Left brain, right brain: on the fundamental incompatibility of creativity and paid employment

Hmm, I wonder which bit of my brain is producing the irritation that it's almost three hours now into the appointment window and the telephone engineer still hasn't turned up?

Hmm, I wonder which bit of my brain is producing the irritation that it’s now almost three hours into the appointment window and the telephone engineer still hasn’t turned up?

Bank holiday Monday and it’s an ungodly hour of the morning – 8a.m. to be precise.  The kind of time my body clock would turn its nose up at and refuse to acknowledge it even existed if it weren’t for the tyranny of the mortgage.  The fact that I’m conscious and typing on a non-working day is the price I’m paying for a moment of ill-considered generosity of spirit towards the end of last week when the Husband arranged a morning visit of an engineer to try and get our phone fixed. He’s having a stressful time at work, I was full of good cheer at the prospect of a four day weekend; there may have been a glass of wine involved.  Before I knew it, I’d volunteered to be the one to haul myself out of bed – a fact he gleefully reminded me of as we got into bed a mere six hours ago after a Game of Thrones box set marathon (him) and an obsessive internet search for antique brass two light ceiling spotlights (unsuccessful – me).

So here I am, half asleep and waiting for the engineer who, according to the Law of Sod, will no doubt arrive at the end of the four hour slot we’ve been given, if indeed he arrives at all. What better time to attempt to breathe some life into this poor, neglected blog of mine?

It’s been seven weeks now since I returned to work.  Time enough, you might think, to have settled into a rhythm.  Time to have reprioritised and reorganised and rearranged.  Time, in short, to have sorted myself out and found a way of fitting in full-time work and writing groups and book clubs and blogs and reading, and perhaps even a bit of writing.

You might think that. But I’m sad to report, you’d be wrong.

What have I managed to do since my nose has once again been pressed firmly against the grindstone? Well, here – in numbers – are my achievements of the last seven weeks:

  • Episodes of PTSD involving sobbing into the Husband’s t-shirt, melodramatically declaiming that I Simply Could Not Do It Any More: 1
  • Moments of realisation that I could, and in fact, had to: 1
  • Blog posts: 1
  • Book club meetings attended: 0
  • Writing group meetings attended: 1
  • Emails to agent: 6
  • Rewrites: 0.1 (based on how much rewriting was actually done)
  • Publishers to whom manuscript has been resubmitted: 0
  • Bottles of champagne not drunk at Christmas and which I’ve promised myself I will open when I eventually get that book deal: 1
  • Bottles of champagne still unopened: 1
  • Words of second book written: 0.

I’m forced to conclude it’s not looking great.

But why is this? Why the creative paralysis? Is it simply the restrictions of the number of hours in the day? Or is there something more going on here?

I was talking to another frustrated writer the other lunch time (honestly, it turns out that the civil service is full of them – if people ever start reading more, Ministers will be hard pressed to find someone to make them a cup of tea, let alone advise on policy). Her theory was that she switched to the right hand side of her brain when she was in “creative” mode, and that she was simply incapable of using her “left side” analytical, reasoning skills at the same time.  The result was that she found herself sitting in meetings musing over her colleagues’ hand gestures and psychological drivers, instead of engaging with whatever happened to be the substance of the discussion.

Is this true for the rest of us, I wonder? Do I have to switch off my creative self in order to do what’s essentially an analytical job? Does my imagination limit my efficiency?

It’s true that my mind has been known to wander at work.  One of my junior Ministers – the previous administration, I hasten to add – bore a distractingly close resemblance to 80s comedy schoolboy Jimmy Krankie. I spent many a happy hour trying to work out what a former line manager reminded me of when he leaned backwards in a peculiarly stiff shouldered way and waggled his hands as he spoke, before realisation dawned that it was one of those puppets in Stingray or Thunderbirds.  And which of us hasn’t occasionally wondered where one or other of their colleagues sits on the psychotic scale?

But everyone does that, right?

In the case for the defence, I wrote 80,000 words of my first draft whilst working full-time; and, about half of that was written after dad had his stroke and I was trekking back to Wales most weekends to see him.  Surely it’s a bit much now to be claiming that I can’t write anything half decent without a three week run up of clear minded, distraction free, Creative Time?

And yet, there’s something in this left-brain, right-brain thing all the same.

I remember very clearly the moment when my return to work suddenly became less painful. It was Wednesday lunchtime in my first week, the day after the t-shirt-moistening snivel fest referred to above.  I’d just finished a meeting and was walking back to my desk and I felt something click into place – I realised I felt different.  As my one and only blog post to date since returning to work noted, “I felt like a civil servant again”.

I’ve no idea what triggered it. It might simply have been a defence mechanism to stop myself feeling so bloody miserable.  But whatever it was, it was absolutely real to me.  From that moment on, it felt like being back at work wasn’t the end of the world. It felt like I could cope.

There’s a corollary, though, to feeling like a civil servant. No matter how hard I tell myself it doesn’t have to be this way, I feel like less of a writer. I can feel it, that idea: the one that’s creeping back in, slithering through the crack under the door of my subconscious.  The idea I thought I’d almost got rid of when I was on leave.  The idea that writing isn’t serious.  My writing, anyway.  That it’s nothing more than a quaint little hobby I turn to when I’ve got nothing more important to do. That I ought to grow up a bit, give my intellectual energy to the thing that pays the bills.  That I’m too old to be playing at make believe.

And maybe that’s what it really comes down to for me, this left-brain, right-brain thing.  Maybe it’s about believing that it’s okay to spend time on something creative; and more than that, that I shouldn’t be embarrassed about taking it seriously.

I re-read the post I wrote when I was preparing to return to work earlier today, the one that tried to set out what I’d learned in my time on leave (https://mrsholderslegacy.wordpress.com/2014/02/25/goodbye-freedom-its-been-fun/).  It said that I’d realised I didn’t need validation through a performance marking for my day job. Perhaps now Right-brain Me needs to make the same journey. Perhaps I need to make myself believe that I don’t need validation through a publishing deal. That I can take my writing seriously without having to be paid for it.

Or then again, maybe that’s just a way of feeling better about admitting defeat?



10 thoughts on “Left brain, right brain: on the fundamental incompatibility of creativity and paid employment

  1. sueslaght

    Nice to see you back here, even if at some ungodly hour. Perhaps a defense mechanism has clicked in? If. I am too busy to write because of work then I will never risk rejection from a publisher? All I know is that you are an amazing writer. I’ve said that since the first blog post I read. I hope you can believe it too.

  2. yakinamac Post author

    Thanks Sue – and especially for sticking with me through the long “hiatus”! I think you might be onto something with the defence mechanism theory. Time for me to (wo)man up!

  3. jackiemallon

    Oh, you have been missed round these here parts, lady.
    I think what saves me is that I am surrounded here in NYC by drifters and dreamers who write, and that slightly anarchic, unconventional spirit has always pulled me in (even though I’m old enough to know better!) If I was surrounded by people with desk jobs, in shirts and ties and all that, it might be more of a struggle. Plus I have the added impetus of never wanting to work full time in the fashion industry again (try that for a career and you’ll write like the wind!)
    So I have part time teaching, some loyal freelance consultancies and the rest of the time is mine, ALL mine. And with all that said, I still find carving out writing time a challenge because procrastination requires a time slot too…
    Anyway the bottom line is you are too good a writer to offer up your soul to the man.
    Come back, come back to Cold Mountain…

  4. yakinamac Post author

    Thanks Jackie. And I’ve missed my WordPress pals too – feels like the world has got a little bit smaller in the last couple of months…

    The sad thing is, the job I came back to when I returned from leave was a temporary post – and it’s just about to be replaced with a permanent one. It feels inevitable that poor old Right Brain is going to be shut up in a box again. And surely that shouldn’t be inevitable? What kind of airy-fairy, weak-willed ditherer does that make me?

    I’m going to hold on to your example – there IS another way!

  5. Pingback: Why Do You Write? | Jackie Mallon

  6. yakinamac Post author

    Will do it – promise – after I’ve come back next week from a short visit to Lundy (small island in the Bristol channel) for some solitary writing time. Nothing like having paid cold hard cash to stay somewhere to instil a bit of discipline!

    By the way – reading Silk for the Feed Dogs now and really loving it. – so many wonderful, descriptive phrases and great characters. And found myself laughing out loud at one bit on the train this morning, which alarmed the chap sat next to me a treat. 🙂

  7. jackiemallon

    I just saw your little review. Many thanks for that. I’m so chuffed you enjoyed it.
    It’s admirable that you’re making efforts to get your mojo back. Sometimes throwing money at a problem is the only way.
    Turns out I am going to follow your lead, Yak, and hole myself away. Despite moving, mortgages, packing and job demands, I’m going to install myself on my own Lundy Island godammit…in the middle of Manhattan but I’ll be so concentrated I won’t notice the difference…Here’s hoping! Hope yours was fruitful.xo

  8. trgriffith

    I just came across your blog while at work researching learning strategies for left and right brain. I never ready blogs while at work, but I loved your writing style so much and you remind me of me – longing to make a living as a writer, but being swallowed up by corporate America (work demands around reorganizing a huge IT department in St Louis). Talk about full-tilt left brain world!

    I did read in an old book called Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain that you can get your brain to switch from left to right by doing “Blind Drawing”. Drawing something without looking at your drawing drives your left brain so crazy, it shuts off and lets the creative side take over. Good way, perhaps to rev up your right brain engine before starting to write.

    Perhaps we can encourage each other to get a book written by end of 2014. I would love that. (At least you have started to actually write in your blog unlike me). Lol!

    1. yakinamac Post author

      Hi Theresa – and thanks very much for stopping by. Pleased to have distracted you from the working day for a few minutes!

      I did a life drawing class a few years ago and we spent one session “blind drawing” – well, painting actually, though I didn’t realise then that was what it was called. I’m a stickler for detail, so it was a real struggle for me to avoid the temptation of looking at what I was doing, but I was actually quite pleased with the result. I like the idea of trying to do something like that with writing – perhaps just let the words flow, almost like automatic writing, and see what happens.

      Good luck with the writing – and reorganising that IT department! And I’m looking forward to reading that blog of yours.


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