An Exercise for a Sense of Play in Academic Writing
And, for exploring unexpected possibilities in what we are thinking and writing about. This is a fantastic exercise that anyone can do and everyone can benefit from.
Just yesterday my children were playing Mad Libs, and having a blast. If you don’t know this game, it has two parts. The first part you answer some questions without knowing how the answers will be used. You are asked to name an adjective, then a noun, then a place, etc. On the next page, you have to fill them in within the blanks of a pre-written paragraph story. The random words put in those sentences make for a real crazy story. Lots of giggling and silliness ensues. As with Dada, poop makes its appearance. But even without that, children find it immensely funny to see language mashed up that way.
And just the other day I was admitting to my graduate students that in order to publish I have also “filled in the blanks” of certain academic templates demanded of me in the review process of an article, and the results are kind of hilarious to me, especially when the madness gets published.
But isn’t this part of the actual thinking process of creative academic work?
We can play this game, what I call Academic Mad Libs, without the constraints of demands and templates and instead as a way to explore possibilities, use language itself to suggest its ideas to us, and to brainstorm.
So what follows here is a game of open Academic Mad Libs that might be good when we are looking for some inspiration, for a twist, are not sure what we think, or when we want to exercise our openness and creativity– or as an activity for a rainy day.
If possible, make 30 minutes available for writing, and go through these steps without looking ahead to the next one. Of course few will resist reading the whole thing, but when doing it you can always at least try to focus on the step in front of you. Be open to the different ways of doing this and open to different kinds of results: the result may be coherent, surrealist, dadaist, poetic, nothing, clunky, or strangely titillating and insightful.
ACADEMIC MAD LIBS
- Make a list of 10 interesting adjectives and/or processes—really go fast and write them down as with the least amount of thought as you can. Processes can be noun-ified adjectives like “globalization.”
- Make a list of five objects or entities that are part of your research or topic or interests. These should always be “distinct” objects and entities and not abstractions like processes or concepts.
- Make a list of five abstractions or concepts related to your work, but not abstractions that could also be verbs, like “love.” These should be nouns only. They might also be noun-ified process words.
- Pick one from each list—adjective or process, object, abstraction– and combine them in any order, or multiple orders, to form a title for this piece, adding in any necessary connections, articles, prepositions, etc. For instance, “Through the indestructible osmosis of ghosts.” You can also repeat some terms or of course go for the oldy-but-goody, the chiasmus—“The intolerable rebellion of ants and the ants of intolerable rebellion.” Now that you are in the middle of making a title—go ahead and indulge in swapping things out from your lists till you find one you like. This can be your title.
- Go to your object or entity Word. Write a few sentences about it. Explain why it is important or interesting to you. (it came up in the exercise, so it stood out for some reason).
- Go to your abstraction word. Write a few sentences about this abstraction, but never name it. Write suggestively.
- Write a few sentences or phrases that suggest the adjective, but without naming it. Suggest its connection to the object.
- Now think of another object based on the object so far. When you think about x (previous object) it makes you think of “y.” Your line could literally be “X suggests Y” or, a more elaborate sentence.
- Write a few lines that explicitly state how this second object changes your thinking from before, or evokes something new, or takes things into a new space. The point here is to engage some speculative thinking, abstraction, connection, conclusion, dilemma or question that emerges organically.
The movement from A to B is PLENTY enough for a chapter, or article, or even a book. And organic movement is fun to read. I could include a slew of ther post-sale wrap-ups, but the important thing to remember is that all creative academic writing has some play in it, and it is often simple play.
The other thing is: the point of this exercises is to be an exercise. Come to it with an exerciser mind, a training mind. Don’t look to it for direct results, or a kill-two-birds-with-one-stone approach, like for instance “ok I’ll play this game and also I hope I get something I can paste in my document too.” Come to it to play, to train in writing. You might actually get something, but let that kind of energy either disappear or live as a trace in exile while you do it. The openness to exploration will create a far more productive open window of agile writerly thought in the long run. It helps immensely if you actually practice leaving that window open now. Remember that this is Academic Mad Libs!
This exercise may suggests to you that all anyone is ever doing in their brilliant writings is some form of academic mad libs.
Or more to the point– that it is not us, but language, that is doing our writing.
Either take heart in the great relief which that might bring, or forget this ever happened. We can always go back to the Matrix and enjoy our beef.