Saturday, October 16, 2004

Understaning the Impetus Behind the Fan-Fiction Phenomenon


Qualifying Statement:
I could not completely fulfill this assignment and write my own fan fiction because my computer’s logic board fried the day this assignment was given. I tried to access the fan fiction site with my work computer, but the internet filter wouldn’t allow me to access I believe, however, I have augmented the assignment, by researching and reading many articles and writing a paper that might help us understand why fan fiction writers compose voluminous prose. I’ve spent at least 15 hours researching and writing this.)

In her article, “Muse of the Hemispheres,”Dupree(2004) writes “William Faulkner didn't so much write "The Sound and the Fury" as erupt with it, pouring out the masterpiece in a matter of weeks, his words and ideas as unstoppable as a flood. ‘That emotion definite and physical yet nebulous to describe,’ he wrote of this creative explosion, ‘that ecstasy, that eager and joyous faith and anticipation of surprise.’ Like Faulkner, many writers have periods of frenzied inspiration. Where does that frenzy originate? It is an interesting question because others like Vincent Van Gogh and Dostoevsky were caught up in a creative frenzy of passion to create. As Flaherty (2003) points out, the same “frenetic” drive that pushed Van Gogh to produce a painting every 36 hours also pushed him to write two long letters a day to his brother, and Dostevsky to produce volumes of books, diary entries, and articles. What is it that makes creative writers like John Updike “see a blank sheet of paper as radiant, as the sun rising in the morning?” If we could answer that question, then perhaps we could better understand what motivates fan fiction writers on the internet.

I propose that the motivation that drives creative writers in the fan fiction realm is, to a lesser extent, the same motivation that drove great writers like Earnest Hemmingway and Alexander Dumas. It is in the physiological and cognitive structures of their brains where one might find the matrix of this motivation. Only by identifying and understanding the locus of this motivation can we better design instruction that will foster creative writing in the classroom.

What drives individuals with an obsession to write? Whether they write Tom Clancy novels or volumes of fan fiction blogs, what is the source of their drive? This obsessive drive to write is called hypergraphia. Hypergraphia is defined as the “overwhelming urge to write”.The desire to write is so powerful that it can drive one to write on toilet paper or write with one’s own blood. There is no evidence that all creative writers suffer with hypergraphia, but their symptoms are similar to hypergraphia.. For example, Melissa Wilson , a fan fiction writer states the following about her experience when she writes: “the story lines get stuck in my head until I can't concentrate on anything other than a particular plot or scene. In this case, writing is a means of self-defense. It either gets written, or I get carted away by nice folks wearing white.” Could it be that all creative writers suffer from some form of hypergraphia? It seems they at least suffer from some of the symptoms.

Assuming that creative writers suffer from hypergraphia—at least somewhat—what causes it? Alice Weaver Flaherty (2004), a Harvard professor and neurologist purports that one way it is caused is by temporal and frontal lobe damage. She states the following:

“The temporal lobes are important for producing literature, in part because they are necessary for understanding semantic meaning and also Meaning in its philosophical senses, as in the Meaning of Life. And changes in the temporal lobes can produce hypergraphia. One example of these changes is temporal-lobe epilepsy. Some people with epilepsy stemming from temporal-lobe damage have hypergraphia so strong that they will write on toilet paper or use their own blood for ink if nothing else is at hand.”

Imacura (1992) has also discovered that “Two different neurobehavioural abnormalities have been reported under the term hypergraphia. One has been described in temporal lobe epilepsies and the other in the acute stage of strokes of the right cerebral hemisphere”. Perhaps this is what invoked Dostevsky to go through his bouts of passion to write. Flaherty goes on to say, “Dostoevsky had temporal lobe epilepsy. Some, but not all, people with temporal lobe epilepsy have a group of five personality traits called the Geschwind syndrome, which includes hypergraphia, strong religious or philosophical interests, and wide mood swings. Just before a seizure, Dostoevsky would experience an ecstatic or religious aura in which the world was flooded with meaning.” During his hypergraphic episodes he would write incessantly.

It hardly seems likely that all fan fiction writers, or even a majority, suffer from lobe damage, but at least we know its in the temporal lobe where creativity and drive is contained. Is it possible that the temporal lobe of a fan fiction writer is different from others? If so, how is it different? Furthermore, as fan fictionists write, would brain scans detect wave activity in their frontal and temporal lobes? It seems brain waves in the lobe area of the brain would crackle with different patterns of activity.

Another observation by Flauherty states the following:

“A second region critical for creative writing is the limbic system, the seat of emotion and drive. It gets its name from the fact that it forms a limbus or ring deep under the cortex. It drives many functions we wish we had conscious control over, but don't: for instance, hunger and sexual desire, and the experience of inspiration. The limbic system connects more strongly to the temporal lobes than to any other region of the cortex. This strong connection underlies the importance of emotion and drive to creativity -- factors that are anatomically as well as conceptually distinct from the cognitive contributions of the rest of the cerebral cortex. The limbic system also reflects the importance of mood swings in driving creativity.”

The reason her observation is important to understand the fan fiction phenomena is because the drive to write is largely controlled by the limbic system. Therefore, the drive is “more important than talent in producing creative work. Researchers find that above an IQ of 115, there is essentially no correlation between creativity and intelligence. Rather, in Thomas A. Edison's words, "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration” (Flauherty, 2003).

There are other avenues of neurology that might account for drive and creativity in fan fiction writers. In Kaufman’s (2002), "Dissecting the Golden Goose: Components of Studying Creative Writers," he states that there is a strong relationship between creativity and increased cortical arousal, basal skin conductance, and EEGs. He says, “Results have been promising, with positive correlation found between higher skin conductance and higher arousal and higher measured amounts of creativity”. If a researcher would measure skin conductance and EEG’s of fan fiction writers to that of a control group, would their be a substantial difference?

Perhaps not all fan fiction writers possess certain limbic or lobe anomalies, but do alter their temporal limbic regions through drug use? According to Flauherty, “For a few creative people, drugs have opened the door to inspired hypergraphia. Robert Louis Stevenson reportedly penned ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ a 6,000-word book in six days, with the help of cocaine”. Stevenson’s account brings to mind this question: If drugs invoke inspiration, then what percentage of fan fiction writers use drugs? If the drugs really work, which one’s work better and why? Furthermore, if the drug is pinpointed, is there a safe non-addictive drug or herb that would elicit the same creativity? It is hardly unlikely, nevertheless, an interesting thing to ponder.

As mentioned before, what drives fan fiction writers is not entirely neurological, there are cognitive underpinnings as well. Research shows that creativity and ambition to write could be induced by different cognitive needs. These different needs manifest themselves as emotional, intellectual, and social.. When people have unmet needs, they seek for an outlet to fill those needs. When a charged lighting bolt strikes a weather vane, the energy is channeled down a conductive path (copper wire) that provides an outlet for the focused energy. Likewise, unmet needs in a person with a creative writing disposition, is like pent up energy that needs a channel to remove it. Cognitive constructs in the writer’s mind, channel energy through writing. This energy seeking for a path might be a need for praise, positive feelings, understanding, resolution, and identification.
Some creative writers are driven by a voracious appetite for validation and praise. In one such case of Melissa Wilson (2004), a prolific fan fiction writer, she claims that praise is the central dynamic of her motivation. She states:

Really, though, there is one single overriding reason that I and most everyone I know writes fan fiction for the Internet: FAN MAIL! Yes, I will admit to being a...[sleaze] for fan mail. One letter will put me on Cloud 9 for the entire day, and I've seen the same effect on my associates. Of course we write for the series, and for our own piece of mind, but nothing beats getting a letter in your INBOX stating "This is the best story I've read in ages!" Well, maybe getting a story dedicated to you from a new author who was inspired by your work can qualify, too.

Her motivation flies in the face, however, of Giovonni Moneta that states in his research that “money and praise, in interesting tasks has been systematically found to reduce intrinsic motivation”.

Flauherty also believes also that writing has the efficacy to elicit positive feelings in some people. In quoting another study, she states that there is evidence “that writing, at least on personally chosen subjects, has measurable mood effects. In both students and professional writers, the act of writing both intensified positive emotions and blunted negative ones.

There are also needs that could drive fan fiction writers to seek intellectual understanding. Lynn Chrenka (2004) makes this observation: “Writers can read what they have already written and use it as a springboard to further thinking and writing. Writing, then, may be considered a creative process that can generate thought…It is in writing something down that we may actually discover what we think. ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" E. M. Forster wondered.”

Sometimes, writers will use writing to bring resolution, at least Flauherty did. She suffered from the same compulsion to write as did Dostevsky. Her impulse to write wasn’t invoked, however, by frontal lobe damage but rather, from the trauma associated from giving birth to a set of twins after which they both passed away. In her book, Midnight Disease she shares her experience (The title is another name for hypergraphia.), after losing a set of twins, she said "the sight of a computer keyboard or a blank page gave me the same rush that drug addicts get from seeing their freebasing paraphernalia". In an interview with Houghton Mifflin (2004), she describes her experience:

“Well, it started after I gave birth prematurely to twin boys who died. For ten days I was filled with sorrow. Then suddenly, as if someone had thrown a switch, I was wildly agitated, full of ideas, all of them pressing to be written down. Because I was holed up in my office all the time, my friends worried that I was depressed, but I felt quite the opposite. As a neurologist, I had heard of the phenomenon of hypergraphia and was pretty sure that was what I had. That phase lasted about four months.”
Another reason why creative writers might be motivated to write fan fiction is because they identify with their creative counterparts. Birds of a feather, flock together, is not only true of fowl but perhaps fan fiction writers as well. They, like all people, possess an innate desire to have a sense of belonging whether to a family, friendship, marriage, culture, or country. They want to associate with others of similar values, interests, desires, and needs. In Kaufman’s seminal study on creative writers, he found that writers are a very homogenous group with many similar personality characteristics and backgrounds. In his research, Kaufman supports the idea that creative writers have many similar characteristics. Creative writers tend to be the following:

• Open, impulsive, anxious, driven, hostile, affective, emotionally unstable, less socialized, unconforming (Feist, 1999)
• Tend to suffer from bipolar disorders (Andreason, 1999)
• Are either Extraverted-Intuitive-Feeling-Perceptive or Introverted-Intuitive-thinking-Judging (Hall & MacKinnon, 1969)
• Firstborn children (Roe, 1952; Simonton, 1987)
• Come from non-abusive homes that “does not appreciate or encourage literary interests”
• Experienced an early death of a parent (One study showed a figure of 55% for poets and writers; F. Brown, 1968)
• Had mothers who were not as emotionally involved, self-confident, had higher occupational levels and higher levels of divergent thinking (Runco, 1986)

Perhaps fan fictions writers are motivated to write because they want the association with those they can identify with.

There are many unanswered questions about creative writers, but perhaps neurological and cognitive science might help us find answers to these questions. These answers might not only help us understand great writers of the past like Victor Hugo and Jane Austen, but these answers might help us create great writers for the future—our children.


At October 17, 2004 at 7:36 PM, Blogger bhchia said...

awesome post curtis.

Its a crying shame you are posting in a environment. This post should be categorised somewhere so that readers can comment and share insights with you.

'Dr. Merlin's guide' was a gem. I benefited from reading your post. Thanks.


At October 21, 2004 at 12:09 PM, Blogger Kami said...

I have actually been to your blog before, I just haven't gotten into the habit of posting yet, and I have been very impressed. Like your powerpoints, your addition of graphics is impressive. You always seem to find the appropriate picture.

Your posting on Fan Fiction was very nice, you are a good writer; quite prolific in this case. I think that with the research that you did, I will refer back to your recent blog if I have to write a paper on this topic. However, I was more interested in your "Epiphany" post. I think that it is important for those of us in the cohort group to get a good idea of the reality of instructional technology. It is so much more than we have currently been exposed to. Your blog said it all, and i think that the rest of us felt the same.

Keep posting great stuff Curt!

At October 28, 2004 at 2:35 PM, Blogger David said...

Hypergraphia. I'll readily admit its a term I've never heard before, though I think I encountered something like it as a grad student. One look at all the garbage I was writing during that period should be proof. I would lay in bed, unable to sleep, obsessing about learning objects. Cutting the grass, doing the dishes, reading scriptures or anything else, I was always wanting to be writing about learning objects. Despite the many other excellent points to your post, this is the one that sank home for me.

At October 28, 2004 at 9:15 PM, Blogger Mark said...

Curt I'm impressed. This article opened my eyes to a whole new concept of blogging. You're awesome!


At December 11, 2007 at 8:35 AM, Blogger Nilo said...

Hi Curt, I'm writing a paper on hyperfiction and dropped by your text on fan-fiction. It's really good. Your dedication and discipline for researching and writing are impressive. By the way, I'm thinking of using the picture to ellustrate my work. If you want, I can send you later. Who's the author? You? Can I use it? I was thinking of refering back to But now I've found your blog.
My article will be publish on the web, since it's part of a University publication:

Nilo Rocha, city of Fortaleza,Brazil.
Visit my site:


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