Category Archives: storytelling

Will you play Social Media Mad Libs® with me?

graphic of notebook mad libs page

CC image courtesy of Aaron & Alli on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I have a confession to make.

When I first started on Twitter, I kind of overdid it with the retweeting. I searched for output on writing and inspirational quotes, and fell into a perfect vortex of quotables (how’s this for a QWERTY slip: on my first pass at the foregoing sentence, I typed “vortext” — a vortex of text, yar!).

I have another confession: as a child, I was a Mad Libs junkie. Yes, that Mad Libs. The game of ignorant word substitution, where one person knows the story and the other one supplies words to fill in the blanks. My friend T and I would play for hours, laughing ever more insanely as time went by. We quoted each other our literary outputs for weeks afterwards.

Now I have a mad plan to bring these two dormant fascinations together. But I want help. Will you be my enablers?

Quotations are cool, but they have their limits

As I said, I love quotes.

I’m talking about all kinds of quoted language: brainy quotes from magazine articles, insightful quotes from speeches, inspirational quotes from Zen books and Hallmark cards, cool language displayed in literature or by the literati, snarky quotes from pop culture, TV and movies, quotes about writing, quotes about seizing the moment, quotes about puns and wordplay, quotes about the metaphoric uses of coffee.

Written quotes. Spoken quotes. Scripted quotes and improvised quotes, quotes set to music and quotes a capella.

Before I knew it, most of my time on Twitter was spent obsessively chasing down, favoriting, and retweeting quotes of every description. I feasted on quotes the way other people feast on candy or chocolate or coffee or beer.

Somehow, I got a hold of myself. I pulled myself out of the narcotic haze of brilliant language written by other people, and I asked myself the hard question. Was anyone interested in listening to me quote?

Hm.

Why was I retweeting the posts of other users which were themselves quotations by some third or fourth party — What was even remotely useful about this behavior?

We laugh better together

Mad Libs is not a game for the solitary. Its genius lies in the knowing collaboration between two people where one has information and the other knows their words will be twisted out of all proportion.

I had a stack of Mad Libs books. T and I re-used them so often, the pages where we filled in the words were divided into columns. Eventually we had to add looseleaf pages with additional columns. Sometimes we were innocuous: chair, clean, surprisingly, jumped. Often we went for the ridiculous, because we knew where this was all heading: toadstools, mutated, unbearably, exploded.

After the list was complete, we read the story results aloud to each other. The ensuing literature was without exception hilarious. (Really.)

Send me your quotes!

What I would like to propose is libbing on a grand scale, using the internet, and plugging into the great human propensity to hurl quotes at each other.

I am going to compose an entire story made up of unrelated quotations. And you’re going to help me. Our roles look like this:

You: send me quotations
Me: rearrange and string together.
Post it here.

What better use of quotations, digital media, and native human wackiness?

Here’s how you submit your quotes:

  • Post your quotes here, in the comments
  • Email [link] them using the contact form
  • Tweet to me @aocwrites using #DigitalMadLibs

Quotation submission cutoff will be the end of July, 2013.

Quotation guidelines:

  1. Quotes will be up to 20 words in length. No longer.
  2. No porn!
  3. No drugs!
  4. No gratuitous foul language! I’ll accept the occasional *$#@! when used for emphasis, and I reserve the right to determine what “occasional” and “emphasis” is.
  5. Topics and sources may include but are not limited to: famous sayings by famous people, inspirational, literary, business, movies, TV, sports, travel, stand-up, food, zombies, and music. Still don’t have any ideas? I’m sorry.
  6. Be as earnest or as silly as you like. The more we have of both category, the better.
  7. Include the source, if you have it. Just because I’m a nerd, and I’d like to have that information.

Maybe some of you will want to make your own Mad Libs stories? I’d love to see those!

Let the quote-libbing begin!

That’s exactly what I mean. Literally.

Creative ways of being totally factual with language

cat making a funny sneezing face

I literally don’t know what you’re talking about. — Image Silly Rus’ courtesy of GloriaGarcia on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Kids are amazingly literal when they are small. We have to be careful how we phrase what we say to them, lest we be taken exactly at our word.

At a certain age, I learned to use literal to my advantage. For instance, when my friend T and I were caught playing on the furniture, I exclaimed: “But we weren’t jumping ON the beds!  We were jumping OFF them!” This was literally true: we were using the bed as a launching pad for tumbling routines on the floor. I was very proud of myself for not lying and felt very smart (see here for other ways I am smart and self-aggrandizing).

Another time, when T was at my house for a sleepover, we had gotten up early before everyone else, but I didn’t want them to know. When I heard the creak of the floorboards above us that indicated someone was awake and aware, I told her to lie down real quick on the living room floor. She had no idea what I was talking about, but she did lie down, and so did I. We paused for a second, and I popped up like a jack-in-the-box. “Okay,” I announced. “Now if anyone asks us, we’ve JUST GOTTEN UP.”

T thought this was so hilarious she still tells the story now, decades later.

The same interpretation is at work in bad translations. Taking every word — literally and individually — and replacing it with the closest possible counterpart in the other language is a recipe for Japanese English translations. Okay, so that was a low blow. But can you imagine translating the following literally? “I’ll keep my eyes peeled.” How about: “waiting for the other shoe to drop”?

A good translation is nothing less than a kind of re-writing, a re-imagining of the work. Translation is poetry in motion. No language has an exact one-to-one vocabulary correspondence to any other language.

The literal trailers found on YouTube play on this concept (search for the movie of your choice along with the words “literal trailer” and prepare to be bemused). The trailers are a kind of spoof in which sequences from Hollywood films are shown without their soundtrack, while a narrator “sings” a description of exactly what is visible on-screen. Closed-captioning accompanies the text. My favorites include the trailers for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and Twilight. Stories become sublimely ridiculous when literal-ness is taken to this logical extreme.

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What about you? Have you on occasion played literally with the truth? Did you create good entertainment value with this technique? Please share — I’d love to hear more stories about the literal use of language!

Euphemisms and Doublespeak: Here to serve you

Sometimes, my work space looks like this:

desk and tables covered with books and notes

Creativity at work

The space is like a notepad version of “Where’s Waldo.” Find the stationery with the story brainstorming list on it. Go ahead, take your time.

I call what you see here “creative chaos.”

What you can’t see in the picture is a lot of the floor. The floor gets very creative. At the epicenter of the creativity you can usually find my chair, unless it’s been a breezy day.

Merriam-Webster defines a “euphemism” as follows: “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant; also: the expression so substituted.” The word comes from the Greek euphēmismos, basically, speech that sounds good.

Another (accurate) description of my work space is, sometimes: an unholy mess. But that doesn’t sound nearly as nice as creative chaos. A good friend of mine used to joke about her messy room by plucking a desired item from an otherwise indistinguishable heap on the first try and announcing: “there’s a method to my madness.” I like that. The statement suggests intent. A plan. Decision-making.

As a writer, I like “creative chaos” for additional reasons. The phrase conveys dashes of artistry, productivity, and a possible relationship to cosmological Big Bang ideas. All very nice, indeed. My creative chaos underlines the fact that I am very busy and important (thanks, Bridget Jones).

Euphemisms are great. Politicians and corporations use them a lot. My favorite corporate-related euphemism comes up all the time in the avaricious consumerist holiday season replacing Christmas every year. If you turn on the radio or your TV, or the YouTube video you are trying to watch gets hijacked by some ad, you’ll hear a version of this doublespeak. It goes something like this:

“Do you like to SAVE? Shop XYZ Company this holiday season!”

No one has yet clarified for me how purchasing something involves simultaneously saving my money. But maybe that’s why I’ve never had more than one credit card.

Job descriptions are great for euphemisms, too. Here are a few, along with their real-world translations, that make the rounds occasionally in an email forward (one of my former co-workers had the full list pegged to the corkboard above her desk; I love people with a sense of humor):

  • Competitive salary
    “We remain competitive by paying less than our competitors.”
  • Must be deadline oriented
    “You’ll be six months behind schedule on your first day.”
  • Must have an eye for detail
    “We have no quality control.”
  • Seeking candidates with a wide variety of experience
    “You’ll need it to replace three people who just left.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be recognized for my broad range of experience and ability to meet deadlines, than tasked with balancing a row of spinning plates while not earning much money.

The same kind of language manipulation happens a lot in the food space. “All natural” is one of my favorites. What does “all natural” mean? If you ask a flavor scientist, you might conclude that their answer has no bearing on your question.

I could write a lot about the ways we parlay language like a shield — which is kind of the point. Euphemisms are great. Not just for job interviews and food marketing, but also for Jane Austen and George Eliot. (What is the society in Pride & Prejudice if not one giant euphemism pond? Mr. Bennett: “I have not the pleasure of understanding you.” One sentence encompasses conflict, character motivation — and humor).

Euphēmismos — the tension between what’s said and what’s really meant. Which is the place that a lot of good stories and jokes come from.

Therefore, I deduce that I have some great stories coming out of this writing work space. If I can locate them in the pile of papers.

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Is there a method to your madness?  Let’s hear some of your favorite turns of phrase below.

Words = Power

over life size sculpture of a human face

© AOC. All rights reserved.

For the final two weeks of my voice and speech class, each of us was meant to work with a specific text that we’d chosen. Not more than a few lines. My teacher said this could be dialogue, a presentation, poetry, song lyrics… whatever. The main criterion was the text should be something we knew well… and that each of us was comfortable delivering in class.

I began thinking about the text a couple of weeks ago when my teacher reminded us to have it ready. Almost immediately, I also began to think about how I could avoid the lines that would not stop going through my head. Surely, I thought, I can’t be comfortable with those words…

I’ve been circling this thought for weeks. The words that I can’t shake are a song lyric, beautiful in its phrasing and heavy with emotional freight. They are awful and beautiful at the same time. Awful, because I want with every fiber of my being to be the one who wrote them. Beautiful, because even without music, they sing.

And he was always much more human than he wished to be

Really, the verses pursue me. I’ve tried isolating bits of the lyric from the rest: experimenting with just two lines to use in class. Thinking, if I separate these threads, these veins that bleed into one another, the smaller fragment will be easier to contain. Easier to carry.

My mistake.

So I skulked the stacks in the drama and poetry sections of the library, in search of something memorable — something I could easily remember — which was also easier to carry, and easier to hear.

What I checked out was the following:

  • The Essential Dickenson (Emily)
  • Three plays by David Mamet

So much for happiness and froth. I wonder what this says about me…

All of my selections proved to be difficult at meeting my primary search criterion: text that was lighter than the haunted verses that wouldn’t leave me alone.

Emily is memorable, but her poems have a strength of structure that conspires against me. I’ve always had difficulty reading poetry aloud. I have to fight against being held hostage by the end of the line. Emily’s poetry is cadences of pure tensile strength… How can a little weakling like me begin to play with her text?

Mamet, on the other hand, has easy, flowing dialogue. But it’s nearly impossible to find speech that doesn’t carry dangerous, spiky undercurrents, even in the comedies.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the musculature in Emily’s poetry, I found it relatively easy to remember her verse. I really liked the start of this poem, particularly because I am a writer:

She dealt her pretty words like Blades–
How glittering they shone–
And every One unbared a Nerve
Or wantoned with a Bone–

The power of words! Who wouldn’t love to declaim those lines? Up until the very moment I stood up in class I was convinced those would be the words that passed my lips.

Didn’t happen that way. Instead, I went with a bit from the beginning of Eat, Pray, Love by Liz Gilbert. The book has a wonderful, gentle sense of humor, and I thought I could use that rather than the bare intensity in Emily’s lines. Back to eschewing the heavy stuff.

In the end, I chose the power verses for myself, but kept them secreted from the audience. I was afraid of the strength of those verses — could I contain them, could I embody them… could I handle their impact on the people who would hear me speak?

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What about you — can you think of a time when you pulled back from your own power?

housing development

Why I don’t like story outlines

(or planned communities, for that matter)

I lived in Colorado Springs for a few months when I first arrived in Colorado. I didn’t know anyone when I arrived. I had orchestrated my place to live through email and Skype, and had a few names of friends of friends that I could contact. But I was On My Own.

housing development

like a giant cornfield… image courtesy of GeekPhilosopher.com

I arrived a little over two weeks prior to the Super Bowl. Despite being a total newcomer to the area, I found myself partaking in the festive American ritual of The Party, courtesy of one of these friends of friends. It was located in the far-flung northeastern corner of the Springs, north of the Air Force Base, in one of the many housing developments that characterize most of the Springs’ residential arrangement.

For those who have never been, Colorado Springs roads are characterized by quite a few large, north-south routes on either side of I-25, and only a few good connections east-west, topography creating a bit of a road building challenge which results in bottlenecks. There is a compact downtown, and a small historic district called Old Colorado City (which was once a separate town), but most of the rest of it looks like a template for Suburbia.

Heading out to the party, making my awkward west-east connections, I drove past housing developments and strip malls. These followed a steady rhythm internally as well as externally. Neighborhoods often had limited entry and exit points via main roads; the web of streets within the neighborhood featured houses that were in many ways very similar to each other; sometimes there was a walking path nearby; sometimes there was a park in the area; in order to visit this park (if applicable) or any kind of store, residents needed to get in the car and drive to a parking lot or one of the strip malls or store groupings concentrated around a big-box mega-center such as Target. Each neighborhood functioned as an entirely discrete unit, which, however, was strangely isolated from practical things like corner stores, gas stations, and parks.

My Super Bowl party hosts lived in a development situated on a bit of a rise. Coming in from the main road, I was granted a vista to the west, where the sun was slowly setting, glinting over a sea of roofs which looked, from this distance, like the interchangeable pieces of a Monopoly set. Indeed, despite the red twinkle indicating storefronts for various malls, it looked like one enormous, homogeneous neighborhood. I was reminded of the overhead shots during the opening credits of the series Weeds.

It got me thinking. About planning and an adherence to logic and order. About variations on a theme (think music, the visual arts), and what makes some variations more pleasing than others. About organic growth (not like in your garden), and checklists.

I don’t want to get into a discussion on the relative merits and drawbacks of planned living communities, since that’s not the focus of this blog, but I do see a connection between this type of reliance on planning in the physical world of infrastructure, and in fact within companies, and planned art.

Almost everyone that has set out to tell (write) a story, whether short or long, at one point probably considers the question: would it be wise/profitable/advantageous/required/etc to have an outline, a sort of blueprint, so that I have a basic idea of where I’m going and can make sense of the act of getting there?

And in fact there can be many pros. The more complex the subject is, or the greater the number of characters, or the longer the story is, the more helpful it can be to have a kind of cheat sheet for organizing our thoughts. But in my experience, the difficulty is then in keeping this cheat sheet in its proper place. Because it can become very tyrannical. No, so-and-so is supposed to be here at this particular time, and he has to feel this way about this, otherwise we’ll lose the whole plot…

And then it seems to be inevitable that just a little farther down the road, the story gets really hard. It’s like a three-year-old in the supermarket, throwing a tantrum.  It doesn’t like anything I’m suggesting, the characters are in a torpor (“Hey, you tell me where we’re going!”), and, despite the fact that there’s a Plan in place, nothing makes any sense anymore.

Know the feeling?

Every time I try to plan something, it doesn’t work out. The story withers on the vine and calcifies. I can water it as much as I want; it’s not going to bloom. But the outline was so logical! It was meant to help me out. What’s going on here?

Good stories, in my experience, have a life of their own (this is what I mean by organic). The problem with outlines is that they often act like the bait on a spring-loaded trap, which when I reach for it, drops an iron cage over the lush garden of the story with a sign mounted on it: Caution! Agenda at Work! And then I can’t get at any of the plants. I can’t prune what needs pruning, and uproot the weeds. And I sure can’t plant anything new.

I think in the Springs they were mostly overtaken by the growth in the population and the need to provide housing. I surmise there was an army of planners requiring X type of services for Y number of people, and that there was a budget. But I couldn’t help regretting the loss of an actual neighborhood. With a corner store that I can walk to, to buy a sandwich and a newspaper.

That’s the dangerous thing about having story outline, in my view. It becomes the budget; it becomes a checklist of requirements. Blueprints are great for many things. But they don’t leave a lot of room for new stuff.