Left Brain righT: Brain Hemisphere Wars and Writer’s Block

In an insidious form of ‘writer’s block,’ I used to be brought to a complete standstill by something I didn’t even realize was going on: each side of my brain wanted to be the one in control, firmly confident that IT had the ONLY correct method for writing. EVER.

The LEFT side of my brain was convinced that we HAD to start by MAKING A LIST. It had good arguments: once everything is written down, I could then focus on each item, do it and check it off the list.

The RIGHT side of my brain was convinced that, no matter where we were in the writing process, it was much better to gather up ideas, possibly writing them all down to generate even more ideas – the number of notebooks generated by the WIP approaches 20 – and the ‘writing down’ was already a compromise: my attempts to nap were filled with wild flights of imagination.

That first step always wants to be ‘make a list’ – but I can never get to that step FIRST: first I have to even have an idea what I’m doing.

For strictly editing scenes, the list method is sometimes enough to start.

But for New scenes, even if they already have some notes, I need to not fight it when my brain goes a gathering into the large world of all possibilities. It happens every time – I may as well get used to it.

NEITHER side could win the battle, but EITHER could block the other side from gaining ascendance for long enough to get any writing done. Big loser: me.

When I realized what was going on, that the battle meant that neither side got the floor (control of the writing environment: me) long enough to achieve ITS current writing goal, I started using the same kind of time-sharing I used when the kids were little and two (or three!) of them wanted the same toy/swing/game at the same time: arbitrarily pick ONE (the quietest and best(better?) behaved of the bunch) for the first 5 minutes, set the timer, and switch to the second child, repeating 5 minute turns until each had had as many turns as desired.

In other words, find a way to let each have part of the desired object, but have to share.

Something similar has happened since then in my writing.

The LEFT side of my brain has plenty of good structural and useful and NECESSARY ideas – but it can’t, by itself, produce good fiction.

The RIGHT side of my brain has all kinds of good words and descriptions and NECESSARY metaphors – but produces stuff no one can read if allowed free rein.

The obvious answer is to get the two sides to cooperate – and in my case it means using everything both sides throw at me in a chaotic, but somehow controlled, manner. I can’t play favorites – the side losing always finds a way to derail forward progress.

Neither side can say the other doesn’t matter – just that it shouldn’t be the dominant one.

I have learned to listen to the ‘blocked’ feeling as an indicator that, whichever side is in control, a change is required. If I’m doing structural plotting, I may need to go create some dialogue between two characters. If the metaphor won’t come, I need to write the pieces down and pick and choose on some logical basis which pieces to keep.

So, with the cooperation of both sides, we have reached a flexible alliance by promising each not equal time, but as much time as it needs – and a regular alternation.

A result of this cooperation is the following image (the pdf is also available under Writer resources/Downloads):Left BRAIN righT

Left BRAIN righT method.pdf

The LEFT side likes lists, and the RIGHT side likes visual aids, so when I’m stuck, I glance up at the printout on my bulletin board, and usually find not only that a switch is necessary, but an indication of WHICH step I need to return to/go on to. Since I formalized the agreement in writing, I rarely find myself blocked. Tired – yes – but that’s another story – and even then I can usually put down a few words before toddling off to nap**.

I think many writers already do this, though maybe not so formally, in such things as switching projects, changing from writing to editing and back, going from computer to paper and yellow legal pad, and other switching strategies that ultimately let cooperation produce output.

I find I like it tangible, formalized, written down. I have benefitted greatly from other writers’ written descriptions of the way they work/write/problem solve.

I haven’t come across this particular subject in quite my way – hope it helps someone else to stop the HEMISPHERE WARS – and minimize the blocking they cause.

**Writing with CFS requires careful energy management – and necessitates doing things in manageable chunks because I can’t work long enough at a time to push through. Some of the things I do by necessity might be useful to people whose writing time is broken up into variable lengths and happens at odd times for other reasons.

It also means there have been twenty updates to this page, including at least two to the title, since I clicked publish! Ack! Sorry! Brain fog!

Please let me know if it is STILL messed up.


6 thoughts on “Left Brain righT: Brain Hemisphere Wars and Writer’s Block

  1. Janna G. Noelle

    I’ve never really experienced the problem of both sides of my brain wanting to take charge because both sides already know – the left brain is the captain of this ship! Although the right brain does get its say as well. I tend to start a project by casting my net out for ideas and letting my historical research dictate part of the story, which I feel is quite right brained. Then I write it all down in a very messy but super detailed outline, which is more left brained. Then I just follow it … until I stop following it.

    My outlines are never cast in stone (I’ve been off of my WIP’s outside for about 150 pages now), but I do feel like I need that surety of having something planned to be able to write anything at all (again, very left brained). For me to get “writer’s block” means I didn’t do enough planning; either that or because I don’t have a clear vision of what I’m trying to accomplish with what I’m writing, which is likewise a problem of insufficient planning.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      If your left brain stays in charge, you’re lucky. As I wrote, I feel I’m the mother of twins – one an extrovert, the other an introvert. Together they produce beautiful work, but they need a referee with a whistle! Each can stop the other cold. Much better your way – except I don’t think we get a choice – we come hard-wired.


    1. ABE Post author

      They call your kind ‘pantsers.’ If it works for you, why not?

      I can’t do it that way for long, and I got a bad start in writing because one of my favorite ‘teachers’ – Lawrence Block – writes that way, and I read his Telling Lies for Fun and Profit et. al. when I was younger. So I thought I was supposed to be able to always do it in my head. Now I use whatever works today.


  2. David Haywood Young

    This may just be annoying…I dunno. But I find that “writer’s block” really just means “I felt like doing something else, so I did.” And doing something else, after all, can be pretty reasonable. Drawing logs and splitting water, or whatever.

    But the thing that really works is for me is…typing. It doesn’t actually matter what I type. I could probably pull over a phone book, start copying it, and end up with a story or a novel, as long as I didn’t feel comfortable getting up to go kill a dragon or something. Having permission to stand up is the kiss of death for new fiction.

    So: I need some sort of external deadline to get me going. There have to be consequences (however fanciful), or I’ll simply do something else with my time. Not because I dislike writing–I enjoy it very much–but just ’cause I’m one o’ them perverse monkey people and that’s how my brain works. Came that way in the box, and I never did get it adjusted properly.

    Believing I’m not “ready” to write something, or the notion that I need an “idea” first…these are simply excuses. I’m wise to them but they still afflict me. Daily.

    Though I suppose writing longhand would work too. Or dictation, for some people. In general, the more the process looks like the result, the better I deem the process for producing the desired result. When it comes time to write? Typing works very well. It’s how words appear. When words appear it means I’m writing.


    1. ABE Post author

      Longhand works well for me – different neural pathways. Often, when I get stuck, I move from computer to paper or vice versa.

      Commenting on the blogs I read more-or-less daily also gets the mental processes working for the day – I have a strictly limited number of blogs I visit. If I’m truly surfing the web, because I can’t do anything else, my brain fog is in ‘London 1900’ setting, and impenetrable anyway. I should be taking a nap.

      Sometimes a quick email to a friend gets me writing.

      But you’re right – making the fingers hit the keys is best.



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