Saturday, June 9, 2012

Listening with Your Whole Self: Writing from Both Sides of the Brain

Jess is a smart and polished lawyer who was a dedicated student in my writing classes. After hundreds of law briefs and legal articles, she was attempting a novel, a love story. She had crafted a hundred pages, but she hated what she’d written so far. What was wrong?  

We looked at the chapters she had created from her scenes, following her storyboard’s map (see this past article on my blog for a refresher on the storyboarding process).  

The basic story idea was good, the plot interesting and well structured. But the writing was way too linear for a love story. Written law-brief style, with romance plugged in, using dry language that sparked no emotion in a reader, even the writer herself was uninspired by it.  

But Jess was one persistent woman. She was committed to her story. She knew she had a great book idea. The prob­lem, we realized, was with her writing. She needed to learn how to show, not tell. Training her to listen to the creative side of her brain wasn’t easy. It bucked her natural preference for logic and analysis, for telling.

I proposed a plan to loosen her up.

     Pay a lot of attention to the senses-taste, touch, sound, smell, sight

     Go on solo outings to places inspiring these senses and take notes on what
     you see, smell, touch

     Begin a touch journal-jot down what things feel like

     Read novels and short stories that are strong in images

     Watch romantic movies instead of the documentaries you prefer

     Begin having fresh flowers in the house and eating home-cooked food

     Take long walks and afterward write down favorite images

     Listen to music-different kinds than you usually listen to

Jess was dubious. She cited no time for walks, music, flowers. She said I was asking her to change her life.  

Yes, I told her, I was asking her to change but not her life, rather her very left-brain approach to life. I told Jess to get a copy of My Stroke of Insight, by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor. In this short but stunning memoir, Dr. Taylor reveals how after a sudden left-brain stroke shut down her left brain, she learned what it was like to operate just from the right brain.  

For hours after her stroke, Dr. Taylor was aware only of what the right brain delivers--sensory details, images, wholeness of being. In the bliss of right-brain beingness, she was barely able to save her own life.

Her left brain, which is home to ordered, logical thinking--the kind necessary to pick up a phone and call 911--had been all but annihilated by the stroke. It would take years of rehab to bring it back to life. Dr. Taylor had to learn all over again how to read, to add, to make decisions.

This dramatic experience of losing her left-brain functions changed Taylor’s entire approach to living. She slowed down, did less, but much to her surprise found she enjoyed life more.  

As Taylor says, we tend to use more of one side of our brains. We need both.
This is especially true for writers. We often miss the full potential of our book-writing journey by not tapping into the right brain. Our manuscripts develop primarily from the voice of our dominant hemisphere, which for most of us is the left. Blind spots appear on our book map because of this, creating unnecessary roadblocks on our journey. We get stuck easily.

Alone, neither the linear left brain nor the image-rich right brain can create a complete book. Using the whole creative self delivers both coherent structure and emotional engagement. Both sides working in concert turn every book into a more complete vision.

Jess took up the challenge of freeing her right brain. The newly embraced creative self began to speak up. Her writing changed. Novel scenes, very good ones that packed an emotional punch, emerged.

What Happened Next
I didn’t predict the next event, but I wasn’t surprised. Jess fell in love. She sold her practice, and she and her lover moved to another country. Falling in love is very much a right-brain activity. A person in love suddenly appreciates detail, especially sensory detail. Love changes your percep­tions about everything.  

I thought that was the end of Jess’s novel. But six months after her move, a chapter arrived by email. I couldn’t believe the difference. Here was real romance! The writing made my heart jump.

She was listening to the right half of her brain-and it changed not only her writing but her life. To date, the book is still in the works. It’s going to be wonderful.

“Share this story with your classes,” she emailed me. “If someone like me can make this change, anyone can.”

Do you have to fall in love to change your habitually left-brain approach? No. You just need to be willing to ac­cept the parts of your self that don’t make logical sense. Learn to balance the strengths of the organized left brain with the whimsy of the right. Learn to structure your wild imaginings so you really communicate your book’s message.

Which Side Do You Favor?
 As book writers our first task is discover which side is taking up the most room in our creative process. Asking good questions can help you learn which side you are favoring, and which you are ignoring.

Good Questions 
If you are naturally ordered in your writing, ask ques­tions that propel you or your character into awareness of senses, which comes from the right brain:

What did it smell like?
What sounds did you/she/he hear?
What time of day was it?    

If you tend toward the meandering and random, ask questions that track time sequence or logic, which comes from the left:

What happened right before this?
What will up the stakes right now?
What could happen next?

Our second task is to train ourselves to use both, to switch readily between them, using our whole creative selves and making our books publishable.

How many writers are able to seamlessly switch from ordered to random and back again? It often depends on how we approach our daily lives, how fluid we can be. When I surveyed my book-writing classes, writers were visibly uneasy at the idea of such fluidity. (Let’s not forget our culture is very left-brain oriented.)  

“My material is way too emotional to access all the time,” said a new memoirist. “It’s a wild animal; I have to keep it contained.” A skilled essayist and mother of three said, “I stay in left brain to survive. If I let myself get dreamy, I get instant chaos at home. I want to write this book but not if it means giving up control of the rest of my life!”

This is not about giving up anything. It’s about open­ing up to more, it’s about trusting the part of your creative self that gets less air time. If you’re naturally organized, keep the left-brain control, the structure-it’s essential. Just add in the beauty your nonlinear right-brain self can contribute. If you’re one of the rare right-brain dominant, then you will need to learn to embrace a structured writing system that can help bring order to your freewheeling words. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
This exercise allows you to access both sides of the brain, back and forth, and strengthen your ability to switch between them, via sensory memory and physical, present-time body sensations.  It's great training for any writer.

1.  Find an event from your childhood that evoked strong emotion.
2.  Write about it for 20 minutes, using the sense of sound as much as possible.
3.  Pause and close your eyes.  Briefly scan your physical body for any sensations that might have arisen as you wrote--are you feeling a bit dizzy, nauseous, euphoric?  Do you have a buzzing feeling in your head or a tightness in your throat.  Write about your present-time physical body sensations for a few minutes.
4.  Now go back to the childhood memory and continue writing, using the sense of smell.
5.  What differences do you perceive in the second writing session?