rest! But, I can’t afford to sleep. I need to keep writing. I have never felt more alive, more creative. I am in a desperate race to express myself, to help these ideas take full shape as components of the articles, reviews and fiction that I am currently writing.

If you see me sitting quietly, not talking to anyone, that means I am hard at work on my novel. I am probably listening to conversations, desperate for real life dialogue that I will incorporate into my writing. As I walk down the street, I stare at the people passing by with plans to steal their descriptions for my characters. When I hear my colleague at work tell a joke, I question whether I can retell that in my story.

Everything happening around me is candidate for inclusion in my creative writing. I absorb life like a sponge, ready to create a new life on paper. I can’t stop. This writing process controls everything I do. It is part of my every breath.

Once I get my ideas finalized, and once I get my words typed into my laptop, I take a deep breath. I know that I have done well. This is just a first, initial draft, after all, but editing will bring my writing to life and that is a process I fully enjoy.

There. I have finished relating the tale of how crazy I must be. Thank you for reading this. Maybe now I can try to get back to sleep.

Originally published on The Huffington Post.




Why Novel Reading Reduces Anxiety



“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
~James Baldwin, American author (1924-1987)

In The Power of Myth, the late scholar and famous mythologist Joseph Campbell explains that stories help give us relevance and meaning to our lives and that “… in popular novels, the main character is a hero or heroine who has found or done something beyond the normal range of achievement and experience.”

In response to Campbell’s discussion about how the hero’s journey in myth and literature is about creating a more mature — and better — version of oneself, the distinguished journalist Bill Moyers pointed out how everyday people — “who may not be heroes in the grand sense of redeeming society” — can still relate to a protagonist’s transformation, allowing even the most outwardly meek of us to embark on an inner kind of hero’s journey.

The simple act of reading a novel, then, can give us a psychological shot of courage, encouraging personal growth while reducing anxiety.

In fact, there’s even a term for this phenomenon: bibliotherapy. First coined by Presbyterian minister Samuel M. Crothers in 1916, bibliotherapy is a combination of the Greek words for therapy and books. And now author Alain de Botton has created a bibliotherapy service at his London company, The School of Life, in which bibliotherapists with PhDs in literature introduce people to books that de Botton states, “…are important to them at that moment in their life.”

The author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, a book that explains the significance of literature and how it gives insight into one’s own journey, and Status Anxiety, a nonfiction book about overcoming the universal anxiety of what others think of us, de Botton blends literary fiction and self-help through his bibliotherapy service. Dubbed a “brilliant reading prescription” by de Botton, this therapeutic approach helps encourage emotional healing by matching whatever personal challenges a person is going through with specific literature.

Of course, the concept behind bibliotherapy is nothing new. Inscribed over the door of the ancient library at Thebes was the phrase “Healing place for the soul.” And among the many examples of bibliotherapy practices over time, both Britain and the United States established patients’ libraries in hospitals during the First World War, where librarians used reading to encourage recovery for soldiers with physical as well as mental trauma.

Now, science is proving the mythologists, authors, and librarians right. A recent study at Emory University has shown that novel reading enhances connectivity in the brain as well as improving brain function. Published in the university’s eScienceCommons blog on December 17, 2013 by Carol Clark, the lead author of the study and neuroscientist, Professor Gregory Berns, is quoted as saying, “The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist.” Clark also writes that Berns notes how the neural changes weren’t just immediate reactions, but persisted the mornings after the readings as well as for five days after participants completed the novel.

Good stories, then, not only help us relate to the hero’s journey, as Joseph Campbell pointed out, but the act of reading them actually can reconfigure brain networks. This means that not only are we able to escape from our problems while reading, it also increases compassion to another’s suffering — as well as perhaps to one’s own — which can be a major aid to self-growth and healing, as well as helping to decrease anxiety and depression.

Readers have intuitively known this all along. No authors, mythologists, or scientists need to explain to the readers who responded to a question in the Social Anxiety Network (posted in March 2012) about whether reading helps anxiety and depression. As one respondent said, “For me reading lets me escape into another ‘world’ it’s like I become the protagonist,” while another reader shares, “Definitely — it takes me to another world for a while and gets my mind off of obsessing over my problems, anxieties, etc. Reading a good book is always relaxing therapy for me.”

Looking at both the scientific and anecdotal evidence, it’s apparent that researchers and readers are on the same page. So remember that a prescription for your distress may just be an arm’s length away — to your bedside table, where that novel is patiently waiting for you to step inside and embark on your own inner journey.