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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.

Is sexed text a case of writing wrongs? A brief look at erotographomania

In a previous blog I briefly looked at graphomania, which in a psychiatric context, relates to a morbid mental condition that manifests itself in written ramblings and confused statements. Graphomania in a non-psychiatric context typically concerns the urge or need to write to excess (and not necessarily in a professional context). Today’s blog looks at what I see as a sub-variant of this that has been termed ‘erotographomania’ although compared to ‘graphomania’ more generally, there seems to be a lot of different operational definitions of what erotographomania actually refers to. For instance:

  • Dr. Anil Aggrawal’s book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices defines erotographomania as when individuals derive sexual pleasure and arousal from writing love poems or letters.
  • Like Dr. Aggrawal’s book, Dr. Brenda Love’s Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices defines erotographomania as sexual arousal from writing love poems or letters but adds that the condition was “more common before the invention of the telephone”.
  • In the 2005 edition of the Comprehensive Textbook of Sexual Medicine (edited by Dr. Nilamadhab Kar and Gopal Chandra Kar), erotographomania is defined as sexual gratification through obscene writing. Citing from Dr. J.B. Mukherjee’s 1985 book Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, it is reported that erotographomania comprises “drawing obscene pictures and diagrams in lavatories, public urinals or writing obscene anonymous letters to young girls”.
  • In an article on ‘manifestly manifolded manias’ in a 1986 issue of the Journal of Recreational Linguistics, Paul Hellweg defined erotographomania as the abnormal interest in erotic literature”.
  • The Right Diagnosis website claims that erotographomania can comprise either and/or the (i) compulsive desire to write love letters, (ii) compulsive desire to write love poems, and (iii) abnormal interest in erotic literature. It also claims that treatment for the condition “may not be sought unless the condition becomes problematic for the person in some way, and they feel compelled to address their condition. Many people simply learn to accept their fetish and manage to achieve sexual gratification in a satisfactory manner”.
  • The Encyclo (online encyclopedia) defines erotographomania as (i) an obsession to write love letters or to write erotic or pornographic literature, (ii) an abnormal interest in erotic literature, and (iii) in psychiatry, a morbid impulse to write love letters (generally written anonymously).

Obviously the numerous definitions outlined have clear overlaps, but there is no consensus on the exact erotic or (potentially paraphilic) focus. In my research for this article I couldn’t find a single academic or clinical article on the topic, just brief definitional mentions (of which the above list was comprised). Brenda Love’s comment (above) that the condition was more common before the telephone may be why there appear more mentions of the condition historically than in contemporary texts (for instance, erotographomania was mentioned in Edward Podolsky’s 1953 Encyclopedia of Aberrations, although again, there was no substance to what was written).

I did come across two books both entitled ‘Erotographomania’. The first was published in 2005 by Mike Martin (the full title of which was Erotographomania: Cruel Nostalgia), while the second one was published in 2008 by Rebecca Smith (and simply called Erotographomania). However, neither book was academic and neither provided any insight into the condition. I also came across an online academic article written in 2010 on love letters written by Kristine Trever. Writing about her own urges to write love letters:

“What happens to that urge to write out our love and desires and emotions in some concrete, tangible way to someone else..? And more importantly where does that urge come from?…I recall an overwhelming need to express something because of the influence of something else, because of an experience that touched me, reminded me, inspired me to share. I read a story that included a poem and through the existence of these two external items, the urge hooked me, the impulse too great to deny. I was overcome. The power of the pencil took over…If this all sounds crazy, impulsive, erratic, wild, unabashed and/or idiotic, itʼs critical to note that there is an actual disease called erotographomania, which is the compulsive act of writing and writing and writing and writing and writing and writing love letters. The OCD recipe for lovers”.

The Australian musician and songwriter Nick Cave gave a lecture in 1999 on love songs and claimed that he and a friend both had erotographomania. In his lecture he said:

“The reasons why I feel compelled to sit down and write love songs are legion. Some of these came clearer to me when I sat down with a friend of mine, who for the sake of his anonymity I will refer to as J.J. and I admitted to each other that we both suffered from psychological disorder that the medical profession call erotographomania. Erotographomania is the obsessive desire to write love letters. My friend shared that he had written and sent, over the last five years, more than seven thousand love letters to his wife. My friend looked exhausted and his shame was almost palpable. I suffer from the same disease but happily have yet to reach such an advanced stage as my poor friend J. We discussed the power of the love letter and found that it was, not surprisingly, very similar to the love song. Both served as extended meditations on ones beloved. Both served to shorten the distance between the writer and the recipient. Both held within them a permanence and power that the spoken word did not. Both were erotic exercises, in themselves. Both had the potential to reinvent, through words, like Pygmalion with his self-created lover of stone, one’s beloved. Alas, the most endearing form of correspondence, the love letter, like the love song has suffered at the hands of the cold speed of technology, at the carelessness and soullessness of our age”.

Maybe there is something in the Australian psyche when it comes to erotographomania as (during my research) I came across an Australian art exhibition on the topic that featured the work of Dejan Kaludjerovic, Claire Lambe, Nancy Mauro-Flude, Sally Rees, Noel Skrzypczak, Ben Terakes, and Paul Emmanuel. The exhibition was curated by Sarah Jones, who wrote that:

“Erotographomania (originally a term for perverse and obsessive love letter writing) aims to make parallels between the unconscious investment that artists make to address an audience and the intense erotic delusions played out in the exchange of love letters. Both produce a circuit of libidinal exchange that demands recognition. Both involve a fraught transferential displacement centred on an object of communication. Erotographomania explores pathos; the element of sadness and regret that flows between the ‘sender’ and the ‘addressee’ that becomes injected into the dubious presence of the world of objects; reflected there; contaminated by a past relentlessly regurgitated into the present. The exchange between the artist, the work and the audience remains confused and in flux, like that of the lover, the loved, the author and the intended beneficiary”.

Given an almost complete absence of academic and clinical reference to erotographomania, it begs the question of why it’s not been a topic of empirical investigation. Maybe the topic is being actively researched but no-one is calling it erotographomania. Many cyberpsychologists (including myself) have studied cybersexual behaviour that includes the sending of sexually arousing erotic emails to each other. Some of my academic papers on online sex (a few of which I’ve listed in the ‘further reading’ section below) make reference to online behaviours that fit some of the operational definitions of erotographomania outlined at the start of this article. Maybe it’s about time I wrote an article letting the cyberpsychology community know that they are simply researching an old phenomenon in a new environment.

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

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Cave, N. (1999). Love Song Lecture September 25. Transcription of lecture at: http://everything2.com/title/Nick+Cave%2527s+Love+Song+Lecture

Encyclo Online Encyclopedia (2012). Erotographomania. Located at: http://www.encyclo.co.uk/define/erotographomania

Griffiths, M.D. (2000).  Excessive internet use: Implications for sexual behavior. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 3, 537-552.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2001).  Sex on the internet: Observations and implications for sex addiction. Journal of Sex Research, 38, 333-342.

Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Sex addiction on the Internet. Janus Head: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature, Continental Philosophy, Phenomenological Psychology and the Arts, 7(2), 188-217.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet sex addiction: A review of empirical research. Addiction Research and Theory, 20, 111-124.

Hellweg, P. (1986). Manifestly manifolded manias. Journal of Recreational Linguistics, 19(2), 100-108.

Kar, N. & Kar, G.C. (2005). Comprehensive Textbook of Sexual Medicine. New Delhi: Jaypee Brothers Medical Publishers.

Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.

Martin, M. (2005). Erotographomania: Cruel Nostalgia. BookSurge Publishing.

Mukherjee, J.B. (1985). Forensic Medicine and Toxicology. London: Academic Publishers.

Podolsky, E. (1953). Encyclopedia of Aberrations: A Psychiatric Handbook. London: Arco.

Right Diagnosis  (2012). Erotographomania, February 1. http://www.rightdiagnosis.com/e/erotographomania/intro.htm

Smith, R. (2008). Erotographomania. Blurb Publishing (http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/1468330)

Trever, K. (2010). How to write a love letter, or how do you write a love letter? Located at: http://www.kristinetrever.com/pdf/LoveLetter-Trever.pdf