2021 note: no, I do not mean the overly-simplified notion of literally specialized brain hemispheres. Yes, there are regions devoted to specific abilities, but it’s complex. Think of it as a metaphor, please – something I didn’t really make clear.
Everyone’s perception of the direct process of creativity is going to be unique to them. I experience it in terms of two halves working together – right brain and left brain, for lack of any terminology that works better.
The story itself, the content, often feels like it comes from outside of me; I’m just watching the events, writing them down as rapidly as my hand can move. Characters and setting are there, waiting for me to tap into them, and once I tune in properly, the characters go ahead and do their thing. Friends have many times heard me muttering dire curses on a character who simply refuses to do what I would prefer that they do. The pure raw material comes from the creative and holistic right side of my brain, which immerses itself in the emotions and experiences and sees the story as a unified whole.
That’s wonderful, and intoxicating, and that side has strengthened over a lifetime of encouragement although it was pretty vivid even as a child. Maybe it just never had the chance to curl up and go dormant. However, it isn’t enough to make a writer.
The left side of my brain wraps words around the images and emotions and events. Without the ability to convey what I’m seeing in my mind, it’s entertaining only for me and even then it’s fleeting – I can only remember so much for so long. It’s in re-reading my work that I can watch the progress this side has made. My earliest stories are at the mercy of the imagery, even if that means the logic has flaws or the pieces don’t fit together smoothly; those ones I keep safely hidden away, not so much in embarrassment as because they aren’t what I would prefer people see me as, but I keep them. Over time, I can see the development of that side of my brain, growing sharper and clearer and better able to weave the raw material into a polished piece that truly expresses what I meant to say all along. It not only fixes grammar and spelling, but searches out small inconsistencies; it identifies the central plot and restructures the rest around that; it spots the details that were missed in the initial mad rush because I could see them and forgot that a reader wouldn’t. Its job is to turn me from a daydreamer with pretty pictures in my head into a writer who can share that with an audience, and over the years, it has become very good at it.
When both sides are working in harmony, it’s a euphoric sensation, an incredible high that usually leaves me, afterwards, with something to show for it as well.
The two sides have an unfortunate tendency to get out of balance. Often, my left brain will step in too early and attempt to drag the story in one direction or start nagging about details better left until the re-working process. Worse, it may start murmuring to me about “what people would like” or “what’s acceptable”. Any of this generally derails the entire story, bringing it to a halt and silencing the characters until I figure out how far back I jumped the tracks and I go back and fix it.
At other times, though, generally when I’m heading into a major depressive episode but sometimes if I’m just tired and stressed, my left brain will instead get lazy and sluggish. While my right brain is still awake and the characters are still jumping up and down waving their arms to get my attention, the part of my brain that’s supposed to be putting it into the perfect words curls up and takes a nap. I can get around this, and sometimes choose to do so deliberately for fun: filling my MP3 player with music that resonates with the current story and going for a long walk has, since my teens, been a way to access the story material directly, bypassing the need to fit words around it. (I can use the left brain without the right, as well – how else would I be writing this? That’s less fun, though!)
Since my right brain goes quiet only in the worst depressions, I’ve concluded that 1) my right brain, the storytelling part, is more natural to me, or 2) my left brain, the analytical part, takes far more energy to keep functioning, or 3) some combination of both.
The old saying is “Ten percent inspiration, ninety percent perspiration.” When the two sides are in balance, it feels like a much more even distribution than that, but there have been times it felt true.
I’m inclined to believe that everyone has the potential for a similar process – if not with writing, then with the countless other kinds of creativity. There are two catches.
One is that Western society, while encouraging sitting passively in front of a TV, discourages adults from playing – doing something simply for the pleasure of doing it, with no ultimate goal, no concern for what others think of it, perhaps nothing produced at the end. Once you lose the knack of just letting go, it takes some time and practice to regain. Play is what feeds the right brain.
Ideas are priceless, but without the skills to give them form, ultimately of no use to anyone but you. Learning skills, whether language or painting or knitting or music or any of the infinite other forms of creative expression, takes time and work, often quite a lot of both, to master. In a society that expects instant gratification and in which shallow garbage somewhere below the lowest common denominator makes bestseller lists and tops charts, it takes intense resolve to keep pursuing something that doesn’t offer up a quick reward, and may in fact never reward you with fame or money.
Me? I think the ecstatic moments when everything comes together are a reward in themselves. Combine that with sharing what I write and hearing from people who enjoyed it, and the countless thousands of hours of my life I’ve devoted to writing are all worth every minute.