The fellow sat nearby me in a restaurant that I frequent.  He looked not much different than other customers – burly, balding, in his 40s.  A steaming cup of coffee stood ready for gulping, and a half-eaten runny egg lingered on the plate by his elbow. He was so non-descript that I might never have paid attention if it wasn’t for the stack of blank paper in front of him and the way he burned through the pages, scrawling on one sheet after the other. He wrote big, just a few sentences scribbled on each page before grabbing a fresh sheet to repeat the process.

I watched for a while, wondering just what he was doing.  Eventually, my eyes drifted to his face.  I knew who the man was, I realized.  He was a reporter who wrote a column for the local newspaper.  I admired his work, the easy flow of his words and the simple, but powerful messages they carried.  But what was he doing working like this?  What a tedious way to write, and what a waste of paper!  Why wasn’t he using a laptop?

Brain science

After reading Rosanne Bane’s Around the Writer`s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writers’ Resistance (Tarcher Publishing, 2012), I believe I have a better understanding of just what this reporter was doing and why.  In her book, Bane delves into decades of brain research, looking for answers to a myriad of questions about how writers can increase their productivity and effectiveness.  The brain’s two hemispheres operate differently, she notes. The right side – the more free-flowing of the two – is a swirling cosmos of ideas, unstructured and boundless, and so it’s perfect for stream-of-thought writing, generating stories and other creative ventures. The left side – the order-driven hemisphere – craves structure, logic and perfection. It’s the critical-thinking side which is great for activities such as outlining, editing and revising as well as certain kinds of instructional and technical writing.

The trick, Bane says, is knowing how to tap into the benefits each hemisphere offers while at the same time silencing the other half to keep it from interfering.  Creativity, in particular, stalls when the left-hemisphere circumvents the right and spills out critical, unwanted advice. Wait, did I spell that correctly?  What will Mom think about this?  Now that didn’t sound right, did it? Let me try again.

Rather than jumping cold into writing, Bane suggests a warm-up period that she calls “Process”.  Process is a 15 to 30 minute pre-writing period of activity that stimulates creative flow.  Dancing is one Process option. Doodling is another.  So are listening to music, knitting, making collages, weeding in the garden – even coloring in a coloring book. The point, Bane says, is that Process gives us time “to be free of the demands of the usually dominant left hemisphere to mess around with small-scale chaos to find the creative gifts of the right hemisphere.”

Now about that reporter, the one who had abandoned the computer and was scrawling larger-than-life words on the page. What was he up to?  Process, yes.  That`s part of it, I believe. Compared to computer-generated products where letters stand at attention in perfect formation on the screen, handwritten pages – especially if the writing is large and the paper is unlined – are full of unevenness and irregularity making them a perfect playground of sorts for the right hemisphere.

But according to Bane, there are other benefits to abandoning the computer and taking hold of a pen, at least in the beginning stages of composition.  Handwriting encourages coordination of other brain functions, too.  “Brain scans show,” Bane says, “that handwriting engages more sections of the brain than typing, specifically areas of the brain involved in thinking, language and working memory.”

So there, mystery solved.  Pens ready?  Let the scribbling begin.