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Not Far from the Maddening Lib

Yesterday, my students and I discussed literary magazines and their role in literary culture. I think my students were surprised by the broad range of subject matter that writers cover (a poem about photographing snakes, a story about drunk girls in stilettos, another poem about a burning Christmas tree) and how a magazine exists to suit every interest.

Many creative writers write because it’s the only mode of expression that allows them to do things ad libitum (ad lib), or “as you wish”. If you had the chance to write whatever you wanted, wouldn’t you try to push the boundaries?

I was showing off an issue of one of my favorite literary magazines, Tin House, and explaining to them what I liked about the magazine’s various features: stories, poems, essays, interviews, book reviews, pictures, even games!

I flipped to a two-page spread of a mad lib, which the editors had created by deleting words from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”. I wanted to prove to my students that literary magazines can be fun and even interactive!

“Let’s do the mad lib!” The chorus of voices overwhelmed me.

We had reached the end of class, and I had already finished my lesson. The fact that a literary magazine was getting them so excited brought a huge smile to my face. So I told each student to share the first word that came to mind: ninja, derelict, placenta, Kanye West, and toad were just a few.

What made this mad lib unique was that the blanks didn’t specify a part of speech. So my students were free to choose nouns, verbs, adjectives, and even adverbs, even though those parts of speech didn’t necessarily fit in the context of the story.

I wrote each word in the corresponding blank. When we finished completing the blanks, I read the story out loud (you can read the story here). I could barely finish reading it because we were all laughing so hard.

Yes, the exercise was funny, but I actually liked doing this mad lib because it forced us all to reconsider how words can and cannot bend their parts of speech. Even though a lot of the words didn’t necessarily match the part-of-speech that Poe intended, they still somehow seemed to work in the context.

For example, if you use your imagination, you might be able to imagine how a word like “disingenuous” could be a noun, or how a word like “snowflake” could be a verb.

Also, this exercise made a story that we’ve all heard a million times (assuming that you’ve studied Poe in an English class) seem new again. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is actually a brilliant story, but many boring English teachers have ruined it for students. Despite the fact that we butchered the story, it still retained its original meaning and tone. Playing with a story can make it fun again!

The process of completing a mad lib, where anything goes, mimics the process of creative writing. When you approach a blank page, you never know what might happen. Opening yourself to the possibility of touching the unknown is sometimes scary, but the result will always surprise you. And sometimes even make you laugh.

One Comment

  1. Liz Liz

    What a great exercise! I can see doing this for the class I taught for freshman general studies. It was very hard to engage them in standard poetry & literature unless they were willing to put some thought into it (which was unfortunately a minority). Occasional class exercises like this would let them see the playful aspects of language.

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