Writing from Both Sides of the Brain

As writers, we spend a lot of time seeking the shy, elusive muse or avoiding the judgmental, overbearing inner critic. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, calls her inner critic Nigel. She writes, “Like my Nigel, everyone’s critic has doubts, second thoughts, third thoughts. The critic analyzes everything to the point of extinction. Everything must always be groomed and manicured. Everything must measure up to some mysterious and elusive standard.”

Yet, when I think about it, that standard isn’t that mysterious. It’s brilliance, and I easily recognize it when I read fresh, sensory, fully-engaged-in-the-moment passages. I strive to create those brilliant passages, strive to connect to my muse, and strive to do it regularly. Unfortunately, in my own writing, I too often find those brilliant nuggets surrounded by pages and pages of garbage.  Where did they come from? Was my muse playing tricks on me? Where was my inner critic—taking a nap?

I believe the answer is a little less cryptic. A while ago I wanted to learn to draw, so I picked up Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and started doing the exercises. First I drew a house scene like I did all the time as a kid. It looked pretty much the same as it did back then:

In her book, Edwards explains what happens in our brains as we engage in a drawing project:“Since drawing a perceived form is largely an R-mode [right brain] function, it helps to reduce L-mode [left brain] interference as much as possible. The problem is that the left brain is dominant and speedy and is very prone to rush in with words and symbols, even taking over jobs which it is not good at.”

In other words, the left brain is our inner critic, the know-it-all, bossy big sister to the quiet, albeit creative right brain, the mute muse. When I decided to draw a house, my left brain said, “Ah, yes, drawing. I know how to draw a house. You start with a square. Then you put a triangle on top for the roof.” My left brain is not the best side of my brain for the job, but my right brain isn’t going to fight for the gig, so off I go drawing a house the same way I always have since I was six years old.

But when I followed Edwards’ instructions to copy a picture upside down, this is what happened:

By turning the picture upside down, I broke the rules of top and bottom. It didn’t look like anything distinguishable. I tricked my left brain. It said, “What are you doing, drawing? What is that? That’s not right. I’m not doing that.” My right brain said, “Let me give it a go.” When I turned the finished picture right-side up, it looked like this:

Even though sometimes it felt like there were opposing forces at work in my head—angel on one shoulder, devil on the other; muse vs. critic; etc.—I’d never considered my right and left brain separately; they were always just parts of one organ. Then I ran across brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk describing and interpreting her personal experience with a stroke. In the talk, she shows an actual brain; each side is completely separate! She explains how each side thinks differently, cares about different things, and each has its own distinct personality. Personality? Really?

The left brain processes information serially, linearly, methodically. It is where our calculated intelligence is. It organizes and categorizes details and makes associations with what we already know. It thinks using language, the product of previously synthesized symbols. The right brain, on the other hand, is parallel in its processing—a lot going on all at once. It functions completely in the here-and-now and is totally sensory.

Manipulating the right and left sides fits perfectly with Edwards’ drawing theory, but how does it work in terms of writing? Creativity is the right brain’s domain, but words belong to the left. Writers need both. We are artists with words our medium.

Because words and writing, in general terms, are the left brain’s domain, is it any wonder that when I sit down to write, my left brain (the bossy, articulate Nigel) declares, “Oh, writing! I got this!” And then I wind up with flat two-dimensional writing as interesting as my childhood house picture.  Since there is nothing actually wrong with the writing (or the picture)—it is distinguishable; it just isn’t good—fixing it, or even recognizing it, can be difficult. Here are some clues that the left brain has hijacked your writing:

  • Rushed scenes that read like a laundry list of plot points, with little or no introspection
    This happens and then that happens, followed by the next thing that happens.
  • Telling, rather than showing
    Being present and showing, not telling, takes time. The left brain is a time manager, likes word economy, and is not comfortable wallowing in emotion or spending more than a moment in a moment. It takes more than a moment to relay an important moment. Real time and story time are not correlative.
  • Broad, sweeping descriptions, rather than specific, sensory ones
    After all, that’s what the left brain does. It synthesizes the sensory and finds words that generalize and explain them.
  • Long, uniform, grammatically correct sentences with less (or no) white space or sentence fragments
    The left brain stores and employs all the “rules” for sentence construction. Go ahead. Break a few rules.
  • Stilted dialogue and cliché
    The left brain makes associations with what it already knows. It searches and repeats rather than creating or discovering fresh comparisons.

An exercise that helps with left-brain hijacking is what Julia Cameron calls Morning Pages: three pages of brain drain, written longhand. There are no rules about what to write, except that you must write three pages and it must be every day, preferably in the morning. The purpose is to have a place for the left brain chatter to fall. Morning Pages gets you into the right brain writing space using the same technique that parents use when they take their kids to the park and let them run and run and run before taking them on a long car ride—it tires them out and keeps them quiet. Once the left brain—the bossy side who likes to go first—has had its writing time, it’ll let the right brain have a chance.

In his book From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler calls this right-brain writing place The Zone, or the dreamspace of the unconscious. It is the “compost of the imagination.” It is where all of our memories—especially the bad ones—and everything we read and hear and see and have done or that has been done to us mixes together, decomposes, and comes out as rich soil for our stories. They are not literally our memories, but they still contain the essence, the life-force of them.

This unconscious dreamspace “Zone” is a scary place. It’s irrational. While the left brain is rational, reminding us that our bad memories are in the past, the dreamspace of the right brain is where those feelings of conflict are immediate, “now”, painful, and most of all, real. While we’re writing from there, we are there, dwelling and feeling and documenting, sometimes even staying there and repeating to get it right. Our rational, controlled left brains want to protect us; they fight us going there.

But the more often we access this place, the more we remember and the easier it is to access. That’s why athletes, especially dancers, practice daily. Those first few days after a long absence hurt. But when dancers practice movement and flexibility and choreography, it eventually becomes more natural. The body takes over and goes where it needs to go. It’s called muscle memory.

The same is true for writing. We writers have developed phrases like “butt in chair” and “write every day.” We know. The more you write, the more often you write, the more natural it becomes.  Once you enter and re-enter that right-brain dreamspace, it gets easier and easier to dwell there.

However, that is still not enough. Let’s look at Sharon Creech’s middle grade novel Walk Two Moons. The main character Sal’s mother is gone, and Sal discovers how dependent she was on her mother for emotional stability:

As the days went on, many things were harder and sadder, but some things were strangely easier. When my mother had been there, I was like a mirror. If she was happy, I was happy. If she was sad, I was sad. For the first few days after she left, I felt numb, non-feeling. I didn’t know how to feel. I would find myself looking around for her, to see what I might want to feel.

One day, about two weeks after she had left, I was standing against the fence watching a newborn calf wobble on its thin legs. It tripped and wobbled and swung its big head in my direction and gave me a sweet, loving look. “Oh!” I thought. “I am happy at this moment in time.” I was surprised that I knew this all by myself, without my mother there. And that night in bed, I did not cry. I said to myself, “Salamanca Tree Hiddle, you can be happy without her.” It seemed a mean thought and I was sorry for it, but it felt true. (38-39)

Clearly this is right-brained writing. Creech’s detailed, sensory scene with a calf is more than description. It illuminates Sal for the reader and is also a moment of self-awareness, a tangible step toward adjustment to being without her mother. These moments are the soft tissue of the story. The beating heart, the emotion. But without backbone and structure, they can easily become a disconnected wad of superficial sentiment.

Backbone, structure, plot, the big picture: These are the left brain’s forte. Where is the story going? Why is it going there? Does it make logical sense? Could that really happen? Would it happen here and now and to these characters?

In Walk Two Moons, Creech does not simply string beautiful words in a row and admire them. She constructs a story within a story with another story nestled alongside. Sal learns about herself and her mother as she relays her friend Phoebe’s story to her grandparents on a cross-country road trip. Along the way, readers are also privy to Sal’s grandparent’s story, which is heart-warming itself. All of these stories are parallel and complex and fully fleshed out with rising action and inevitable resolutions.

This big-picture work does not happen by accident. It takes ruthless interrogation, careful planning, and savage use of the delete button. It is a job for the bold and critical left brain. But sometimes the left side defers its job to the right, like that bossy older sister who forces the younger one to do the dishes: “I don’t have time for this. Here, you do it.” So what happens if you need to work from the left side, but your right side is working instead?

  • You are emotionally attached to every beautiful word.
    Go ahead, kill your darlings. Words are free. You can make more.  Often they are even better the next time around.
  • You have interesting, insightful characters, but they don’t DO anything.
    Just as plot needs some introspection to put it in perspective, introspection without plot is mere navel gazing. The major conflict may be internal, but something still has to happen. Someone once told me that my main character had to do something besides not die. Really? Did he really? My right brain didn’t buy it.
  • Your story wanders aimlessly. You’re not sure if or when it will ever end.
    If you don’t know where you’re going, how do you know when you get there?
  • Your story covers too much ground.
    While the sequential details of the plot are the left brain’s territory, the overall big picture, otherwise known as theme, is the right brain’s. If your theme is, say, acceptance, your right brain will throw in every sensory image and possible scene that feels like acceptance. It won’t weigh what fits and what doesn’t. It’s the left brain’s job to weed through it all.

One way to tone your sensory writing muscles is to use Robert Olen Butler’s technique, Emotion Journaling.  This exercise can be done at the end of the day or the beginning of the next. You retell an event that evoked an emotion in you, moment to moment using only the senses. Absolutely never name an emotion. Record through the five ways that we feel emotions:

  • Signals inside the body: temperature, heartbeat, muscle reaction, neural change
  • Signals outside the body: posture, gesture, facial expression, tone of voice
  • Flashes of the past: memories evoked in the moment
  • Flashes of the future: something that could happen, something we desire or fear
  • Sensual selectivity: carefully chosen setting details that reveal a person’s personality and state of mind (Butler 28)

It should read like a scene from a novel, fully developed in the moment.

Here’s the second part of the exercise: After two weeks of Emotion Journaling, you go back to the entry from exactly two weeks earlier and edit with a red pen, “slashing through all examples of abstraction, generalization, summary, analysis, and interpretation, leaving only moment-to-moment sense-based events and impressions” (29). No matter how hard you tried to write that way in the first place, those left brain writing tendencies creep in there. After all, that’s its job. The exercise will develop your left/right brain control, strengthening your right brain sensory scene writing and your left brain editing skills, as well as keeping the jobs clearly defined and delegated.

Some books have complex plots, which require a lot of left brain input. The Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins are great examples. They are heavily detailed with many surprising twists. The left brain sorts and puts events in linear form. It also checks and cross-checks to make sure everything happening is plausible and logical.

However, when it comes to putting characters in peril, I believe both sides of the brain play important roles. As the left brain plans, step by step, it leans toward what should happen next. It leans towards safe choices, easier choices. For example, when planning who would be the tribute for the Hunger Games, Collins must have known that it would be Katniss, her main character. The left brain would instantly and easily accept that Katniss’s name would be drawn. However, some part of her brain—probably the creative right side—had to ask, “What if Prim were chosen instead?” Having Katniss sacrifice herself for her sister immediately ups Katniss’ likability and connects the reader to her. It raises the stakes, creates tension. Each twist requires careful planning and forethought (left brain) and creativity and emotional connectivity (right brain), all of which hook readers into the story and pull them along. When the right and left sides are each doing their optimal tasks at the same time, amazing and brilliant work can result.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that writing is deliberate. While, yes, writing is art, and creativity and inspiration can even be spiritual, none of it is fortuitous. Writers do not need to wait for our muses to show up in order to begin working. Nor do we need to battle our inner critic. Both are naturally part of us, and both have purpose. Now that we know where each one of them lives, we can find them, train them, and manipulate them to do our writerly bidding. So don’t just sit there. Grab hold of your muse and your Nigel and put them to work.latest Running Sneakers | Yeezy Boost 350 Trainers

Categorized as Craft

By Miciah Bay Gault

Miciah Bay Gault is the editor of Hunger Mountain at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She's also a writer, and her fiction and essays have appeared in Tin House, The Sun Magazine, The Southern Review, and other fine journals. She lives in Montpelier, Vermont with her husband and children.