Exploring “Writeful”

Pablo Picasso 1962

 Full-Brain Style and the Railroad Ramble

Taking a break for a moment from those twin mentors Cameron and Lamott, I spent the morning with Gary Hoffman’s Writeful.  Hoffman’s book is a bit of a departure from the Right to Write and Bird by Bird in that he’s concerned less with convincing the reader to write and is focused more on promoting better writing.  In his preface, Hoffman outlines his strategy, a combination of the “full-brain style” and the “full-blooded strategy.”

The full-brain style, as defined by Hoffman, involves “an attempt to boil down traditional rules, simplify them, and melt them into concepts that are accessible to the playful, creative part of the mind.”  Hoffman breaks down full-brain style into four abilities: smoothing the flow, giving pause, fine-tuning reality and “making faces.”

We are introduced to the first precept of the full-brain style – smoothing the flow – through a writing exercise Hoffman calls “rail-road ramble.”

“To do the railroad ramble,” writes Hoffman, “one takes a simple sentence like ‘Bill chewed a red apple,’  and pictures the different parts of each sentence to be on railroad freight cars. Then one simply imagines the same material snapped onto the top of their loads with commas.”  For those of you who spent a latchkey childhood in front of the television, it helps to imagine the old “Conjunction Junction” PSA – cartoon railroad cars are directed and connected using “buts” and “ands” to connect ideas and form complex sentences.  The railroad ramble is the same idea.

To play with Hoffman’s exercise, I wrote down these ten sentences.

  1. The boys laughed in the boat.
  2. The boys showed off their fish.
  3. The text message dinged.
  4. I went downstairs to fill my water bottle.
  5. The fan is blowing.
  6. It’s a sunny day.
  7. My coworker just coughed.
  8. I’m listening to jazz on the radio.
  9. Pablo Picasso is staring at me.
  10. The amoeba is grinning.

Then I added to the different elements of each sentence to form a longer, more convoluted sentence.

  1. The boys laughed in the boat.

The silly boys and their proud parents jumped and roared as they laughed uproariously and without pause while sailing along choppy, white-tipped waves amidst sea spray and crying gulls that soared above the sleek, yellow-canopied speed boat.

2. The boys showed off their fish.

The young boys, one 7 and one ten, dressed in faded jeans and black t-shirts with barely perceptible graphics all but completed obliterated by repeated washings, stood next to their father beaming under a white cap and proudly showed off two healthy specimens of shiny, gray and blue-scaled fish.

3. The text message dinged.

The unexpected and startling text message from a harried and overwhelmed friend trying to organize her calendar and her life, buzzed and banged the phone as the warning ding alerted me to its presence.

4. I went downstairs to fill my water bottle.

I went quietly and cautiously out the office door and onto the sunny and unexpectedly bright stucco pathway and squinted downstairs to fully and completely fill my heavy glass water bottle.

5. The fan is blowing.

The white and dusty fan that I bought on impulse from the drugstore for something hovering around thirty bucks in an attempt to mask the coughs and the scuffles and the tapping of coworkers that can congeal into an attention-disrupting cacophony, is reliably and gently droning and blowing a soft, cool breeze across my shadowed, quiet cubicle.

6. It’s a sunny day.

As I stepped outside the door I realized almost immediately that my white, scratchy sweater and multicolored scarf of chunky soft yarn were superfluous, if not detrimental to my enjoyment of the morning because the early clouds and biting wind had dissolved into a bright, and uncharacteristically (for early spring) sunny day.

7. My coworker just coughed.

My mostly silent and conscientious female coworker who rarely calls in sick and is never late – either in the morning or after lunch – just anxiously and timidly coughed.

8.  I’m listening to jazz on the radio.

While I sit uncomfortable in the my gray, overused and overpriced office chair, typing away on my computer screen and trying to get as much accomplished before the lunch break, I’m half-listening to jazz on KMHD, a radio station from often rainy and always quirky Portland, Oregon.

9. Pablo Picasso is staring at me.

In a crookedly cut square of a black and white screen shot from a website that offered to match you with your creative soul mate upon the completion of a silly but entertaining questionnaire, Pablo Picasso – amused yet stoic in a jaunty cap and paint splattered work shirt – my creative soul mate who, according to the words under his picture, was a revolutionary, an active lover who enjoyed breaking the rules and reacted poorly to heartbreak – stares down at me with an encouraging twinkle in his eye and a half-formed grin just waiting to brighten his countenance.

10. The amoeba is grinning.

A cacophony of colors – including lime green, lemon yellow and fluorescent orange – the star shaped Amoeba, a happy, wide-eyed symbol of the group of girls I befriended my freshman year of high school who had the tendency to go everywhere together and were thus dubbed “amoeba” – grins out from under the heading “Mighty Microbe” printed on the shiny, blue flashcard that I picked up from a booth at last year’s Earth Day festival.

Finally, I combined all those sentences into one final piece of writing that, surprising, works pretty well as a scene-setting piece of description.

Without further ado – here’s the result of my first Writeful exercise:

Under Picasso’s Gaze

Taking a break from the every day shuffle and grind of my daily desk-bound vigil, I look around my office with new eyes.  On the personalized calendar from a friend, I see a photo of two silly boys and their proud parents jumping and roaring as they laugh uproariously and without pause while sailing along choppy, white-tipped waves amidst sea spray and crying gulls soaring above their sleek, yellow-canopied speed boat.  In another photo, those same young boys – nephews in deed if not blood, one seven and one ten – are dressed in faded jeans and black t-shirts with barely perceptible graphics (all but completed obliterated by repeated washings), are standing next to their father who’s beaming under a white cap as his two sons proudly show off a couple of fish they’ve caught off the pier during a summer “day with dad”,  both are healthy specimens of  the sea, wet and shiny, gray and blue-scaled.

On the bulletin board next to the calendar, random notes and pictures jostle for attention. In one corner, out of a crookedly cut square of a black and white screen shot from a website offering to match you with your creative soul mate upon the completion of a silly but entertaining questionnaire, peers Pablo Picasso – amused yet stoic in a jaunty cap and paint splattered work shirt; my creative soul mate who (according to the words under his picture) was a revolutionary and an active lover, who enjoyed breaking the rules and reacted poorly to heartbreak – staring down at me with an encouraging twinkle in his eye and a half-formed grin just waiting to brighten his countenance.

Opposite Picasso, shining under a clear plastic thumbtack indistinguishable from it’s corkboard mates, is the shiny, blue flashcard that I picked up from a booth at last year’s Earth Day festival; a cacophony of colors – including lime green, lemon yellow and fluorescent orange – the star shaped Amoeba, a happy, wide-eyed symbol of the group of girls I befriended my freshman year of high school who had the tendency to go everywhere together and were thus dubbed “amoeba” – grins out from under the heading “Mighty Microbe.”

I sit uncomfortably in the my gray, overused and overpriced, office chair typing away on my computer screen and trying to get as much accomplished as I can before the lunch break. I’m half-listening to jazz on KMHD,a radio station from often rainy and always quirky Portland, Oregon. The white and dusty fan that I bought on impulse from the drugstore for something hovering around thirty bucks (in an attempt to mask the coughs and the scuffles and the tapping of coworkers that can congeal into an attention-disrupting cacophony) is reliably and gently droning and blowing a soft, cool breeze across my shadowed, quiet cubicle.

Suddenly sound intrudes. My mostly silent and conscientious female coworker who rarely calls in sick and is never late – either in the morning or after lunch –anxiously and timidly coughs.  Almost simultaneously, I’m interrupted by the unexpected and startling ding of a text message from a harried and overwhelmed friend trying to organize her calendar and her life;  the plea for information buzzing and banging the phone perched on my computer’s hard drive, its warning ding alerting me to a question about a birthday party and a missing invitation.

After answering her missive, I quietly and cautiously slip out the office door and onto the sunny and unexpectedly bright stucco pathway, squinting downstairs to fully and completely fill my heavy glass water bottle. As I step outside the heavy, forest green, fire-door that separates our building from the outside world,  I realize almost immediately that my white, scratchy sweater and multicolored scarf of chunky soft yarn are suddenly superfluous — if not completely detrimental — to my enjoyment of the morning now that early clouds and biting wind have dissolved into a bright, and uncharacteristically (for early spring) sunny day.

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