Warning Signs

"Hypomania provides an ideal ground for testing prevention and moderation.  But hypomania has garnered only a small, scattered literature related to writing.  Where we had hoped to find treatments, we uncovered little more than explanations.  Even these, however, prove fascinating.

"The bulk of writing in this area comes from romantics who see the mania of manic-depressive illness as the fount of creative genius.  Somehow, these accounts proclaim, the most original artists and writers are visited by sporadic states of creative madness, almost as if by Muses.  Well-publicized fund raisers are held with the naive goal of honoring manic-depressives, much as though preserving an endangered species; well-known inquiries into mania repeat the misinformed worry that its cure might drain our society of creativity.  What the romantics miss seeing, though, is the real horror of mania as a chaotic, delusional, terrifying condition.  Truly manic states do not permit coherent writing.  Instead, manias often necessitate hospitalization and drug therapies (typically with lithium); without these moderating influences manics may go on shopping binges, sign regrettable contracts, take sexual risks, and even attempt suicide.

"What about hypomania, the more common and less destructive form of mania?  It too has the appeal of euphoria, speeded thinking, and heightened imagination--especially in its moderate phases.  Hypomaniacs give the appearance of being more gregarious and poised.  They show unusual levels of ambition and self-esteem.  And, when in a hypomanic phase, they perceive themselves as more individualistic and artistic than when not.  Hypomania presents an alluring prospect to writers: it brings an increase in alertness and sensitivity, in productivity and creativity, even in sexual prowess.  Periods of speeded thought, euphoria, creativity, and conquest are commonly reported as enjoyable and valuable.  No wonder we might prefer to wait for binges and the hypomania that comes from sustained, intense work:
I know the feeling as well as any.  It can feel as good as any drug-induced high.  It can push aside all my usual hang-ups and inhibitions, all my self-doubts.  It turns me from a person devoid of clever ideas to someone teeming with them.  It allows me to use time I have available, like holiday weekends, to catch up on writing.  While it lasts, it makes me feel powerful, unassailable.  It makes me a writer [quotation from one of the writers in Boice's writing programs].
"Having reaffirmed our oft-stated fondness for hypomania, a state that all but a few of us have utilized many times, we return to its downside.  Left unchecked, without relaxation to reduce tension and without bds [brief, daily sessions] to limit euphoria, hypomania carries many of the same risks as mania.  In its strong form, hypomania becomes associated with gloominess, diminished leisure, and inner conflicts.  As it grows even stronger, it produces irritability and chaotic thinking; its invariable impatience discourages planning or proofing.  Hypomanic writing tends to be confused and mystical.

"Our new literature search also reminds us of other, now familiar costs of hypomania.  Strong episodes tend to be followed by periods of enervating depression; when writing binges are finished, disinterest in writing keeps writers away from projects far longer than otherwise.  Moreover, binges and hypomania work inefficiently* and exacerbate writers' doubts about their lack of creativity and fluency in comparison with more successful writers.  'If,' as one writer put it, 'I have to rely on binges for my creativity, how creative am I?  How much in control am I?'  We add other cautions about excesses in hypomania: Hypomaniacs are, for instance, more likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs.  And, perhaps because writers so often employ hypomania to induce motivation, imagination, and fluency, they apparently suffer depression at uncommonly high levels.  In my own analysis of the fifty-two writers over the long-term, those individuals who most often binged at writing scored highest on a standard index of dysphoria, the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI).  In fact, the highest BDI scores came in the wake of binges lasting at least ten hours (sufficient to induce the usual symptoms of strong hypomania).  Even successive writing sessions of at least six hours per day sufficed to induce moderately high BDI grades among writers who otherwise scored as nondepressed.**

"Clearly, it seems, hypomania provides a common entryway to depression among writers who otherwise show little tendency to negativity.  And depression, as we will see, occasions a kind of irrational overreactivity that makes us vulnerable to more bingeing."

--Robert Boice, How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency: A Psychological Adventure (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994), pp. 143-44 (my emphasis).

*You will be happy to hear that at this point I took a break from typing for a good hour or so in order to avoid becoming hypomanic about getting this longer quotation posted.
**For the sake of comparison, the last time I was on leave to work on my book, I set myself the goal of writing for at least six hours a day and often stayed at my desk for even longer than that.  And we all know how well that worked out, don't we?


  1. Oh, Boice, my new geek crush. I wish someone had given me "Advice for New Faculty" at the beginning of my dissertation, when we should start acting like the mini-professors we are and not the graduate student shells we need to grow out of.

    I like hearing how you are using his other books to help with later projects. Right now his BDS are helping me write my first book proposal, and it is FUN.

    In any case I have used English Dept. Junior Faculty Forum money to buy copies for all the English junior faculty here at UM, because it's the best $37 investment of their pre-tenure career!

  2. I wish that Boice had written his book a good decade earlier so that I could have read it as a graduate student! Glad to hear the BDS are working so well--it's stunning, isn't it, what a difference it makes working this way? And good for you sharing the wisdom with your fellow faculty! Let's get the word out and make all of academia a happier place!


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