Skip to content

Writing Tip #6: You’re Not Supposed to Think

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Before you read the rest of this post, take this quick quiz:
Are You Right or Left Brained?

As expected, this was my result:

You Are 50% Left Brained, 50% Right Brained

The long and short of it is: the left side of the brain is analytical, the right side of the brain is creative. Which side do you think you’re supposed to be using when you’re writing?

One of the reasons I’ve written some of my favorite scenes in those final weeks before a deadline is because when I have thirty thousand words to write in just a couple of weeks, panic and adrenaline allow the the right side of my brain to take over. And that leads into the next writing tip.

Writing Tip #6. Don’t think, just write.
Try to shut off the left side of your brain when writing. When you’re writing you want to tap into your creativity—the right side of the brain.

I mentioned this in the comments yesterday: The more we learn about craft, the harder it gets to write. That’s because learning about craft strengthens the left side of the brain. And that’s a good thing. Really, it is—except for when you’re trying to follow Writing Tip #1 and get your first draft finished.

Anne Lamott wrote: “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it . . . If one of the characters wants to say, ‘Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?’ you let her.”

The left side of the brain is the self-analyst, the self-critic, the self-doubter, the little voice that says you’re not good enough, not talented enough, and that you’ll never be able to write the story the way you see it in your head.

“In the creative act we can experience the same freedom we know in dreams. This happens as I write a story. I am bound by neither time nor space. I know those distant galaxies to which Meg Murray went with Charles Wallace and Calvin. But this freedom comes only when, as in a dream, I do not feel that I have to dictate and control what happens. I dream, sometimes, that I am in a beautiful white city I have never seen in real life, but I believe in it. When we are writing . . . we are, during the time of creativity, freed from normal restrictions and opened to a wider world, where colors are brighter, sounds clearer, and people more wondrously complex than we normally realize.” ~Madeleine L’Engle

The brain is like a kitchen. Reason provides the raw ingredients, imagination is the recipe, understanding and knowledge the pot and stove; the product is a complete, well-rounded “meal” or worldview.

Imagination gives us the ability to distance ourselves from oppression or stress. Over the past twenty years, multiple studies have been conducted on the efficacy of creative writing as therapy (the emphasis being on creative). Results have shown that college students’ test scores increased an average of about one letter-grade; blood pressure and heart rate can decrease; it can improve immune function and reduce the rate of minor illnesses such as colds and flu; it can reduce psychological distress over a traumatic experience by reducing “intrusive” thoughts about the event; and so on.

“I know very little about how this story was born. That is, I don’t know where the pictures came from. And I don’t believe anyone knows exactly how he ‘makes things up.’ Making up is a very mysterious thing. When you ‘have an idea,’ could you tell anyone exactly how you thought of it?” ~C.S. Lewis

Where does inspiration come from? Well, in Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle wrote that inspiration “far more often comes during the work than before it.”

Have you ever used an old-fashioned water pump? If it hasn’t been used in quite a while, you’re going to have to work long and hard to get anything out of it. But if it’s used regularly—every day—when you go to it wanting a drink of water, the pump is already primed. The water is right there, waiting to pour out.

Inspiration comes when we prime the creative pump. It is not thinking about a final product that gives us inspiration. What gives us inspiration is what leads us to write in the first place: the joy we take in imagination and creativity. When we are in the creative process and inspiration hits, everything else falls away. We lose track of time; we’re deaf to anything going on around us; nothing fills us with more joy than creating a story from our imagination. Or, as Gordon Dickson put it, we “fall through the words into the story.” That’s using the right side of the brain.

“When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens.

But before he can listen, paradoxically, he must work, getting out of the way and listening is not something that comes easily. . . .

We must work every day, whether we feel like it or not, otherwise when it comes time to get out of the way and listen to the work, we will not be able to heed it. . . .

Inspiration comes much more often during the work than before it, because the largest part of the job of the artist is to listen to the work, and to go where it tells him to go. Ultimately, when you are writing, you stop thinking and write what you hear.” ~Madeleine L’Engle

In this busy world, when, at any given time during the day, there are at least five things vying for our attention—between work, e-mail, phone, blog, writing, bills, family, and so on—allowing time for the free-flow of the imagination doesn’t get priority. But the good thing about creativity is that it can happen anytime. So instead of listening to the radio in the shower or in the car, turn it off and turn on your imagination. Same goes for the TV. If you have a set amount of time to write every day, take fifteen minutes at the beginning of it to just let your mind wander—try to remember what you dreamed about last night, or take a snippet of a conversation you had earlier in the day and imagine it went in a totally different direction, or imagine you’d made a decision differently earlier in the day. Anything to tap into the right side of your brain.

Time for you to do some left-brain work:

Creative Analytical
Writing (try longhand) Trying to find the “right word”
Character casting Trying to figure out how to show what emotion the character is experiencing rather than tell it
“What If-ing” Trying to figure out how to do an action/introspection tag instead of using “said.”
“Listening to the voices” Trying to apply GMC to every single scene before writing it.

What are some other activities you can add to the “Creative” column that you should be doing? What are some other “Analytical” activities you are doing that are hindering you from being able to just write?

  1. Teresa Lockhart permalink
    Tuesday, June 8, 2010 2:09 am

    I have spent a week trying to come up with a logical place for a scene to take place in the book I’m writing. I came up with nothing despite hours at the computer. Then last night I gave up and went to bed and slept 10+ hours, the most I’ve slept in months! When I woke up, I just lay there another hour. The answer came to me as I daydreamed.

    I spent the next part of the day going for a ride to the area that serves as the inspiration for the place in my book. I got out of my truck and snapped some pictures. I imagined I was one of the characters standing in the places on this particular property, listening to the sounds and watching for anything out of the ordinary.

    Creative sure won out over logic this time.


  2. Tuesday, June 8, 2010 6:59 am

    While I’m not writing a book, I found recently that I write much more {and more quickly} when I am OFF the computer…and actually writing by hand. I tend to get a little distracted when on the computer. I also just ‘blank’ and then start to overanalyze every little thing that I type and redo it all.

    I took a notebook to the park the other day and in the 45 minutes that we were there I wrote 3 fairly long blog posts…and sketched out a plan for both of my blogs for the next two weeks. I’ve been trying to shut down the computer a bit more, especially since I have a few ‘heavier’ topics that I am planning to post about. Things that have been mulling for quite some time, but I just can’t seem to put into words when typing…so I’m writing them out by hand and going to get it done!


  3. Patty Hall permalink
    Tuesday, June 8, 2010 7:40 am

    Hey Kaye,
    I’m a fifty-fifty person too which messes with the whole free-flow of writing that first draft. But like you, I found writing it longhand, knowing that I’m going to mess up and scratch out passages gives me the freedom to create my characters and scenes. I don’t even mess with a computer until I’m ready to work in the second draft.

    Thanks for this series–it’s really been a blessing!


  4. Tuesday, June 8, 2010 7:57 am

    I’m another 50/50 person. At times, this is a good thing, but when I sit down to write? Ugh. For me, it means I love to create, but I also love to THINK and LEARN about creating. Which eats up a lot of writing time. I’m one of those people who don’t complain about long choir rehearsals. For me, it’s fun. I have noticed that if I ever just WILL write long-hand, I am productive. At workshops, when I have a 15-minute “free write,” I can get 3 pages on a legal-sized pad filled, and it’s usually directly connected to my WIP. So why don’t I do that on a regular basis? That darn internal editor.

    But I will try. Really.


  5. Tuesday, June 8, 2010 8:57 am

    Another great post. And you’ve quoted something in this one that so well explains my writing process, how it feels to me after I have a scene roughed in, or a first draft, or something down on the page I can work with.

    “fall through the words into the story”

    That’s it exactly. That’s what happens for me after I’ve written a draft of a scene. It might be very rough and still half in present tense, full of lines of back and forth dialogue with minimal stage business or brief notes as to who does what. But if I have that much down, then I go back to the beginning and “fall through the words into the story.”

    I like what Lewis said about making things up. Some of my best story or character ideas have come unexpectedly when I was minding other business and not thinking about storytelling. It feels like walking through a doorway you didn’t see until you’ve stepped through it, but on the other side the view is so delightful you have to stop and gaze.


  6. Tuesday, June 8, 2010 9:42 am

    Kaye, I’m so glad Regina pointed out your blog to me. I really appreciate your wisdom as an author.

    I’m 65% left-brained. Scary thing for a writer, but definitely not a surprise. I love order & numbers & spreadsheets & algebra. But, ironically, I don’t like formulaic writing, perhaps because it reads like a math equation & not a story.

    So, how do I turn off that strong left brain? One way is by changing my focus on what I’m writing. I used to force myself to write 1000 words per day, a number typically recommended by writers. Problem was, my goal was word count. Very left brain. Now, I set a daily goal to write a scene or scenes, depending on where I want to be in the story by the end of the day. By turning off word count & focusing on story, my writing now flows much swifter & I typically end up with well over 1000 words daily.


  7. Kav permalink
    Tuesday, June 8, 2010 9:56 am

    LOL. I’m 25% left and 75 % right…I basically don’t have a logistical bone in my body. And I’m thinking that rating for my left-brain is pretty darn high because hello…giving me a choice between algebra and geometry???? They’re both mathematics!!!! Ewwww. I have trouble using a calculator. And that one about ‘is your desk a mess or organized’? What happened to the box to check off ‘organized mess’? Pfffffttttt!

    As to creative and anayltical thinking…Top of my creative list (oh, and by the way, thank you for giving me permission to listen to the voices in my head!) would be walking. My brain seems to be connected to momentum, so taking my dog for a walk can be very beneficial to whatever I’m writing. I’ve been kind of sidelined the past couple of months and haven’t been able to walk as much and my right-brain has been feeling the pinch. As to what I should be doing to exercise my left-brain…um…well, that would involve logical thinking which we have just noted I don’t have in spades. 🙂


  8. Kav permalink
    Tuesday, June 8, 2010 10:02 am

    Oh, and I forgot to say how much I loved your choice in uotes! (sigh, typing this on a keyboard that doesn’t have a working ‘cue’)Madeleine L’Engle is my all time favourite author since I was knee-high to a grasshopper! I like to think of her as a second mom. Her books raised me. 🙂


  9. Tuesday, June 8, 2010 10:35 am

    Kaye, This really makes so much sense and explains my own process. I’m hardly analytical at all so writing rules don’t make much sense to me. I’ve always thought that creative writing is therapy and now you’ve proven it:) The quotes are amazing! You need to be teaching this stuff – it’s great!


  10. Sylvia M. permalink
    Tuesday, June 8, 2010 11:16 am

    The quiz results say I’m 65% left brained and 35% right brained, but I’m not sure that I agree with that. I was terrible at algebra and geometry in school. Since they gave me no other option I just had to choose one. There again the music while working question is kind of a fifty/fifty thing for me. Sometimes I listen to classical music while I’m working other times music is a distraction. I also daydream all the time.


  11. Tuesday, June 8, 2010 11:52 am

    I’m 35% left, 65% right…very interesting, thanks for linking to the quiz!


  12. Tuesday, June 8, 2010 3:05 pm

    Character casting is The. Number. One. way for me to get creative juices flowing.

    Research is fifty/fifty…it inspires me with new ideas, but then like this week’s writing…it bogs down the creativity. I spend half the time thinking out if I “can do that”. I guess the thing to do is just write my different ideas/scenes and then research them.

    A side note…while killing a character the other day, it hit me how morbid we writers can be–I think writing brings out the inner sadist in people. How we can enjoy putting a character through such misery/pain… 😉 I was so sad to “lose” the character, but it was a great scene!!!


  13. Tuesday, June 8, 2010 3:20 pm

    I’m a member of the 50-50 club too.

    Other things might be revising as you go–correcting punctuation, spelling, etc.–rather than moving forward in the story.

    How about trying to get just the right sequence for scenes, maybe storyboarding or shuffling the scenes around in your draft before finishing?

    It would really be great to put the left side of the brain on ice until the right side has finished its work!


  14. Tuesday, June 8, 2010 5:11 pm

    I think I’m 75%/75% . . .
    Thanks for more great writing instruction, Kaye. I’m taking it all in.


  15. Tuesday, June 8, 2010 9:39 pm

    Plotting! I’m totally stuck on how to end. 🙂 I need to get my pad of paper and pencils and take a walk or sit by the waterfall to let those characters talk. 🙂


  16. Tuesday, June 8, 2010 9:41 pm

    Btw- I’m 65% left and 35% right. Better exercise those creative ideas


  17. Tuesday, June 8, 2010 10:37 pm

    45 L, 55 R for me. But those questions… some of them it could have gone either way depending on the situation or my mood. 🙂


  18. The Damsels permalink
    Wednesday, June 9, 2010 6:57 am

    HA I’m a 60/40 – though that doesn’t surprise me – I’m creative but very practical too – it really depends on what I’m doing as to what side of my brain kicks in. Usually I’m very good at just writing when I sit down to write. I don’t think every sentence through, I do agonize over words, I don’t even correct myself as I write. I just put it on paper. Cause I always feel happier once it’s on paper – then I can have fun revising!



  19. Friday, July 2, 2010 11:04 am

    While my test results do not surprise me, I do wonder if I am setting myself up for failure in attempting to write a fictional novel.

    I am 85% left brain and only 15% right brain. My guess is that at the beginning of the summer I was closer to 90/10. I think I stopped being a carefree child at the age of 8 – and that has definitely left my creative side dormant for far too many decades.

    I am not giving up. I love to write (although my comfort level is non-fiction academic sorts of writing) — and I want to complete this challenge that I feel called/compelled to do. Do you have any suggestions for this logical, analytical, middle-aged woman who wants to expand her horizons and tap into the right side of her brain? I am currently taking up photography and art appreciation as some possible ways to wake up my own creativity, but would welcome any other suggestions.

    By the way — I just found your website this morning and I am so very thankful that I was led here. Your posts are exactly what I need to read, and they are written in such a caring, straight-forward manner. I look forward to working my way through the entire writing series index over the next few days.



  1. Writing Tip #8: It’s Okay If What You Write Stinks «
  2. Flannery’s Favorites–Day 1 «

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: