Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Left Handed Writer - Katherine Roberts

I’m left handed and never learnt to touch type. So when I started writing fiction in the days before personal computers (not that long ago, honest!), I used to scribble my first drafts in pencil with my left hand. Since the left side of the body is controlled by the right side of the brain, which is meant to be responsible for creativity and intuition, this made perfect sense to me. I’d then type up my draft using an equal number of fingers on each hand (only about two fingers from each, but involving my right hand as much as my left). This resulted in an edited second draft, which I then worked on by hand until I had a final draft, which needed typing all over again. It made sense that I should start editing my words at the typewriter stage, since the right hand is controlled by the left side of the brain, which is meant to be responsible for linear reasoning and analysis – useful editing skills.

These days, for the sake of speed and convenience, I write my first drafts straight on the computer, missing out the left hand creation stage entirely. My right hand (and my analytical left brain) are therefore involved at a much earlier stage, which no doubt accounts for the amount of editing I feel compelled to do to the text as I type. There are also many more "drafts", since the text feels endlessly fluid. It works, but is this the most effective way to create? I still find it impossible to write poetry straight into the computer, and for a long time I could not write my first drafts in this way… it was almost as if my brain had to learn how to do it first. It would be interesting to do a survey to see how many creative writers of the past have been left handed. I’d also be interested to know if the right handed authors among you find your first drafts easier when typed straight on to the computer, rather than writing them in longhand? Because in theory you should do!

But writing a novel is not just a matter of scribbling a wonderfully creative first draft - the words still need to be worked on to make them readable. So whatever hand you use to hold your pen it would seem that, with the right brain doing the creating and the left brain doing the editing, the most important thing for a writer is that both hemispheres of the brain should work well together. This ability to use both halves of the brain (sorry, blokes!) is supposed to be a female characteristic, as well as being helpful to the typist who uses both hands… so is writing a novel using a keyboard actually easier for a woman than for a man? There certainly seems to be a high proportion of female authors out there.

And what does all this mean for our children, who might never learn to write in longhand at all? Have computers trained our brains to work in a more efficient way and levelled the playing field so that more people now find it possible to write a novel? Or are they quietly destroying the unfettered creativity of the left handed writer? Perhaps returning to pencil and paper for my first drafts might not be such a bad idea, after all...


Dolly said...

I love this post because I am left-handed. It's fascinating how you have viewed your creative process based on what hand you use to write.

I have written first drafts by hand, and I have written first drafts on PC (this is what I try to do now mostly). But I have never associated it with my writing hand. For me, it was quite logical and it still is that when I find something difficult, or haven't got all the answers, scribbling by hand makes it easy for me to work things out. But then even as a child, if I wanted to remember things for exams - including logical subjects like science and Maths - I would repeatedly write the information, because I always remember things better that way.

I touch type, but I was observing yesterday the movement of my hands (because my left hand hurts like hell currently), and I realised that I was using the left side of the keyboard far more than the right...conincidence maybe that those letters are included more commonly in my daily use.

After reading this post, I do wonder if my likeness for scribbling to solve the problems isn't somehow associated with creative brain after all.

And as for your last paragraph, while I LOVE computers, I do think that today's generation, not really being taught to write by hand will miss out on great many things. Even in my generation (20 somethings), there are very few people who appreciate the value of hand-written things. Our handwriting is very much a part of our personality, it is unique as we are, and it would be shame to switch everything to Times New Roman.

Nick Green said...

Isn't it just that writing longhand takes longer, and so gives the brain more time to think and edit before the words are out? I'm right-handed and I find it works pretty much like that.

Brain lateralisation is a popular notion but does tend to get exaggerated in the field of pop-science and pseudoscience... most functions tend to occur across both hemispheres, I believe.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Hand writing is fascinating. At school I had a curvy schoolgirl writing and then at art school learnt italics and it all changed. My italics have become personalised over the years but when I look back at scraps of paper I know the person I was at the time. I can still recognise my grandmother's handwriting (she died about 50 years ago) but it's hard to recognise my own sons' writing because I never see it. How horrible if we all become handwritingless!

steeleweed said...

The 'handedness' of the brain re motor activity is unrelated to the 'handedness' re creativity/analysis. If lefties are more creative (which I question), it's probably due to the fact that lefties in a right-dominated world have been forced to be more inventive just to do everyday things.

Re handwriting in general: I was supposedly taught traditionally (I am 72) but it didn't 'take' very well - my script is so bad I usually print. My wife, on the other hand, has great handwriting, very readable, so I suspect I was just lazy.
An oddity is that while studying Russian, I was forced to write longhand - and when I shift into longhand for some reason, I also shift into Russian characters, which makes for some confusing notes. :-)

Simon Kewin said...

I've managed to disengage from the task I was on long enough to comment ...

I'm not convinced about the whole female/multitasking thing. As I understand the research, there is nothing hard-wired about this. Women might learn to be better at multitasking but this might be because they have tended to be the ones looking after children whilst doing other things. My suspicion is that modern, role-sharing men (I count myself as one) become just as good as doing lots of things at the same time as women have had to. For example I'm typing this whilst keeping one eye on the kids bouncing around on the trampoline outside.

Of course, I could be completely wrong. Having to keep an eye on the kids may have distracted my brain!

I'm not that sure about the rigidity of the left-brain/right-brain divide either. I'm right-handed and either write or type depending on where I am. I can't discern any particular difference except that paper is frustrating as you can't cut and paste. If the right hemisphere/left hand "does" the creative stuff, how is it possible for a right-hander to do any creative writing at all?

Katherine Roberts said...

Some fascinating comments here! Of course Nick is right and most functions are thought to occur across both hemispheres, which no doubt explains how a right handed person can write creatively and someone with brain damage can learn to speak again... but some activities still feel more natural left handed, so I think there is also truth in the left/right brain theories.

I do think prolonged use of computer keyboards is training our brains to think in a more "female" way (i.e. using both hemispheres together). Does this make us better at multi-tasking? Not sure! Maybe it simply reduces our ability to concentrate.

The Russian characters are interesting... perhaps much comes down to conditioning in the end?

Cathy Butler said...

Another left-hander here, and although I touch-type I also tend to write first drafts in longhand, and edit on screen. These days, the main advantage of writing longhand, it seems to me, is that it removes the temptations of the demon Google.

Stroppy Author said...

I'm right-handed, and quite often write drafts long-hand because I write more slowly than I type so write more carefully - and because my notepad doesn't have Facebook so I actually keep writing.

As steeleweed said, the motor control of the right side of the body by the left side of the brain and vice versa is unrelated to creativity or logic and is purely to do with the way the nerves are physically routed - motor control and higher intellectual functions are handled by different parts of the brain (not just different hemispheres, but different areas) - so nice conceit, Katherine, but no basis in physiology. Can you be creative speaking, using neither hand?

Katherine Roberts said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katherine Roberts said...

I suppose it depends what your view is on human consciousness. Is the brain simply a physical organ linked to our nerves? Or is there such a thing as a soul? And if so, where is this exactly? In a part of the brain, or...?

Creativity is such a strange thing. If not in the brain, where excatly DOES it come from?