Brain Shifts and Phasing in Creative Writing

Creativity and Imagination in Writing Fiction


Mawhat-a-brilliant-ideark Twain suggested that we, as authors, write only about what we know. Much as I love Sam, I can’t fully agree with his opinion.

Limited only to what we know, how can he write about the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of young females (Becky Thatcher and Amy Lawrence), Jim (an African-American), and Injun Joe, a half Native American, half Caucasian. 

The answer is simple: research (or, as in Twain’s case, observation), imagination, and creativity,

There is, in most of us, a need to tell a tale. I’ve published many non-fiction articles in psychology. Eventually, I was overcome by the need to escape the constraints of fact. After years of dry, fact-oriented articles and psychological reports, chronic boredom settled over me like a leaden shawl. I’d “dabbled” with an unpublished novel, an unfinished screenplay, and a completed short story.

After moving into psychology, I ground out impersonal, concise, and clear documents. I removed any hint of subjectivity. I’d become a Pod Person. Although that mode of writing is indispensable for academicians, over time it became deadly dull, fossilizing my creativity. Those, including myself, who write in that mode are “Technicians,” emphasizing left brain functions (see brain lateralization). They write well, but detached from personal experience, showing little-to-no feeling. Color, flavor, texture–or personality–are missing.

Untrained Artists” are the polar opposite of Technicians.  Driven by inspiration, emotion, and imagination–right brain functions, they lack training and discipline. They tend to show a lack of story continuity, poor eye/ear for detail, weak plotting, or the grand No-No–incorrect grammar. For fiction writers, these guarantee a one-way trip from the slush pile to the trash can.

Whole Brain Writers use the faculties of both brain hemispheres, at times drawing more from one than the other. Sometimes both processes merge into a creative fusion. Shakespeare’s extraordinary talent is an example.

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, a psychologist specializing in creativity, offers a five-step process in the creative process (see Creativity 1996).

  • Preparation – becoming immersed in problematic issues that are interesting and arouses curiosity.
  • Incubation – ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness.
  • Insight – the “Aha!” moment when the puzzle starts to fall together.
  • Evaluation – deciding if the insight is valuable and worth pursuing.
  • Elaboration – translating the insight into its final work.


The first phase in writing, this is largely right hemispheric and active. Freeing yourself at this in this stage, research whatever relates to your story. Plunge into your depths. Open yourself to the emergence of inspiring ideas and emotions. Surrender uncritically to and become absorbed in the story. Tempting as it may be, set aside critical thinking. No matter how incongruous, minute or absurd, record budding ideas as they arise. The end product will be a crude collection of ideas, dialogue, etc., in no specific order. This will be the bedrock upon which you will erect a story structure.


Although straining at the mast, resist the sirens’ call to write. Set the story aside for a week or so. Make nothing certain. Involve yourself in other activities, other writing. Allow time for materials to sink down and percolate in your subconscious. It will process what you gathered in Preparation. Jot down any and all ideas that surface, although many may not be used later.

This is a “brainstorming” phase. Flashes of story-line or scenes will pop up at the most unlikely of times and places. For me, showers are especially fruitful–and relaxing.


With enough incubation, “aha!” moments will appear. Pieces of the story, or details of the characters, will surface, connect and click into place. Usually, these are insightful. Record them for future reference. Not all the materials that manifest will be of equal importance, but what to keep or discard will be decided later.


Now you review the many notes you’ve taken, the research you’ve collected, and ideas you’ve (hopefully) put into a journal. You may want to separate the collection into three (or more) piles: those you feel are important; those less so, and those you may wonder why you saved at all. But throw nothing away. Better to save unwanted materials. Your subconscious may ask for them later.


The king said to Alice in Wonderland, “‘Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’” This “ain’t necessarily so.” When you feel the urge to begin writing, allow your intuition to inform you where (and when) to start. It will usually be the best formed, most meaningful, or clearly–conceptualized. It will be the seed from which your work will grow.

Use cards or a software program to play with the scene and chapter outline. When your rough outline is complete, doubt the hell out of it it. Challenge it. Ask yourself if it flows as you would want to tell the story. Does it feel right? Not chiseled in granite, you can always reorganize.

When the structure feels right, start your first draft. Begin where you are attracted most strongly and feel most personally involved, It may be the middle, the last scene, or a single conversation.

Typically, habit and logic dictates that we begin at the beginning. If you watched “Breaking Bad” and/or the film, Inception, these stories intentionally defy linearity with powerful effect. Story structure is subject to change many times until you complete your first draft–or after: Nothing is carved in stone.This calls for a shift, a blending logic and imagination.

Write the first draft without concern for details or grammar. Imagination is too easily dammed up by details. Pay attention to mental images, including sense-memories and emotions you experience. They may be personal, yet useful. They offer a way into your inner world, a path to more vivid imaginings and a means of living the story. Listen carefully to your characters’ voices. Whether a planner or “pantser,” those voices and images can guide you.

Don’t fear taking an occasional risk. Playing it safe may rob your story of meaningful material. If it feels right, put it in. There will be other revisions ahead.

The next section was a lesson learned painfully.


The brute work begins, not when the first draft is complete, but in rewriting. In the words of Justice Brandeis, “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.” Methods you can use are to read to yourself aloud, get honest feedback from friends or family, and find beta readers. I found a newer tool  very helpful, as I am more an ear-minded person. That is a software program that reads my writing in a surprisingly normal (non-robotic) way. This is was effective, even in pointing out missing words and grammatical errors.


Writing is not coasting along on the wings of inspiration. It is arduous, hard work. Of that there is no doubt. But work without play is drab, dull, and meaningless. If you feel no excitement at creating all or parts of your story, question why you are writing the book. Are you forcing it in a certain direction for the wrong reasons? Is is the wrong genre?

In story-writing, you create a world, populate it, and form situations in which your characters find themselves, whether comedic, tragic, or both. Your experience should take you on a journey of discovery and surprise. Yes, surprise. There are times when an imagined character will say or do the damnedest, most unexpected thing. Or an event may occur out of the blue. Before dismissing such happenings, ask if they serve the story in some way, possibly one you don’t fully understand yet.

When asked by others how I was doing in writing The SHIVA Syndrome, I would often say “I honestly don’t know.” Timidly, I explained that the characters were developing and resolving their own circumstances; I was only a medium describing the evolution of their reality, their fates.

Writing a novel is a love-hate relationship. But, like any relationship, it’s challenging and can be great fun to struggle, yet go along for the ride.

Good luck in your endeavors.

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