On Imitation and Mad Libbing
January 26, 2018 § 11 Comments
By Alea Eve Hall
During the past year of political upheaval, I became crippled by the pressure I felt building up behind the words that needed to find their way to the page. But I had to face the facts. I had writer’s block. So, I took to my couch. In fact, I laid on it for so long that there’s still an outline of my butt, forever imprinted like a lingering effigy of my politically-depressive state.
As the New Year approached, I eventually realized that I didn’t actually have writers block, I had the opposite problem. I had too much to write about, and the experience of having so much to unravel on the page overwhelmed me; I simply had no narrative distance from my experiences. I lacked the perspective to begin seeing the painful connections and truths that had come to make up my existence over the past year. I have to wonder how many writers think they’re experiencing writer’s block, when in fact they’re facing this conundrum: too much to write about and the task of unpacking everything that needs to be written is just too overwhelming.
So I went back to the drawing board, but each time I attempted to type words on the page I only found myself engaging in a brutal critique of turgid prose, because suddenly, mere words didn’t seem like enough to excavate the meaning behind the past year. Around that time, I was learning about imitation in an Experimental Creative Nonfiction class. At first, the idea of closely emulating another writer’s work seemed wrong. In class, we would create imitation exercises for our classmates, who would then fill out select words and phrases from a selection of a chosen text. As I played with nouns, adjectives, and verbs, I kept sentence structures intact, the effect was fascinating and I began to think about the exercise as a kind of Mad Libs for adults. The exercise captivated me and I found myself playing with words and language again, but in a new way, and suddenly, imitating another writer’s work seemed so right.
In my Experiments class, I was introduced Barry Lopez’s “The Raven.” He was one of the first writers I had learned to imitate, and I connected with his essay on the behaviors of crows and ravens, a metaphorical critique of societal social structures. Here is an excerpt from Lopez’s “The Raven.”
The original passage:
“I am going to have to start at the other end by telling you this: there are no crows in the desert. What appear to be crows are ravens. You must examine the crow, however, before you can understand the raven. To forget the crow completely, as some have tried to do, would be like trying to understand the one who stayed without talking to the one who left. It is important to make note of who has left the desert.”
“I am going to have to start at the other end by telling you this: there are no [straw men] in the [wild]. What appear to be [straw men] are [real men] You must examine the [straw man], however, before you can [burn] [all men].To forget the [straw man] completely, as some have tried to do, would be like trying to [burn] the one who was [inflammable] without talking to the one who was [on fire]. It is important to make note of who is [burning] and who is [untouched].”
Even though I closely adhered to Lopez’ original sentence structure, I still began moving things around to fit with the narrative I was creating. The exercise became more and more useful, as did my understanding of the importance of sentence structure. Although these experiments in and of themselves didn’t lend themselves to publishable prose, they did become a level up for me, and ultimately led to one of my biggest breakthroughs in writing that semester.
Honestly, the results of my Mad Libs haven’t always been profound works of art, and I often leave carnage in the wake of my creative desperation, but eventually, using another author’s sentences relieves just enough pressure for me to write without my internal critic incapacitating my creativity.
As I sift through my old imitations, I’ve began writing new ones. I’ve imitated Didion, Lopez, Boully, Harrison, and Sue William Silverman…all the greats, and all became the bridge between my voice and the words lost within me, and together we move forward.
Alea Eve Hall was awarded the 2017 Wardle-Spire-Lane English Department fellowship in recognition for outstanding graduate work, as well as runner-up for the 2017 John J. McKenna Graduate fellowship at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Alea is a Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University Nebraska at Omaha where she enthusiastically teaches Composition I and II. She is currently working on her thesis, which is a thematic exploration of the mythologies of sexual abuse.