Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Barbara Florio Graham
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There is a myth that "creative" people are different from the rest of us. This has been perpetuated by comments such as this one, from Anne Kent Rush, who said, "Creativity is really the structuring of magic."
That sounds exciting, but actually there's no magic to it. An understanding of how the brain works will provide the means for anyone to access their creative potential.
The brain has 100 billion specialized cells. These neurons are connected to each other by tiny synapses that have the ability to grow, die, or change. The brain recalls a memory through visual images, organizing and locating the particular image and then associating or linking it with a name, word or idea.
Early experiments on the brain showed that the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body (the right hemisphere of the brain controls the left side of the body). These researchers also discovered that each side of the brain specialized in certain things.
The left brain is responsible for most of our verbal ability as well as order, sequence, logic, and memory for words. Because 80% of the population is left-brain dominant (fewer than 20% of all people, throughout history, have been right-brain dominant) our educational system is based on developing left-brain skills: reading, writing and arithmetic. We are urged, from childhood, to use our right hands to perform most routine tasks, including writing, and western civilizations read from left to right because our writing is based on letters which form words (rather than symbols which form sounds or concepts, as in many Eastern languages).
The right brain houses visual images, emotions, music, physical manipulation and our perception of space and the world around us, our connection to nature, and higher mathematical concepts (such as geometry). Notice the difference between arithmetic, a left- brain activity which is simply different ways of counting, and higher math, which involves visualizing complex mathematical structures. There is a close connection between ability in math and musical talent.
Schools reinforce left-brain dominance by the arrangement of desks in rows, the placement in universities of the writing surface extension of the chair on the right side, and the reliance on a specific order of classes and subject matter, reinforced by outlines, time-tables, alphabetical listings, and charts.
Any right-brain tendencies among children are thereby discouraged, and the minority who are right-brain dominant often have a difficult time learning in this heavily left-brain environment. No wonder so many exceptionally creative people, including Einstein, Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Bill Gates had trouble in school!
Since writers are usually very verbal, it's no surprise that most of us are left-brain dominant. The left side of our brains gives us order, control, and precision, the craft part of our writing. But we also need the right side, which provides freedom, risk, and chaos, the artistic additions. A well-crafted article might be boring, a purely artistic creation can be confusing. Craft + Art is what we're all looking for.
Dull, boring writing comes from starting on the wrong side of the brain. Instead of putting the piece we plan to write in order, taking control of the material in an attempt to be as precise as possible, we should start on the other side of the brain.
This doesn't mean giving full rein to creative chaos, sacrificing solid research, organization, sentence structure and grammar. Instead, we need to utilize both sides of the brain, but start with the right side when we're searching for a creative approach.
One easy way to do this is to allow ourselves to "play" as we did when we were children, before the school system insisted that everything be structured and orderly. Instead of staring a blank piece of paper (or computer screen), start with crayons or finger paints, different colors of clay or fabric, "found" objects you can manipulate and rearrange. Let your mind wander as your right brain keeps its focus on color, shape, and texture.
Add other sensory input, from music and odors. Trying to get started on a mystery novel? Experiment with a variety of acrid scents. What ideas do pepper, salt, dill, vinegar, chlorine-based cleaning products, stain removers, medications bring to mind?
Feeling anxious about an article that's close to deadline, where you just can't seem to find an engaging lead? Find music that gets your toes tapping, create a collage of colored papers and fabrics, repot a house plant and feel the soil under your fingers. The image you need to peg your lead will likely spring into your mind.
Water is extremely conducive to right-brain activity. You don't have to swim to experience this natural rush of endorphins. Take a shower, or put a small fountain in your office. The sound and feel of water stimulates the right brain, while calming your fears.
You may have noticed that many doctors and dentists have aquariums in their waiting rooms, and high-tech firms often have a fountain in a courtyard or foyer. An award-winning advertising firm in Ottawa has a Zen garden in their offices. Recreate this effect yourself by taking a shallow, rimmed tray (or old baking dish) and filling it with sand (or bird gravel). Now you have a miniature sandbox in which you can trace patterns with a fork or invent a tiny landscape.
In my online creativity course, each assignment explores not only a different sense but also all of the visual and performing arts. If you're stymied by something you've written that just doesn't seem to "flow," try moving around the room, in a pseudo dance, as you read it aloud. All the "bumps" will be obvious, and their solutions will arrive without much effort.
You can also use creative techniques to organize material. Take a large sheet of plain paper and a marker, and write, at random, at all angles and anywhere on the paper, every thought, word or phrase related to this subject. When you've exhausted all possibilities (or have filled every inch of the paper), pick up some colored markers and group the words by circling in the same color any that seem to belong together.
You'll find yourself with four or five groupings, and then it's easy to decide how to order these into an outline.
So tap into your own innate creativity and add sparkle to your
This article was adapted from Barbara Florio Graham's online course, Tapping Your Innate Creativity.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Barbara Florio Graham has won awards for fiction, non-fiction, humor and poetry in contests in the U.S. and Canada, and has written hundreds of articles for magazines and newspapers across North American and abroad. The author of Five Fast Steps to Better Writing, Five Fast Steps to Low-Cost Publicity and Mewsings/Musings (co-authored with her celebrity cat, Simon Teakettle), Barbara has also contributed to 21 anthologies in four countries. Barbara's popular online course, Tapping Your Innate Creativity, is given once a year. Find out more at her website, http://www.SimonTeakettle.com.