Tagged: I Remember

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)

Friday Writing Experiment No. 3: Variations on the Form of ‘I Remember’

We all love ‘I Remember’ exercises. Based on the poem by Joe Brainard, and popularised by the likes of Jack Collom, these pieces of writing simply start each line with the words ‘I remember’ then evoke some memory. Some lines selected from Joe:

I remember chain letters.
I remember Peter Pan collars.
I remember mistletoe.
I remember Judy Garland singing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ (so sad) in Meet Me in St Louis.
I remember Judy Garland’s red shoes in The Wizard of Oz.
I remember Christmas tree lights reflected on the ceiling.
I remember Christmas cards arriving from people my parents forgot to send Christmas cards to.

And do watch this trailer too.

I Remembers rank among my favourite forms of writing, because:

1. the writing tends to be natural and easy, unforced and uncluttered – writing from the heart, writing from the gut

2. the writing tends to be concrete, vivid, specific (e.g., elsewhere in Brainard’s poem: Dorothy Collins’ teeth, very light faded blue jeans, ice cubes in the aquarium)

3. the writing usually shows rather than tells (the contents of Brainard’s version – a bridge teacher, references to movie stars, the clothes, hardship and simple pleasures – conjure up a whole time and place, for example)

4. they are economical – each line or section stops when it has to stop, and then on to the next …

5. I love lists (if you couldn’t tell)

6. the form is regarded as both poem and/or prose and/or either/neither, and I love writing that plays with or maybe ignores categories, and simply enjoys being good writing

7. the process of free association often takes us to places we never expected – what arises arises

8. the simplest things are often the best

9. repeating myself – the writing is natural and easy, unforced and uncluttered

There is of course a risk that this sort of writing unearths deep, sad memories. Maybe that’s not a risk. Maybe we need to confront those memories from time to time? But maybe, unless that is its purpose, we also need to set limits around that sort of writing (or have a therapist to hand). I often suggest that writers focus on, e.g., happy memories. The tone in the writing often ends up being quite soft and nostalgic, anyway.

So: this week, do an ‘I Remember’. But also introduce some twists, or focuses. For example:

* Remember your schooldays, a holiday, Christmas, a wedding, a love affair

* Remember your first times

* Remember your blessings (count them, even)

* Remember your failures (but maybe limit them … and only if you next:)

* Remember your successes (unlimited, and remembered after your failures – let’s end on a high, please)

* And maybe do ‘I remember’ for characters in your fictions? This can involve a slight shift in the writing, and perhaps a bit more thought than some of the more natural, I-centred versions, but it can also be a good way to graft some of your fictional content on to your natural, easy, remembering voice

* I don’t remember (good for surfacing secrets and lies and subtexts and regrets and all that other good story stuff)

* And invent your own rememberings too! (Give us some prompts and ideas too, if you like.)

You can probably write forever this way. You might want to set some limits (time; focuses). Or you might not.

Enjoy! These pieces really are some of the most fun in writing.

(And all credit to Joe Brainard and his own ‘I Remember’, now in its own very handsome UK edition.)