Already Been Chewed: A Writing Exercise Using Facts

In light of all the controversy lately involving the manipulation of facts in creative nonfiction, I’ve come up with a writing exercise to force us to stay true to documented information and to use it for the exploration of material in which we have a personal stake, material we’ll come at slantwise, much in the same way that Dinty Moore does in his fine essay, “Son of Mr. Green Jeans,” which is subtitled, “A Meditation on Fathers.”

Dinty’s essay actually borrows from an ancient form of poetry, the abecedarian, in which the first line or stanza begins with the first letter of the alphabet and is followed by the successive letter until the final letter is reached. So Dinty’s essay begins with some facts about ALLEN, TIM, and ends with the section, ZAPPA, which draws in the central character of Hugh “Lumpy” Brannum, who played Mr. Green Jeans, on “Captain Kangeroo,” and forges connections with Dinty’s own thoughts on fatherhood, particularly his wish that his own father hadn’t embarrassed him with his drinking. Hugh Brannum would have been Dinty’s preference for a father, but Hugh Brannum, contrary to rumors, wasn’t Frank Zappa’s father, nor, of course, was he Dinty’s. The last line of the essay: “Too bad.” We get to this sentiment through a consideration of facts, some personal, some not.

So let’s start with some lists. For the time being, don’t worry about an alphabetical order, although if one starts to suggest itself, please feel free to go with it.

1. Who was one of your favorite childhood characters from TV, film, cartoons, comics, computer games, etc.? I challenged myself to start off with an “A” character, so I chose Atom Ant, that cartoon crime fighter from my childhood. “Up at at’em, Atom Ant!”

2.  Choose a famous person that you so associate with something about the personality of your favorite childhood character.  This famous person might end up being another character, as was the case with me when I chose Dennis the Menace.

3.  Think of someone from your life, either present or past, who is contrary to the personality of your favorite childhood character. I chose my timid mother.

4.  Come up with an animal that you associate with the personality of your favorite childhood character. I chose a type of ant called Crazy Ants.

5.  Come up with an animal that you believe is contrary to the personality of your favorite childhood character. I chose the sloth.

6.  Recall at least one personal experience that’s suggested by your consideration of the previous items on your list. I recalled the time my mother mustered her courage and confronted my high school principal over what she considered an injustice done to me.

7.  Write your title: Son/Daughter of (Your Favorite Childhood Character): A Meditation on (leave this blank for now)

8.  Begin with your favorite childhood character. Use a subject heading such as Atom Ant, or if you prefer, Ant, Atom. Write a few lines giving us some facts about that character. Feel free to do some research if you’d like.

9. Move on to each of the other items on your list, giving each a subject heading. Please note that the heading doesn’t have to be the name of the person or the animal you’re considering. Dinty has a section in his essay, for example, called Inheritance. Find more facts, whether from inside or outside your life. Go in whatever order your instinct tells you to go, knowing re-arrangement is always possible later.

10.  Now that you’ve gathered your facts, go back to your title and fill in the subtitle A Meditation on. . .

It’s my hope that this exercise will open up some material for you and send you in search of other subject headings, other facts, as you continue to explore the center of your meditation via information. Even if you aren’t able to go “A” to “Z.” I hope the exercise will help you think about all that you can accomplish in a segmented essay if the segments are artfully juxtaposed and arranged.


  1. Susan Cushman on November 5, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    Fun. And helpful. I’m going to do this, and maybe blog the results for Writing on Wednesday:-)

    • Lee Martin on November 5, 2012 at 7:28 pm

      Great, Susan! I hope it works out well for you.

  2. Kate Flaherty on November 5, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    Love this! I passed the Mad Libs one to my daughter Emily to take to her creative writing club at the high school–I think they’ll like this one even better. Thanks.

  3. Lee Martin on November 5, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    Kate, please be sure to let me know how this exercise goes for Emily’s CW club.

  4. Denise on November 7, 2012 at 6:29 pm

    I always have such fun doing these exercises, Lee. They help me take my creative energy in new directions, and the results are always interesting.

    • Lee Martin on November 7, 2012 at 9:25 pm

      Good deal, Denise. I’m glad you’re enjoying them.

  5. Jessica Handler on November 9, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    I’m going to try this one tonight – curious to see what I learn, and maybe start something new and longer from it.

    • Lee Martin on November 9, 2012 at 7:14 pm

      Hope you get something good out of it, Jessica.

  6. Jamyung Koo on November 11, 2012 at 7:39 pm

    You sure are a fun, kind teacher of writing. I’d been thinking back home about how to make writing autobiographical mini fiction, similar to creative flash nonfiction here, more accessible to the beginners who want to engage in ceative writing for fun and self-illumination. Your excercise could inspire a wonderful, easy start for them.
    By the way, I’m giving a presentation, as one of Institute of Korea Studies lecture series, on Nov. 15, 4 pm, in Rm. 0090 University Hall. The lecture title is Mini Fiction, The Ancient Future of Korea’s Prose Literature. If you find some free time around that hour, I’d greatly appreciate your presence there.

  7. Lee Martin on November 12, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    Jamyung, it seems that our schedules conflict. As much as I’d love to come to your lecture, I’m teaching at that time. So with regrets, as I’m particularly interested in your topic.

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