Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Right brain writing – Part 1

It must have been more than twelve years ago, when we were still in Desa Sri Hartamas. A customer asked if we could get the book Drawing with the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. We did, and got extra copies for the shop. I got curious and decided to see what the book  had to say. It was, to quote a friend who also bought a copy, the only self-help book that worked. Seriously. If a self-help book works, you wouldn’t have to keep buying one after another all the time, right? After reading this book, I didn’t need any other book to learn to draw. In three weeks, I went from one who couldn’t draw at all to one who could draw a recognisable image of me by looking into the mirror! It was amazing! (But, as in everything else, one had to keep at it every day to improve.)

I wondered, for a long time, how it applied to writing. (A nagging feeling at the back of my mind said that it did, that the process was the same.)

Another book that made sense was Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, first published in 1934, and still in print. (That should mean something, shouldn’t it?) There are hosts of other ‘writing’ books but none come close to Brande’s commonsensical approach. One has to become a writer first, before learning tricks and techniques – the old story of the cart and the horse. I tried her techniques, and the result of that was my first book of short stories called The Wedgwood Ladies Football Club. (I was reluctant to publish it initially, but I was persuaded by friends.)

A third inspiration was a recording of a lecture at the University of Malaya that I heard in 1974. (I believe it was by one Dr Gordon Banks and that he was a psychologist, although I could be wrong on both counts. Can anyone out there remember that lecture?) There was a tape recording that went (something) like this (not exact words): “What would you be in five years if you started doing something? What would you be in five years if you didn’t do anything?” That was forty years ago!

One of the key discoveries of a research on the function of the brain is the dual nature of human thinking: verbal and analytical thinking, which is generally associated with the left side of the brain, and visual and perceptual thinking situated on the right. Neuropsychologist Roger Wolcott Sperry received a Nobel Prize in 1981 for his work on the human brain.

By separating the area of the brain used to transfer signals between the right and left hemispheres in epileptics, Sperry and his colleagues demonstrated that the two halves of the brain had independent consciousness and responded to specific tasks. This research was important for understanding the functioning of the brain. This pioneering work was published in 1968.

(The actual locations of the two modes in the brain is still being argued. But it is sufficient for us to say that there are two modes of thinking: a linear, logical mode and a perceptive, creative mode. For our purposes, we shall use the terms ‘Right Brain’ and ‘Left Brain’.)

Right Brain Writing is a skill like cycling, swimming or driving, which once learned will not be forgotten except, but unlike cycling or driving, you can continue doing it even when you are eighty! Of course, like any other skill set, the more frequently you do it, the better you get.

You can learn to write in a relatively short time, but beginning will be hard. Along with the struggle will come that ‘ah-hah’ moment, when you will suddenly stop in the middle of whatever you are doing and say, “So, this is what it’s all about.”

Most people are willing to admit that they can’t draw. Drawing is often viewed as a God-given talent that one either is born with, or not. But few are willing to admit that they cannot write, although the last time they wrote anything creative (apart from office reports and accounts) was when they left school at 16 or 17. (22 if they have college education.) So the truth is that most adults, professionals and non-professional, have the writing skills of sixteen or twenty-two-year-olds who have not written anything since they left school or college, although many may get upset by this statement. (Betty Edwards says in her book that most adults have the drawing skills of a twelve-year-old. Why is that easier to accept?)

The brain grows lazy from lack of use. Visual, auditory and even olfactory data are observed, analysed and classified according to our past experience. We observe what we expect to see and classify the information according to common symbols we have learnt. In drawing, examples of these symbols are: the stick man, the smiley face, the square car, etc. In writing, an example of these the symbols will be a nice man, a bad smell, a beautiful view, etc – all the adjectives being judgmental (in one way or another) without giving the reader any idea of what is actually meant. What is so nice about the man? How does the bad smell affect the character? Describe the view. Visualise in your mind’s eye, and describe to the reader. Make it come alive!

(To be continued.)

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