Using your ‘whole brain’ to write at your best

Writing can be challenging, even for people who work with words all the time. A large part of my job is to edit clients’ documents. This involves a lot of logical thinking to make sure my changes keep the original meaning intact. When I started to write this blog post, I found it difficult to switch hats from ‘editor’ to ‘creator’. My creative ideas seemed to be instantly edited — viciously chopped, changed, and deleted altogether. Nothing was good enough. My bossy, critical brain took over.

In her book Writing on Both Sides of the Brain, Henriette Anne Klauser demonstrates that we need to strive for ‘whole-brained thinking’ — where both sides of our brain work together for the common good. According to Henriette, we aren’t using our brains to capacity and she encourages us to explore the ‘mansion of our minds’.

Most of us are not using our brains to capacity, not because the capability is not there or because we are dumb but because we have not been taught how.

Two halves make a whole

Different areas of our brains are responsible for different ways of thinking. Early research suggested that the right and left sides of our brains have distinctly different roles. As Henriette says, locating where these processes take place isn’t as important as realising that there are different styles of thinking.

The study of right and left brain honors the different ways that people work things out, and it provides a springboard for using unconventional approaches to studying and problem solving.

The two halves of our brains are connected by a cabling system called the corpus callosum. Henriette describes ‘whole-brained’ activity as ideas crackling back and forth across the corpus callosum through a mass of fibres at astonishing speed. Ideas and their execution ‘enhance and encourage each other, generating energy in mutual support and admiration.’

The great achievements of scientists and artists, such as Einstein, Beethoven, and da Vinci, are the product of mutual cooperation of both hemispheres. Henriette comments that the notebooks and stories left behind by these geniuses show that their success came from the combination of:

Image, Two views of the corpus callosum, created by Life Science Databases.

Corpus callosum. Image by Life Science Databases (LSDB) / CC BY-SA 2.1 JP

The two sides of our brains can work as companions or as enemies

The relationship between the two halves of our brains is not always a positive one. Analytical, objective ways of thinking tend to be rewarded in our culture and silence the contribution from the right side of our brains; creative, intuitive ways of thinking appear less trustworthy. Both verbal and written language is a speciality of the left side of our brains, giving it the power to easily suppress the fleeting ideas of the right. Although we have to acknowledge the left brain for taking care of grammar and punctuation, the right side has style, according to Henriette.

[The right side] has the flow and the energy of excitement when you’re on a roll. It provides images and analogies, color and music—in short, everything that lifts your written piece, whether it is a short story, a legal brief, or an office memorandum, from the mundane and predictable to the inspired and inspiring, the unforgettable.

The contribution from each side is equally valuable and we need to take full advantage of their respective strengths at the right time. Henriette says we can write at our best when we make sure the sides of our brains ‘walk alongside each other as companions, not as enemies in opposition’.

Capture the messages from the right side of your brain

It’s often when we’re on autopilot and less analytical that a flood of brilliance hits us. Henriette recommends having a pen for every place — the car, the shower, in your running gear — wherever you get your best ideas. You can deliberately coax these ideas out by staging these moments. If you feel uninspired, take a pen and paper and go for a walk; be prepared and catch those valuable yet slippery thoughts! Musing is an essential part of the writing process.

Take advantage of the time when your left brain is drowsy, and wake 30 minutes earlier than normal to write whatever comes into your head — before you’ve even had coffee. Although this may not seem possible, Henriette swears by the technique. Write about how silly you think the exercise is, or just how much you want coffee, without editing or reading over what you’ve written. Why can’t you have coffee? Because you want to free up the right side of your brain while the left side ‘refuses to process’ at that time.

Giving yourself permission to write garbage is like having a compost pile in the backyard. It might smell a little and even look yucky, but it provides a fertile environment for some great stuff to grow.

Tapping into free-flowing, non-judgemental writing as soon as you wake up, even sceptically, will help you to write with ease throughout the day and beyond. Regardless of the quantity or quality of your writing, this exercise provides an experience of writing without thinking — of separating editor from creator. Henriette says this is a power that you can learn to call up at will.

Early morning writing, writing on the run, writing while cooking or driving or showering… all of these, when added later to the edited parts, give your work an authentic ring and make the piece come alive.

Invite your editorial voice back in

Being able to write freely and know when to edit is a skill that uses both sides of your brain, and something that needs practice. Once your creative brain has had a fair opportunity to be heard — and you’ve turned those thoughts into ink — summon your editorial skills to help structure and polish your writing. Separating these two functions will improve your writing and make the whole process more enjoyable.

If we see learning how to write as a never-ending story, all kinds of possibilities open up. We have never arrived; there is always so much more to learn.

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One response to “Using your ‘whole brain’ to write at your best”

  1. Inez says:

    What a terrific blog. Tomorrow when I get up, I’ll reach for pen and paper before I switch the kettle on. And I’ll let you know how it goes.

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