Sunday, January 10, 2021

Keeping A Balance

Zoë Sharp

I’ve always been convinced that performing some form of hands-on practical task mixes really well with mental creativity
particularly when it comes to writing.

Most of my working life is spent sitting in front of a computer and tapping away on a keyboard, Making Up Stuff. My creativity is given free rein, and this goes hand-in-hand with visualisation. I am a very visual writer. Every scene I write, I ‘watch’ first, as though it’s taking place on a big screen in front of me, and I simply write down what I see.


In order to have those scenes feel authentic and natural, I need to try to empathise with the emotions and feelings of the characters, so the way they react to the situations of the story makes them seem like real people instead of ciphers for the plot.


And, of course, to be able to produce a completed manuscript requires an enormous amount of concentration. Not just to be able to write down the scene I’m working on at any given time, but to be able to interweave all those scenes together into a final, cohesive whole.


Finishing the first draft of a manuscript is one thing. Being able to polish it into a finished book is quite another. All authors need to know how to listen to others—editors, agents, publishers, and test readers, and to make the important decisions about which parts of the criticism or advice to listen to, and which to ignore.


All the elements I’ve mentioned above have one thing in common—quite apart from being requirements for the writer. They are all qualities associated with the right side of the brain.


The left side of the brain, on the other hand, controls language and grammar, logic, as well as the ability to absorb facts and details, to be analytical, and develop strategy. This is in addition to being in charge of memory, numbers, and our ability to carry out daily activities. Perhaps this is why I frequently get so stuck into writing a particular chapter (concentration/creativity) that I let the fire go out in the wood-burning stove (daily activities).


Creative people typically claim to be right-brain dominant, while scientific or practical people lay claim to being left-brain dominant. In fact, around 37 percent of Americans are brain-ambidextrous, another 34 percent use their left brain more efficiently, and 29 percent use their right brain more efficiently.


I would say I definitely fall into the right-brain category, if only because I really struggle with numbers. Oh, give me a calculator, or a spreadsheet and I can manage perfectly well, but I constantly have to look up phone numbers that I should know off the top of my head because I just can’t ‘see’ the number in my mind’s eye.


On the other hand, I would say I am very practical. Not only do I thoroughly enjoy doing house renovation work, but there isn’t much I can’t turn my hand to. And it’s not just the artistic side of things. When I came to laying a new engineered oak floor last year, one of the biggest parts of the job was working out the cut pattern of the planks beforehand, to use the lengths supplied in the most effective way, with the least wastage.

The only offcuts from a 26 square-metre floor installation.
Knowing what you want to achieve at the outset, then how to plan, measure, cut, and construct that design, is immensely satisfying. In some ways, it’s using the same parts of the brain that work out the structure of a plot, and the way-points of a story arc to create a satisfying final result.


But, somehow, I find that occupying my brain with practical problems to solve leaves the creative side able to freewheel and come up with answers to questions in the story that have sometimes been troubling me for days.


Hence, this is why, todaybitter but bright and frostyI started work on another dry-stone walling project. (Despite—or perhaps because of—having a book deadline looming next month.) I need to give my creativity a chance to work out those last niggles without interference.

And, on the plus side, at the end of it, I get a lovely new bit of wall in the garden, as well as
—with any luck—the next completed novel.

Win, win, I’d say.


This week’s Word of the Week is apothegm, meaning a short, witty, instructive saying. It comes from Greek apophthegma, a ‘terse, pointed saying’, or ‘something clearly spoken’, from apophthengesthai, ‘to speak one's opinion plainly’, from apo, ‘from’ plus phthengesthai ‘to utter’. Similar in meaning to an aphorism, which is a concise statement of a principle in any science. Also an adage, which is a maxim handed down from antiquity, and a proverb, which is a short pithy saying in common and recognised use, and which often has a moral content.






  1. Very interesting, Zoe. I recall that Isaac Asimov once said that if he was struggling with the plot of a book, he'd go and see a movie. It made no difference what movie, or how good it was, as long as it kept his left brain occupied long enough to let the right brain get on with its stuff. It clearly worked for him!

    1. Hi Michael. That's interesting. In a similar way, when I was learning a piece for classical guitar, focusing my brain on something else allowed muscle memory to take over and remember where to put my fingers on the strings!

  2. Fascinating, Zoe. I am one of the 37% of brain-ambidextrous ( I am right-handed, right-footed, and left-eyed). This comes with some serious drawbacks. I am a terrible speller and if there were test for it, I would be declared the world's worst proofreader. I have a witness among us to back me up. When Stan and I were working on Sunshine Noir, I could edit alright, but he soon learned he could not trust me to proofread. He said, "For most people, seeing is believing. For you, believing is seeing." That's what happens when the intuitive right brain controls one's vision, I guess.

    1. PS: I am so impressed that you can build a stone wall. My Dad could do that--and it seemed such a beautiful talent to me. The result is lovely!

    2. Thank you, Annamaria. I don't think many of us have the talent for proof-reading. It's a real skill to read what is ACTUALLY there, rather than what we THINK is there. I have taken to getting the text-to-speech feature of my Mac to read a chapter back to me, in chunks, when I've finished it. Not a very poetic rendition, but at least it spots missing words or simple errors, and to hear the bits that go on and on and on and on...

    3. PS, can I point out that the upper pic is the 'before' shot...? :)

  3. Probably brain-ambidextrous here. I remember when I was still practicing medicine I was able to switch in real time from my evaluating and treating patients to writing a couple of paragraphs of whichever novel I was on whenever I got a small break (which wasn't often). But I would say that ability developed with time. Clearly, the brain is "malleable," as they say.

    1. If you have successfully studied and practised medicine, Kwei, I think your brain is already more elastic than the vast majority of us!

  4. Like Sis, Zoë, I shoot with my left eye, throw with my left hand, but write with my right hand. But rather than calling myself brain-ambidextrous, I think a better description may be to describe my methods as no-brainer.