Friday Writing Experiment No. 20: Lists, Lovely Lists


I love lists. I have whole spiels on lists in literature. ‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg. Sections of the Old Testament (all that begetting). Christopher Smart’s ‘For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry’. The lists in Moby-Dick. Joe Brainard’s ‘I Remember’. Anne Waldman’s ‘Fast-Speaking Woman’. Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book. Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried’. Contents lists. Lists of illustrations. Indexes; how I loved to copyedit indexes when I worked in-house. When I was about thirteen, I was rarely happier than when I was geekily flicking through The Book of Lists (both volumes).

Lists have life, lists have colour, lists point in many directions nearly all at once. Lists don’t overexplain, or editorialise, or whine (at least the good ones don’t); lists just are. Lists accrete. Their items are not connected by cause and effect, but just sit beside one another with paratactic superpowers. Sometimes life’s like that: wonderfully random, surprising.

I recently read a couple of good articles on lists in literature: ’10 Lists That Read Like Poems’ in Flavorwire (which itself is a site somewhat devoted to the form) and ‘Literary Lists: Proof of Our Existence’ in the Guardian. They mention Umberto Eco, whose beautifully illustrated The Infinity of Lists sits on my shelf. In it he itemises lists both practical and poetic, miraculous and non-normal, and with some fantastic imagery states a case for the presence of lists in visual as well as written arts, and also for the list as a form that aspires to the infinite:

There is, however, another mode of artistic representation, i.e., when we do not know the boundaries of what we wish to portray, when we do not know how many things we are talking about and presume their number to be, if not infinite, then at least astronomically large.

This week, write a list. Or lots of lists. A list a day. Here are some more inspirations or models:

* Anne’s Porter’s ‘List of Praises’

* A list of gratitudes (thanks to Bhanu Kapil for that idea)

* What I will and won’t miss (inspired by Nora Ephron; I love the way in which the tone shifts from the terse itemisation of things she won’t miss to the more open and affectionate style in the list of things that will be missed; and we miss you too, Nora)

* A list of friends (elaborated or not)

* A list of questions without answers (thanks to Jack Collom for that one)

* An ‘I Remember’ on a specific subject, e.g., first times, last times, friends, enemies, people you’ve worked with (that one’s fun), holidays or vacations, places you’ve been, things you’ve eaten, Christmas presents

* A manifesto of reasons (for x, or y maybe – to change the law, to not go to school, to follow advice, to be cheerful)

* An ‘I Remember’ for a character in a novel

* A shopping list for a character

* A bucket list of things a character wants to do before he or she dies

* A list of ingredients

* A menu of desires (seeing your desires through food imagery)

* A pillow book of adorable things

* A list of prayers for weak or fabulous (or whatever else) beings (inspired by ‘Twenty-One Prayers for Weak or Fabulous Beings’ by Toby Martinez de las Rivas)

* A classification system for your library

* A bestiary of imagined animals

* The things you carried

* A catalogue of new things, and/or an archive of old things

Gosh, this list-making is addictive. I could go on. One day I’ll teach a whole class on lists. But for now I’ll post this, early in the week for a change. That keen. Maybe some of you have snow days, and need something to do.

As ever: be concrete, and specific. Though some abstractions can work well, as William T. Vollmann’s ‘List of Social Changes that Would Assist the Flourishing of Literary Beauty’ proves very neatly.

Further reading
Larry Fagin, The List Poem
A List of the Greatest Lists in Literature (from the Atlantic)

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