Mad Libs for Creative Nonfiction Writers

Cathy and I, the past few years, have been opening our home on Thanksgiving Day, providing a welcome table to anyone who might need a place to go. Of course, we’re disappointed that the pandemic has made that impossible this year, but our gathering’s loss is a small price to pay for the sake of everyone’s health. Still, I’ve been thinking quite often of those who will have to spend this Thanksgiving alone.

For that reason, I’ve decided to re-print an old post with a writing exercise utilizing a Mad Libs approach with the hope that if you decide to do it, you might find it entertaining. Possibly, you might even find connections with people, memories, and feelings that will surprise you. If you find yourself confronting material that’s uncomfortable for you, look for the good and the beautiful that so often co-exists with the bad and the ugly. In other words, I hope this exercise will allow you to open your hearts to all we have to be thankful for even in the difficult pandemic time where we find ourselves this Thanksgiving. Please know you’ll all be welcome at our virtual table this Thursday, as well as in our very real hearts.

When I designed this exercise for a creative nonfiction workshop a few years ago, I purposefully didn’t  do something a good teacher should have done (stating the objective of the exercise before leading the students through it). I 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.

Here are the steps in the exercise:

  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 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.

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.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all!




  1. Kathy Steinemann on November 26, 2020 at 3:24 pm

    Intriguing exercise, Lee. Thanks. I’ll be retweeting this.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Lee Martin on November 30, 2020 at 7:24 am

      Thanks so much, Kathy! I hope you and yours had a good and safe Thanksgiving.

  2. Susan J Cole on December 22, 2020 at 7:09 am

    This is a great exercise. I went from plates decorated with bright blue fish to making a life-changing decision. Thank you, Lee.

    • Lee Martin on December 23, 2020 at 5:55 am

      I’m so glad you found this exercise useful, Susan!

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