In a previous blog entry, I wrote about my struggles with writing essays while attending university. The main problem was trying to sort through all the detail in the body of the essay and be able to prioritize, select relevant material and put it in a logical order on the page. I recently had a similar experience when asked to review a story and write a critique for the author.
I first read the story making random notes, in no logical order; just thoughts and questions about character development, narrative structure, plot etc., as they hit me while reading. Being right brained and therefore needing a complete picture before even beginning to understand the component parts of the story, I had to read through to the end first and then go back from the beginning to pick up the detail. I had to know where I was going, what the entire world of the story looked like, before I could really see what worked and what didn’t. When I went back over my first set of notes, I realized none of it made any sense. It was as if I had written sentences, torn the paper into fragments the size of each word and then scattered it all in the air. I didn’t even realize I was doing it. I couldn’t use any of it so started again.
At least I had the entire story in mind on the second pass. But I found that the instant I focused on one issue – for example, was a particular character’s development consistent throughout the story? – I lost sight of the other issues while tracking through the story. So I started writing paragraphs trying to distill my thoughts on each issue. The more I wrote, the more confused it all became. Every thought, every sentence took me in a new direction with new possibilities and I couldn’t keep on track with one single line of analysis.
So I started again. On the third pass, I picked up details I hadn’t seen before. When I thought something was missing the first and second time and then found it on the third review, I thought something must be wrong with my memory. Then I remembered that this was the exact problem I had during my education and could solve it using the question and answer techniques I learned when studying accounting and finance.
I broke the story into sections and then did a breakdown of each important event asking specific questions to keep me focused on the relevant issues. I was then able to answer those questions and write a few words to summarize my thoughts on each event. When I was looking for consistent patterns, I wrote one word on each line of breakdown and circled it. I did this for each issue I thought was important. At the end, I had a set of notes that probably looked like hieroglyphics, but I could look at an entire page at a glance and see the patterns I needed to write the commentary. After that, it was just a matter of laying it down section by section.
The thing about being right brained is that we can’t sequence easily but we can see whole patterns. When going step by step, it’s like we’re in a dark forest and the path behind and in front of us disappears with each step we take. We can’t see where we’re going and we can’t remember where we were. We need to crane up over the forest, see the entire path, where it curves, where the straight stretches are, where it begins and ends; then we can drop back onto it and find our way. Sometimes we need a picture of the entire path in our hands to find our way. The good news is that we can find tools to help us do that. Mine is asking specific questions that force me to focus and writing my own answers.