(I quoted this too in my related blogpost 'Reason & Imagination' of 9 April this year.)
Eternally Opposite, Eternally Connected
‘Poets,’ says writer William Oxley, ‘are not creatures of the intellect but creatures of the imagination.’
I’d modify that a little to read: ‘Writers are firstly creatures of the imagination, and only secondarily creatures of the intellect.’
At the risk of introducing polarised thinking, it’s relevant here to talk about the two hemispheres of the brain. Nobel prizewinner Professor Roger Sperry researched what have come to be known as ‘left brained’ and ‘right brained’ thinking styles. In effect, these are two different ways of processing information, and an ideal scenario is one in which both sides of the brain are nurtured and exercised, and where there is flexible communication across the hemispheres as well as the ability to integrate these different ways of processing information.
Left brained thinking is the one in which most of us function during most of our waking time. Our culture requires this focus of us, and has valued this state of ‘doing thinking’ over what we could call ‘being feeling’. This state is one of high cortical arousal; logical, analytical, linear, language-based consciousness rooted in the reasoning ability. It is in this brain activity that we plan and map and schematise or organise the way in which we move forward in our daily lives. In relation to creative writing we could call this function the editor, the town planner, the grown-up.
Right brain states are normally associated with the unconscious, or liminal states of consciousness. They involve a lower level of cortical activity, and theta brainwaves associated with that state of reverie (the hypnagogic state) experienced just before drifting into, or coming out of, sleep are connected with creative inspiration. These right brain states are non-verbal, image-based feeling states which are also associated with play, as well as with visual/perceptual modes of ‘thinking’. It seems that the right hemisphere processes and retains verbal material better if it is carried in images, pattern, rhythm or feeling; hence the retention in the memory of song or poetry, sometimes even when other faculties have failed; and the reason perhaps for encoding important wisdom in poetry and story in the oral (bardic) tradition. This is the ‘imaginer’ part of the brain: right brain is the inventor, the artist, the magician, the child.
Both parts of the brain of course are in use simultaneously, and even maths requires both hemispheres (apparently in solving a mathematical problem the brain sends messages back and forth between both nine times) – and both, of course, need to be involved in creativity; but each has its own stage in the process, its own time.
Neuropsychology calls the right brained state ‘primary process thinking’ and the left ‘secondary process thinking’. Each is characterised by its own level of cortical arousal, although some research suggests that these styles may not be so much related to particular regions of the brain as to differing levels of arousal on a continuum. ‘Defocused attention’, a kind of diffuse awareness that scans, reads and collects information across a broad field through a spontaneous, associative and connectional process, is characteristic of primary process and the earlier stages of creativity. ‘Focused attention’, on the other hand, is characteristic of secondary processes and is needed in the later stages of creativity, such as shaping, refining and editing.
For me, all this is another way of saying that both head and heart have to be involved in the making of a piece of writing; and the ability to see both detail and the whole picture.
As writers, our ability to communicate effectively – by which I mean inspiringly and excitingly, as well as via the arrangement of words/ideas on the page – depends partly on our ability to work from a balanced brain perspective, where intuition and analysis, play and seriousness, spontaneity and planning, lateral and linear, freewheeling and focused all come together.
Encourage the right brain with the exercises below, which in their ultimate expression rely also on the ‘thinking’ powers of the left brain.
Incidentally, using visual art – a picture, sculpture or image – as a prompt is a very effective way of asking the right brain to kick in; or writing stream-of-consciousness style while listening to instrumental music.
The exercises below ask for non-verbal responses. (When you’re responding to any of the exercises in this book, don’t feel you have to respond only in words. Try including drawing in some of your responses.)
These are both best done with a partner, though it is possible to work alone.
Pictograms are, says Tony Buzan, the inventor of mind-mapping, ‘a way of allowing the brain to talk to itself in its own language’. Certainly visual images are a good way in to writing for many people. Try this one:
Take a large sheet of paper, and use coloured pens if you prefer. On it draw, without thinking or premeditation, a number of pictograms or hieroglyphs –pictures/symbols/images/shapes/patterns/stick figures (10 or 12), leaving plenty of space between. They don’t have to be neatly ordered in lines.
Swap (if relevant). Now write imaginative notes, words, phrases beneath each one. Again try not to ‘think’ as you do this – jot down the first thing that comes into your mind – allow it to be spontaneous, and don’t worry about ‘fitting’ the words to the image.
If you’re working with someone else, swap back. Work up the notes, adding and subtracting as you wish, to shape a piece of writing: a story or poem.
Pictogram 2: (This is an adaptation of an artists’ exercise by Betty Edwards.)
Again, take a large sheet of paper, and turn it horizontally. Make three small boxes along the top, and again about halfway down. Under each one write the name of an emotion: grief, joy, rage, jealousy, passion, fear. Now, again without thinking, sketch a quick abstract representation of that feeling state.
Take one of the boxes. With reference to the sketch, not the word underneath, write a stream-of-consciousness piece without stopping or thinking.
A variation on this is to fill the boxes with quick abstract representations of people you know; and then do the same thing.