Tag Archives: outside the box

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?


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!

Organization vs Passion: List the benefits

hamster in a metal hamster wheel

CC image “Hamster wheel” courtesy of sualk61 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I’ve been thinking a lot about lists lately, because my life seems to be filled with them.

I have to-do lists for the day, the week, the month. Shopping lists, story brainstorming lists, lists of essay ideas, speech ideas, blog post ideas, blog improvements, lists of birthdays, of appointments, packing lists, lists of items I need to repair on my car, lists of my student loans, and so on.

Sometimes I think the lists are a blessing. The most obvious benefit is an increased level of organization, coupled with a sense of control over my life. Often, though, I feel trapped by my lists. Like a hamster on a wheel, I am running, running… and seem never to be getting anywhere. My life has become a list — a list which taunts me like Sisyphus’s stone.

Let’s get organized!

The number one advantage to creating a list is organization. Organization is a big watchword nowadays. We all lead such busy lives, there’s not enough time in the day to accomplish everything. From pundits to parents, advice columns to job postings, organization is acknowledged as a universal good.

Consider the daily to-do list. A simple and effective maneuver, scribbling a to-do list takes only a few minutes, and serves as a reminder throughout the day. When we get side-tracked by unexpected events or need to prioritize, the to-do list is our friend. Groceries versus Pilates class? Vision statement or agenda prep for afternoon teleconference? Following up with Sue or Sam? Remembering what the heck was that important deadline this week?

Did you know that lists are good news for our health, too? Creating lists can help:

  • reduce anxiety by giving us a sense of control over what we need to get done
  • boost our brain power by using parts of our brain we otherwise may neglect
  • improve focus by keeping our immediate goal in front of us
  • increase self-esteem through the sense of accomplishment we get by crossing items off our list
  • organize our thoughts, such as when we are faced with a tough or complex decision

Health, stress reduction, meeting deadlines, and getting all the items we need from the grocery store. Who could possibly object to the clear beneficence of the lowly and workmanlike list!

Where’s the fire?

To-do lists, grocery lists, packing lists — all of these have immediate, obvious utility. They’re not very romantic, though. Then there is our least favorite list ever (at least according to pop culture): the New Year’s Resolutions (if you’re feeling adventurous enough that you have more than one resolution, of course. I am guilty of this. I am an overachiever. Scorn me). We start this list with grand plans and fanfare. We feel bigger than life. Bring on the world!

Yet how often do we actually complete that list? Maybe we’d be more accurate calling New Year’s Resolutions our “New Year’s Ideas & Suggestions Box.” Drop in the slip of paper with your idea. As time goes by, those little slips of paper become less interesting, even, perhaps, accusatory.

Making a list — for New Year’s or otherwise — can become a stand-in for doing what’s on the list. Too often, we start with a good intention, fall into a habit, and then just continue with it brainlessly. Making lists over and over can slowly drain us of our initial passion. When we began, we were excited by the subject, the work, the company, the project… One sheet of paper couldn’t contain all our ideas. Gradually, however, our vision has narrowed until we can’t see the horizon anymore for the slip of paper.

We’ve forgotten what got us started in the first place.

Regaining Control

Like any strategy designed to help us out, keeping a list can become a self-perpetuating monster. Whether our list is a fluffy Shih Tzu or a Great Dane, we need to remember who’s in charge. I’ll give you a hint: the boss should be the one holding the leash.

Lists are a tool. Like the alphabet. In order to write effectively, we need to know how to form the letters, how they sound, and the ways to arrange them to convey meaning. But the letters themselves aren’t the meaning — they are the vessel by which meaning is made clear. We write the letters, the letters don’t write us.

Don’t get trapped on the hamster wheel. Eventually, you will need to actually write that story, shoot those pictures, finish that telephone follow-up, pack that suitcase. If you find that you’re spending a lot more time on your list than your life, remember that the brain needs playtime, too. Play hooky. You may be surprised how inspired and enlivened you become as a result.

You might even have plenty more fodder to add to your lists!


Do you keep track of aspects of your life using lists? Do any of your lists pertain to your creative projects? Let us know here!

Attentional bias and what it means for your work

or: the magic of little red cars

two little cars outside apartment complex, one red

The Hunt for the Little Red Car” CC image courtesy of screenpunk on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I recently discovered that there was a name for a phenomenon I’ve been experiencing a lot in my life lately.

Its popular name seems to be the red car effect. More learned folks talk about cognitive biases and label the process selective attention or attentional bias.

These names describe the way we notice all the little red cars on the road after we’ve bought a little red car. We’re pretty sure that there weren’t this many just a few days ago, but now we can’t help seeing them everywhere.

Did all of us visit the dealer in the same week?

Or are we just now noticing the red cars because we’ve started paying more attention to them?

Our new sight isn’t just restricted to cars, or even the purely physical. Everyone seems to be talking about personal empowerment, these days. A lot of folks are into my obscure favorite band (judging by the T-shirts). Have you ever noticed how many people are speaking Polish?

My attentional bias is that I am surrounded by entrepreneurs and small business people. Where did they all come from? I was a worker bee for a long time, and hadn’t spared a thought for entrepreneurship until I started doing it myself. Now, every time I turn around so-and-so is running their own business. And I mean, I know these people. Some of them for years.

And they’ve all got great ideas that I can use. How fortuitous. What serendipity! The Universe — it’s sending me a message just when I need it!

Serendipity. Another word I have begun to look at askance, since I’ve become aware of the red car effect. Merriam-Webster defines serendipity as the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.

A happy coincidence. Or is it?

Are you paying attention?
The Universe has been giving me a lot of information lately. Sometimes in the form of repetition. The past couple of weeks, I have been struggling with a business plan. The plan looks NOTHING like what I envisioned when I started putting it together. Like the most pampered pooch on the end of an extendable leash, the business plan has its own ideas about where it wants to go. Every time I try to be practical, structured, and business-y, the dang thing keeps pulling in creativity, play, and uncertainty.

It’s as though I’m setting out to go to the Science Museum, and instead end up in a wing filled with paintings by Caravaggio and sculptures by Rodin.

I really like being there, too. But what does this have to do with business?

I’m annoyed. The whole point of a business plan is to be logical. I can play when I’m not trying to do business.

Enter the email. The business plan and I are playing push-me-pull-you, me wondering why our relationship isn’t working, when this message comes across the digital ether and lands in my inbox:

“So many people give up when things don’t go according to their plan. When you decide to go for something, but can’t seem to make it work, don’t back down. The path to achieving your goal may not be what you expected.” (emphasis added)

I’m pretty sure I am not the only person on Coach Jenn Lee’s email list. It would be foolish to conclude the message was written just for me. Her email composition and sending schedule has a lot more to do with her particular circumstances than with my recalcitrant un-businessy business plan.

But that’s not how I felt when I read it.

I was just wondering why my stupid business plan wasn’t conforming to, well… plan.

Is the Universe talking to me (using digital media as the messenger)? Or am I just paying more attention to little red cars?

Why this matters
Here’s the sneaky part about attentional bias. While we’re busy wondering how much new information is actually new (if you’re anything like me, that is), we suddenly have a lot we can say about red cars, little or otherwise. We are aware of the quantity and variety of makes and models, and who is driving them. Which ones are shiny and clean, which have dents in the bumper, or a license plate hanging on by one corner. We notice that there are a lot of different shades of red.

We can say a lot about personal development. Or band T-shirts, our main character’s Polish grandparents, dogs who pull on their leashes. My business plan wants to hang out with Rodin. What does that mean for how I can serve my audience?

That’s the real big deal about paying attention. It gives you information you can use.

Attentional bias. Serendipity. Coincidence. Whatever you wish to call the act of recognition, the result is that the world gets bigger.

And we can do more with it.

Have you had some serendipity in your life recently? I’d love to hear about it.

An easy trick to help you think outside of the box


Looking up through opaque floor at feet walking

The world looks different from down here… CC image “Perspective” courtesy of denzlenz. Some rights reserved.

We all think we have it, but often we’ve been gazing at the view from the same perch for so long, we think that’s the only way the world looks.

We do this with big things — like family relationships, geopolitical opinions, and music. We think about perspective metaphorically (unless we are a visual artist such as a photographer or a painter). But like many metaphorical turns of language, “perspective” started out as a literal condition, first. And sometimes a literal interpretation is the most effective way to achieve results.

My goal with this blog — as conservative as it might be — is to have a new article published every 2 weeks. I try to find a mental place where I am drafting at least one idea for future development, every week. I’m trying to stay ahead of the curve, because I don’t want to find myself up against a deadline with nothing to deliver. Some weeks I am more successful than others. I simmer with ideas and connections for days in a row. During these windows of inspiration my folder of scribbled notes swells awkwardly with all different sizes of paper. Post-it notes, the corners of notepad pages, the backs of leaflets, slips strewn with arrows and adorned with marginalia. I’ll save countless drafts and outlines to my online folders. Looking at what I’m producing, I’ll feel like I have more material than I need for the next six months.

But not all the time. Other weeks, I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel.  Nothing is there. I can blame this on not doing what Julia Cameron calls filling the well or what I’ve called composting. This would be part of the truth. But if I’m being honest, a lot of the time my lack of creativity stems from laziness. And strangely, if I’m not writing, then I’m not writing anything insightful or brilliant, either.

I like to deal with my un-creative funk by shaking my habits until pieces come loose. For example, by changing where my body is.


This week, I spent a morning writing from the cozy nest of my bed. Yes, in my PJs. I got up at the appropriate time, and had breakfast. I even brushed my teeth and combed my hair. And then — because I work from home and have this much control over my schedule — I took off my shoes and climbed back into bed. It was snowing and sleeting outside, the perfect weather to be a hibernating bear. Yet while the bear would have only slept, I brought my laptop into the den with me. And began to write.

We’ve all developed daily routines. What we like to eat for breakfast, where we put our toothbrush, how often we check our email. I know I have a favorite place to sit at the table, and I bet you do, too. Also, your desk probably faces the same way every day. Am I right?

I tend to sit in the same work space most days. Until I notice that I’m sinking in gurgling mud, unable to extricate myself. Occasionally, I pack up, take my work to the library, or to a coffee shop. When the weather is nice (not this week), I sometimes go to a public park.

Not always, though. Sometimes I literally get up, walk around the table, and sit across from my habitual spot.

That’s it.

The new seat feels really weird at first. I notice absurd details, like the speck on the wall, or the dumpster-diver out in the alley with a bicycle trailer piled high with rubbish. The light is different. My body feels different in space.

That can be all I need. With no conscious effort, I am thinking off the beat, and my work is an altered creature.

One of my favorite nerd-destinations online is the Etymological Dictionary. Etymonline describes the history of “perspective” as follows:

perspective shot of tarnished copper doorhandles

… and beautiful in places we may have never cared to look. CC image “Perspective” courtesy of V_I_M_A_L. Some rights reserved.

“(n.) late 14c., ‘science of optics,’ from Old French perspective and directly from Medieval Latin; from Latin past participle of perspicere ‘inspect, look through, look closely at.’ Sense of ‘art of drawing objects so as to give appearance of distance or depth’ is first found 1590s, influenced by Italian prospettiva, an artists’ term. The figurative meaning ‘mental outlook over time” is first recorded 1762.’ [emphasis added]”

Perspective is, at root, seeing with our eyes. Looking through. Everything else is literary decoration.

The next time you feel like you’re in a rut, try shaking things up by physically exploring the world from another angle. You could discover galaxies… and all you had to do was move your chair.


What do you do when you’re stuck in a rut?

How not reading (and drawing, instead) helped my writing

or: Why you might not need to be a Good Reader to be a Good Writer

wall of art supplies and colored pastels

Add color to your life.
“Jacksons Drawing Supplies” CC image courtesy of Smallest Forest on Flickr.

You know what’s helped me do a lot more writing in recent weeks?


You know what else?

Not reading.

Also: going to the art supply store, visiting a photography exhibit, planning a DIY project to fix two of my chairs, and signing up for a voice and speech class.

Without planning it, I’ve begun bashing out 1,000 words or more a day — and without restricting myself to which piece I add the 1,000 words, I’ve watched at least three different projects grow. I’ve jotted a ton of creative riffs in my notebook and even… shocker… started keeping a journal again.

But this doesn’t make sense! I was contraverting one of the Golden Rules of Writing, which is: read! You can’t be a Good Writer without it, so the maxim goes. But sometimes, reading can get in the way.

It can be a crutch. We can use it as a distraction.

At least, I did.

So for a week, at the suggestion of the amazing book, The Artist’s Way, I didn’t do it. I didn’t read.

It was frustrating as all hell. I curtailed my emailing and my tweeting, and I didn’t allow myself to listen to podcasts or music when I got annoyed about something that I couldn’t read. I didn’t watch Hulu.

But what really floored me was the drawing thing.

Now, to quote Dickens: “Marley was dead as a doornail. This must be understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am about to relate.”

And my inner artist was dead as a doornail.

When I was a little kid, it’s true, I loved to draw, and I was always trying to get better. I wasn’t good at it, you see; I could tell that what I was drawing didn’t match the vision in my head. Still, that didn’t stop me, for years, from making daily pilgrimages to the back of my parents’ backyard every spring, to check on the progress of the crocuses coming up… and to sketch their daily progress.

What I really wanted was to catch them at the magical moment the buds appeared… or when the petals began to open. But somehow, I always missed that moment.

I haven’t drawn for twenty years: from the point I decided I should stop wasting my time and money taking art classes, because I would never be any good.

Before I did my reading deprivation week, I went to an art supply store. It was an idea I resisted. Going felt presumptuous and scary. I went because The Artist’s Way said so, and I was desperate. I hadn’t been to an art supply store in years. Those are for artists. What would I be doing there?

Yet I found myself in front of an array of sketchbooks, itching to get one.

Within a few weeks, I was at a park… with the 14” by 17” sketchbook I had bought (classic cream), a mechanical pencil and an eraser.

I, the non-artist, the one who couldn’t draw, was drawing a landscape.

I was there for over an hour. I think. I lost track of the time. It was windy, and cloudy, and my hands were going numb by the time I left. I had to clutch the edges of the notebook in a death grip so that the pages wouldn’t go flying all over the place. (Note to self: acquire large art clip(s).) I had my hood up so my hair wouldn’t block my view. I did a LOT of erasing. The page got smudged with charcoal, creased by wind. I gnarfed at each new gust with animal obstinacy.

reflecting pool at botanic gardens

Reflecting pool © AOC. All rights reserved.

I couldn’t wait to go home and write about it. After I did a little more drawing, of course.

When I came up for air and looked at the image, whole, I caught myself thinking: Hey, that’s pretty good!

This was revolutionary.  I’d been telling myself for at least two decades how much I sucked as an artist. Now, I was plotting to get out and sketch a few days a week?

Yes, I absolutely had to get home and write about that.


== ==

Have any of you ever tried reading deprivation? What types of non-writing activities have inspired you to write?