I keep on telling my students that nobody is doing research on what I call fabulation–the writer’s ability to string together an imaginary story–but it turns out I am partly wrong. My mistake lies in having supposed that this research should be a branch of psychology when it is actually also a branch of biology and, to be more specific, of neuroscience. If this is the case, then I am not surprised that I have missed its existence because I feel a certain mistrust for neuroscience. This is grounded on my totally bigoted belief that neuroscience is trying a bit too hard to explain human emotion as a set of biochemical reactions. Call me Romantic, but I do not look forward to the day when human nature (I was going to write ‘soul’ but then I recalled I am an atheist) is fully explained by rational science–a point I have already made here. But I digress, as usual.
I have been given a wonderful little book for Sant Jordi (book’s day here in Catalonia), a classic of American journalism: Joseph Mitchell’s The Secret of Joe Gould (1964). The book actually contains two pieces by Mitchell on Gould, a.k.a. Professor Seagull, written at two different moments of the relationship between the two men. Gould, a bohemian gentleman, very popular in New York’s Greenwich Village, managed to eke out a precarious living by convincing his sponsors that they were contributing as patrons to his writing of an American masterpiece: An Oral History of Our Time. Mitchell discovered the secret mentioned in the book’s title, which I am not going to reveal, and this rounds off a unique portrait of a unique personage. If you’re curious, read the book, or see the film adaptation with Stanley Tucci as Mitchell and Ian Holm as Gould. Furthermore: see for an alternative version which questions Mitchell’s conclusions the article by Jill Lepore (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/27/joe-goulds-teeth).
Sorry about my ignorance of topics which, I’m sure, must be very well-known by my Americanist colleagues but it turns out that the book on Gould was Mitchell’s final volume: he suffered from one of the worst cases of writer’s block ever, and could not manage to write anything between 1964 and his death in 1996, even though he spent many hours every day in his New Yorker office. The words ‘writer’s block’ send chills down my spine because this is a mysterious condition which does affect all types of authors for reasons ultimately unknown (and we, academics, are also authors). In some situations, writer’s block is to be expected such as when a novelist who has published an immensely successful first novel simply cannot produce a second one. In other cases, such as Mitchell’s, there is no clear reason why writer’s block happens. My personal belief is that his case, as I am sure many other people have theorized, may have had to do with the impact of Gould’s work on An Oral History of Our Time, which perhaps unleashed deep-seated fears in Mitchell that he could not write at all. I simply do not know whether Mitchell tried to be cured but the point is that his case is mentioned in The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain a book by neurologist Alice W. Flaherty, which back in 2004 was a controversial pioneer in a new field. Funny how, despite the many volumes on Literary Theory which I have read in the last 10 years, none mentioned Flaherty nor any other volume remotely similar to hers.
I have not read Flaherty yet but I have learned from her a new word I had no idea existed until yesterday: hypergraphia, the opposite of writer’s block. In a promotional interview (https://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/booksellers/press_release/flaherty/), Flaherty explains that hypergraphia is “driven, compulsive writing” triggered by “known brain conditions” involving “the temporal lobes”; also, and this is a puzzling sentence, “hypergraphia seems to reflect a component of literary creativity, namely creative drive”. Ironically, one of the most hypergraphic authors, Stephen King, also became a most famous sufferer of writer’s block after being hit by a truck. You’ll see now why I distrust neuroscience: after diagnosing 70% of all poets as “manic depressive” individuals, Flaherty makes the classic claim that “in women, there’s evidence that creative ability varies with the menstrual cycle. Plath illustrates this very vividly”. This, as we know, cuts both ways: some feminists will see the ebbs and flows of women’s body as part or source of our creativity, others (like myself) will be horrified by yet another attempt at picturing us as poor things (animals?) tied to our menstruation. Really… Flaherty stresses that while the treatments for writer’s block seem to work well and are much in demand from those afflicted with it–unsurprisingly… –those affected with hypergraphia do not seek professional medical help. “What right”, does Flaherty wonders, “do I have to give a medical name to a character trait that people value in themselves?” Indeed. By the way, Flaherty stresses that “talking about creative drive in neurological terms does not have to degrade the experience or value of creativity” and that “the medical terminology can coexist with the equally important, more subjective language that we are more comfortable with”. I’ll stick to the ‘subjective’ language for the time being, being a Humanist and not a scientist.
The field beyond Flaherty is so big I do not know how to start wandering into it, for there is, of course, a whole discipline called ‘Creativity Studies’. To begin with, you may check the Tennenbaum Centre for the Biology of Creativity at UCLA (https://www.semel.ucla.edu/creativity/references), founded by the kind of eccentric tycoon that I had thought extinct since Orson Wells’ Kane (Michael E. Tennenbaum even has a glass castle). As I should expect, many psychologists devote their research and practice to creativity. Division 10 of the American Psychology Association, which gathers them together, deals with “interdisciplinary scholarship, both theoretical and empirical, encompassing the visual arts, poetry, literature, music and dance” (see https://www.apa.org/about/division/div10.aspx). There is even a journal, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts (https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/aca/index.aspx). Many articles seemed informed by affect theory and deal with reception, but none, as far as I can see, with fabulation in the sense I am using it. Most likely, I need to search further.
I am particularly interested in the writer’s fabulation in the field of the fantastic, in particular science-fiction, although I would certainly agree that realistic fabulation is equally important. So far, however, we, literary scholars, have failed to explain where Madame Bovary comes from in the same way we have failed to explain the origins of Dracula. We speculate endlessly on whether a certain biographical event or the impact of a text read by the author is connected with particular plots points or characters but the method thus far followed is full of errors. Biographical research often degenerates into mere gossip and intertextual connections are frequently vehemently denied by authors. The formalist rejection of the personal to focus on the textual seems in this context quite convenient but, of course, it is ultimately unsatisfactory as texts happen to emerge from people’s brains.
There must be, however, a middle ground between the claim that Rose Maylie’s near death in Oliver Twist was inspired by the real death of Dickens’ young sister-in-law, and the claim that Rose Maylie emanates from a neurochemical reaction in Dickens’ frontal lobe triggered by God knows what… This is where I would like to go and explore… If I found a writer patient enough, I would beg him or her to examine at the end of the day the process of fabulation they have followed. Writers love to talk about their technique even when they claim that it is all a bit nebulous and characters seem to follow their own paths (I’ve never read an article about this often repeated claim). I would end up this way with something similar to the ongoing director’s comments in the Blue Ray or DVD edition of films. But, then, no writer, I’m sure, would want to have an academic looking over their shoulder as they write… Pity… If you know of any, let me know!
One day some scientist will discover that the predisposition to read and the predisposition to write and/or fabulate are genetic, perhaps a mutation, and we will finally understand why those of us who love Literature feel increasingly like freaks.
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