Words on the Street, Revisited #27: Make a List

Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.

For this week’s Words on the Street, Revisited column, Make a List, I’m making a list. Here goes:


1. When you have ideas or any other ingredients for a story (no matter the genre) but are stuck and blocked and hitting walls because of stuff called paragraphs, sentence structure and punctuation forget all that and make a list. Of your ideas, characters, scenes, etc. Use numbers, bullet points, stars or checks (or whatever else might float your boat) before each idea. Just get them all down before you lose them. There’s plenty of time for structure.


2. Writers want. It’s no secret. Some of us want the words to flow, some want acceptance or fame, possibly even a combination of the three. Some want to expose, share, empathize, love. Some may just want to release words from a place deep inside, to string those words together and make meaning. Maybe even make music. Some want it all. Did you know that there is an etymological connection between the word list and the words desire, please and wish? As Cynthia Gralla offers in her Lit Hub piece “Literary Lists are Records of Female Desire”: “Lists are lusts itemized.”  You know where I’m going with this: Itemize your lusts! (Writing-related or otherwise.) See where that takes you. I’m sure there will be something on that list that calls out to you, begging to be part of a scene, an episode, a story. Answer its call.


3. Read some list lit. Where to begin? How about with January G. O’Neil’s “Begin Again” or Alex Dimitrov’s “Love.”  I recently had the pleasure of listening to Allegra Hyde read, with beautiful musicality and cadence, her work to a roomful of people as well as some tanks filled with turtles (thank you Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, Tables of Contents and Groundwork Hudson Valley!) Hyde’s collection, The Last Catastrophe, is, by some, categorized as climate fiction. Gwen E. Kirby in the New York Times notes: “Climate fiction does not owe readers hope, but through humor and humanity Hyde manages to present a harsh reality without descending into despair, offering a space for mourning and for reimagining life in a permanently changed world.” Agreed! Here’s an example of Hyde offering space for a list too, and one that reads like a cross between a poem and an ode to stopping at the store to pick up a few things. From the short story “Mobilization” which is the first selection in the book:

“We pulled into grocery stores, bought out their tuna, pita, eggs, cinnamon, pickles, OJ, Coke, basil, bananas, hot dogs, buns, ribs, batteries, ground coffee, Band-Aids, beer, Pop-Tarts, gummy bears, Gatorade, iceberg lettuce, salsa, ham slices, sugar-free gum, hand soap, toilet paper.

We moved on.” 

Musical. Poetic. And pretty much one big list. 


4. Pick up a copy of Sasha Cagen’s book, To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us. The book is “very visual” as Cagan herself notes, and I happen to love that about it, adding that it’s also, “A celebration of human quirkiness. An intimate look at our lists and the stories behind them using our to-do lists as a window to our soul.” On a teaching note, I have used this book in many classes with the visuals (the lists themselves—everything from Desert Island Discs or Songs that Make My Heart Stop to Gutsy Things I’ve Done) serving as prompts. Shaun Usher’s Lists of Note is also another great resource for this sort of thing and what I mean by that is this: peeking at someone’s handwritten (in most cases) and intimate to-do list as a way to get a story of your own started. 


5. A long time ago, Steve Lewis was teaching a writing class I was taking and he gave us a prompt that went something like this: “Advice from My Muse.” I chose to write it in list form, probably because I was overwhelmed and couldn’t get whole thoughts and paragraphs onto the page. It became one of my earliest published pieces and ran in the Asbury Park-based lit journal, Splash of Red.) As it happens so often, I use the lessons instructors have tossed my way through the years and now offer them to my students and, still, to myself. This particular prompt can yield the kind of list that gets taped to a writer’s desk, one to look to here and there when guidance from a muse feels necessary.


6. Finally, I leave you with this, an image of one of my favorite lists, ever. Item number two gets me every time.


image source: https://www.anothermag.com/fashion-beauty/4252/johnny-cashs-to-do-list
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