Saturday 9 November 2013

Writing on the Right Side of the Brain

by Caroline Lawrence 

I just finished a wonderfully stimulating week as Writer in Residence at Summer Fields, a boarding school in Oxford for boys of late primary and middle school age. I leapt at the chance to come: now that my own son is grown-up and living in Los Angeles,  I wanted to re-connect with my target readership.  

Summer Fields School, Oxford
All week, I have been doing right and left brain activities with the boys. The left-brain plot structure exercises were great and the literate Summer Fields boys took to them like Hollywood screenwriters in the writers' room. We identified some of our "Achilles' Heels" and then came up with a story in which our hero would learn a strategy to deal with his weakness. 

Caroline teaching at Summer Fields
Here are some of our titles (all fictional, of course): "Mr Guy Nice" for a boy who is worried about being too eager to please and falls in with a group of delinquents. "The Debate", about a boy who is afraid of public speaking and must come up against his talented older brother in a debate. "The Sleepover" about a hypothetical younger sister who is afraid of the dark but has been invited to attend a sleepover at a popular girl's house. What will happen when the lights go off? 

An exercise they found more challenging was one I often use to generate ideas: continuous writing to a piece of music. I call it (Day)dreaming a Setting.

Before I did this exercise I had to explain how the right and left hemispheres of the brain control different mental functions. 

This clever Mercedes Benz advert (above) is quite a good summary of left and right brain function. The LOGICAL LEFT BRAIN says: "I am a scientist. A mathematician. I love the familiar. I categorise. I am accurate. Linear. Analytical. Strategic. I am practical. Always in control. A master of words and language…" In the ad, the left brain is painted in black and white, with lots of words. 

(This part of the brain loves listing plot beats and working out story structure.)

The CREATIVE RIGHT BRAIN says "I am creativity. A free spirit. I am passion. Yearning. Sensuality. I am the sound of roaring laughter. I am taste. The feeling of sand beneath bare feet. I am movement. Vivid colours. I am the urge to paint on an empty canvas. I am boundless imagination…"

This exercise is one I used to do when I taught art at primary school. I first came across it twenty years ago in one of the books that has changed my life: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

I ask the children to close their eyes behind cupped hands, rest their head in their hands and their elbows on table. And breathe. Then I put on a piece of music and ask them to imagine the colour of the music. The taste. What scene does it describe? What time of day is it? What can you feel beneath your bare feet? Are you inside or outside? On earth or somewhere else? In the past, the present or the future? Who is in the scene with you? What are they doing? What can you smell? What can you feel? How do you feel? 

Although I used to do this for many years in my art classes, when someone else asked me to do it in a creative writing class, I bridled! The teacher put on a piece of yearning violin music and told us to "Close our eyes and imagine the scene." A little voice in my head said, "This music is too emotional. I hate this kind of music. What a stupid exercise!" That little voice was my left brain, always critical. Sometimes you want criticism, other times you don't. The left brain hates not being in control and it was just scared. So I reasoned with it. "Look, I've paid money to be on this course. I may as well try to get my money's worth." 

My left brain backed off and my creative right brain stepped forward. 

It showed me a picture, vague at first, but becoming clearer as I went along with it. Red brick buildings in the fog. A Roman town. An ancient Roman town. Ostia, the port of Rome. Where my (then) work-in-progress was set! And out of the fog came a funeral procession. Mourners carrying a bier with a body on it. I knew it was one of my characters. But which one? I had to wait until it came closer to see. My subconscious knew but my conscious brain hadn't yet realised. Then at last I saw who it was, and I knew it was TRUE. It was good. It was right. Yes, it was sad, but it had to happen. Logical arc-planning left brain and creative, intuitive right brain were in agreement. But left brain had to back off to let my right brain show me what was deep within. 

funeral procession from Roman Mysteries title sequence
I was working on my third Roman Mystery at the time but this incident does not appear until book thirteen, where one of my characters has a prophetic dream of a funeral procession in the fog and realises someone close to him is going to die. It even appears in the opening credits of the BBC television series based on my books. That's how powerful that image was.

caravan of camels
I was so excited by this that I started using this exercise with other music. I was listening to jazz guitarist Larry Carlton at the time and put on a piece called Slave Song because the title made me think of Nubia, one of my four main characters. The music immediately evoked a slave caravan crossing desert on camels. Yes, the title was suggestive but that didn't matter. It was a powerful, moving scene and it went straight into the book I was writing at the time, The Pirates of Pompeii

Buddha Lounge disc 1
Fast forward, ten years. As I left my London apartment to get the train to Oxford, I grabbed a CD, one I hoped the boys wouldn't have come across before: Buddha Lounge 1. Mainly instrumental. A nicely atmospheric variety of upbeat, intriguing and spooky tracks.

Over the week I played a selection of songs in eighteen different English classes. I asked the boys to visualise the music for a minute or so, then I got them to open their eyes and write without stopping, another way of confounding the left brain. 

"Don't worry about neatness or sense or spelling or grammar," I told them. "Just keep the words coming. If you can't think what to write, write I can't think what to write. I can't think what to write. until something comes to you." 

At first the boys found it hard. Were they doing it right? "The only rule," I said, "is keep your hand moving. Keep writing something, anything. If you are panicking that is just your left brain afraid of losing control. Tell it to chill."

The class teachers were game and tried it, too. One teacher was able to do it but confessed it gave him a headache here. (He tapped his left-brain!) Another teacher wrote in her native language, French, and found her handwriting changed after the first few sentences as she got the "hang of it". A third teacher "saw" a bright room with no doors, windows or even light switches. He realised he was a baby in the womb. 

The reason I'm writing this in the History Girls blog is to encourage all you writers of historical fiction. Put on a piece of period music, or the nearest thing. 

Get a piece of paper. Turn it sideways to show your left brain you are doing something new. Take a fibre-tipped pen or a crayon to show your left brain you are doing something new. 

Now put on the music. Close your eyes. Let the music conjure up a scene. Not just sights but smells, sounds, tastes, textures, emotions, movement and detail. 

Got it? Then write! 

Caroline Lawrence is author of The Roman Mysteries, The Roman Mysteries Scrolls and the P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries. Find more of her writing tips on her website at 


Laurie said...

Thanks Caroline for a timely reminder that I'm due my annual workout with Betty Edwards' book. I second your recommendation!

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this - will give it a go!

Penny Dolan said...

Lovely post. Good to be encouraged to make time for daydream words & writing.

Mark Burgess said...

Good stuff, Caroline, thank you. Off to put on some music...

Katherine Roberts said...

Makes me want to paint! Words are hard.