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The prose and cons: A brief look at ‘poetry addiction’

Back in May 2014, I gave a whole afternoon of talks on behavioural addictions (including gambling and gaming addiction) at Castle Craig, an inpatient addiction treatment centre in Scotland. One of the most interesting people I met there was the psychotherapist Christopher Burn who on the back of his latest book Poetry Changes Lives describes himself as “a history addict, grandfather, recovering alcoholic, and poetry fanatic”. Maybe I’ll write a blog on what it is to be a “history addict” in a future blog, but this article will briefly look at an article just published by Burn on ‘poetry addiction’.

Anyone that knows me will tell you that writing is an important activity in my life. Many of my friends and colleagues describe me as a ‘writaholic’ and that I am addicted to writing because of the number of articles that I have published. Regular readers of my blog will also know that I have written articles on obsessional writing (graphomania), obsessional erotic writing (erotographomania), diary writing, excessive blog writing, and excessive (productive) writing.

Although I wouldn’t describe myself as a ‘poetry fanatic’ I do love writing poetry myself and have had a number of my poems published. In fact, in 1997, I won a national Poetry Today competition for the best (20 lines and under) poem for An Alliteration of Life. Burn’s article on ‘addiction to the act of writing poetry (like his latest book) is an interesting read. Burn has even coined a new term for addiction to poetry – ‘poesegraphilia’. Burn notes that the Irish dramatist George Farquar said that poetry was a “mere drug” and that:

“Many poets, great and not so great, have suffered from addiction to mood altering substances – Coleridge, Rimbaud and Dylan Thomas (‘the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’) spring to mind. Many great poems have been written about addiction too. It seems however that very little attention has been given to the addictive power generated by the act of writing poetry itself. One thing is for sure – poetry has a power to alter our mood – not normally in the pernicious or directly physical manner of say, a line of cocaine, but in a pervasive and generally enjoyable way that can usually only be helpful. This mood changing effect can come from either reading or writing poetry but of the two, it is poetry writing that is the most dramatic”.

As an amateur poet myself, I know only too well the emotional power of words and that words can have a mood altering effect (both positive and negative). There is even ‘poetry therapy’ and (in the USA) a National Association for Poetry Therapy and an Institute for Poetic Medicine that advocates the intentional use of poetry and other forms of literature for healing and personal growth”. (For a concise overview of ‘poetry therapy’ check out this article on the GoodTherapy website). Burn says that “writing poetry may not affect a person’s life with the degree of powerlessness and unmanageability that say, alcohol does, but it can still have a very marked influence”. He then includes part of an interview transcript from BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs programme with Les Murray, an Australian poet:

“It’s wonderful, there’s nothing else like it, you write in a trance. And the trance is completely addictive, you love it, you want more of it. Once you’ve written the poem and had the trance, polished it and so on, you can go back to the poem and have a trace of that trance, have the shadow of it, but you can’t have it fully again. It seemed to be a knack I discovered as I went along. It’s an integration of the body-mind and the dreaming-mind and the daylight-conscious-mind. All three are firing at once, they’re all in concert. You can be sitting there but inwardly dancing, and the breath and the weight and everything else are involved, you’re fully alive. It takes a while to get into it. You have to have some key, like say a phrase or a few phrases or a subject matter or maybe even a tune to get you started going towards it, and it starts to accumulate. Sometimes it starts without your knowing that you’re getting there, and it builds in your mind like a pressure. I once described it as being like a painless headache, and you know there’s a poem in there, but you have to wait until the words form”.

I’ve always argued that anything can be addictive if it is something that can constantly reinforce and reward behaviour. Theoretically, there is no reason why writing poetry could not be mood modifying and potentially addictive. As Burn observes:

“Many poets talk about the dream-like trance that envelops them during the act of creating poetry and how this can last sometimes for days. This is not a simple cathartic event, which can happen too, but a state that affects mind, body and spirit. Here is poet and author Robert Graves on the subject: ‘No poem is worth anything unless it starts from a poetic trance, out of which you can be wakened by interruption as from a dream. In fact, it is the same thing’. All this trance-like sensation sounds to me a bit like the effect that certain mood altering substances can have, and we know how addictive they can be”.

Burn then goes on to question whether the act of writing poetry can be clinically classed as an addiction. To do this, he uses criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM] and argues that the act of writing poetry could potentially meet some of the criteria for addiction including: (i) persisting with the habit to the detriment of other activities and relationships, (ii) increased tolerance, (iii) unsuccessful attempts to stop, (iv) increase in time spent on the activity, and (v) persisting with the habit despite knowledge of negative consequences. Based on this he then goes on to argue:

“It seems to me that there is enough anecdotal evidence to indicate that for some people, poetry, in particular the act of writing poetry, is a powerful and addictive behaviour that meets at least a few of these [DSM] criteria…Problem gamblers often talk of the trance-like state they get into when for example, playing slot machines; reality and awareness of the world around them disappears and everything is focused on them to and the moment. As in poetry writing. British poet JLS Carter describes poetic creation as ‘An addiction – you can go for days thinking of nothing else, in a kind of trance where all other thoughts and considerations are sidelined. That way madness lies’. By its very nature, poetry puts a special power into words that affects us in a way that most conversation or written narrative does not. Poetry gets under our skin, alters our moods and stays in our head in a special way”.

Much of Burn’s admittedly anecdotal argument that poetry can be addictive all comes down to how addiction is defined in the first place and also takes the implicit view that some activities can be what Dr. Bill Glasser would call ‘positive addictions’ in that there are some behaviours that can have positive as well as negative consequences. However, for me, there is also the question of whether positive addictions are “addictions” at all. Have a quick look at Glasser’s criteria for positive addictions below. For an activity to be classed as a positive addiction, Glasser says the behaviour must be:

  • Non-competitive and needing about an hour a day
  • Easy, so no mental effort is required
  • Easy to be done alone, not dependent on people
  • Believed to be having some value (physical, mental, spiritual)
  • Believed that if persisted in, some improvement will result
  • Involve no self-criticism.

Most of these could apply to ‘poetry addiction’ but to me, these criteria have little resemblance to the core criteria or components of addictions (such as salience, withdrawal, tolerance, mood modification, conflict, relapse, etc.). My own view is that ‘positive addiction’ is an oxymoron and although I am the first to admit that some potential addictions might have benefits that are more than just short-term (as in the case of addictions to work or exercise), addictions will always be negative for the individual in the long run. Although no-one is ever likely to seek treatment for an addiction to writing poetry, it doesn’t mean that we can’t use activities like writing poetry to help us define and refine how we conceptualize behavioural addictions.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Burn, C. (2015). Poetry Changes Lives. Biggar: DHH Publishing.

Burn, C. (2016). Poesegraphilia – Addiction to the act of writing poetry. Poetry Changes Lives, May 27. Located at: http://www.poetrychangeslives.com/addiction-to-the-act-of-writing-poetry/

Glasser, W. (1976), Positive Addictions, Harper & Row, New York, NY.

GoodTherapy.Org (2016). Poetry therapy. Located at: http://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/poetry-therapy

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Behavioural addiction: The case for a biopsychosocial approach. Trangressive Culture, 1, 7-28.

Klein. P. (2006). The therapeutic benefit of poetry. The Therapist. Located at: http://phyllisklein.com/writing-for-healing/the-therapeutic-benefit-of-poetry/

Larkin, M., Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Towards addiction as relationship. Addiction Research and Theory, 14, 207-215.

Penned in: How to become an excessive (and productive) writer

Many people that I know would probably describe me as a ‘writaholic’ based on the number of articles and papers that I have had published. When it comes to addictions in academia, ‘writing addiction’ is just about the best one you can have. I don’t believe I have an addiction to writing but it is a very salient activity in my life and I am a habitual writer and I write every day. In previous blogs I examined diary writing and psychological wellbeing as well as an article on graphomania (obsessive writing). Today’s blog briefly examines some of the things that make people more productive writers (and by definition a more excessive writer). During my career I’ve published many articles on the writing process (see ‘Further reading’ below) and today’s blog looks at some of my beliefs and practices.

Before outlining some general advice, it’s also worth exploring many of the false beliefs that many of us have about writing – beliefs which may explain why many of us don’t like writing. For instance:

  • Writing is inherently difficult: Like speaking, writing doesn’t need to be perfect to be effective and satisfying.
  • Good writing must be original: Little, if any, of what we write is truly original. What makes our ideas worthwhile communicating is the way we present them.
  • Good writing must be perfect preferably in a single draft: In general, the more successful writers are more likely to revise manuscripts.
  • Good writing must be spontaneous: There appears to be a belief that writing should await inspiration. However, the most productive and satisfying way to write is habitually, regardless of mood or inspiration. Writers who overvalue spontaneity tend to postpone writing, and if they write at all, they write in binges that they associate with fatigue.
  • Good writing must proceed quickly: Procrastination goes hand in hand with impatience. Those writers who often delay writing suppose that writing must proceed quickly and effortlessly. However, good writing can often proceed at a slow pace over a lengthy period of time.
  • Good writing is delayed until the right mood with big blocks of undisrupted time available: Good writing can take place in any mood at any time. It is better to write habitually in short periods every day rather than in binges.
  • Good writers are born not made: Good writing is a process that can be learned like any other behaviour.
  • Good writers do not share their writing until it is finished and perfect: Although some writers are independent, many writers share their ideas and plans at an early stage and then get colleagues to read over their early drafts for comments and ideas.

Even when these false beliefs about writing are dispelled, many of us can still have problems putting pen to paper or finger to keypad. Insights about writing only slowly translate into actions. For most professionals, writing is only done out of necessity (i.e., a report that they have to hand in). This produces a feeling of ‘having to write’ rather than ‘wanting to write’ and can lead to boredom and/or anxiety. Furthermore, most people appear to view writing as a private act in which their problems are unique and embarrassing. Strategies for overcoming this include getting colleagues to criticize their own work before going ‘public’, sharing initial plans and ideas with others, and practising reviewing other people’s work.

It is generally acknowledged that there is no one proven effective method above all others for teaching people to become better writers. It is also a process that can be learned and can aid learning (i.e., a skill learned through opportunities to write and from instructional feedback). Although there are no ‘quick fixes’ to becoming a better writer, here are some general tips on how to make your writing more productive. I would advise you to:

  • Establish a regular place where all serious writing is done
  • Remove distracting temptations from the writing site (e.g., magazines, television)
  • Leave other activities (e.g., washing up, making the dinner) until after writing
  • Limit potential interruptions (e.g., put a “Do not disturb” sign on the door, unplug the telephone)
  • Make the writing site as comfortable as possible
  • Make recurrent activities (e.g., telephone calls, coffee making) dependent upon minimum periods of writing first
  • Write while ‘feeling fresh’ and leave mentally untaxing activities until later in the day
  • Plan beyond daily goals and be realistic about what can be written in the time available
  • Plan and schedule writing tasks into manageable units
  • Complete one section of writing at a time if the writing is in sections
  • Use a word processor to make drafting easier
  • Revise and redraft at least twice
  • Write daily rather than ‘bingeing’ all in one go
  • Share writing with peers as people are more helpful, judgmental and critical on ‘unfinished’ drafts

Obviously, the problem with such a prescriptive list such as this is that not every suggestion will work for everyone. Many of us know our own limitations and create the right conditions to help get the creative juices going. Some people can’t write in silence or with others in the room. By reading this short blog I cannot make you become a more productive and excessive writer overnight. However, it has hopefully equipped my blog readers with some tips and discussion points that may help in facilitating better writing amongst yourselves and colleagues.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1994). Productive writing in the education system. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 7, 460-462.

Griffiths, M.D. (2001). How to…get students to write with confidence. Times Higher Education Supplement, June 8, p.24.

Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Tips on…Report writing. British Medical Journal (Careers), 328, 28.

Griffiths, M.D. (1998). Writing for non-refereed outlets (Part 1 – Professional journals and newsletters). Psy-PAG Quarterly, 29, 41-42.

Griffiths, M.D. (1999). Writing for non-refereed outlets (Part 2 – Newspapers and magazines). Psy-PAG Quarterly, 30, 5-6.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Writing and getting published – My top 10 tips. Psy-PAG Quarterly, 34, 2-4.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Addiction, fiction and media depiction: A light-hearted look at scientific writing and the media. Null Hypothesis: The Journal of Unlikely Science, 2(2), 16-17.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Top tips on…Writing with confidence. Psy-PAG Quarterly, 76, 33-34.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). How writing blogs can help your academic career. Psy-PAG Quarterly, 87, 39-40.

Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Top tips on…Writing blogs. Psy-PAG Quarterly, 90, 13-14.