Cut Outs & Mad Libs: Exercises in Analog Generative Lit

Since we will not be meeting as a class on Wednesday, I’d like you all to engage in two short experiments with generative literature, as practice for your own project.

What You’ll Need:

  • Two existing bodies of text you can mess with: this may be several pages of a magazine, poetry, a print-out of a news story or work of fiction, a television show transcript, whatever,  but I’d suggest they are at least 500 words long. You may use the same 500-word text for both exercises, but you’ll want two copies.
  • Scissors
  • Paper + glue, or a camera to capture your final products

Exercise 1: The Cut-Up

William S. Burroughs is credited with popularizing the cut-up technique of writing, but it’s especially well known among musicians: David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, and Thom Yorke have all admitted to using some variation of this approach to writing. Give it a try yourself:

  1. Take your piece of text and cut it into piece; you may choose to cut apart individual words, phrase, or a combination of both but cut up a substantial body of work.
  2. Put the pieces in a bowl or bag and grab a small handful — without looking.
  3. Spread these across a table. Play with arranging them into something resembling a song, poem, or short prose piece. How does the context change the meaning of these pieces?
  4. You may choose to periodically add a few pieces to your text, but you are limited to using only those you draw from your bowl. You do not need to use everything you draw from your bowl. You may play with capitalization, punctuation, and line breaks, but try to refrain from adding words.
  5. When you’re finished, glue the pieces down to a new piece of paper, or take a photograph to capture your new text.

Exercise 2: Mad Libs Love Letter

One of the final projects of Alan Turing, the computer programming pioneer, was a computer-based, automated love-letter generator, which some have identified as the first known work of new media art. It was programmed by Christopher Strachey in 1952 for the Manchester Mark I computer at the University of Manchester. The love letter generator operated with a template similar to the game of Mad Libs, into which the computer would insert nouns and adjectives of endearment randomly selected from its database. By this means, it wrote letters like one that Strachey published in the literary journal Encounter:

Darling Sweetheart

You are my avid fellow feeling. My affection curiously clings to your passionate wish. My liking yearns for your heart. You are my wistful sympathy: my tender liking.

Yours beautifully


We are going to use the same basic format, but will select the fill-in nouns and adjectives from your body of text.

  1. Move through your chosen text, and make a list on a separate piece of paper of every noun you encounter. You can list all of them, or stop when you hit 20.
  2. Repeat that activity, making a list of all the adjectives you encounter. Then, do the same for adverbs. (Google them if you need a refresher on parts of speech.)
  3. Randomly select words from those three lists to fill in the Turing love letter structure below

Dear (noun),

You are my (adj) (noun). My (adj) (noun) (adv) (verb) your (adj) (noun).

{Repeat each sentence structure twice, then put those four sentences in any order, and sign off…}

Yours, (adv) (your name)

When you’re finished, I want you to post one of each exercise to your blog; this will serve as your attendance for Wednesday’s class. You may choose to post the exercises to a separate page, or a digital projects page, if you’d rather not disrupt your blog flow. I strongly encourage you to write a little bit about what you learned from these exercises: what challenges or difficulties did you encounter that might help you plan your own generative project? What was revealed to you about the nature of authorship in generative writing? Do these pieces feel like they were written by you, even though they were algorithmically generated? Why? How?

In addition to these two exercises, I’d also like you to write up your plan for your generative project. Which option from those listed on Monday’s blog post will you choose? Describe your vision, goals, and methodology as specifically as possible. If you write a substantial reflective piece on generative literature, including your exercises above, and plan for your own project, you have the option of designating this as your weekly blog post as well.

Your homework for Monday’s class is to bring a sample of your generative literature project for peer workshop. For this workshop, you will want an actual piece of text, but it can be a single excerpt of a body of work (e.g. one cut-up poem). You will want to have this in a format where a reader can access it from their own machine, so I would suggest putting the text in a Google doc, posting it to your blog, or posting a live link to a generative text, or Twitter bot, in one of those two formats).


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