Writing and ADHD

1. Will You Please Just Sit Down And Write?

Last August I started to dedicate much of my writing efforts to writing fiction. I realized that both of my blogs — Jeff’s ADD Mind and The Day’s Rant — still didn’t allow me to fully express myself. I wanted to be able to illustrate how personal and socio-political issues express themselves in our daily life. I shared with a number of trusted friends and relatives what, I believed, was a brilliant first draft of my brilliant, and first, short story. Though I didn’t quit my day job to dedicate myself to my writing, I was sure I would quickly land a major writing contract and cash advance. Then the comments flowed in.

“Three sex scenes in a short story? Really? Are you kidding me?”

“I had to reread some parts over and over to understand what you were trying to do.”

“Please please stop changing tenses mid-sentence.”

I got the hint.

I needed to learn how to write fiction.

And I needed to polish up my grammar skills.

I purchased the five volume set Write Great Fiction and read various posts on the Writer’s Digest website. I learned how a story is crafted and, in the process, learned about myself and my ADHD. Problems that I thought were a result of ADHD were really a result of how hard it is to write good fiction. I was also surprised by the odd things that writers do in order to write. Some pace back and forth (Philip Roth); listen to hard rock (Stephen King); write standing up (Ernest Hemingway); write lying down (Truman Capote). Depending on what I am struggling to write, I may stand in front of my computer, swaying side to side, mindlessly singing to Pink Floyd while repeatedly typing the same sentence, each time with a slightly different structure and a slightly different metaphor. Eventually the sentence does what I want it to do.

I also learned that ideas really do come to you at anytime in any place. While walking the dogs I may be struck with just the right metaphor that had been dogging me — slight pun intended — for a few days. One line in an episode of Fringe, a paragraph in Scientific American Mind, or reading a short story while on the treadmill, may open up a creative window. I’ve typed many paragraphs into my Blackberry while on a treadmill.

So it turns out that many of the problems I’ve had with my writing are the problems that every writer faces. My solutions — pacing; listening to music, etc. — are the solutions used by many writers. The one difference is that my problems might be made worse by ADHD.

2. You Forgot What I Told You Two Minutes Ago?

Many ADHDers have porous memories. It’s as if they were born with early onset Alzheimer’s. As youngsters they would forget homework assignments, projects, dates for tests. As adults they would forget to pay phone bills, make mortgage payments, or be unprepared for important business meetings. What may be easy for the non-ADHDer is fraught with anxiety for the ADHDer who repeatedly runs through a mental checklist for even the mundane aspects of daily life. Imagine my surprise when it was pointed out to me that I have an amazing memory. Yes. An ADHDer with an amazing memory. Who knew?

The paragraph below is the opening of Part II of Comfort Food (Part I is here). I sweated over this paragraph. Literally. Its one hundred and ninety words contain ideas that, in previous drafts, took several paragraphs to flesh out. It is based on events from thirty years ago.

I could never understand the logic of spray painting warehouse window panes that were ten feet above the ground. While the dark blue prevented very tall people from peering inside, the paint also sealed the windows shut. This wasn’t a problem in the winter but during August heat waves it made the warehouse stiflingly hot. After an hour of carrying boxes from the floor pallets to the truck, then sliding and stacking them into place, my body would be coated with sweat mixed with potato dust. This had a gritty, irritating feel like suntan lotion and beach sand. The potato dust was a year-round problem, worsened by the summer heat. Every Friday at 4:30 AM a fresh delivery of potato dust came along with the fresh baked, packaged and boxed potato chips. The Hippie, the pony-tailed, jeans-and-cowboy-boots trucker, said that the same trailer used to haul potatoes from the field to the factory was used to bring the boxes of potato chips to our Brooklyn warehouse. Often the demands of production and delivery made it impossible to clean out the trailer before loading it up with the boxes.

I shared this paragraph with a few close relatives who were familiar with the events. One wrote the following in response.

“How do you remember the painted windows in the warehouse? WOW!!! I did not pick up, so vividly, what I would consider, such a minor detail, those painted shut windows.”

My initial thought was, how could you not remember the painted windows. It was a prominent feature of the warehouse. The more I puzzled over her reaction, the more I realized that, perhaps, my memory works in a somewhat different way than it does for others. When the creative juices are flowing I can mentally walk through the images of the past. I can describe what I see and, while in that creative state, recall many of the thoughts and emotions associated with it. What I described in the paragraph above is, in essence, a description of the image that’s burned into my memory.

So I really can remember things. But not if they are related to being a responsible adult and certainly not if they are told to me by my wife. This last characteristic might be universal to all married men but exacerbated by ADHD.

3. Sorry, Virginia, But It Seems That Medication May Affect Your Creativity

I think that ADHD medication might, in some cases, negatively affect creativity. I’ve stated unequivocally that that’s not the case but now I think it’s a bit more complex than I realized. Having gone undiagnosed for several decades, my first medication post-diagnosis was Wellbutrin. I felt wonderful. I was getting things done. But a few years ago I hit a plateau so I took Vyvanse in addition to the Wellbutrin. Things were great, or so it seemed. Last year I weaned myself off of all medication but realized I could not survive without it. In September I went on Adderall.

That brief respite from all medication made me realize that medication and creativity may be locked in a battle of control. Without medication you are flooded by creative juices but you can’t hold onto anything for very long so you don’t produce anything. Too much medication turns you into a “productivity machine” that can edit what you’ve written in the past but you can’t come up with new ideas. The question is, how do you balance the two? My solution has been to play games with my medication. I slice up the Adderall and take minute dosages, looking for that point where productivity increases without stifling creativity. Sometimes I under-medicate and, not surprisingly, sometimes I over-medicate.

When I complete one of my stories, you’ll know that I found the correct balance.


[Note: This was originally published at A Writer's Mind.]

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  • Anonymous

    Jeff, as you say in #1… ”I also learned that ideas really do come to you at anytime in any place.”….But then there are some activities (things I do when I am alone at home, in or outside) that seam to the times that I have a better chance of remembering them. The problem is being able to, or have enough discipline, write them down later. Or if I do write them down as a blog post (for example) on my own very primitive and virtually unknown blog, they don’t satisfy me and I either delete them or store in my overloaded “saved draft” option.In #2 you bring up something that I wonder about allot. How can it be that I can remember so vividly certain things I saw and how I thought about them at that time so many years ago? Little things that just don’t seam to make any sense to me why I would remember those things. Like one of my gradeschool teachers said about how she didn’t like to wash her hair in the shower because it makes her feel dizzy (true story and I was only about 6 or 7yrs old at that time). #3 about medications: You said: ” My solution has been to play games with my medication. I slice up the Adderall and take minute dosages, looking for that point where productivity increases without stifling creativity. Sometimes I under-medicate and, not surprisingly, sometimes I over-medicate.” Me too, and I don’t know the answer yet…some days are better than others is all I know about that. :)

    • http://jeffsaddmind.com Jeffs ADD Mind

      Scott, I always have something with me to record ideas, whether it’s a notebook and pen or just typing an email to myself in my phone. Sometimes I’ve pulled the car over to the side so I could jot down an idea.

      And I admit, I have an embarrassing number of draft posts, many of which may never see the light of day.

      • Anonymous

        Jeff , while this is still “fresh” on my mind> Just a few minutes ago I added another post (that was going very well this time) to my draft box. I hope to finish it because it is the best work I have done in a long time. What has happened is kinda hard to explain, so I will make this as short as I can. It was like a bright light that was wired temporarily and the wire nut on one of the wires fell off…lights out. So I walked outside, turned off the water to the garden sprinkler, and was confident that I could just put that wire nut back on, give it an extra twist or two to ensure a good connection and the light would burn as bright or even brighter because I had resolved an issue (turning off the sprinkler) that was most likely in the back of my mind and causing a distraction. But I am still drawing a blank and can’t seam to find the words that were flowing so quickly with little effort just 30 minutes ago. That’s all I have to say about that for now.

        • http://jeffsaddmind.com Jeffs ADD Mind

          I’m aware of that problem. The only resolution is to figure out what caused the wire to come loose. Are you sensitive to bright light, noises, or some other stimuli that causes the wire to come loose? If you can figure that out, you might be able to increase productive writing moments from 30 minutes to an hour or more.

          • Anonymous

            Yes I am sensitive to noises in a way. I am startled very easily nowadays. Which I have learned is a common symptom that comes with the autoimmune stuff I have to deal with. It did happen that my wife walked in the living room (where I do all my reading, study, and laptop computer things) and asked me something while I was writing and I “jumped”. She apologized immediately because she realized it startled me. I feel sorry for her having to see these symptoms and feel responsible in any way for causing my reaction. I need to maybe tell her before I sit and begin writing and explain why. I will begin by telling her about this post and your suggestions. Thanks Jeff!

  • http://www.adhdrollercoaster.org Gina Pera

    Jeff – - Surely over-medication can negatively affect “creativity” — which is a very squishy term and concept. But so can under-medication, for lack of a better term.

    Sometimes, I’ve observed, ADHD can create a “marijuana”-like halo around one’s ideas, seeing them as more brilliant or original than they truly are.

    Sometimes ADHD even distorts one’s memories. I’ve noticed that my husband’s recall is much more accurate now than it used to be in pre-diagnosis days, when he’d “remember” non-existent details, conflate different events, and often make events an order of magnitude more extreme or dramatic.

    We know, in general, that human memory is fallible. So, I think we’d need a little independent corroboration before we definitively conclude that the factual memories of folks with ADHD are entirely reliable, even if vividly recalled.

    One thing is for sure, though: Clear, cogent writing takes a lot of single-minded focus. Yes, it requires brainstorming ideas to write about. But effective writing also requires, in my opinion, much more separating the brainstorm’s wheat from the chaff, not to mention re-writing with an eye towards empathy for the reader.  In short, writing is not easy for anyone but the extremely gifted.


    • http://jeffsaddmind.com Jeffs ADD Mind

      I’ve moved beyond the halo stage. I can bounce in and out of writing/editing/reading mode so that what I thought was brilliant in the morning turns out to be not so brilliant in the afternoon.

      I’m getting better at separating wheat from chaff, but what I’ve found from reading about other authors processes is that they don’t vary that much from mine (or mine doesn’t vary much from theirs). I’m not claiming brilliance or anything like that, but that every writer works damn hard to create a storyline that’s coherent and ADHD is just another factor that makes a difficult process even more difficult.

      I believe that everyone’s memory is, to some degree, like a fun house mirror, but those with the “gift” of ADHD (and other “gifts”) may have a bit more curvature, i.e., distortion, in their mirror. ;)

      “writing is not easy for anyone but the extremely gifted” – Absolutely agreed.

      • http://www.adhdrollercoaster.org Gina Pera

         I’m glad you are enjoying your writing. I enjoy it, too!

        I’m just always astounded when people say they love to write. I hate to write. lol!  I’m starting a new book now, and I am agonizing over it. Will I be able to gather my thoughts? Will I zero in on the right information for the target audience? Will I present it in a coherent and entertaining style? 

        I absolutely hate all of it. It makes me crabby and tense.  Preoccupied. 

        Even my mother asked me years ago, “Writing is so hard. Why do you want to do that for a living?”  I didn’t have an answer.  I didn’t like writing then, either; it was like pulling teeth. But I had information to share. Writing was just the tedious means to an end. 

        I’d rather be out in the garden or giving presentations.  But no, I’m reading through research studies, putting dividers into a big notebook and labeling each with a chapter number. Putting the structure that will, I hope, aid the birth process.  Mostly, in almost every waking moment, I am thinking, thinking, thinking, about how to approach this.

        PITA! lol!


        • http://jeffsaddmind.com Jeffs ADD Mind

          The type of writing you are doing, where you are bringing together all that material and trying to get it to coalesce into something coherent, *that* reminds me too much of what I did in graduate school and *that* is the type of writing I hate.

          The fun I’m having is inventing characters and trying to make them seem real and say what I need them to say. Forget for the moment whether I am doing a good job at it. That’s a different story. But in a passage I’ve been working on for about a week (I only get an hour or so each day to work on it), I took something that was originally in the voice of the omniscient author and, instead, turned it into something that is “spoken” by a minor character. When I, as the author, made that conceptual leap  that I could do that and altered the dialogue between the two of characters, well, I was ecstatic. It still may be a crappy story at the end but I’m enjoying the process. It’s the most damned difficult but most satisfying thing I’ve ever done.

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