Left Brain, Right Brain, Or Ambidextrous Brain?

When I’m talking about writing or about creativity in general, I can’t go for very long without mentioning Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.

Creative Sees Shot, Analytical Lines Up Snails

At some point, yes, I will do a series of posts on my experiences with that book and how it is still changing how I see the world, almost three years after I worked through it. In the meantime, you’ll have to make do with snippets.

Here’s another one:

In her book, Cameron says some fascinating, invigorating things about a concept called “synchronicity”:

We call it anything but what it is — the hand of God, or good, activated by our own hand when we act in behalf of our truest dreams, when we commit to our own soul. …[T]hose dark and romantic notions…call to our deepest selves. When we answer that call, when we commit to it, we set in motion the principle that C. G. Jung dubbed synchronicity, loosely defined as a fortuitous intermeshing of events.

…Don’t be surprised if you try to discount it. It can be a very threatening concept…the possibility of an intelligent and responsive universe, acting and reacting in our interests.

Cameron also writes,

Answered prayers are scary. They imply responsibility. You asked for it. Now that you’ve got it, what are you going to do?

These thoughts, my darlings, could be the basis for an entire year of blog posts! And yet, I’m going to focus in on a few relatively small details. (And yet, monstrous waves do begin as tiniest ripples in the sea…) Maybe the comments section would be a great place — for now! — for discussion on the subject of God-or-no-God, a responsive universe, and answered prayers as the (subconsciously unwanted?) results of “ask, and you’ll get.” In the meantime, I’m going to talk about synchronicity relating to the concept of left-brained and right-brained.

Left Brain and Right Brain

My whole life, left brain vs. right brain has been a topic of conversation in my family. And it really has been Left Brain vs. Right Brain: My left-brained mother has lamented for years the disorganization and heads-in-the-cloudness of her right-brained husband and right-brained daughter.

A junior high and high school English teacher, Mama had a place for everything, and she wanted everything in its place. Daddy walked in at night from his fulltime job as an opera singer and left a trail of clothing through the livingroom. Mama had compartments in her purse for every doohickey and whatnot a woman might possibly need while out and about. I was chronically without tissues, nail files, chapstick, and pens. The inside of Mama’s secretary was a shining beacon of organizational light. I crammed things into my wardrobe, slammed the doors shut, and wedged furniture (and sometimes my own body) in front of them to prevent explosive decompression.

“Oh, you right-brained people!” was a common, exasperated exclamation in our household. Mama’s cause was likely utterly lost when the right-brained daughter went out into the world and found herself a right-brained husband.

But left- and right-brained issues pursued me even outside the home. In high school (which, in the German school I attended, meant grades 7 – 13), I excelled at languages (English, German, and French), the visual arts, and any lessons in Social Studies or Religion that dealt with human emotion and its expression. Biology and chemistry were fair-weather friends. Math and physics were my nemeses.

Things got a little better in college, where I could specialize and focus on my arts. One semester, however, I took both Creative Writing and Media Writing. Creative Writing was a right-brained heaven. The left-brainedness of Media Writing made me feel like I had dissociative identity disorder (aka multiple personality disorder). In Technical Writing, I almost floundered.

I did witness a fascinating exchange once, though: A professor asked a fellow student, “Andy, are you right-brained or left-brained?” Not missing a beat, Andy replied, “I’m ambidextrous-brained.” Laughter ensued, and among some of my friends, the concept of ambidextrous-brainedness turned into a running joke that went on for years.

Lately, however, I’ve started thinking that it was no joke. And this is where the synchronicity kicks in.

Left to Right and Back

I excelled in languages and arts but felt tortured in math and physics. However, at the end of my high school career, we all had to take a comprehensive final exam (two years’ worth of class material) in four subjects. Mine were English, Art, Religion…and Chemistry — because by that point in my high school career, my Chem and Biology grades were above average. Why?

Growing up, I fought my mother about keeping my room, my purse, my life organized. However, I’ve always alphabetized my books, and even as a kid and a teenager, I could plan out advance details of an event like nobody’s business. What was this right-brained Creative doing organizing anything?

My right-brained father, who spent 27 years as a fulltime, professional opera singer, doesn’t drop his clothes all over the house anymore. And, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become far more observant of the nuances of my parents’ personalities (funny, how that works), and I’ve realized that there are a great many things that Daddy likes to have just so. Books. (Hmmm…) His knife collection. His haircuts. Certain philosophies. How does this right-brained man end up dealing with some areas of life from such a black-and-white perspective?

My left-brained mother is staying busy in her retirement. She has taken a few events-to-plan under her organizational wings. As I’ve mentioned before, she’s my primary beta reader, and her left-brain skills are invaluable for keeping me on track in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and plot structure… But she is also taking a painting class. Over the last few months, she has completed four paintings and is starting on her fifth. This isn’t abstract stuff, either. This is landscapes, scenery, and organic still-life. And every painting is better and more creative than the last. My left-brained mother — an artist?

Ambidextrous Brain

Synchronicity kicked in again last week during a conversation with my friend Brian. Brian is an architect, a job one might “assign” to an entirely left-brained person. But Brian surprised me by revealing that when he’s in the conceptual phase of a new building, he has to be “in” his right brain. And this state of mind isn’t just confined to his brain, either: When he’s working on the rough draft of a new building, his desk must be in a state of mess and chaos, otherwise he can’t work!

Things change, he said, when he moves on to the next drawing phase, getting the building out of the rough draft stage and solidifying the concept both in his mind and on paper. At this point, he says, he moves into the logical, more critically-thinking realm of accurate measurements, crisp lines, and clean structure. His surroundings change in accordance with his thinking: Now, the desk must be organized, or the distraction of the mess prevents him from thinking straight about his project.

As if these recent examples weren’t enough to get me thinking, I got another dose of inspiring and synchronous? synchronicitous? food-for-thought when Becca blogged about relating to her left-brained kid and her right-brained kid. (Go read that and come back here! It’s so very worth it!) Finally, after mulling over her article, I sat up and went, “Hmmmm…..”

I think somebody is trying to tell me something.

I Need Chaos! I Need Order! GAH!

It’s funny and frustrating how one can adopt a philosophy whole-heartedly…but then it takes years and oodles of effort and buckets of sweat and tears for that philosophy to permeate the soul and then crystallize in one’s life. I first read Thoreau in college, and that’s when I first realized (on a conscious level) that I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live with intention. Like Thoreau, “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” But now, more than a decade later, I feel I’m only beginning to understand what that philosophy really means!

For me, part of this deep, deliberate living has been to get to know myself as a Creative and, more specifically, as a writer. It’s kind of like marriage: the longer you live together, the more you find out about each other, even though you thought you knew each other pretty well when you said, “I do.” The longer I live with my creative self, the more I’m finding out about myself. Some of it’s scary, some of it’s annoying, and some of it makes me ask, “Why did I ever get into this with you?!”

Some of what I’m learning has to do with my writerly habits. I’ve found out that:

…I write best in the early afternoon and late, late at night. (There’s something marvelous and darkly romantic about being the only one awake in my world at night. There’s an intimacy with my characters that I don’t get at any other time.)

…I can write happily and productively in the same spot for weeks, and then I suddenly have to switch writing spots, or I get bored with my story! (This might mean moving my laptop from the couch to the table. It might also mean I can’t write in the apartment at all anymore and must seek out an eclectic coffee shop.)

…for over a year, I couldn’t write at my desk because there were two many tax documents on the shelf above it. (The documents are gone now, but I haven’t recovered enough to go back to the desk yet.)

There’s more, but maybe you get the idea.

Now, to top it all off, I’ve got this synchronicity about left- and right-brained going on, and I’m realizing the following:

1. I’m not as right-brained as I thought I was. Obviously, I have access to my left brain; otherwise, the alphabetizing, the chemistry grades, the event-planning, and the general orderliness of my present-day home would not have happened. I am a right-brained Creative, yes — but that does not have to limit me. I can use my logical, analytical side to make myself a better writer…and a more balanced human.

2. I think I’m ambidextrous-brained, and I think both of my parents are, too. Daddy and I lean to the right; Mama leans to the left. But all three of us can access both sides at need. Maybe this is genetic…but maybe every human has this ability. I tend to think the latter, because I know we’re all capable of logical thought to some degree or another…and I believe quite strongly that we’re all creative in some way. A lot of us just don’t know it or know how to explore it.

3. I need to pay closer attention to the hows of my Writing Life. I need to be more deliberate about it — which will enable me to live deep in my creativity and suck the marrow out of it. Which side of my brain do I access during which parts of the writing process?

Left side for prewriting? Outlines, character description, plot arcs, planning chapters scene-by-scene… That definitely sounds like logical, analytical thinking!

Right side for writing the rough draft? Letting the story flow, listening to characters’ voices, deviating from the outline when the adventure calls for off-the-beaten-path… Writing the first draft requires me to follow my heart and let my characters get into trouble that no logical person would countenance.

Do I go back to the left side for the editing process? Return to the right side for flourishes and poetry in the final draft? And, as I consider Brian and the way he has to change his surroundings, I wonder if I unconsciously change mine, too. When I’m in the mess of a rough draft, do I feel more inspired amidst chaos? Do random ideas pop into my head more frequently when there are books and papers and sparklies scattered across my workspace? But do I go into one of my famous cleaning frenzies as soon as I start editing?

Time and conscious observation will tell.

What about you? Do you consider yourself wholly left- or right-brained?

Or are you ambi-brained-ous? Which way do you lean, and what are your activities when you’re accessing the other side?

Oooh, how about this one, for the bloggers: When you blog, which side are you in? Does blogging require access to a different side of the brain than other forms of writing?

(And don’t forget, you can discuss the God, prayers, responsive universe, synchronicity stuff in the comments, too.) 🙂

15 thoughts on “Left Brain, Right Brain, Or Ambidextrous Brain?

  1. Courtney, I love this post! For the past few months I have been distraught in my inner being because I couldn’t reconcile the two sides of my brain. I was convinced that I am left-brained, my organization ruling my life, but I can’t escape the fact that I NEED to write and be creative. My left and right sides are at war every day. Twenty-three years and we’re still learning how to get along. Thanks for letting me know there is hope for us!

    • Jessie, there is most definitely hope! For you and me both. 😉 One thing I didn’t talk about in this post is my question of whether or not ambidextrous-brainedness might be linked to mental, emotional, and social maturity. I lament my years of torture in high school math — but a few years later, in College Algebra, I pulled straight A’s. And it seems as though the older I get, the more I’m able to implement the self-discipline that comes with accessing my left brain.

      So maybe there’s something in here about growing up and finding balance between the parts of us that are at war!

  2. Bri says:

    Hey, great post! I remember the first time anyone talked to me about left-and right- brainedness. It was in 7th grade and my ex-hippie, zodiac-reading, think-outside-the-box art teacher must have been obsessed about it because she had us all pair up and do a left and right-brained test. I was sick that day so she did mine when I came back and she exclaimed a triumphant “I KNEW it!” about me when I turned out 90% right-brained….according to this test. So for a while I just assumed I was doomed to be right-brained and unorganized. I’m pretty sure that was a misconception! It’s like you said…it takes years of getting acquainted with yourself to understand how you can be ambidextrous-brained, though I think we’ll always have certain tendencies. I’ve discovered that I can be very organized and left-brained up to a certain point. I have found a level of organization that I feel comfortable with but I still have my spurts of spontaneity that are necessary for me to feel like I’m actually “living.” I definitely am unpredictable in lot of ways, but I NEED my order sometimes. So I’m glad that over the years I didn’t trust my 7th grade art teacher’s assessment of my brain, but instead I chose to get to know myself “for reals” over the years. 🙂

    • Bri, thanks so much for sharing your story about this. I agree that we definitely have certain tendencies toward left or right…but people can do us so much damage by boxing us into one side or the other when we’re kids! In my reply to Jessie, above, I mention my theory about maturity being linked to balance between the two sides. It’s good to remember that no matter what our leanings, and in spite of what anyone else teaches us about ourselves, we are not subject to the “struggles” that go along with one side or another. We can learn to access the benefits of both sides!

  3. Great post. This is exactly what I was thinking when I blogged about Right and Left last week. If I can make a conscious effort of when to switch from right-brain mode to left-brain mode and vice versa, it will be highly beneficial to my writing.

    But now you have me wondering something else…do Right and Left dominate based on mood? Because sometimes I’m itching to be creative and not a bone in my body wants to think about logical stuff. But at other times, I’m totally in that logical mindset and am dying to organize something — ANYTHING! So, should we harness the energy we feel at the given moment (ie. edit when feeling Lefty and brainstorm for ideas when feeling Righty) or should we try and corral the wandering brain into thinking a certain way? If I have a deadline for edits to be completed, do I FORCE Lefty to come out (and will he be productive if I do)?

    • Becca, I’m asking the same questions — and turning them around, too. Do right and left dominate based on mood? Or does the dominance of right or left at a given point determine mood?!?

      I don’t know if it’s beneficial or detrimental in the long run, but I do tend to harness left energy when feeling Lefty and right energy when feeling Righty. (Love those nicknames, by the way.) I let those energies determine my activities — which can be wonderfully beneficial for the activities themselves, but detrimental to whichever areas I’m neglecting at the time. It’s very all-or-nothing with me…and I tend to believe that this can be harmful in the long run.

      ARGH!!! Finding balance! I’ve already mentioned this in my replies to Jessie and Bri…but I really do think there’s something in here about growth and maturity and increasing self-control. Maybe the key isn’t to force one side or another to come out, but to learn how to tease it out over time?

      • I like your thoughts. And I generally do the same thing — just try to ride the wave of whichever brain is leading the way. I only fight it if there’s some thing else really pressing.

        • Sorry I missed this before, Becca! I like the idea of riding the wave, just enjoying each side for what it needs to be at any given moment. Yeah, sometimes responsibilities from the other side call us to shut down the wave…but maybe there’s synchronicity there, too. Maybe the shutdown happens exactly when it’s supposed to…and the wave comes back when the time is right. : )

  4. […] week, my dearest, most darlingest readers, I wrote about my right brain’s sometime conflict with my left brain.  I used examples from my sordidly disorganized past, juxtaposed (ooh! big word!) with tales from […]

  5. Anthony says:

    I like to think I’m ambidextrious, particularly when it comes to my writing… though the organized side is definitely the runt of the litter. I find that there are times when a little organization unlocks everything, and other times where riding a wave of chaos carries me through.

    This post reminds of one of my favorite books on writing, Writing on Both Sides of the Brain…author escapes me at the moment. But it was my first exposure to the whole left brained/right brained thing and meant a lot to how I saw things afterward.

    I’ll definitely be checking out the book you mention here 🙂

    • Ha! Anthony, I love how you use the phrase “runt of the litter.” That’s how I feel about my organized side, too. I definitely go back and forth between chaos and order. Maybe the plain, simple truth is that without the variety of going from right to left to right, I get bored! 😉

      I’ve heard of “Writing on Both Sides of the Brain,” but I’ve never read it. If I’m going to follow what synchronicity has to tell me, then perhaps that is exactly the book I need to be reading. If you do get into Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way,” I’d love to hear what you think of it!

  6. […] back, I promised to do a series of posts on Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s […]

  7. […] story broken somewhere? Do I need to change writing locations? (For more on writing locations, read this post.) “Writer’s block” never means that I can’t write. It only means I need to […]

  8. Deanna says:

    I know this is an old post but I just stumbled across it. I once was asked in a psych class to write a paper. I was given no real direction. I went home a wrote and turned it in the next week. The teacher went through our papers and the following week told us if we were right or left brained. She then said there was one person in the room of 30 that was pretty well in the middle. She looked at me.
    Her explanation for her hypothesis is that I stated each paragraph of my paper with a logical sentence – a statement of fact- then followed them up with a creative explanation.
    After this experience, I started analysing my every thought. What I came to realize is that half of my problems in life result from the inner struggle between my logical brain and my creative brain. It paralyses me sometimes because I have to justify the two in order to proceed with anything.
    Anyhow, that’s my comment on something you’ve moved on from a long time ago. Hope you have a nice day!

    • Deanna, comments on posts are always welcome, no matter how old those posts might be! : )

      Thanks for sharing your story here. That’s fascinating, that your professor did that little “experiment” with all of you. I can see where that would be both illuminating and intimidating! But what a great, practical way to learn about how your logical and your creative sides interact.

      And I can understand the paralysis potential, too. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve approached a problem effectively by dealing with it logically…and only later do I realize that a creative solution would’ve been more helpful. And then I doubt myself the next time around.

      The good news is, I believe, that awareness of this difficulty can help alleviate it. If I know that I might do better with a creative solution, I know to take a little extra time and work that out before making a final decision. Or, if I’m seeing it from a creative perspective, I know to stop and look at the logic before finalizing.

      Of course, it’s also possible to over-analyze all of this. I’m really just thinking out loud now. ; ) Thanks for taking the time to leave your comment and spark some new thoughts! : )

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