ATTENTION DEFICIT DISORDER AND THE CREATIVE BRAIN: why a room of her own should not be near the mall
Originally published at Storytellers Unplugged.
So if a woman is to write, she needs a room of her own.
So I’ve heard, anyway.
After years of experimenting with different kinds of rooms, from my teenage bedroom in Canada to my shoebox apartment in Japan to the back-store café of the Border’s in Century City and a friend’s guesthouse in Bel Air… I have discovered that in order to write, at this moment in my life, I need a building.
Or more specifically: a warehouse converted into lofty cutting-edge office space that houses two dot.com companies (Mahalo and Causecast) on a street in Santa Monica that doesn’t offer the temptations of bookstore, movie theatre or shopping mall.
It is here that I am writing this essay.
I can look out the front door, the parking lot and strip of grass and palms marking it off from the street.
The Causecast CEO, youngish in t-shirt and jeans like he’s about to head to a rock concert and not a PR meeting, is talking on his cell and pacing the sidewalk. Just behind him is his brand-new Tesla Roadster. Nestled alongside, in the other prime parking spot, is a yellow Corvette. The Corvette belongs to the Mahalo CEO, who likes to bring his bulldogs to work. The dogs are snuffling around my chair right now.
Both men are friends of mine, but it’s the one with the dogs who offered me some of his extra office space to write in. I started out in one, got moved to another when the Causecast CEO decided to put his own desk and couch and lava lamp in there, and by the time I found myself moved to a third, I had discovered something:
What I really like to do is write in the open.
I use my office for storage. I pick up my laptop and roam. I like the red chair in the corner with the couches, coffee table and fake grass. But the sun through the windows can make me warm and sleepy.
So I like a spot at a table that puts me close to the espresso maker (this is important). I can take a break from my laptop screen, look up and watch guys wrestling with the antique video game by the entrance.
I like that.
I get to be in my own mental bubble while feeling involved in the world, or at least a nook of it.
Here’s another thing I’ve learned about why I need open areas: I like to move.
I need to pace and wander.
I’ve lost count of the number of times something has come to me when walking or driving, as if the brain needs the body to move its thinking forward. In the past, I took this restlessness as a sign that the day’s writing was over, life crowding in with so much else to do.
At Mahalo, determined to stay the course for a certain number of hours or pages, whichever comes first, I have no choice but to force myself back to my laptop. But then the writing flows again, and I finally realized that sessions of writing and pacing need to alternate.
Which seems so obvious I wonder why I never figured this out before. I am intensely physical; despite – or maybe because of – all the time I spend in my head, I come at the world just as fiercely through my body. I crave exercise, fill my closet with sensuous textures — leather, silk, velvet, suede, high-quality cotton — and have yet to outgrow my fondness for clubs, since dancing, music, lights and crowd act as cathartic ritual.
It’s almost as if the body has to take over so the mind can settle down, find its way back into that trance when ideas flow and the writing takes over. It might come in fits and starts, that state of waking dream, but it does come, and then come back. If I’m willing to hang around long enough.
This need for motion is what makes it a bad idea to work anywhere near places where I can buy books or clothes. It’s not just the body that wants to get away from the laptop.
Because if my brain is a creative brain, it is also a wild and fidgety one.
I am – as someone so nicely put it – a highly distractible person.
This makes it tough for me to attend to details or remember where I put things. I have had to replace way too many passports, green cards, and debit cards; ATM machines that aren’t swipe-through have been a bane of my existence.
I have a troubled relationship with the roof of my car. I will put things there to free up my hands and then drive or walk away. “This,” the Causecast CEO said the other day, “is why you lose your car keys,” as he took the aforementioned item off the sunbaked roof of my Lexus and handed them over, demonstrating one of the reasons why he runs a company and I do not.
I can, however, write publishable fiction. At university I could crank out essays at the last minute and get one of the highest marks in the class. I could also skip classes on a regular basis – and did, starting in high school – and still make the dean’s list.
My brain has an excellent ability to seek out connections and find relationships, very handy for fiction and essay writing. But just as the body adapts to trauma and stress by heightening some senses (a sudden eye for detail, adrenaline-fueled strength and increased tolerance for pain) while taking away others ( bowel control), the brain seems to operate along a similar exchange. The kind of accumulative skill- and knowledge-building necessary in subjects like languages, math and science seemed impossible for me as a kid.
I was an intellectually gifted child who nearly flunked fourth grade French, who won county typing championships yet barely – barely! – passed her typing class, who got a 50 in home economics because she never turned in the hooded sweatshirt she was supposedly making.
So when I won a significant four-year scholarship to one of the most prestigious universities in the country, a lot of kids and adults were shocked as hell — especially when the students who were expected to win those prizes did not do so well. Those other students were respectably well-rounded. I, however, was not.
I am a specialist, or what some psychologists refer to as “spiky”, and that has advantaged me just as much as it has disadvantaged me.
So it’s not surprising that I was recently diagnosed with a form of ADD; what is surprising is that I went so long without that diagnosis. But ADD doesn’t always look like the hyperactive kid cutting up in the classroom and swinging off the lighting fixtures; it is also the well-behaved girl staring out the window, who has trouble paying consistent attention in class yet can hyper-focus enough to write a novel in six weeks or progress rapidly through tae kwon do.
Who wins prizes and acclaim while also concluding that something is innately wrong with her; that she is, in fact, an incompetent, especially if other people in her life are too happy to support this assessment.
Adderall, for all its stigma, is a godsend; it’s like LASIK for the brain and has changed my life.
But a brain of abnormal creativity or intellect or both (although studies indicate that degree of intelligence is not reflective of someone’s degree of creativity) is also that – abnormal. It fails to work in the so-called normal ways and perhaps because of this overcompensates in others — or vice versa.
The body gives you one thing, but takes away another. We only have so much material to work with.
What my ADD brain has in common with many highly creative people and also schizophrenics is this: an inability to properly filter stimuli. The world rushes inside you and gets jumbled in your head. This creates a habitual mental pattern of free-associating words, images, ideas, bits of knowledge; of putting things together in odd ways and finding good reasons to do so.
It also might create a compulsion for narration: for organizing experience into story, finding order and meaning and a calm otherwise denied it. When these patterns are coherent, you might have an original piece of art, or a major scientific breakthrough. When incoherent, you might have…a breakdown in the mental process.
There are healthy brains, and unhealthy brains, and somewhere in the middle there might be creative brains.
The brains that are the most creative might also be the closest to the edge.
“Exceptional creatives”, when compared to “normal” people (who do not earn significant income through creative work, at least as defined by this particular study), have an unusually high number of schizophrenic and mood-disordered people in their family.
Writers especially tend to have depression and bipolar disorder riding their genetics. Is this, again, a consequence of the brain’s odd functioning, an increasingly troubled way of processing world experience?
Adderall not only clarifies my thinking in a way that seems miraculous to me – lifting me out of some dusty corner office of my brain to the CEO suite – it also kills off my low-level depression, as well as the anxiety I used to associate with too much caffeine even on the days when I hadn’t had any (that lack of attention to detail…). This is not unusual, a psychiatrist informed me; depression and anxiety are sometimes not the root cause, but symptoms thrown off by something else. Like ADD.
The brain is a tangled affair.
Understanding this helped me realize that I don’t require solitude to be creative – often the opposite. I need color and action, beauty and ugliness, novelty and stimulation. I need all that…if just to space out in the middle of it.
I need solitude to recover. My brain rides high through a hailstorm of sensation – then hits a breaking point. That’s when I get edgy and bitchy and need – in every sense of the word – to get away from the party.
I remember school assignments that required you to hand in your brainstorming, note-taking, early drafts, etcetera, so that you could be graded on process as well as final product. They were a pain in the ass for me. My first draft was my final product. I would have to fake the “process”, sometimes so unconvincingly that the process mark would drag down my “real” mark and make me want to bang my head against my locker.
But so often it felt like that, and not just in school: like I was coming at life from the wrong angle.
When you’re a square peg who has spent so many years trying to fit yourself into the same round holes, sooner or later, in order to save yourself, you must admit the stupidity of the attempt. A square peg, no matter how attractive it looks on the outside, or how round it gets clever enough to pass itself off as – is still a square peg, and will be so forever and always.
Far better to chop out a place that you can breathe in, than to keep carving away pieces of yourself, especially when there are children in your life who might suffer the consequences alongside you – and others who will hand you the scalpel and point out the next part that needs to go. They might even cut it off for you.
So I had this idea in my head – this nice round hole of an idea – how a writer like me should go about writing. How I should find my room, just as Woolf said, and close the door.
And sometimes I need to do that. I need to soothe my odd little brain.
But maybe if I’d examined my life with more care, I would have realized that some of my most productive sessions happen in cafes or other places where, instead of shutting the world out, I could watch it go by, and let some of it in, and thrive off the energy it gives me.
After all, I’m a writer.
I like to watch.
So if my place isn’t at the center of things, it also isn’t removed to a room. I seem to flourish in the edges between, where there’s stuff to marvel at, and space to wander… and enough walls to ensure I drift back to my laptop instead of through Bloomingdale’s.