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Big Sister vs. Little Sister–Working with the Analytical and Creative Sides of the Brain

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Hop over and take this quiz to find out for sure:
Are You Right or Left Brained?

It’ll open in a new tab/window, so it’ll be easy to come right back over here once you’re done.

Got your results?

As I have known for quite a long time, here are my results:
You Are 50% Left Brained, 50% Right Brained

It’s a Sister Act

At the Think Tank meeting for members of my local group on Saturday, I hit upon an analogy on how to describe the whole left-brain, right-brain thing: Sisters. (With sincerest apologies to my own Big Sister.)

My big sister and me right before my parents discovered I had chicken pox.

My big sister and me right before my parents discovered I had chicken pox.

When discussing the attributes of the left-brain vs. the right-brain, I compared the left side, the analytical side, to a Big Sister. She’s the perfectionist. She’s the one who lines up the dolls and stuffed animals to play school. She’s the one who wants to play house and be the head of household. She’s the perfectionist who must do everything right, who must be the best. She enjoys repetitive tasks, lists, rules, and structure. These make her feel safe, secure, and confident.

The right brain is more like the Little Sister—the one who wants to emulate her Big Sister . . . until she realizes she doesn’t like playing school or playing house, and would rather take her Barbies into her own room and play by herself because Big Sister doesn’t understand the storyline that’s running through her head. Little Sister is the one who slips around, over, and under the rules—not because she doesn’t respect or love the rule givers (the parents in this analogy) but because the rules infringe upon and chafe her spirit. She wants to do her own thing, to be her own person. “Getting it right” and “playing by the rules” aren’t her main focus, though she’ll do it because she wants to make others happy. She instead seeks out opportunities in which she can express herself freely.

Michelle and Kat and the Easy Bake Oven, circa 1974

Michelle and Kat and the Easy Bake Oven, c.1974

Big Sister wants to teach Little Sister. She’s older, more experienced, wiser, and she wants to impart that knowledge to Little Sister. Big Sister sees it as her duty to make Little Sister adhere to the rules, to become the same model of perfection that she is. Little Sister, while eager to learn, wants to do so on her own terms. She’ll observe, ask questions, and take in whatever information is presented. And then she’ll do her own thing with it.

For a while, things are good. Throughout childhood, there seem to be opportunities for both sisters to exercise and express their strengths. Big Sister excels at school. Little Sister excels at playing at recess and in the backyard after school. Big Sister does well at math and penmanship. Little Sister excels at art and story telling/writing. Sometimes, they enjoy playing together. Most of the time, though, they stick to their own favorite things to do alone.

RivalryEventually, though, there comes a time when one of the sisters starts to take more of the spotlight than the other. If Big Sister is a straight-A student and gets into honor societies and joins the student government and gets offered scholarships from all kinds of big schools, then Little Sister, with her drawings and her stories, is somewhat forgotten. Little Sister is pressured to be more like Big Sister—“Why can’t you do better in school? You just need to apply yourself. You’re as smart as she is—why can’t you get good grades, too?”

If the Little Sister excels—she’s a dancer or an artist or a writer who wins awards and contests and gets into exclusive clubs and groups—it’s the Big Sister who gets the pressure to be more like her sibling.

If both sisters have good self-esteem and a strong sense of confidence in her own uniqueness and her own individual talents, they learn to support and encourage each other—and to share the limelight with each other by shining it on her sibling’s accomplishments.

Figure you outHowever, if one sister’s personality is stronger than the other’s, or if one is given more freedom of expression or latitude in which to practice/exhibit her talents, it creates friction. In the worst-case scenario, the sister with the weaker personality or less self-esteem shrinks into the background and, quite possibly, estranges herself from the family.

What Does This Have to Do with Writing?
When we talk about being right-brained or left-brained, we’re looking at a similar relationship to Little Sister and Big Sister. The right hemisphere of the brain is the creative side: art, music, storytelling, self-expression—like Little Sister. The left side controls logic, reason, and analysis, like Big Sister. When Big and Little sister have a good, harmonious relationship and work well together, both succeed, both can do more than one alone is capable of. When one side begins to take precedence, begins to get the spotlight and the praise and the encouragement, the other side suffers or shrinks into the background or moves away from home (okay, not literally when it comes to our brains, but you get where I’m going with the analogy).

Those of us who are 50-50 left/right, have more of an Identical Twin situation going on. But even with twins, you find that at any given time, at whatever task, one of the siblings is going to be a little stronger in it, will excel just a bit more than her sister. So, again, a balance is needed.

Parents know that they shouldn’t prefer one child over another. In a perfect world, this would always be the case. While praising and showcasing the strong sibling, they should also be encouraging and supporting the weaker one. It’s the same way with how our brains work.

If You Are Right-Brain Dominant
For those who are right-brain dominant, don’t shine the spotlight solely on the creative side of your work. Don’t spend all your time creating and no time revising or editing or studying, no matter how much you don’t like doing the analytical stuff. Spend time reading craft books, doing critical readings of your work and others’ books, study the market, do research.

The danger for the Little Sister is that she spends all of her time dancing and singing and storytelling and no time learning skills for life—how to pay bills or grocery shop or cook or do laundry. As a writer, you need to make sure that you are doing left-brain type things to make sure you are balancing what you love to do with what you need to do to take your writing to the next level and become a professional.

Left-brain tasks to practice:

  • editing, revising, rewording
  • writing a synopsis or an outline (even if it’s after the draft is finished)
  • figuring out the goals, motivations, and conflicts for your characters
  • researching agents and editors and what they’re looking for
  • writing query letters
  • critiquing—your own work or others’
  • reading how-to craft books and taking notes for your own work
  • learning to let the internal critic have her say every now and again
  • .

    If You Are Left-Brain Dominant
    Those who are left-brain dominant tend to enjoy many of the tasks I just listed. It’s the actual writing process that’s hardest. Big Sister wants to “have written” instead of to “be writing.” Being creative can be draining for her if she hasn’t achieved a balance—learned how to play well—with Little Sister.

    The danger for Big Sister is that she gets caught up in the analytical. She can’t silence the internal critic who tells her what she’s writing isn’t good enough—will never be good enough. Once she has finished a manuscript, she’s in grave danger of getting caught in a revise–edit–rewrite loop instead of moving on to a new story. It’s not because she doesn’t have any new story ideas, but because starting something new isn’t logical. Starting something new means a chance of failure to finish it. It also means expending creative energy that she has a hard time mustering—mainly because the voice of “logic” from the left side is so much louder than the voice of her characters/story from the right.

    Right-brain tasks to practice:

  • character casting
  • world building (not research, but finding images or drawing or mapmaking)
  • brainstorming/what-if-ing
  • active/directed daydreaming
  • reading fiction or poetry or listening to music
  • physically acting out what your characters are doing
  • blasting your favorite music and dancing around the living room
  • learning to silence the internal critics and allow the story to flow
  • .

    Michelle's Wedding

    For Discussion:
    Are you right- or left-brained?

    Have you found a balance between the creative and analytical, or are your “sisters” still fighting with each other (and with you)?

    What tasks (from those listed above or others you can think of) can you do to get a better balance between the two?

    1. Tuesday, October 1, 2013 1:33 pm

      I’m 45%/55%.. pretty much 50/50 especially since some of the questions, like “Do you think in pictures or words” my answer was, “um, i think in PICTURES of words….” 🙂 Yeah, I still think my “sisters” are twins:-) crazy, crazy twins!!!


      • Tuesday, October 1, 2013 2:04 pm

        Krista, I scored the same as you. I’ve always felt a little bit of both. Lately, I’ve been no brainer. Argg. But I really like quizzes like these. They are so fun, and they inspire me to think. Gee. I wish we still had recess–at work, complete with playgrounds and such. I was so much more of a right brain on the playground. 🙂


    2. Mary Carr permalink
      Saturday, October 5, 2013 8:08 am

      So interesting Kaye! I know I am left-brain dominant and I loved the suggestions of tasks to practice. I think Patrick should consider using this for his creative writing class. Do you think all writers are either balanced or right-brain dominant?


    3. Wednesday, October 30, 2013 8:18 am

      Love this analogy. Funny that while reading through it, I couldn’t tell which sister I am at first. In real life (as opposed to my fake life) I am the big sister, but I became the writer. My sister dabbled in artwork and poetry, but never went anywhere with it.

      I was the academic star with the scholarships and straight A’s until my senior year when changing schools and medical problems saw exhaustion catch up with me. It might also have had to do with most of my classes not transferring correctly between the private and public school. My *weighted* GPA was low, despite all the private school work being more like honors work, as most of our tests were essay questions.

      But my sister and I would both agree that she has the stronger personality.

      My results are:
      65% Left Brained, 35% Right Brained
      And I think that’s about right…maybe. It would explain why I love writing, but worry that I’ll never be a prolific writer. I just don’t have ideas flowing through me like most writers brag about. It might also explain why I’m still editing this book after so many years–not that I haven’t tried to start 2 new books, I just love this one too much. It’s frustrating that after all the work and time and tears, it’s still *not there yet*.

      I sent part of it for a professional edit, and was told that it’s submission ready, that the minimal work I’m paying for will be done by the publishing house.
      But in a recent mentoring session, an author told me my characters were only 2.5 to 2.75% 3 dimensional. It’s those darn nuanced reactions.
      So, technically correct, but still lacking. The story of my editing journey.

      Even though most of these look like things I already do, I’ll work more on the right brained exercises you listed (at least, now I know why world building and putting in description are like pulling teeth lol).


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