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Brain Anatomy and the Difficulty of Writing

Friday, December 28, 2012

I had an Aha moment the other day when I was thinking about why it is so many people consider writing difficult (often frighteningly so).

Want to see how hard it
is to overcome left-brain
language dominance? Name
the words' colors out loud
without reading the words.
This is the so-called
Stroop Effect.
The key insight: Brain anatomy is not well optimized to make good writing easy. 

We know that most of the language centers are on the left side of the brain. We also know that the left brain is where linear, logical, rule-based thinking occurs. The right brain understands less-linear things like metaphors, idioms, graphical relationships in space, and improvisation. In at least a colloquial sense, we think of the right brain as "creative."

Therefore, the difficulty of writing is partly anatomical. The brain's language centers are proximal to the rigidly logical "linear thinking" parts of the brain. If you're a computer programmer, that's a good thing. If you're trying to write poetry, it's not.

It's not impossible to trick the right brain into becoming more involved in left-brain tasks. My favorite tricks are:

Buy an Etch A Sketch.

Build a Lego puzzle.

Develop an intimate relationship with a yo-yo.

If what you're writing needs accompanying illutrations, work on the illustrations first.

Read some poetry before trying to write prose. Try some e.e. cummings.

Create a pro forma "outline" for your piece in the form of a quick doodle with lots of circles and boxes (a Venn diagram on crystal meth). I like a white-board for this, but the back of an envelope will do just as well.

Find an image that elicits a strong non-verbal reaction in you. Study it. Modify it in Photoshop.

Watch your favorite TED Talk video. Or watch a new one.

Listen to music that relies on improvisation, or at least lack of repetition. (Read up on the Mozart Effect.) My favorite musical works in this regard are the live solo performances of pianist Keith Jarrett. Most of his concert performances are pure improvisation. Some are quite abstract (think Jackson Pollock on piano). If you're not familiar with Jarrett, buy his signature Köln Concert album, and go from there.

Maybe you know of other tricks. Leave them in a Comment below. Thanks!

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