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Queen of the list: how I transformed compulsive list making into art

I am queen of the list. Hear me roar. I make lists for everything. Maybe it’s my feeble attempt to make some kind of order out of my chaotic mind.

Lists are important—without my work lists, I’d never get anything done: shipping, phone calls, emails, appointments, ordering.

I also make lists for writing projects. Since I’m one of those neurotic artists who needs a variety of stimulation, I list action items under certain categories: Fantasy Novel, Memoir, Poetry, Blog Posts, and Continuing Education. I’ve even made a weekly writing log to check off action items as completed.

There’s something magical about checking off a completed task. I feel satisfied, successful, slightly euphoric. My friends threaten an intervention, but I tell them there are worse addictions. One success begets another and before long, I’m on an upward spiral.

But lists don’t have to be just for organization and keeping your goals on track.

List making can be an art form. I’ve used lists in both poetry and prose and so can you. 

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, published in 1941, is James Agee’s and Walker Evan’s brilliant book on the living conditions of white sharecroppers in the South. The book’s style was revolutionary—part journalistic reporting, part cultural anthropological study, and part poetry, narrative, and novel. Agee also used quotes, footnotes, and lists. One lists goes on for nearly two pages without stopping. Here is part of his list:

…in light and deep shade, are poured up hickories, red oaks, cottonwoods, pines, junipers, cedars, chestnuts, locusts, black walnuts, swamp willow, crabapple, wild plum, holly, laurel, chinaberry, May apple, arbutus, honeysuckle, trumpet vine, goldenrod, all kinds of wild daisies…tomatoes, turnips, fennel, ragweed, jimpson weed: and these are netted through with the traffic and simmering of bees and of wasps and hornets and snakedoctors…

I’ve used lists in poems, but Agee’s work inspired me to try lists in my memoir. Here’s one of my lists:

I began to rate his degrees of drunkenness, keeping a little journal: tipsy, flushed, buzzed, juiced, jugged, stewed, canned, oiled, polluted, potted, sloshed, half-gassed, half-crocked, soaked, sauced, toasted, stewed, soused, sozzled, ripped, lit, loaded, smashed, blasted, wasted, wrecked, tanked, totaled, bombed, plastered, hammered, plowed, pissed, blotto.

I also wrote a page-long list of synonyms for the word “whore” (a word my father was fond of using). I used Jane Mills’s wonderful book Womanwords: A Dictionary of Words About Women to help me. It was the most fun I’d ever had creating a list. Later, I used some of these words as a list in a poem.

Of course, you don’t want to throw lists in randomly. But if you have a place in your writing where a list fits and improves the piece, you owe it to yourself as a compulsive list maker to go for it! (If you’re reading this post, you are one. Trust me).

One Comment Post a comment
  1. I had never thought of using a list like that, Could be interesting… [ponders where to use a list]

    July 8, 2011

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