Which group of words appeals to you more: rules, organized, strategy, rationality, logic, details; or images, emotion, creativity, fantasy, intuition, curiosity?
Cross your arms. Which arm is on top? Clasp your hands. Which thumb is on top?
I dropped off my 10-year old daughter at Butler University’s creative writing camp this week. As I watched Charlotte walk to her classroom, composition notebook and pen in hand, I thought to myself, when was the last time I wrote anything for fun? Like Charlotte, as a child, I used to fill blank pages with stories. Stories I created. My interest in writing continued and certainly was a factor in choosing the profession of law, but if someone asked me to write a story today, I would not even know where to begin. Yet I write for a living. My writing today exists as a necessary function of my job and is driven by clients and impending deadlines. Disclaimer: even this article is a requirement for serving on the Board of DTCI, and I am writing it the week it is due.
If you chose the first list of words above, crossed your right arm on top and clasped your right thumb on top, you may be classified as left-brain dominant. If you chose the second list of words, crossed your left arm on top, and clasped your left thumb on top, you may be classified as right-brain dominant. Whether these overly simplistic questions and tests determine with any accuracy a dominance on one side of the brain is a debate for another day, but the truth is that the brain is divided into two hemispheres, left and right, each with different functions. The theory, in very general terms, is that the left hemisphere is more logical and methodical while the right hemisphere is more creative and artistic.
It may come as no surprise that lawyers are stereotyped as left-brain thinkers, and correspondingly, left-brain writers. I don’t necessarily disagree with this stereotype, but what strikes me is the right hemisphere is still there. We are not necessarily born predisposed to left-brain or a right-brain dominance, it is what we develop that comes out. Legal writing is logical, rational, organized, supported, methodical, so it is only natural that these functions of thinking and writing are developed for lawyers day in and day out. Yet I sometimes wonder if this profession runs the risk of underdevelopment of the right hemisphere of the brain. Case in point — I am still trying to figure out how to start my story.
I recently watched the movie “RBG,” a documentary exploring the life and career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There was so much to take from this movie, but one interesting facet of Justice Ginsburg’s life is her love of opera. She remarks that “the sound of the human voice is like an electrical current going through me.” This artistic outlet for Justice Ginsburg provides a great deal of inspiration and meaning to her well-accomplished life. In our profession, where logic and rules reign, attention to the right hemisphere, the artistic, creative side, is important.
How do we tap into or rekindle creativity and imagination, especially as it relates to writing? Sarah Layden, a novelist and creative writing professor at IUPUI offers good suggestions:
“We can definitely train our brains to tap into creativity, and it helps to develop a deliberate practice: carry a small notebook or take notes in your phone, jotting down interesting moments, details, or bits of dialogue. We can start by observing and noticing the world around us, and thinking about how we might describe it to someone else using imagery that appeals to the senses. Often, the observed thing taps into a feeling or memory already inside, the reason why we picked up on it in the first place, even if it’s not obvious at first. Try freewriting (no rules, just continuous writing for a set period of time) to see where the image takes you. You might observe some interesting connections or intersections.
It also helps to read creative work for inspiration. Fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction can stimulate the brain and serve as great models, and local and visiting writers often read their work aloud at local bookstores and universities. And there are great books by writers about the writing process that may serve as inspiration, too. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a great place to start, and if you’re a Stephen King fan, his memoir On Writing is both entertaining and practical.”
I propose that there are opportunities to develop and nurture creativity in legal writing. Try looking at your work from a different perspective (or hemisphere even). It is easy to trudge along the left path of logic and method, but take a walk on the right side. Instead of making an argument, create an argument. Instead of addressing an isolated issue, relate that issue to the big picture. In this day of ever-changing graphics and technology, show your argument rather than tell your argument. Cultivate empathy and write with emotion. Be an innovator by building bridges of words between opposing sides. And never forget to tell your story. We need the creativity to best express ourselves, and that applies to legal writing. In doing so, you may find yourself writing for fun.
Anna M. Mallon is a partner in the Indianapolis firm of Cantrell + Strenski + Mehringer and is a member of the DTCI Board of Directors. Opinions expressed are those of the author.