Mad Libs and Artistic Enlightenment

March 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

I once taught a little class at my workplace on reading deeper, getting to the magic of a great piece of writing, and one of the things we did was Mad Libs. Mad Libs reveal the soul of good writing by removing it altogether and forcing you to reconstruct it. If you can’t write a good Mad Lib, you can’t write.

For those of you who don’t know, a Mad Lib is a party game where all of a passage’s colorful bits are replaced by blanks, and you fill in the blanks in isolation, then read the passage out to see what monster you’ve created:

Every day I rise from my (noun) and thank God Almighty for this (adjective) day.

If you said “bed” and “glorious”, you’re missing the point.

For the purposes of my class, we did a variation where you’re forced to fill in the blanks of an otherwise generic passage, which you read ahead of time, according to a scene you pulled from a hat: “The world is under zombie siege,” “The narrator did it,” that kind of thing.

The idea is that Mad Libs, played this way, force you into the agonizing, ecstatic, strenuous and hilarious process of picking the right word for a scene. If, in your scene, it is literally raining cats and dogs, you need to find just the right way for your main character to do the dishes while a distracting thudding pummels the roof. (“Humming deliberately,” perhaps.)

If you think that’s easy, let’s try it. Here’s a Mad-Lib-ified version of a passage from the opera house in Chekhov’s short story “The Lady With the Little Dog” (the greatest short story ever, BTW):

“Good-evening.”

She (verb) at him and turned pale, then (verb) again with (noun, emotion), unable to believe her eyes, and tightly gripped the (noun) and the (noun) in her hands, evidently struggling with herself not to faint. Both were silent. She was sitting, he was standing, frightened by her (noun, emotion) and not venturing to sit down beside her. The (nouns, instrument) and the (nouns, instrument) began (verb, -ing). He felt suddenly frightened; it seemed as though all the people in the boxes were looking at them. She got up and went quickly to the door; he followed her, and both walked (adverb) along passages, and up and down stairs, and figures in (adjective), (adjective), and (adjective) uniforms, all wearing (noun), flitted before their eyes. They caught glimpses of (noun), of (noun, clothing) hanging on pegs; the draughts blew on them, bringing a smell of (adjective) (noun).

The scene is that the man, Gurov, and the woman, Anna, are seeing each other after a fling at a resort town months ago. They are both married, and after an interval of desolate boredom Gurov has tracked Anna down and surprised her in her box at the opera house in her hometown. Soon it will become clear to them that their feelings for each other are inconveniently permanent, and they will need to find a way to carry on both their affair and their lives for the foreseeable future.

There’s your scene. Now fill in the blanks accordingly. Go on, I’ll wait…

It’s not easy. And as a way of getting to Chekhov’s artistry, to touching the heart of the thing, we can pause to consider how he chose to fill in each blank. (Of course, we are limited by the fact that this is a translation, so we’re dealing with a re-casting of Chekhov’s words. It’ll have to do.)

But first, consider: it would be so easy to fill in these blanks — changing only a handful of minor elements in the narration — and get it all wrong, wouldn’t it? We could make Gurov and Anna shameless and infinitely arduous, merely by saying “she gazed at him and turned pale”, or that the “strings and the piano began swelling“, or that they “both walked eagerly along passages, and up and down stairs”. Nothing could be easier than the arrangement of conventions! Each of these is actually fine in itself, and perhaps each fits beautifully in another story, but not this one.

So how did Chekhov, certainly a writer unconcerned with convention, do it?:

  • “She glanced at him and turned pale, then glanced again with horror.”

    The key is the contrast between her accidental reaction — the simple double-take of mechanical recognition — and the heaviness of her emotions. A plain instinctive reaction leads to a shocking emotional response. This is a natural Chekhovian line of action.

  • “[She] tightly gripped the fan and the lorgnette in her hands, evidently struggling with herself not to faint.”

    Anna, after all, is gentry in a gentrified setting, and the material, feminine, cosmetic touches — that which makes her fit right in at the opera house — are essential to conveying the quality of her life without Gurov.

  • “The violins and the flute began tuning up.”

    This, I think, is a more straightforward choice but a delicate one. Of course a trombone, for example, is entirely the wrong kind of sound for a scene where profound emotions are creeping up on either character. Chekhov strikes a reedy, sinuous timbre. And I like how they are “tuning up” — not swelling, not entering a passage, but something more practical. (If my translation is accurate, the use of a singular “flute” is also effective in conveying the smallness of the orchestra. What a difference a letter makes!)

I highly encourage you to find a copy of the story online and see how Chekhov fills in the rest of this passage. Every simple detail is chosen to convey a unified impression of wariness, subterfuge, and passion.

Two aspects of Chekhov’s writing are revealed in such passing features.

One, generally, his taste/judgment/restraint. Any writer could have given Anna a locket with Gurov’s photo, or an old letter of his or something. Chekhov leans on the casual details of her existence without Gurov. This is key.

Two, particular to Chekhov, we see the development of his preference for plain detail — Anna’s glances, her fan, her lorgnette, the flute tuning — and its profound implications. He finds the most trivial image to fit his purpose. Nobody does that like Chekhov.

Now and then as our eyes coast along a page consuming sentences like popcorn, it’s jarring to remove the sense of inevitability from professional writing — to cover up a few given phrases, and force ourselves to reckon with the ins and outs of the aesthetic choices before us.

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