Mad Libs for Creative Nonfiction Writers: A New Exercise

I designed a new writing exercise for my MFA creative nonfiction workshop last week, and contrary to what a good teacher should have done (stating the objective of the exercise before leading the students through it) I purposely eliminated that step and jumped right in. I didn’t want the students to write toward an objective, thereby thinking too much about the purpose of their responses to my cues. Instead, I wanted them to be open to leaps  and associations and surprises and the texture such things can lend to a piece of creative nonfiction.

As promised, I’m now sharing this exercise with you:

1.  Make a list of three adjectives. Any three. Don’t think too hard. Just do it.

2.  Make a list of three objects that have recently become “unforgettable” to you in some way. Three objects from the current time or the recent past that you can’t get out of your head.

3.  Make a list of three abstractions, but try to avoid nouns that could also be transitive verbs. Nothing that could be turned into a statement such as “I love x,” or “I hate y.” Stick with things like”limbo” or “harmony.”

4.  Choose an adjective from your list, an object, and an abstraction.  Do it in that order. Add a preposition or an article as necessary. Write the title of your essay (e.g. “Pretty Dog Leash in Limbo”). Note: now that you know you’re creating a title, feel free to switch out any of the words for others on your lists.

5.  Write a few lines about the object you’re chosen. Why have you been thinking about it lately? Give us a context for why this object is important to you.

6.  Write a few lines that evoke the abstraction you’ve chosen without naming it. How does the abstraction convey your emotional response to the object? In what way does thinking about the object leave you unsettled, uncertain, or whatever your emotional response turns out to be?

7.  Write a few lines that evoke the adjective you’ve chosen without naming it. Give us a sense of its relationship to the object. Is it ironic, for example, or genuine?

8.  Write a few lines about another object, story,  or memory that comes to you right now. We’re working with free association here. Look for words or phrases or images that subtly connect to what you’ve already written. If you need a prompt, here’s one: “When I think of that dog leash, I remember (fill in the blank with another object, a story, a memory).”

9.  Make a direct statement about where the second object, story, or memory takes you in your thinking. Here’s a prompt: “I begin (or began) to think about (fill in the blank however you’d like).” The emphasis with this last step is to let the texture of the writing invite an abstract thought, conclusion, question, speculation, etc., thereby allowing the central line of inquiry of the essay to grow organically from what precedes it.

Since this is a new exercise, I’m particularly interested in what you think. My students, in our post-writing debriefing, talked about how the exercise led them to unexpected connections, became a process of discovery, forced them to “push through” material that was a bit uncomfortable for them, and in general led them to things they wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise. I’m hoping this exercise will be helpful for those writers who want to write in forms that aren’t predominantly driven by narrative and who are more interested in dealing with recent material rather than the distant past.





  1. Ginny Jolly on September 17, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    This is a fantastic exercise! I always liked Mad Libs–it led to peals of side-splitting, tear-generating laughter! It would make an excellent meme for writers’ threads, and I wouldn’t have to limit myself to making myself a Superhero name like “Blue Cottage Cheese” that I didn’t do anything with.

    Perhaps this exercise can be tailored to the “formulae” that underlie different kinds of writing. E.g. comic book: need for superhero(ine), nemesis, ungodly nemesis’ act, superhero(ine) savior activity, aftermath, origins, etc.; Fantasy or RPG, maybe: characters, challenges and goals, tools, actions, consequences and rewards, ultimate challenge/goal.

    Different types of genres have common elements in those works that can be identified, and this exercise can help generate a storyboard or story skeleton on which to build the story.

    I have always liked sites like to see how you can generate elements of different kinds of science fiction and fantasy works.

    • Lee Martin on September 18, 2012 at 9:33 am

      Thanks, Ginny! I’m glad you liked the exercise, and I’d encourage you to modify it however you’d like to best fit other forms of writing. Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to comment.

  2. […] I designed a new writing exercise for my MFA creative nonfiction workshop last week, and contrary to what a good teacher should have done (stating the objective of the exercise before leading the students through it) I …  […]

  3. Jessica Handler on October 17, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    I’m going to field-test this in a workshop I’m teaching this weekend, and will let you know. I’m particularly interested in the outcomes of 5, 8, & 9.

    • Lee Martin on October 18, 2012 at 12:16 pm

      Jessica, I hope the exercise will be of some value to you and your students. Please do let me know the results.

  4. Mad Libs « BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog on October 19, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    […] Find the rest of Lee Martin’s Prompt on His Blog […]

  5. Jill Talbot on October 25, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    Thanks for posting this exercise. I gave my students the exercise to do outside of class, and we came back and discussed our experiences.
    First, most students, well-versed in the game of Mad Libs, noted they did not read ahead. They did the exercise as if they were playing Mad Libs, so “no peeking.”
    Students were surprised how well their objects, asbtractions, and adjectives related, even though they wouldn’t have connected them or considered them otherwise. The free association prompt, one student said, created a connection between two things she would have never “put together in the same space.”
    Digressions seemed rampant. And writing beyond the prompt: three paragraphs instead of three lines, writing their way to a memory they did not expect to find, associating people with the objects, and my favorite: the exercise led them to questions, such as WHY this object? Why am I _____ (an abstraction)?
    Many wrote about lost objects.
    They also admitted to going back and changing the objects, that they felt “obligated” to revise. I pointed out that this is what we do in writing—if an association or a detail is not working, we should rethink it.
    Overall, I think the overwhelming response was unexpected finds.
    As for me, the statement, the final one, led me to a metaphor I would have never come up with on my own. Thank you.

    • Lee Martin on October 26, 2012 at 2:46 pm

      Jill, thanks so much for the detailed report. I’m so glad that you and your students found the exercise of use. I love hearing that the students used the objects as a mode of inquiry into the why of it all. Thanks, again, for using the exercise and for taking the time to report the results. Take care–Lee

  6. Rachael on October 26, 2012 at 12:10 am

    Such a fun exercise. I may try it with a creative writing group in the near future. For now, I tried it on my own blog. Thanks for the inspiration and the flash essay start.

    ~Rachael Button (

    P.S: If you have any problem with me posting about your exercise on my personal blog let me know. I’m happy to take it down. 🙂

    • Lee Martin on October 26, 2012 at 2:43 pm

      Dear Rachael,

      So glad that you tried the exercise and that it produced such a beautiful piece of writing. I have no problem at all with your posting about the exercise on your blog. My gratitude–Lee

  7. Kelly Caldwell on February 7, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    Hi, Lee —
    Thank you so much for sharing this exercise. I gave it to my memoir writing class last fall, and I wish you could have been in the room with us to hear the results.

    It was here in New York City, a few weeks after Hurricane Sandy, and everyone had been a little frazzled, a little harassed for weeks. We did the exercise and I had them read their results to steps five through nine aloud, then tell us the title. Many of the students, after they read their work, said things like, “I didn’t realize that before,” or, “Wow, where did that come from?”

    It was an exciting, revealing class, and you made it possible. Thank you!

  8. Lee Martin on February 7, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    Hi, Kelly,

    Thanks so much for letting me know how the Mad Libs exercise played in your memoir class. It’s particularly gratifying to know that the exercise provided an invitation for expression in the aftermath of Sandy, a reminder that the written word certainly has a practical application. All the best to you and your students. Please tell them that I’m delighted to know that my exercise “worked” for them, and please give them all my best wishes for their continued good work.

    Take Care,

  9. cinnamonb on September 22, 2015 at 1:16 am

    Hi Lee –

    I don’t know if you’ll read this as the post is from several years ago, but I found it while looking for writing prompts and exercises (I write poetry).

    I decided to see if I could do anything at all with it. Interestingly as I started, I just kept thinking about a poem I’d written 2 drafts of and wasn’t at all satisfied with. As I worked through steps 5, 6, and 7 some things started clicking to get me onto redoing that poem, which I did to a much more satisfactory result 🙂

    It was those further steps that separated this exercise from the usual “random words” ones.

    Down the line, I might try it again —- other words and concepts might then be in mind and — well who knows where that might lead. But that’s the fun, right?


    • Lee Martin on September 22, 2015 at 1:27 pm

      I’m so glad you found that old post and that it took you somewhere productive. Hooray! Thanks very much for taking the time to leave this comment. Come back and visit anytime!

  10. Kristen on April 13, 2016 at 9:25 pm

    Thanks for posting this exercise (years ago! I found it via a search for creative non-fiction prompts). I’m trying to make my non-fiction writing more fun, more personal, more engaging and less like a college essay or textbook. So I’m basically just trying to write more, write daily, and get the flow going. But it’s hard to get in the practice of daily writing. This was a great exercise to get me started. It started off so easily, 3 adjectives. But by the end I had filled a couple pages in my notebook. It was fun to discover that the bulk of what I had written didn’t include those 3 adjectives, but just the act of starting to write pushed me to write about something I’d been thinking about for the past few weeks.
    Thanks for the exercise!

    • Lee Martin on April 15, 2016 at 11:09 am

      So glad the exercise was helpful, Kristen! Thanks for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.

  11. Drew on July 12, 2017 at 8:58 pm

    Another satisfied customer. That was a great exercise and I was surprised at the depth of connections that my unconscious brought up. I love it, I’m going to use a variation of that exercise to spark my creativity when I’m blank.

    • Lee Martin on July 13, 2017 at 11:27 am

      Thanks, Drew! I’m glad the exercise proved useful to you.

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