Writing on the Right Side of the Brain

I’m really enjoying Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I’ve even done some of the exercises, and as far as I can tell, they are extremely effective. I get drawing in a way I never have before. (When I was fourteen or so, a friend told me that the key to drawing was to pretend that what you saw was a flat surface. At the time, I was convinced she was cheating — that real artists were constantly aware of 3D space, but as it turns out, she was right.)

Edwards’ main point is that we use our left brain (logical and verbal) to recognize objects around us without actually seeing them. To do this quickly, we catalogue objects according to certain traits and skip over the details. That’s fine for getting through life, but when we try to reproduce what you see on a piece of paper, we fall back those traits and communicate them symbolically. For example, a stick figure is recognizable as a person, but it doesn’t really look like a person at all. It’s a symbol.

Edwards teaches her students to turn off their left brains and look at objects without mentally categorizing them. (I posted one of her exercises here.) When they get into what she calls “R-mode” (right brain), they experience a sort of altered state of consciousness. Here’s how she describes some of its characteristics:

First, there is a seeming suspension of time. You are not aware of time in the sense of marking time. Second, you pay no attention to spoken words. You may hear the sounds of speech, but you do not decode the sounds into meaningful words. If someone speaks to you, it seems as thought it would take a great effort to cross back, think again in words, and answer. Furthermore, whatever you are doing seems immensely interesting. You are attentive and concentrated and feel “at one” with the thing you are concentrating on. You feel energized but calm, active without anxiety. You feel self-confident and capable of doing the task at hand. Your thinking is not in words but in images and, particularly while drawing, you thinking is “locked on” to the object you are perceiving. On leaving R-mode state, you do not feel tired, but refreshed.

My drawing ability is mediocre, but I do recognize what she’s describing. I’ve experienced it most often when editing video. I would become completely locked in and work for hours, barely moving. I’ve heard coders describe the same thing.

What I find most fascinating about this passage, though, is how it applies to writing. When I’m fully engaged in writing, I lose track of time. When someone talks to me, I pay no attention. (I have strong memories of my dad doing the same thing when I was a child.) I am attentive, concentrated, confident, and capable. The one thing that does not match up with my experience writing is that Edwards describes this state as “not thinking in words.” In fact, that’s one of the hallmarks of R-mode. You put aside verbal processing in order to see things “as they are.”

How is it possible that writing, which is by definition a verbal activity (you’d think), can shift someone into R-mode, which is partially defined by a lack of verbal processing? I don’t know, but, a few pages later, Edwards includes this quote from Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”:

In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing, you probably hunt about till you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning clear as one can through pictures or sensations.

I have never considered this, but I think Orwell is right. And it occurs to me that this is what poets do all the time. They consider pictures or sensations and, instead of using symbols (Edwards’ term) or the existing dialect (Orwell’s), they hunt for words that communicate as closely as possible what they are actually seeing or perceiving in the world around them.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s