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Creative writing for engineers

Training ‘Geeks’ to Write Creatively

At the Colorado School of Mines, one of the premier engineering schools in the country, some students are setting aside their calculators and putting on their creative-thinking caps. Professor Joanne Greenberg’s fiction writing class offers technically oriented students a chance to explore their artistic side.

One Student’s Short Story

NPR’s Jeff Brady reports as part of a series on the nation’s most popular college courses.

In the following essay for NPR.org, Greenberg, herself a published author, describes what it’s like to teach creative writing at the engineering school.

Professor Joanne Greenberg Colorado School of Mines hide caption

Mines students and graduates go all over the world as engineers. I told them that it wouldn’t be the bad bridge or the mining accident that might sink them, but not knowing anything about the people among whom they’d be working.

Teaching Humanities at Mines

I’ve been teaching these courses for 22 years and enjoying the experience greatly. The students are bright, highly motivated and many are from small towns and ranches, and so are no strangers to hard work. No one has told them how brilliant they are, or that they are the hope of the future, so they don’t have to walk around posing for the close-up. They’re compassionate, creative and many are nerds. The nerdiness means that there are huge areas of life and experience they haven’t investigated, a sublime opportunity for any teacher.

I began here teaching an anthropology class. Mines students and graduates go all over the world as engineers. I told them that it wouldn’t be the bad bridge or the mining accident that might sink them, but not knowing anything about the people among whom they’d be working. I think my fiction writers are as good as any in creative writing classes anywhere in the country. My encomium would fall flat if I hadn’t taught at other places. I have. The students are alert and responsive. Here’s one example:

Steve had been a jazz musician for a while and submitted a good jazz band story with a little too much self-consciousness, lots of jazz-riffs and solos. “Steve — do you see how telling this detail is here and here, how crisp this metaphor is here? Why heap all this other on?” He looked at me, levelly and said, “Are you telling me to cut the crap?” “Well, in the nicest way possible, yes.” Two weeks later he came in with a moving memoir of his relationship with his uncle, who was a street person. “Steve — there’s no crap in this at all.” His eyes widened, “I thought you told me to cut the crap.”

Telling the difference between what’s crap and what’s not is one of the big steps in writing fiction, doing anthropology, thinking about ethics or living a life.

Engineers and Creative Writing

It seems incredulous engineers could be competent as creative writers, considering they deal primarily with technical issues in the workplace, but the literary world would disagree. Many great and not so great engineers have gone on to successful careers as authors of short stories and novels. Fyodor Dostoevsky spent many years toiling over schematics and conversion tables before tackling Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. And he wasn’t the only one. The great Russian was followed by: Nevil Shute of On the Beach, Stewart O’Nan of Last Night at the Lobster, Aileen Schumacher of Rosewood’s Ashes, and Homer Hickam of October Sky.

I also am an engineer or was an engineer, now working only on novels, short stories and the like, but the fact is, once you’re an engineer, you’re always an engineer. As a small child, my little brain overflowed with creative thoughts. I spent hours molding and eating Play-Doh, scissoring construction paper, and drawing dogs with seven legs. But all those creative yearnings were stifled early by an overwhelming desire to take things apart to see how they worked, like toasters, toys, and much to the consternation of my parents, TV sets. This led to a successful career in engineering, and to my surprise, a prolific stretch of creative writing.

Why is that? Why is engineering a conduit to the creative muse? The simple answer is that despite the obvious dissimilar natures of creative writing and engineering there are clear links between the two. Literary output can be compared to industrial product output, both conceived of an idea, structured to follow an outline, and driven to a satisfactory conclusion.

Engineers, by design, must pay attention to every detail when designing bridges or printed circuit boards, otherwise chaos and litigation would ensue. It’s the same for a creative writer. If they don’t pay attention to the story arc, create escalating danger for the protagonist, and writing a satisfying conclusion, the reader will bail out on them fifty pages in.

Engineers make good creative writers because they’re able to utilize the analytic processes they learned in their workplace for the discipline and troubleshooting needed to produce a creative work. From my own experience, I know the thousands of hours I spent with the minutiae that is engineering, helped tremendously when it came to researching, writing and editing my novels. Anyone can have a great idea for a novel and anyone can learn how to write effectively and correctly but few have the tenacity and persistence to write a three hundred page book, edit it fifty times, send the manuscript off, and then start another one before the printer ink dries. Copy editing seems effortless after wire checking thousands of electrical circuits on a schematic.

In my latest novel, Deviant Acts, that engineering discipline became most helpful to me when organizing the logistics of combining two novellas into one book while keeping a cohesive story arc over twenty states and two countries.

So, if you are an engineer and feel a burning desire to put pen to paper and release the inner writer lurking behind your calculator, go for it. I did and don’t regret it, but whenever I have an urge to read a schematic or use the Quadratic Formula to determine the flight of a moving object, I eat a little Play-Doh and draw dogs with seven feet.

Creative writing exercises for engineers

I’m teaching a problem solving course for engineering students (most around 19 years old) and want to increase their creativity levels. Any ideas for writing/ thinking exercises that could inspire them?

@MassimoOrtolano: Not at all. Creative writing is two parts: good idea and good presentation. Engineers are absolutely required to be good at the first part – design, solve problems, create. They also suck at the second part, which is often a significant weakness, as they frequently need to “sell” their ideas – provide arguments in attractive form. So part 1 is a necessity, part 2 a very welcome extra; creative writing for engineers is a valuable skill which can and should be trained.

@what: Yes. A specific mindset, where precision of everything is strict to a tolerance. Where others asked “how long” will say “can’t really tell”, an engineer will give you a nice time bracket of between five milliseconds and seventy years with 95% certainty 🙂

6 Answers 6

Your goal is to get your students to think about using standard skills in non-standard ways. Anyone can build a house; not everyone can build Fallingwater.

  • Dig up classic engineering conundrums from the past (pyramids, aqueducts, dams) and ask your students how they would solve them.
  • Find moderately ridiculous but not utterly implausible movie set pieces (Indiana Jones escaping from the rolling rock and shooting darts, not Indiana Jones surviving a nuclear test in a lead-lined refrigerator). Ask your students to design the traps.
  • Watch some recent Mythbusters episodes. Particularly in the last five years, they’ve branched out from busting urban legends to testing pop culture myths and viral videos. Look at the kinds of myths they choose to test, and the methods they use, and see what could be adapted.

Creative writing and engineering overlap in worldbuilding. There’s even a SE site for it!

Worldbuilding is the art of creating imaginary worlds or settings and describing how they work. This could be anything from a realistic neighborhood to an entire fantasy universe. Depending on the scope and style of the world, creating it may involve elements of science, history, sociology, art, philosophy, and more. Worldbuilding provides a backdrop for speculative fiction, role playing games, and futurology.

For the engineers, you might want to focus on settings dominated by technology, geography, or other environmental forces, and ask them to derive problems and solutions from it. For example, present a planet with unique geographical features and have them describe how its inhabitants would adapt their infrastructure to it. Or let them speculate on how a near-future world was influenced by a revolutionary technology like a space elevator or cold fusion.

For more inspiration, check out communities like Worldbuilding.SE or /r/worldbuilding

My trick: Look for variables. That is: anything I could vary. I use this technique all the time when I need a burst of creativity. And it’s a core feature of any workshop I teach that involves creativity in any way (and they all do).

Here’s the process applied to generating fiction ideas:

Write down any character, location, object, situation, action, theme, or other story element. It may be fascinating or mundane. It may be one you’ve thought about and written about extensively, or one that just popped into your head.

Write down every variable you can think of for the story element. Ask yourself: What could I vary about this? What else could I vary? What else. When you run out of ideas, ask yourself: If I could think of one more thing, what would it be?

  • Location
  • Age
  • Size
  • Shape
  • Color
  • State of repair
  • Who lives in it
  • How many people live in it
  • How much land
  • What kind of land
  • Timeframe
  • .

For each variable, write down every value you can think of. Heck, write down values you can’t think of.

  • The outside paint (last applied 30 years ago) is peeling.
  • Brand new, but warping because it was built over a landfill filled with tree stumps.
  • Kept in immaculate repair by a swarm of household staff.
  • Clean (no filth anywhere), but untidy. Books, 78rpm records, newspapers, unopened junk mail cover every flat surface.
  • .

Pick a few variables that seem interesting to you. Try different combinations of values for those variables. Randomly pick variables and values, and smash them together whether they fit or not. What story ideas does this give you?

Example: Left as an exercise for the reader 😉

Here’s a writeup on my blog, with an example.

A slightly different approach from the ones already posted (some interesting ideas here though!):

These days, it is rarely enough for an engineer simply to be an engineer. Maybe, to succeed, they need to innovate. Think of all the technology start-ups there have been over the last 30 years or so. What do they all have in common?

The answer: a dream. A vision.

What did they not have initially? Venture capital. Infrastructure. Customers. Early adopters.

If the engineering vision is in the head of the engineer, how does he get all those other things? He sketches that vision for other people – salesmen, customers, bankers, businessmen of all types . most of whom will not even understand the concept.

You could, therefore, link creative writing skills with business skills with visionary ideas. An idea has no value if the only place it exists is inside the head of the inventor – so teach him or her how to be a visionary as well as a damn good engineer!

First you need to remember that people are different. Some are most creative without rules, some are most creative when breaking rules and some are most creative within rules. The best creative engineers fall in the last category.

The rules that an engineer are bound by are physical (gravity, physical properties of beams, etc.) regulatory, and customer requirements. The responses should be embrace, accept and understand respectively.

Now for creative writing, many engineers have difficulty with this. (My Father is a great example, he can build the most unique and wonderful things, write great specifications and documentation, but is completely stymied by dialog.) To showcase their strengths I would start with a two part assignment where you first design something impossible, and then look at its impact on society. As to the impossible thing, you need specific rules on its design, but do not feel constrained in writing the rules to have them all make sense. Some people are less creative when they fully understand what they are trying to do, they just do it, When they are learning something they can play with it.