Dress for Success: How to be a Left-Brained Writer

Note to teachers: This originally appeared as a blog post by our Poetry Editor, Colleen Oakley, and we immediately saw its potential for teachers.  It’s not a formal lesson plan, but the ideas in it will help teachers design short writing exercises in the lead-up to a bigger assignment.   Thanks, Colleen, for all this brainstorming!

I’m a complete sucker for a good how-to book. I’ve been teaching writing for over 15 years now, and I have a den full of writing books, one for every genre, every writer’s block, every day of the week. Yet, lately, I’ve been coming up short.

I’ve been browsing my bookshelves for writing exercises that will appeal to my latest class of college students. They are primarily business majors, computer programmers, and engineers. They are in my writing class because it is required. Groan.

I feel their pain. When I was in college, I struggled to meet my science requirements. I took classes nicknamed “Physics for Poets” and “Rocks for Jocks.” My current students, who are very bright Left-Brain Thinkers, probably see my business writing course in the same light, a hurdle before graduation. I’ve been looking for ways to loosen them up, to get them to let go and take some creative risks.

I finally found the perfect book: “Dress for Success” by John. T. Malloy.* It’s a 1975 guide to fashion (“power dressing”) for men in the corporate workplace. My father’s yellowed paperback from 1975 is earnest and unintentionally hilarious. With chapter titles like “The Anti-Hat Revolution” the text could be used verbatim to stage an Absurdist drama.

“Dress for Success” is the perfect answer for my reluctant Left-Brained writers. Not so much for its fashion savvy, but for its trove of “found text” and story starters. My students are looking for something concrete to help them feel creative. They usually deal with the quantifiable world of numbers. Writing feels abstract and ethereal to them. Some of them claim that they just don’t “get” inspiration, or that they can’t come up with something from their imaginations (let’s leave aside for the moment that some of the greatest scientific minds were the biggest dreamers. Hello, Einstein.)  OK. So then let’s come up with something from the real world.

I’ve gathered a short list of writing exercises for my Left-Brainers based on real-world material that can be used for writing prompts or simply as an exercise in having fun. Many of these are old standards and they would work for everyone, no matter your brain proclivities. But I found it helpful to think about them in terms of Left-Brain strengths: the ability to work with concrete details, make close observations, and build logical forms and structures.

  • The Found Object: Take a piece of text (a book title, chapter heading, or even an advertisement on the side of a bus) and use it as the first line of your poem or story. Recommended: “Dress for Success” (published 1975) and “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management” (published 1861).
  • “The Book of Questions”: This book by Gregory Stock is full of moral and ethical dilemmas posed as one-page questions. My students approach them as cost-benefit analyses. The moral quandaries can be used to draft a plot or raise the stakes on a story.
  • Concrete Poetry: Mirroring form with content: http://www.magicglade.com/game4.htm
  • Interactive or Digital Poetry (for my computer programmers): http://netpoetic.com/2010/10/interactive-poetry-generation-systems-an-illustrated-overview/
  • The Nature Walk (for my scientists): Step outside and write about five things you observe, one writing burst for every one of the five senses (Inspirations: Annie Dillard, Wendell Barry)
  • Eavesdropping: Write a scene based on overheard dialogue.
  • People-watching: Write character backstories about strangers you’ve observed.
  • The Collage: Make a literary mash-up of classic poems or song lyrics. Variation: Tear out photos and lines from magazines and use them as visual story starters.
  • Music Magic: Listen to a piece of music and write lyrics inspired by the music’s mood.
  • Sports Authority: Check out Frank Deford, best sports writer around. Then write your own sports commentary on tonight’s game with as much color and style as Frank.

What have I missed? What are your favorite left-brain writing exercises? Please help me out, and leave your best analytical or quantifiable writing prompts in the Comments box. Thanks!

*Caution: The book contains some out-of-date and potentially objectionable statements about ethnicity and fashion.

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