Sunday 6 September 2015

The two brains of the writer (or really any person/artist)

Here's a thought I woke up with today, and it relates to all the recent blog posts and comments and private conversations I've had with m/m writers (and other writers, too). From the looks of it, there's something of a burn-out epidemic in the writing space and among my writer friends.

In some ways, I think I was just one of the first ones to fold under that strain. Granted, other factors contributed heavily to my burn-out, and I'm fixing these one by one, so it's all good and I expect 2016 to kick serious ass. For the first time in many months, I get excited when I think about writing. It seems I had to put in the work, make some hard decisions, rid my life of things that were cluttering it up and detach myself from some ideas/concepts/inner contracts that are no longer good for me (or my writing, which is basically the same thing).

So, let's talk about that beautiful machine that evolution has gifted us with over millions of years and that has got us here, sitting in front of illuminated squares of LEDs, talking to ghosts on the other end of the world, and that enables us to make stories, tell them, and torture ourselves with it really much more than anybody deserves.

You all know the whole right brain/left brain thing, right?

This one:

(image stolen off Goggle)

(While I've read that the most recent brain science doesn't really divide the brain up like this - there's a part in the middle that makes sure those sides "talk", too, I think it's useful in the same way that the model of the atom is useful but not "how it truly is". Also, left-handers can be swapped around - except for me, my brain sides are like a right-hander's - although I'm a bit of a weak left-hander, I'm really leaning towards left-dominant ambidextrous - confused yet?).

Looking at the image myself, it's clear that creative writing is in the right brain - I don't verbalise my writing before I put it down. I "see" and "imagine" the whole scene and then just type, often surprised by what shows up on the screen.

I don't get the left side involved - it's all in the right. It's all feeling, "dreaming". It also explains why I can't listen to music with words (at least not words I don't know yet) - it puts the focus into the wrong side of the brain, while the music itself (and the rhythm) really gets the right side going.

Good writing - fun writing - easy writing happens when I let it flow - it comes from somewhere and goes through me - to go somewhere else. I have about as much say in it as a wire has about the kind or amount of electricity that flows through it. Yeah, it's hell on the ego.

It's an old writing truth that writing and editing are two different processes. For a damn good reason - the right brain writes, the left side edits. The right brain is shit at editing - and the left side couldn't write to save its life (well, it can write, but it's the tough kind of writing that means you work HARD all fucking day and have 200 words to show for it).

Many writers start entirely right-brained. We write because WE HEAR VOICES AND SEE COOL STUFF AND OMG ISN'T IT ALL FANTASTIC!

Then we grow up - as painfully as really growing up in real life. Suddenly, life isn't all play. We have to go to school, get a job, start worrying about bills and rent and employment rates. It's hard to play when you have to think that way. And we end up like James Joyce, who one day struggled and struggled and ended up having only 7 words to show for, but, when his friend said, "That's not too bad - for you," said: "Yes, but I don't know in which order they go!"

Wow, that's a very left-brain thing to say. Left-brain cares about order.

So how does this relate to the epidemic of writers blogging and writing and admitting in whispers in cafes and hotel bars, emails and Facebook how burned out and disenchanted and tired they are?

Basically, all this bullshit about "brand" and "marketing" and sales numbers - that's what did it. It's the left brain, and over the last two years or so, we have collectively fed the left brain steroids (does brain tissue do steroids?) - we've worried about strategies and pricing and yield per book, and blog tours, and whether people on Twitter think we are asshats.

We've done the numbers and realised (rightly) that we need to release 4 novels per year, every year, to make our dream true ("Quitting The Evil Day Job" - QTEDJ), and then we ended up nearly killing ourselves to try to make it happen.

(And then something happens that throws that whole concept under a burning, out-of-control train full of raving cannibal zombies - like Amazon changing its terms, or publishers blowing up, or yet another in-fight in the genre, or a plagiarism scandal or whatever.)

And all of this isn't even too bad - honestly, I have a good business head on my shoulder, I like finances and strategy and such things - but the problem happens when we listen to the left brain that's computing all these things for us while we should be running the right brain.

As an example, I was blocked to hell. Sitting down at the computer, all "yay, writing!" feelings went away when the thoughts crept in. When I wondered about word counts, about editing, about production schedules. When the right brain wants to write - and I'm ready to flow whatever the Gods are giving me - just worrying about cover art, blog tours or having to wait 8-10 months for a release slot - took the urgency right out.

In fact, I trained my brain to associate writing with pain and punishment.

Remember my quips that "editing is the punishment for writing"? - It was meant as a joke, but oh so true - it was what was going on inside of me.

The Muse doesn't like punishment - and if writing = punishment, then why do it? After all, I'm innocent, I don't deserve punishment. Punishment isn't fun. Why not do something that's fun instead?

In any case, once those two are linked, there's no wonder that the subconsciousness - that wants your best and is looking for pleasure, not pain - learns to shut this thing right down. You basically told it to, and all it did was oblige.

So, yeah, I brought that burn-out on myself by going about it all wrong. But I'm learning. I can be slow (Churchill's "The Americans can be trusted to do the right thing - after they've exhausted all other options" comes to mind), but I'm learning.

Fairly recently, I've made decisions that were mostly right brain; intuitive. I really wanted audiobooks, and while left brain freaked out over the costs and the number of copies I need to sell to not make those audios fairly expensive Xmas presents to myself - I hired the narrators anyway.

The audios give me joy.

Joy is fucking priceless.

I believe as artists, we need to learn to switch back to the right brain. We need to stop thinking with the left brain, at least while we create or deep in the thralls of a project. We're wires - vessels of something pretty fucking amazing - and our job is to get ourselves out of the way so it can run and flow and express itself.

We are dreamers who dream aloud, on the page, giving the gift of dreams to people who might be too exhausted or down to dream anything for themselves. Our job is to give them that, not think about sales numbers. We need to make our souls sing, because there's that urge, that gift, that electricity that needs to flow, and we have the capacity to do it. If we don't do it, who will tell that one story that keeps us up at night? That one novel/story/poem we were born to write?

The money may or may not come - or whatever we're in it for; praise, exorcising demons, escaping the office, it doesn't really matter. (Yeah, I do love money, but gods, I make so much more money at my day job than I make writing.) Let's step away from focusing on numbers and orders and strategies while we try to write.

We need to step away from all the left-brain stuff and go back to where we started - the right brain. The dreams, images, the feelings that sit in our gut and make us jump out of bed at 7 on a Sunday. The little voice in your head that advises you what your characters will do - that glorious, full-surround view of your characters doing whatever your characters do.

We need to play again, on the page, and give ourselves to our stories - it's a mutual thing. If we give ourselves to the Muse like that, like trusting children, with no numbers in our heads, without strategies or self-consciousness, if we just show up to play and trust our intuition, that feeling, that charge, the Muse will give, and give plenty.

(And when the work is done, let the left brain off the leash to take care of edits - but only then, and for a limited time only, and then lock that creativity-destroying monster back where it can't escape from until you need it again.)


  1. This was beautifully stated, and so very true. Something I think about often when I hear popular authors gripe--for good reason--about the grind. I feel that we lost something vital when being an author became about branding and output, and I couldn't agree more with what you say here.

    But. It's still so sad to me that people in the creative arts can't make a living at being creative anymore. Could they ever? I wonder. One in a million, I guess, manage it. But the pressure on them must be like the stones on Giles Corey's chest in The Crucible, and still they cry, "More weight!" Because the alternative is unthinkable to them.

    Still, it takes someone with tremendous self-knowledge and lack of ego to be able to step back, and I commend you for it. :D

  2. Thank you for this post. I'm one of those writers who've been massively burned out and couldn't figure out why for a good while - until I realized (and accepted) it was because I allowed myself to be swayed by publishing "experts" who insist on the need to produce X number of books per year in order to "make it" as a writer, full-time or otherwise. I was happy working a day job part-time and writing part-time for years, my output being limited to two novels per year (three if I was really energized).

    Then I listened, went angst-y over my output, and forced myself to write more even with my part-time job on the side. Unsurprisingly, burnout happened, but I went about sorting through my problems the wrong way. I decided I should quit my day job in order to write full-time and satisfy those numbers I've come to embrace as my goals because I fooled myself into thinking it was my day job that got in the way of things. It only made my problem worse.

    I then realized I needed to slow down and have a day job on the side because I needed the face-to-face social interactions and relationships with people outside my immediate circle and especially online social media. After only about seven months of struggling on my own, I went back to working part-time in a field I've always loved, and I regret nothing.

    The fact that I don't work under the pressure of producing X number of books a year in order to make it as a writer has helped me a great deal. I'm still working my way out of my funk, but I feel significantly better than I have in a long while, and like you, I can't wait for 2016, when my writing will fall back to a slower, more comfortable pace. One novel per year? Two? I'm perfectly fine with those numbers as long as I can enjoy the journey again.