Write Everything Down

What makes someone obsessively journal every moment of their life? In some cases, it might actually be hypergraphia, a condition tied to a neurological trait.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: I’ve been writing this thing twice a week for nearly five years, and while I haven’t kept up an exact word count of how much Tedium I’ve written during that period, odds are it’s a lot. And over time, as I’ve gotten more confident in my writing, I’ve tended longer. Assuming a twice-a-week clip of around 1,500 words during its first year, 2,000 during its second and third years, and 2,500 during its fourth and fifth years—with an average of around six pieces of month written by me personally, I’ve probably written about a million words, give or take, over the years. (More than enough for a compliation-style book, publishers! hinthint) But that said, I am by no means a record-setter, even if I am a fairly prolific writer. Nor am I obsessive to the point where I can’t take a night off sometimes. But there are those who journal, and journal, and journal, and don’t stop. Today’s Tedium is about people who write more obsessively than I do, I think, mostly in a journal. — Ernie @ Tedium

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Doug Funnie, journal obsessive.

If Doug Funnie wrote everything down in a journal in late 2019, he’d probably do it this way

When I was growing up, my favorite cartoon character was a compulsive journaler.

New to the city of Bluffington as a lovestruck preteen with a superhero alter-ego and a lovable dog, Doug Funnie took pencil to paper in every episode, seemingly about every event, fantasy, and flight of fancy that came to mind. He wrote about his aspirations and fears. And the journal, as a framing element, made him a relatable hero to millions of fellow almost-teenagers around the world.

When Doug first came out on Nickelodeon in August of 1991, he was roughly my age, which means that he’d be in his late 30s. And since I’m also in my late 30s and clearly turned out just like he did, I can imagine what his journaling style might look like today.

And based on my five minutes of research, I’m pretty sure Funnie would be into “Bullet Journaling.“ What’s that, you might ask? Well, it’s a style of building a journal that combines the basic daily list that you might get with a calendar and a task-based format and a simple three-step style of organization. It scales up to your level of need while not being so prescriptive as to push you away from a more creative approach, if that’s what you want.

And like entrepreneur Dave Asprey’s invention of Bulletproof Coffee a couple of years ago, it has a bit of a cultish element to its popularity, especially after the method’s creator, Ryder Carroll, wrote a bestselling book laying out the overall strategy.

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An example of a Bullet Journal. (John Uhri/Flickr)

The process can be strongly creative, with subcultures of people developing elaborate systems built around illustrated doodles that reflect their own personalities. And while it’s analog in nature, it clearly has been informed by a digital way of thinking—with distribution a key reflection of this. It’s, naturally, a hit on Instagram, where creativity and cleverness play well.

Recently, Carroll was featured by The New Yorker, in a piece where he described an overly complicated approach to journaling that involved multiple notebooks and was hard to manage. So he came up with a strategy for building the notebook in a way that uncovered things that need to get done today, things that need to get done in the long term, and things that don’t need to be done at all. It’s effectively a triage system, and unlike the bevy of digital journaling systems of today, it doesn’t require a laptop or your phone. It requires a pen, paper, possibly a ruler, and a little bit of your time.

“It’s helpful to have one source of truth,” Carroll told the outlet. “That’s what the Bullet Journal is for me.”

If Doug Funnie was a real person, he would be Ryder Carroll.

“It was a case of hypergraphia. When you look at those paintings and realize that each one was done in a day, you realize that it takes tremendous compulsion for someone to do that.”

— Dr. Shahram Khoshbin, an official at Harvard Medical School, making a claim in 1985 that Vincent Van Gogh’s well-documented odd behavior and extremely fast creative progress was the result of “hypergraphia,” a then-recently diagnosed behavioral condition tied to an intense desire to write or draw. As Khoshbin noted, Van Gogh appeared to suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy, a brain condition that, for some people, creates instability and personality changes, including an intense focus on creative endeavors. “I don’t think he was a genius because of his epilepsy, but it affected his art,” Khoshbin said.

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(Siora Photography/Unsplash)

The neurological trait that leads some people to write more than others

At what point does journaling turn from an activity that offers creative or productivity fulfillment to something that implies a mental disorder?

It sounds wild to think about, but there is a line, and it’s well-documented. The concept of hypergraphia, a behavioral condition that causes someone to create at high levels of output, has become well-documented in the past 50 years or so, though prior evidence of its existence dates back about a century.

In his 1921 text Manic-Depressive Insanity and Paranoia, German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin described the basic traits of hypergraphia among the patients he was researching without specifically using the term:

The handwriting of the patients may at first be quite regular and correct. In consequence of the excitability, however, it usually becomes gradually always larger, more pretentious and more irregular. There is no more consideration for the reader; the letters run through one another, are scribbled; more words are underlined; there are more marks of exclamation; the flourishes become bolder. All those disorders, those of substance as well as those of form, are well shown in the accompanying specimen of writing. The number of documents produced by manic patients is sometimes astonishing, though certainly they themselves do not count on their being read; the pleasure of writing itself is the only motive.

In the 1970s, researchers Stephen G. Waxman and Norman Geschwind of Harvard Medical School gave hypergraphia its name in an academic paper describing its relation with temporal lobe epilepsy, associating a creative process with a chronic nervous disorder that has been associated with seizures. It’s one of five major behavioral traits of those who have what’s known as “Geschwind syndrome,” a series of behavioral commonalities seen in some people with temporal lobe epilepsy. The other traits include hyperreligiosity, a tendency towards intense religious feelings; altered or atypical sexual behavior; circumstantiality, or the tendency to keep conversations going for a long time; and an intensified mental life that can combine with hypergraphia to lead to stronger creative output.

Nearly a century after his death, Vincent Van Gogh came to be seen as the perfect example of someone with Geschwind syndrome, as he showed all five traits.

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Alice Weaver Flaherty’s “The Midgnight Disease.”

In 2004, a later generation of Harvard Medical School neurologist, Alice Weaver Flaherty, turned her own first-hand experience with hypergraphia into a book that explained “the incurable disease of writing” to a popular audience. The book The Midnight Disease explained how being compelled to write by neurological quirks has driven some of our most popular authors and creatives.

“Temporal lobe epilepsy is the best-understood case of hypergraphia, although not the only one,” she explains n the book. “It does not always, or even usually, create talented writers. What it can create is writers who are extraordinarily motivated.”

Flaherty’s own hypergraphia flared up around 1998, after she suffered a personal tragedy, the death of two sons born prematurely. As she told Psychology Today in 2007, the situation led to an unexpected bout of creativity.

“It was as if someone had thrown a switch,” she told the magazine. “Everything seemed so full of importance, I had to write it all down and preserve it.”

Sometimes she wrote notes on Post-Its late at night; sometimes she wrote on her arm while in a traffic jam. But the result created a strong appeal of the written word—even for those who may not see themselves as famous authors.

“Hypergraphia is abnormal, but it’s not necessarily bad,” she added. “For us it is mostly pleasurable. You only suffer when you think you’re writing badly.”

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(Álvaro Serrano/Unsplash)

The case of the woman who started writing lots of poetry as a side effect of a medication

A few years ago, a 76-year-old woman ran into a variety of issues involving mental activity. Long suffering from seizures, she began showing signs of amnesia and repeated episodes where she went unresponsive.

As part of a clinical test, she started taking different types of medicine to help with the issues she was having. One medication in particular, the anti-seizure medication lamotrigine, seemed to stop the issues more effectively than anything else she tried.

But it came with an interesting side effect, according to a 2014 article in the academic journal Neurocase: She started writing poetry. Lots of it. Between 10 and 15 separate works a day.

The medication, intended to target an issue affecting her temporal lobe, ended up giving her hypergraphia, something that generally tends to appear naturally, rather than as a medical side effect. And unlike many of the people who suffer from this behavioral condition, her writing was cogent and even funny, with a focus on tasks around the house. Here’s a sample:

To tidy out cupboards is morally wrong / I sing you this song, I tell you I’m right. / Each time that I’ve done it, thrown all out of sight, / I’ve regretted it. / Think of the treasures now lost to the world / Measureless gold, riches unfurled, / Diamonds, sapphires, rubies, emeralds—you must have had them, / All tucked well away. / So / To tidy out cupboards, throw rubbish from sight / (Even the poems you write up at night) / Is morally wrong. / So I’m keeping this one.

And there was a lot more where that came from. While the poetry eventually tamped down at some point, it became a new hobby for her that she continued to find interest in well after the fact.

“This versifying had a compulsive quality: she spent several hours per day writing poetry and became irritated if attempts were made to disengage her,” the report stated. “However, she appeared to derive pleasure from the activity and there was no evidence of associated distress.”

Clearly, this is an unusual case, but it highlights how our brain chemistry can be rewired in interesting ways with the right kind of influence.

“I do things then make a record of them. I do things regardless of the record. I do things for the purpose of doing them. The diary doesn’t run me; I run the diary.”

— Robert Shields, the most prolific journal writer in history, explaining to The Seattle Times in a 1994 article how journaling became such a compulsion for him. Despite this, he admitted in the same article that he avoided traveling overnight because it made it difficult for him to keep up with his journaling.

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(via Newspapers.com)

The man whose 36-million-page hyper-specific journal was donated to a university for study

Shields, a former minister and teacher, wasn’t simply content with writing in his journal every single day or week. He had more immediate concerns on his mind.

Over a roughly quarter-century period, Shields chronicled his life, every five minutes, essentially as it happened. And he had a minimalist style to his unusual work as well—writing in multi-column sheets of 11x14-inch paper. He wrote not on a computer or by hand, but on a collection of IBM WheelWriters, each laid out by one another, with the idea that if one stopped working, Shields could quickly switch gears.

Shields had a lot of influences on what he eventually became known for. Like Doug Funnie, he would often write in a journal as a teenager about a girl that he pined for. Unlike Doug Funnie, his father was a onetime speed-typing champion, able to write at a blistering fast 222 words per minute. He spent time as an English teacher and ran a successful ghostwriting business. And eventually, his greatest work turned into his typewritten journal.

As he originally told NPR in 1994:

The entire day is accounted for. I don’t leave anything out. It started in at midnight and go through the next midnight, and every five minutes is accounted for—12:20 to 12:25, I stripped to my thermals. I always do that. Drink 10 ounces of orange juice while I read the Oxford dictionary of quotations.

What’s fascinating about his work is how much it looks like modern social media, with timestamped updates of just a couple of lines, in a format nearly as consistent as that of the Bullet Journal. One big difference, however, is that there was no filter to be found: Shields included everything, including restroom breaks (described in great detail, which I’ll save you from reading) and the temperature of the oven when he cooked his food.

Shields’ notoriety is fairly widespread—at one point he appeared on Oprah—and is underlined by the fact that he donated his journals to Washington State University in 1999—all 36.5 million pages, filling up 91 cardboard boxes. He convinced the university to take the work by putting up his life’s savings (roughly $100,000) in a charitable trust to cover the cost of managing it.

“I paid them to take it,” Shields said of the school. “I don’t know what they are going to do with it.”

He only stopped due to health reasons—while he died in 2007, a 1997 stroke prevented him from continuing the work.

Shields was an interesting guy, someone who felt compelled to turn minutiae into detailed prose. And he didn’t even have Twitter to help him out.

You might be wondering, reading this, knowing how often I write long pieces, if I have hypergraphia myself.

As far as I can tell, no, though that is certainly no replacement for proper diagnosis. (Certainly, I’ve never had seizures, so I guess that’s a good thing for my temporal lobes.)

But I am nonetheless prolific as a writer, and I guess I see the process in my case playing out like this: Despite the fact that I clearly am a fairly obsessive writer, I’ve never personally written a journal myself. Rather, I tend to be more of an applied writer of sorts—in that I will find the right topic, stick with it, and ride it to its logical conclusion.

I do remember how important writing and creativity was to me as a kid, however. I believe that, when I was 10 years old, obsessed with Ducktales and video games, I turned in a school assignment into a fantasy that combined all the things I loved in popular culture at the time—Mario, Scrooge McDuck, Nintendo—into an illustrated book. I think I got a C+, which probably would have been a huge blow for me at the time, given how excited I was about that book I made.

Over time, I’d find new influences that I’d read cover to cover. I’d spend hours at the library, and the stuff I turned to while there generally wasn’t novels; it was nonfiction stories in magazines like Rolling Stone or Wired, or writing about things I cared about, like Jerry Pournelle’s epic Byte columns. (I’m still kind of that way—I probably read 100,000 words or more per week between all the sources I pore through, and it’s almost always nonfiction.)

But I think the thing that eventually clicked for me came about around the time I was in college. I felt like I had a lot of unsorted ideas that I would frequently mess around with, but I never finished anything. They were always the start of good ideas.

So I got it in my mind that I needed to find a way to motivate myself to finish something. Which led me to give myself a schedule that I would be required to follow until I got sick of it.

Now, I don’t have time for a journal. But I do have time for a newsletter.

I’m pretty sure that if I do have hypergraphia, it’s self-inflicted.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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